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K is for Wavenumber

Wavenumber, sometimes called the propagation number, is in broad terms a measure of spatial scale. It can be thought of as a spatial analog to the temporal frequency, and is often called spatial frequency. It is often defined as the number of wavelengths per unit distance, or in terms of wavelength, λ:

k = \frac{1}{\lambda}\

The units are m–1, which are nameless in the International System, though cm–1 are called kaysers in the cgs system. The concept is analogous to frequency f, measured in s–1 or Hertz, which is the reciprocal of period T; that is, f = 1/T. In a sense, period can be thought of as a temporal 'wavelength'—the length of an oscillation in time.

If you've explored the applications of frequency in geophysics, you'll have noticed that we sometimes don't use ordinary frequency f, in Hertz. Because geophysics deals with oscillating waveforms, ones that vary around a central value (think of a wiggle trace of seismic data), we often use the angular frequency. This way we can also express the close relationship between frequency and phase, which is an angle. So in many geophysical applications, we want the angular wavenumber. It is expressed in radians per metre:

k = \frac{2\pi}{\lambda}\

The relationship between angular wavenumber and angular frequency is analogous to that between wavelength and ordinary frequency—they are related by the velocity V:

k = \frac{\omega}{V}\

It's unfortunate that there are two definitions of wavenumber. Some people reserve the term spatial frequency for the ordinary wavenumber, or use ν (that's a Greek nu, not a vee — another potential source of confusion!), or even σ for it. But just as many call it the wavenumber and use k, so the only sure way through the jargon is to specify what you mean by the terms you use. As usual!

Just as for temporal frequency, the portal to wavenumber is the Fourier transform, computed along each spatial axis. Here are two images and their 2D spectra — a photo of some ripples, a binary image of some particles, and their fast Fourier transforms. Notice how the more organized image has a more organized spectrum (as well as some artifacts from post-processing on the image), while the noisy image's spectrum is nearly 'white':

Explore our other posts about scale. 

The particle image is from the sample images in FIJI. The FFTs were produced in FIJI.

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Reader Comments (6)

Nice, I love it when you guys explain such concepts in these succinct posts ... little knowledge snacks. Maybe you've already done it, but it might be cool to actually see the workflow you use to do FFT. That is, not just the theory, but a click-here-then-click-here 'tutorial' of sorts. I guess that'd be a lot of work, but I'd appreciate it!

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Romans

@Brian: Thanks, Brian — so happy you found interesting / potentially useful. I added a workflow, rather brief, to our wiki page on wavenumber. Let me know if you need a bit more detail! Have fun exploring FIJI — it's a great tool. Some day I'll show you how to do automatic grain-size analysis in there!

May 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterMatt Hall

Matt, that's great, thanks! I'll get FIJI and play around.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Romans

Cool Matt! I like the FIJI tutorial too, I will download and have a play with it!
I'm keen to see your automatic grain-size analysis tutorial - can you determine grain size distibution with this method?? if so, very interested!

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermatt saul

Excellent, and very useful. It exactly matches with my thinking

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterK.J.Devasia

what is the difference between wave number and spread of wave number? means in the localization of wave in space and time? and what does it mean also that delta X. delta k = 1?
in this equation it shows that if delta goes to zero then delta X goes to infinity.............please coment on it also as i dont understand on delta K?

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkhan

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