Group velocity

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The group velocity of a wave is the velocity with which the overall shape of the wave's amplitudes — known as the modulation or envelope of the wave — propagates through space.

For example, imagine what happens if a stone is thrown into the middle of a very still pond. When the stone hits the surface of the water, a circular pattern of waves appears. It soon turns into a circular ring of waves with a quiescent center. The ever expanding ring of waves is the wave group, within which one can discern individual wavelets of differing wavelengths traveling at different speeds. The longer waves travel faster than the group as a whole, but they die out as they approach the leading edge. The shorter waves travel slower and they die out as they emerge from the trailing boundary of the group.


Definition and interpretation


The group velocity vg is defined by the equation


The function ω(k), which gives ω as a function of k, is known as the dispersion relation. If ω is directly proportional to k, then the group velocity is exactly equal to the phase velocity. Otherwise, the envelope of the wave will become distorted as it propagates. This "group velocity dispersion" is an important effect in the propagation of signals through optical fibers and in the design of high-power, short-pulse lasers.

Note: The above definition of group velocity is only useful for wavepackets, which is a pulse that is localized in both real space and frequency space. Because waves at different frequencies propagate at differing phase velocities in dispersive media, for a large frequency range (a narrow envelope in space) the observed pulse would change shape while traveling, making group velocity an unclear or useless quantity.

Physical interpretation

The group velocity is often thought of as the velocity at which energy or information is conveyed along a wave. In most cases this is accurate, and the group velocity can be thought of as the signal velocity of the waveform. However, if the wave is travelling through an absorptive medium, this does not always hold. Since the 1980s, various experiments have verified that it is possible for the group velocity of laser light pulses sent through specially prepared materials to significantly exceed the speed of light in vacuum. However, superluminal communication is not possible in this case, since the signal velocity remains less than the speed of light. It is also possible to reduce the group velocity to zero, stopping the pulse, or have negative group velocity, making the pulse appear to propagate backwards. However, in all these cases, photons continue to propagate at the expected speed of light in the medium.[1][2][3][4]

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