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In mathematics and physics, a soliton is a selfreinforcing solitary wave (a wave packet or pulse) that maintains its shape while it travels at constant speed. Solitons are caused by a cancellation of nonlinear and dispersive effects in the medium. (The term "dispersive effects" refers to a property of certain systems where the speed of the waves varies according to frequency.) Solitons arise as the solutions of a widespread class of weakly nonlinear dispersive partial differential equations describing physical systems. The soliton phenomenon was first described by John Scott Russell (1808–1882) who observed a solitary wave in the Union Canal in Scotland. He reproduced the phenomenon in a wave tank and named it the "Wave of Translation".
Contents
Definition
A single, consensus definition of a soliton is difficult to find. Drazin and Johnson (1989) ascribe 3 properties to solitons:^{[1]}
More formal definitions exist, but they require substantial mathematics. Moreover, some scientists use the term soliton for phenomena that do not quite have these three properties (for instance, the 'light bullets' of nonlinear optics are often called solitons despite losing energy during interaction).
Explanation
Dispersion and nonlinearity can interact to produce permanent and localized wave forms. Consider a pulse of light traveling in glass. This pulse can be thought of as consisting of light of several different frequencies. Since glass shows dispersion, these different frequencies will travel at different speeds and the shape of the pulse will therefore change over time. However, there is also the nonlinear Kerr effect: the refractive index of a material at a given frequency depends on the light's amplitude or strength. If the pulse has just the right shape, the Kerr effect will exactly cancel the dispersion effect, and the pulse's shape won't change over time: a soliton. See soliton (optics) for a more detailed description.
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