Speed of sound

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The speed of sound is the distance traveled during a unit of time by a sound wave propagating through an elastic medium. In dry air at 20 °C (68 °F), the speed of sound is 343.2 metres per second (1,126 ft/s). This is 1,236 kilometres per hour (768 mph), or about one kilometer in three seconds or approximately one mile in five seconds.

In fluid dynamics, the speed of sound in a fluid medium (gas or liquid) is used as a relative measure of speed itself. The speed (in distance per time) divided by the speed of sound in the fluid is called the Mach number. Objects moving at speeds greater than Mach1 are said to be traveling at supersonic speeds.

The speed of sound in ideal gases is independent of frequency, but it weakly depends on frequency for all real physical situations. It is a function of the square root of temperature, but is nearly independent of pressure or density for a given gas. For different gases, the speed of sound is inversely dependent on square root of the mean molecular weight of the gas, and affected to a lesser extent by the number of ways in which the molecules of the gas can store heat from compression, since sound in gases is a type of compression. Although, in the case of gases only, the speed of sound may be expressed in terms of a ratio of both density and pressure, these quantities are not fully independent of each other, and canceling their common contributions from physical conditions, leads to a velocity expression using the independent variables of temperature, composition, and heat capacity noted above.

In common everyday speech, speed of sound refers to the speed of sound waves in air. However, the speed of sound varies from substance to substance. Sound travels faster in liquids and non-porous solids than it does in air. It travels about 4.3 times faster in water (1,484 m/s), and nearly 15 times as fast in iron (5,120 m/s), than in air at 20 degrees Celsius.

In solids, sound waves propagate as two different types. A longitudinal wave is associated with compression and decompression in the direction of travel, which is the same process as all sound waves in gases and liquids. A transverse wave, often called shear wave, is due to elastic deformation of the medium perpendicular to the direction of wave travel; the direction of shear-deformation is called the "polarization" of this type of wave. In general, transverse waves occur as a pair of orthogonal polarizations. These different waves (compression waves and the different polarizations of shear waves) may have different speeds at the same frequency. Therefore, they arrive at an observer at different times, an extreme example being an earthquake, where sharp compression waves arrive first, and rocking transverse waves seconds later.

The speed of an elastic wave in any medium is determined by the medium's compressibility and density. The speed of shear waves, which can occur only in solids, is determined by the solid material's stiffness, compressibility and density.


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