In physics, mathematics, and related fields, a wave is a disturbance (change from equilibrium) of one or more fields such that the field values oscillate repeatedly about a stable equilibrium (resting) value. If the relative amplitude of oscillation at different points in the field remains constant, the wave is said to be a standing wave. If the relative amplitude at different points in the field changes, the wave is said to be a traveling wave. Waves can only exist in fields when there is a force that tends to restore the field to equilibrium.
A physical wave is almost always confined to some finite region of space, called its domain. For example, the seismic waves generated by earthquakes are significant only in the interior and surface of the planet, so they can be ignored outside it. However, waves with infinite domain, that extend over the whole space, are commonly studied in mathematics, and are very valuable tools for understanding physical waves in finite domains.
The units of the amplitude depend on the type of wave. Transverse mechanical waves (for example, a wave on a string) have an amplitude expressed as a distance (for example, meters), longitudinal mechanical waves (for example, sound waves) use units of pressure (for example, pascals), and electromagnetic waves (a form of transverse vacuum wave) express the amplitude in terms of its electric field (for example, volts/meter).
Although arbitrary wave shapes will propagate unchanged in lossless linear time-invariant systems, in the presence of dispersion the sine wave is the unique shape that will propagate unchanged but for phase and amplitude, making it easy to analyze. Due to the Kramers–Kronig relations, a linear medium with dispersion also exhibits loss, so the sine wave propagating in a dispersive medium is attenuated in certain frequency ranges that depend upon the medium. The sine function is periodic, so the sine wave or sinusoid has a wavelength in space and a period in time.
A standing wave, also known as a stationary wave, is a wave that remains in a constant position. This phenomenon can occur because the medium is moving in the opposite direction to the wave, or it can arise in a stationary medium as a result of interference between two waves traveling in opposite directions.
Absorption of waves means, if a kind of wave strikes a matter, it will be absorbed by the matter. When a wave with that same natural frequency impinges upon an atom, then the electrons of that atom will be set into vibrational motion. If a wave of a given frequency strikes a material with electrons having the same vibrational frequencies, then those electrons will absorb the energy of the wave and transform it into vibrational motion.
Refraction is the phenomenon of a wave changing its speed. Mathematically, this means that the size of the phase velocity changes. Typically, refraction occurs when a wave passes from one medium into another. The amount by which a wave is refracted by a material is given by the refractive index of the material. The directions of incidence and refraction are related to the refractive indices of the two materials by Snell's law.
The phenomenon of polarization arises when wave motion can occur simultaneously in two orthogonal directions. Transverse waves can be polarized, for instance. When polarization is used as a descriptor without qualification, it usually refers to the special, simple case of linear polarization. A transverse wave is linearly polarized if it oscillates in only one direction or plane. In the case of linear polarization, it is often useful to add the relative orientation of that plane, perpendicular to the direction of travel, in which the oscillation occurs, such as "horizontal" for instance, if the plane of polarization is parallel to the ground. Electromagnetic waves propagating in free space, for instance, are transverse; they can be polarized by the use of a polarizing filter.