In physics, the wavelength is the spatial period of a periodic wave—the distance over which the wave's shape repeats. It is the distance between consecutive corresponding points of the same phase on the wave, such as two adjacent crests, troughs, or zero crossings, and is a characteristic of both traveling waves and standing waves, as well as other spatial wave patterns. The inverse of the wavelength is called the spatial frequency. Wavelength is commonly designated by the Greek letter lambda (λ). The term wavelength is also sometimes applied to modulated waves, and to the sinusoidal envelopes of modulated waves or waves formed by interference of several sinusoids.
Assuming a sinusoidal wave moving at a fixed wave speed, wavelength is inversely proportional to frequency of the wave: waves with higher frequencies have shorter wavelengths, and lower frequencies have longer wavelengths.
Wavelength depends on the medium (for example, vacuum, air, or water) that a wave travels through. Examples of waves are sound waves, light, water waves and periodic electrical signals in a conductor. A sound wave is a variation in air pressure, while in light and other electromagnetic radiation the strength of the electric and the magnetic field vary. Water waves are variations in the height of a body of water. In a crystal lattice vibration, atomic positions vary.
The range of wavelengths or frequencies for wave phenomena is called a spectrum. The name originated with the visible light spectrum but now can be applied to the entire electromagnetic spectrum as well as to a sound spectrum or vibration spectrum.
Diffraction is the fundamental limitation on the resolving power of optical instruments, such as telescopes (including radiotelescopes) and microscopes. For a circular aperture, the diffraction-limited image spot is known as an Airy disk; the distance x in the single-slit diffraction formula is replaced by radial distance r and the sine is replaced by 2J1, where J1 is a first order Bessel function.
The resolvable spatial size of objects viewed through a microscope is limited according to the Rayleigh criterion, the radius to the first null of the Airy disk, to a size proportional to the wavelength of the light used, and depending on the numerical aperture: