The animations on this page were inspired after reading: Roger Knobel Introduction to the Mathematical Theory of Wave Motion, (American Mathematical Society, 2000), pp. 31-35.
Solitons (Solitary Waves)
In 1834, John Scott Russell, a Scottish naval enginer, was observing the passage of a boat along a canal and noticed a very strange type of wave traveling along the canal. His famous (and oft repeated) summary of the event states . . .
I was observing the motion of a boat which was rapidly drawn along a narrow channel by a pair of horses, when the boat suddenly stopped - not so the mass of water in the channel which it had put in motion; it accumulated round the prow of the vessel in a state of violent agitation, then suddenly leaving it behind, rolled forward with great velocity, assuming the form of a large solitary elevation, a rounded, smooth and well-defined heap of water, which continued its course along the channel apparently without change of form or diminution of speed. I followed it on horseback, and overtook it still rolling on at a rate of some eight or nine miles an hour, preserving its original figure some thirty feet long and a foot to a foot and a half in height. Its height gradually diminished, and after a chase of one or two miles I lost it in the windings of the channel. Such, in the month of August 1834, was my first chance interview with that singular and beautiful phenomenon which I have called the Wave of Translation.
Fascinated by what he had observed, Russell constructed a 30-foot wave tank in his back yard and carried out experiments. He made the following observations:
- These "solitary" waves are stable, and can travel over very large distances without changing their shape, neither decreasing in amplitude nor breaking as waves in water often do.
- The speed of the wave depends on the height of the wave.
- These waves don't obey superposition. When a taller (faster) wave overtakes a shorter (slower) wave, they don't combine and add together. Instead they appear to swap places with the faster wave appearing to jump through the slower one.
The mathematical theory explaining the existince of these solitary heaps of water was first deveoped by Boussinesq in 1871 and Rayleigh in 1876. However, it is the form of the equation and its solutions as developed by Koreweg and de Vries in 1895 that is most commonly used to describe the waves that have become known as "solitons". The equation of motion for these waves can be written in dimensionless form as with solution where the wave speed c depends on the height of the wave.