I understand roughly that Rayleigh scattering occurs when white light encounters particles smaller than the wavelength of visible light, and short wavelengths are preferentially scattered.

I'm wondering if this phenomenon is particular to electromagnetic radiation (e.g. if discrete energy quanta play an essential role). It doesn't obviously seem like it based on the collision models I've seen—so my next question is whether you could set up an analogous phenomenon in a wave pool using water waves.

I imagine generating "white light" in the form of a superposition of waves of many frequencies, with physical scattering obstacles of roughly the same size as the waves. Would you be able to see backscattered higher frequency combinations separated from the lower frequency waves that persist past the scattering obstacles? What kind of pool scale/scattering density/obstacle size would you need to be able to see this macroscopically?

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    $\begingroup$ I think the answer to this is a definite yes, but it is very much complicated by the fact that in water waves there is already dispersion relations without needing the scatterers, so that you might already have difficulty seeing the thing you want to see because it is already happening in the free system. $\endgroup$ Apr 16 at 9:11

1 Answer 1


No, Rayleigh scattering is a phenomenon that occurs with electromagnetic waves such as light. It is the scattering of light by particles or molecules that are smaller than the wavelength of the light.

Water waves are mechanical waves that propagate through a medium by the transfer of energy. They do not involve the oscillation of electric and magnetic fields, and therefore, do not undergo Rayleigh scattering.

However, water waves can exhibit other types of scattering, such as Mie scattering, which is the scattering of waves by particles that are comparable in size to the wavelength of the wave. This can occur when waves encounter suspended particles or bubbles in the water, which can scatter and reflect some of the wave energy.

  • $\begingroup$ Are you just saying that Rayleigh scattering as a technical term only applies to EM waves, or is there a deeper reason why the analogous phenomenon cannot occur in water waves, and can you explain why? $\endgroup$
    – user326210
    Apr 16 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ I think the question is more about the spectral behavior of scattering on inhomogeneities smaller then the wavelength. Do higher frequencies get scattered more than lower ones? $\endgroup$ Apr 16 at 18:38

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