On this day 181 years ago, Christian Doppler first presented the effect that would later become known as the Doppler effect. In his paper “On the coloured light of the binary stars and some other stars of the heavens”, he proposed (with a great deal of confidence and remarkably little evidence) that the observed frequency of a wave changes if either the source or observer is moving. Luckily for Doppler, he did turn out to be right! Or at least, right about the effect, not right about supernovas actually being binary stars that are moving really fast. The effect was experimentally confirmed a few years later, and it’s now used in a whole variety of interesting applications.

To learn more about how the Doppler effect works, take a look at this Maple MathApp. You can adjust the speed of the jet to see how the frequency of the sound changes, and add an observer to see what they perceive the sound as. You can even break the sound barrier, although the poor observer might not like that so much!


A screenshot of a Maple MathApp, showing a visual representation of sound waves coming off a moving jet, with sliders to adjust the speed.


For Maple users, you can also check out the MathApp on the relativistic Doppler effect. You’ll find it in the Natural Sciences section, under Astronomy and Earth Sciences. Settle in to watch those colours come to life!

A screenshot of a Maple MathApp showing a spectrum of colours, with sliders to control the initial wavelength of the light and a dial showing the current velocity of the viewer


But wait, I mentioned interesting applications, didn’t I? And don’t worry, I’m not just here to talk about sirens moving past you or figuring out the speed of stars (although admittedly, that one is pretty interesting too). No, I’m talking about robots. Some robots make use of the Doppler effect to help monitor their own speed, by bouncing sound waves off the floor and measuring the frequency of the reflected wave. A large change in frequency means that robot is zooming!

The Doppler effect is also used in the medical field—Doppler ultrasonography uses the Doppler effect to determine and visualize the movement of tissues and body fluids like blood. It works by bouncing sound waves off of moving objects (like red blood cells) and measuring the result. The difference in frequency tells you the speed and direction of the blood flow, in accordance with the Doppler effect! Pretty neat, if you ask me.

And like any good scientific phenomena, the Doppler effect can be used for both work and pleasure. The Leslie speaker is a type of speaker invented in the 1940s that modifies the sound by rotating a baffle chamber, or drum, in front of the loudspeakers. The change in frequency dictated by the Doppler effect causes the pitch to fluctuate, creating a distinct sound that I can only describe as “woobly”. The speaker can be set to either “chorus” or “tremolo”, depending on how much woobliness the user wants. It was typically used with the Hammond organ, and you can hear it in action here!

You know who else uses the Doppler effect? Bats. Since they rely on echolocation to get around, they need some way to account for the fact that the returning sound waves won’t be at the same pitch that they were sent out at. This fantastic video explains it far better than I ever could, and involves putting bats on a swing, which I think should be enough of a recommendation all on its own.

That’s it for our little foray into the Doppler effect, although there’s still a lot more that could be said about it. Try checking out those Maple MathApps for inspiration—who knows, maybe you’ll find a whole new use for this fascinating effect!

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