Great geophysicists #3

Today is a historic day for greatness: Rene Descartes was born exactly 415 years ago, and Isaac Newton died 284 years ago. They both contributed to our understanding of physical phenomena and the natural world and, while not exactly geophysicists, they changed how scientists think about waves in general, and light in particular.

Unweaving the rainbow

Scientists of the day recognized two types of colour. Apparent colours were those seen in prisms and rainbows, where light itself was refracted into colours. Real colours, on the other hand, were a property of bodies, disclosed by light but not produced by that light. Descartes studied refraction in raindrops and helped propagate Snell’s law in his 1637 paper, Dioptrica. His work severed this apparent–real dichotomy: all colours are apparent, and the colour of an object depends on the light you shine on it.

Newton began to work seriously with crystalline prisms around 1666. He was the first to demonstrate that white light is a scrambled superposition of wavelengths; a visual cacophony of information. Not only does a ray bend in relation to the wave speed of the material it is entering (read the post on Snellius), but Newton made one more connection. The intrinsic wave speed of the material, in turn depends on the frequency of the wave. This phenomenon is known as dispersion; different frequency components are slowed by different amounts, angling onto different paths.

What does all this mean for seismic data?

Seismic pulses, which strut and fret through the earth, reflecting and transmitting through its myriad contrasts, make for a more complicated type of prism-dispersion experiment. Compared to visible light, the effects of dispersion are subtle, negligible even, in the seismic band 2–200 Hz. However, we may measure a rock to have a wave speed of 3000 m/s at 50 Hz, and 3500 m/s at 20 kHz (logging frequencies), and 4000 m/s at 10 MHz (core laboratory frequencies). On one hand, this should be incredibly disconcerting for subsurface scientists: it keeps us from bridging the integration gap empirically. It is also a reason why geophysicists get away with haphazardly stretching and squeezing travel time measurements taken at different scales to tie wells to seismic. Is dispersion the interpreters’ fudge-factor when our multi-scale data don’t corroborate?

Chris Liner, blogging at Seismos, points out much of classical seismology and wave theory is nondispersive: basic theory of P and S waves, Rayleigh waves in a half-space, geometric spreading, reflection and transmission coefficients, head waves, etc. Yet when we look at real data, strong dispersion abounds. The development of spectral decomposition has served to highlight this fact.

We should think about studying dispersion more, not just as a nuisance for what is lost (as it has been traditionally viewed), but as a colourful, scale-dependant property of the earth whose stories we seek to hear.