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In physics, two wave sources are perfectly coherent if they have a constant phase difference and the same frequency, and the same waveform. Coherence is an ideal property of waves that enables stationary (i.e. temporally and spatially constant) interference. It contains several distinct concepts, which are limiting cases that never quite occur in reality but allow an understanding of the physics of waves, and has become a very important concept in quantum physics. More generally, coherence describes all properties of the correlation between physical quantities of a single wave, or between several waves or wave packets. Interference is the addition, in the mathematical sense, of wave functions. A single wave can interfere with itself, but this is still an addition of two waves (see Young's slits experiment). Constructive or destructive interferences are limit cases, and two waves always interfere, even if the result of the addition is complicated or not remarkable. When interfering, two waves can add together to create a wave of greater amplitude than either one (constructive interference) or subtract from each other to create a wave of lesser amplitude than either one (destructive interference), depending on their relative phase. Two waves are said to be coherent if they have a constant relative phase. The amount of coherence can readily be measured by the interference visibility, which looks at the size of the interference fringes relative to the input waves (as the phase offset is varied); a precise mathematical definition of the degree of coherence is given by means of correlation functions. Spatial coherence describes the correlation (or predictable relationship) between waves at different points in space, either lateral or longitudinal. Temporal coherence describes the correlation between waves observed at different moments in time. Both are observed in the Michelson–Morley experiment and Young's interference experiment. Once the fringes are obtained in the Michelson interferometer, when one of the mirrors is moved away gradually, the time for the beam to travel increases and the fringes become dull and finally disappear, showing temporal coherence. Similarly, if in a double-slit experiment, the space between the two slits is increased, the coherence dies gradually and finally the fringes disappear, showing spatial coherence. In both cases, the fringe amplitude slowly disappears, as the path difference increases past the coherence length. Coherence was originally conceived in connection with Thomas Young's double-slit experiment in optics but is now used in any field that involves waves, such as acoustics, electrical engineering, neuroscience, and quantum mechanics. Coherence describes the statistical similarity of a field (electromagnetic field, quantum wave packet etc.) at two points in space or time. The property of coherence is the basis for commercial applications such as holography, the Sagnac gyroscope, radio antenna arrays, optical coherence tomography and telescope interferometers (astronomical optical interferometers and radio telescopes). A precise definition is given at degree of coherence. The coherence function between two signals x ( t ) {displaystyle x(t)} and y ( t ) {displaystyle y(t)} is defined as where S x y ( f ) {displaystyle S_{xy}(f)} is the cross-spectral density of the signal and S x x ( f ) {displaystyle S_{xx}(f)} and S y y ( f ) {displaystyle S_{yy}(f)} are the power spectral density functions of x ( t ) {displaystyle x(t)} and y ( t ) {displaystyle y(t)} , respectively. The cross-spectral density and the power spectral density are defined as the Fourier transforms of the cross-correlation and the autocorrelation signals, respectively. For instance, if the signals are functions of time, the cross-correlation is a measure of the similarity of the two signals as a function of the time lag relative to each other and the autocorrelation is a measure of the similarity of each signal with itself in different instants of time. In this case the coherence is a function of frequency. Analogously, if x ( t ) {displaystyle x(t)} and y ( t ) {displaystyle y(t)} are functions of space, the cross-correlation measures the similarity of two signals in different points in space and the autocorrelations the similarity of the signal relative to itself for a certain separation distance. In that case, coherence is a function of wavenumber (spatial frequency).

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