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In optics, dispersion is the phenomenon in which the phase velocity of a wave depends on its frequency, or alternatively when the group velocity depends on the frequency. Media having such a property are termed dispersive media. Dispersion is sometimes called chromatic dispersion to emphasize its wavelength-dependent nature, or group-velocity dispersion (GVD) to emphasize the role of the group velocity.
The most familiar example of dispersion is probably a rainbow, in which dispersion causes the spatial separation of a white light into components of different wavelengths (different colors). However, dispersion also has an effect in many other circumstances: for example, GVD causes pulses to spread in optical fibers, degrading signals over long distances; also, a cancellation between group-velocity dispersion and nonlinear effects leads to soliton waves. Dispersion is most often described for light waves, but it may occur for any kind of wave that interacts with a medium or passes through an inhomogeneous geometry (e.g. a waveguide), such as sound waves.
There are generally two sources of dispersion: material dispersion and waveguide dispersion. Material dispersion comes from a frequency-dependent response of a material to waves. For example, material dispersion leads to undesired chromatic aberration in a lens or the separation of colors in a prism. Waveguide dispersion occurs when the speed of a wave in a waveguide (such as an optical fiber) depends on its frequency for geometric reasons, independent of any frequency dependence of the materials from which it is constructed. More generally, "waveguide" dispersion can occur for waves propagating through any inhomogeneous structure (e.g. a photonic crystal), whether or not the waves are confined to some region. In general, both types of dispersion may be present, although they are not strictly additive. Their combination leads to signal degradation in optical fibers for telecommunications, because the varying delay in arrival time between different components of a signal "smears out" the signal in time.