Who was Max Planck?

Imagine if you will that your name would forever be associated with a groundbreaking scientific theory. Imagine also that your name would even be attached to a series of units, designed to performs measurements for complex equations. Now imagine that you were German who lived through two World Wars, won the Nobel Prize for physics, and outlived many of your children.

If you can do all that, then you might know what it was like to be Max Planck, the German physicist and founder of quantum theory. Much like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, Max Planck is regarded as one of the most influential and groundbreaking scientists of his time, a man whose discoveries helped to revolutionized the field of physics. Ironic, considering that when he first embarked on his career, he was told there was nothing new to be discovered!

Early Life and Education:

Born in 1858 in Kiel, Germany, Planck was a child of intellectuals, his grandfather and great-grandfather both theology professors and his father a professor of law, and his uncle a judge. In 1867, his family moved to Munich, where Planck enrolled in the Maximilians gymnasium school. From an early age, Planck demonstrated an aptitude for mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, and music.

Illustration of Friedrich Wilhelms University, with the statue of Frederick the Great (ca. 1850). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/A. Carse

He graduated early, at the age of 17, and went on to study theoretical physics at the University of Munich. In 1877, he went on to Friedrich Wilhelms University in Berlin to study with physicists Hermann von Helmholtz. Helmholtz had a profound influence on Planck, who he became close friends with, and eventually Planck decided to adopt thermodynamics as his field of research.

In October 1878, he passed his qualifying exams and defended his dissertation in February of 1879 – titled “On the second law of thermodynamics”. In this work, he made the following statement, from which the modern Second Law of Thermodynamics is believed to be derived: “It is impossible to construct an engine which will work in a complete cycle, and produce no effect except the raising of a weight and cooling of a heat reservoir.”

For a time, Planck toiled away in relative anonymity because of his work with entropy (which was considered a dead field). However, he made several important discoveries in this time that would allow him to grow his reputation and gain a following. For instance, his Treatise on Thermodynamics, which was published in 1897, contained the seeds of ideas that would go on to become highly influential – i.e. black body radiation and special states of equilibrium.

With the completion of his thesis, Planck became an unpaid private lecturer at the Freidrich Wilhelms University in Munich and joined the local Physical Society. Although the academic community did not pay much attention to him, he continued his work on heat theory and came to independently discover the same theory of thermodynamics and entropy as Josiah Willard Gibbs – the American physicist who is credited with the discovery.

Professors Michael Bonitz and Frank Hohmann, holding a facsimile of Planck’s Nobel prize certificate, which was given to the University of Kiel in 2013. Credit and Copyright: CAU/Schimmelpfennig

In 1885, the University of Kiel appointed Planck as an associate professor of theoretical physics, where he continued his studies in physical chemistry and heat systems. By 1889, he returned to Freidrich Wilhelms University in Berlin, becoming a full professor by 1892. He would remain in Berlin until his retired in January 1926, when he was succeeded by Erwin Schrodinger.

Black Body Radiation:

It was in 1894, when he was under a commission from the electric companies to develop better light bulbs, that Planck began working on the problem of black-body radiation. Physicists were already struggling to explain how the intensity of the electromagnetic radiation emitted by a perfect absorber (i.e. a black body) depended on the bodies temperature and the frequency of the radiation (i.e., the color of the light).

In time, he resolved this problem by suggesting that electromagnetic energy did not flow in a constant form but rather in discreet packets, i.e. quanta. This came to be known as the Planck postulate, which can be stated mathematically as E = hv – where E is energy, v is the frequency, and h is the Planck constant. This theory, which was not consistent with classical Newtonian mechanics, helped to trigger a revolution in science.

A deeply conservative scientists who was suspicious of the implications his theory raised, Planck indicated that he only came by his discovery reluctantly and hoped they would be proven wrong. However, the discovery of Planck’s constant would prove to have a revolutionary impact, causing scientists to break with classical physics, and leading to the creation of Planck units (length, time, mass, etc.).

From left to right: W. Nernst, A. Einstein, M. Planck, R.A. Millikan and von Laue at a dinner given by von Laue in 1931. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
From left to right: W. Nernst, A. Einstein, M. Planck, R.A. Millikan and von Laue at a dinner given by von Laue in Berlin, 1931. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Quantum Mechanics:

By the turn of the century another influential scientist by the name of Albert Einstein made several discoveries that would prove Planck’s quantum theory to be correct. The first was his theory of photons (as part of his Special Theory of Relativity) which contradicted classical physics and the theory of electrodynamics that held that light was a wave that needed a medium to propagate.

The second was Einstein’s study of the anomalous behavior of specific bodies when heated at low temperatures, another example of a phenomenon which defied classical physics. Though Planck was one of the first to recognize the significance of Einstein’s special relativity, he initially rejected the idea that light could made up of discreet quanta of matter (in this case, photons).

However, in 1911, Planck and Walther Nernst (a colleague of Planck’s) organized a conference in Brussels known as the First Solvav Conference, the subject of which was the theory of radiation and quanta. Einstein attended, and was able to convince Planck of his theories regarding specific bodies during the course of the proceedings. The two became friends and colleagues; and in 1914, Planck created a professorship for Einstein at the University of Berlin.

During the 1920s, a new theory of quantum mechanics had emerged, which was known as the “Copenhagen interpretation“. This theory, which was largely devised by German physicists Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, stated that quantum mechanics can only predict probabilities; and that in general, physical systems do not have definite properties prior to being measured.

Photograph of the first Solvay Conference in 1911 at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels, Belgium. Credit: International Solvay Institutes/Benjamin Couprie

This was rejected by Planck, however, who felt that wave mechanics would soon render quantum theory unnecessary. He was joined by his colleagues Erwin Schrodinger, Max von Laue, and Einstein – all of whom wanted to save classical mechanics from the “chaos” of quantum theory. However, time would prove that both interpretations were correct (and mathematically equivalent), giving rise to theories of particle-wave duality.

World War I and World War II:

In 1914, Planck joined in the nationalistic fervor that was sweeping Germany. While not an extreme nationalist, he was a signatory of the now-infamous “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three“, a manifesto which endorsed the war and justified Germany’s participation. However, by 1915, Planck revoked parts of the Manifesto, and by 1916, he became an outspoken opponent of Germany’s annexation of other territories.

After the war, Planck was considered to be the German authority on physics, being the dean of Berlin Universit, a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and the German Physical Society, and president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWS, now the Max Planck Society). During the turbulent years of the 1920s, Planck used his position to raise funds for scientific research, which was often in short supply.

The Nazi seizure of power in 1933 resulted in tremendous hardship, some of which Planck personally bore witness to. This included many of his Jewish friends and colleagues being expelled from their positions and humiliated, and a large exodus of Germans scientists and academics.

Entrance of the administrative headquarters of the Max Planck Society in Munich. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Maximilian Dörrbecker

Planck attempted to persevere in these years and remain out of politics, but was forced to step in to defend colleagues when threatened. In 1936, he resigned his positions as head of the KWS due to his continued support of Jewish colleagues in the Society. In 1938, he resigned as president of the Prussian Academy of Sciences due to the Nazi Party assuming control of it.

Despite these evens and the hardships brought by the war and the Allied bombing campaign, Planck and his family remained in Germany. In 1945, Planck’s son Erwin was arrested due to the attempted assassination of Hitler in the July 20th plot, for which he was executed by the Gestapo. This event caused Planck to descend into a depression from which he did not recover before his death.

Death and Legacy:

Planck died on October 4th, 1947 in Gottingen, Germany at the age of 89. He was survived by his second wife, Marga von Hoesslin, and his youngest son Hermann. Though he had been forced to resign his key positions in his later years, and spent the last few years of his life haunted by the death of his eldest son, Planck left a remarkable legacy in his wake.

In recognition for his fundamental contribution to a new branch of physics he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918. He was also elected to the Foreign Membership of the Royal Society in 1926, being awarded the Society’s Copley Medal in 1928. In 1909, he was invited to become the Ernest Kempton Adams Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at Columbia University in New York City.

The Max Planck Medal, issued by the German Physical Society in recognition of scientific contributions. Credit: dpg-physik.de

He was also greatly respected by his colleagues and contemporaries and distinguished himself by being an integral part of the three scientific organizations that dominated the German sciences- the Prussian Academy of Sciences, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, and the German Physical Society. The German Physical Society also created the Max Planck Medal, the first of which was awarded into 1929 to both Planck and Einstein.

The Max Planck Society was also created in the city of Gottingen in 1948 to honor his life and his achievements. This society grew in the ensuing decades, eventually absorbing the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and all its institutions. Today, the Society is recognized as being a leader in science and technology research and the foremost research organization in Europe, with 33 Nobel Prizes awarded to its scientists.

In 2009, the European Space Agency (ESA) deployed the Planck spacecraft, a space observatory which mapped the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) at microwave and infra-red frequencies. Between 2009 and 2013, it provided the most accurate measurements to date on the average density of ordinary matter and dark matter in the Universe, and helped resolve several questions about the early Universe and cosmic evolution.

Planck shall forever be remembered as one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century. Alongside men like Einstein, Schrodinger, Bohr, and Heisenberg (most of whom were his friends and colleagues), he helped to redefine our notions of physics and the nature of the Universe.

We have written many articles about Max Planck for Universe Today. Here’s What is Planck Time?, Planck’s First Light?, All-Sky Stunner from Planck, What is Schrodinger’s Cat?, What is the Double Slit Experiment?, and here’s a list of stories about the spacecraft that bears his name.

If you’d like more info on Max Planck, check out Max Planck’s biography from Science World and Space and Motion.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Max Planck. Listen here, Episode 218: Max Planck.


What Is Bohr’s Atomic Model?

Atomic theory has come a long way over the past few thousand years. Beginning in the 5th century BCE with Democritus‘ theory of indivisible “corpuscles” that interact with each other mechanically, then moving onto Dalton’s atomic model in the 18th century, and then maturing in the 20th century with the discovery of subatomic particles and quantum theory, the journey of discovery has been long and winding.

Arguably, one of the most important milestones along the way has been Bohr’ atomic model, which is sometimes referred to as the Rutherford-Bohr atomic model. Proposed by Danish physicist Niels Bohr in 1913, this model depicts the atom as a small, positively charged nucleus surrounded by electrons that travel in circular orbits (defined by their energy levels) around the center.

Atomic Theory to the 19th Century:

The earliest known examples of atomic theory come from ancient Greece and India, where philosophers such as Democritus postulated that all matter was composed of tiny, indivisible and indestructible units. The term “atom” was coined in ancient Greece and gave rise to the school of thought known as “atomism”. However, this theory was more of a philosophical concept than a scientific one.

Various atoms and molecules as depicted in John Dalton's A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808). Credit: Public Domain
Various atoms and molecules as depicted in John Dalton’s A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808). Credit: Public Domain

It was not until the 19th century that the theory of atoms became articulated as a scientific matter, with the first evidence-based experiments being conducted. For example, in the early 1800’s, English scientist John Dalton used the concept of the atom to explain why chemical elements reacted in certain observable and predictable ways. Through a series of experiments involving gases, Dalton went on to develop what is known as Dalton’s Atomic Theory.

This theory expanded on the laws of conversation of mass and definite proportions and came down to five premises: elements, in their purest state, consist of particles called atoms; atoms of a specific element are all the same, down to the very last atom; atoms of different elements can be told apart by their atomic weights; atoms of elements unite to form chemical compounds; atoms can neither be created or destroyed in chemical reaction, only the grouping ever changes.

Discovery of the Electron:

By the late 19th century, scientists also began to theorize that the atom was made up of more than one fundamental unit. However, most scientists ventured that this unit would be the size of the smallest known atom – hydrogen. By the end of the 19th century, this would change drastically, thanks to research conducted by scientists like Sir Joseph John Thomson.

Through a series of experiments using cathode ray tubes (known as the Crookes’ Tube), Thomson observed that cathode rays could be deflected by electric and magnetic fields. He concluded that rather than being composed of light, they were made up of negatively charged particles that were 1ooo times smaller and 1800 times lighter than hydrogen.

The Plum Pudding model of the atom proposed by John Dalton. Credit: britannica.com
The Plum Pudding model of the atom proposed by J.J. Thomson. Credit: britannica.com

This effectively disproved the notion that the hydrogen atom was the smallest unit of matter, and Thompson went further to suggest that atoms were divisible. To explain the overall charge of the atom, which consisted of both positive and negative charges, Thompson proposed a model whereby the negatively charged “corpuscles” were distributed in a uniform sea of positive charge – known as the Plum Pudding Model.

These corpuscles would later be named “electrons”, based on the theoretical particle predicted by Anglo-Irish physicist George Johnstone Stoney in 1874. And from this, the Plum Pudding Model was born, so named because it closely resembled the English desert that consists of plum cake and raisins. The concept was introduced to the world in the March 1904 edition of the UK’s Philosophical Magazine, to wide acclaim.

The Rutherford Model:

Subsequent experiments revealed a number of scientific problems with the Plum Pudding model. For starters, there was the problem of demonstrating that the atom possessed a uniform positive background charge, which came to be known as the “Thomson Problem”. Five years later, the model would be disproved by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, who conducted a series of experiments using alpha particles and gold foil – aka. the “gold foil experiment.”

In this experiment, Geiger and Marsden measured the scattering pattern of the alpha particles with a fluorescent screen. If Thomson’s model were correct, the alpha particles would pass through the atomic structure of the foil unimpeded. However, they noted instead that while most shot straight through, some of them were scattered in various directions, with some going back in the direction of the source.

Credit: glogster.com
Diagram detailing the “gold foil experiment” conducted by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden. Credit: glogster.com

Geiger and Marsden concluded that the particles had encountered an electrostatic force far greater than that allowed for by Thomson’s model. Since alpha particles are just helium nuclei (which are positively charged) this implied that the positive charge in the atom was not widely dispersed, but concentrated in a tiny volume. In addition, the fact that those particles that were not deflected passed through unimpeded meant that these positive spaces were separated by vast gulfs of empty space.

By 1911, physicist Ernest Rutherford interpreted the Geiger-Marsden experiments and rejected Thomson’s model of the atom. Instead, he proposed a model where the atom consisted of mostly empty space, with all its positive charge concentrated in its center in a very tiny volume, that was surrounded by a cloud of electrons. This came to be known as the Rutherford Model of the atom.

The Bohr Model:

Subsequent experiments by Antonius Van den Broek and Niels Bohr refined the model further. While Van den Broek suggested that the atomic number of an element is very similar to its nuclear charge, the latter proposed a Solar-System-like model of the atom, where a nucleus contains the atomic number of positive charge and is surrounded by an equal number of electrons in orbital shells (aka. the Bohr Model).

In addition, Bohr’s model refined certain elements of the Rutherford model that were problematic. These included the problems arising from classical mechanics, which predicted that electrons would release electromagnetic radiation while orbiting a nucleus. Because of the loss in energy, the electron should have rapidly spiraled inwards and collapsed into the nucleus. In short, this atomic model implied that all atoms were unstable.

Diagram of an electron dropping from a higher orbital to a lower one and emitting a photon. Image Credit: Wikicommons
Diagram of an electron dropping from a higher orbital to a lower one and emitting a photon. Image Credit: Wikicommons

The model also predicted that as electrons spiraled inward, their emission would rapidly increase in frequency as the orbit got smaller and faster. However, experiments with electric discharges in the late 19th century showed that atoms only emit electromagnetic energy at certain discrete frequencies.

Bohr resolved this by proposing that electrons orbiting the nucleus in ways that were consistent with Planck’s quantum theory of radiation. In this model, electrons can occupy only certain allowed orbitals with a specific energy. Furthermore, they can only gain and lose energy by jumping from one allowed orbit to another, absorbing or emitting electromagnetic radiation in the process.

These orbits were associated with definite energies, which he referred to as energy shells or energy levels. In other words, the energy of an electron inside an atom is not continuous, but “quantized”. These levels are thus labeled with the quantum number n (n=1, 2, 3, etc.) which he claimed could be determined using the Ryberg formula – a rule formulated in 1888 by Swedish physicist Johannes Ryberg to describe the wavelengths of spectral lines of many chemical elements.

Influence of the Bohr Model:

While Bohr’s model did prove to be groundbreaking in some respects – merging Ryberg’s constant and Planck’s constant (aka. quantum theory) with the Rutherford Model – it did suffer from some flaws which later experiments would illustrate. For starters, it assumed that electrons have both a known radius and orbit, something that Werner Heisenberg would disprove a decade later with his Uncertainty Principle.

In addition, while it was useful for predicting the behavior of electrons in hydrogen atoms, Bohr’s model was not particularly useful in predicting the spectra of larger atoms. In these cases, where atoms have multiple electrons, the energy levels were not consistent with what Bohr predicted. The model also didn’t work with neutral helium atoms.

The Bohr model also could not account for the Zeeman Effect, a phenomenon noted by Dutch physicists Pieter Zeeman in 1902, where spectral lines are split into two or more in the presence of an external, static magnetic field. Because of this, several refinements were attempted with Bohr’s atomic model, but these too proved to be problematic.

In the end, this would lead to Bohr’s model being superseded by quantum theory – consistent with the work of Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger. Nevertheless, Bohr’s model remains useful as an instructional tool for introducing students to more modern theories – such as quantum mechanics and the valence shell atomic model.

It would also prove to be a major milestone in the development of the Standard Model of particle physics, a model characterized by “electron clouds“, elementary particles, and uncertainty.

We have written many interesting articles about atomic theory here at Universe Today. Here’s John Dalton’s Atomic Model, What is the Plum Pudding Model, What is the Electron Cloud Model?, Who Was Democritus?, and What are the Parts of the Atom?

Astronomy Cast also has some episodes on the subject: Episode 138: Quantum Mechanics, Episode 139: Energy Levels and Spectra, Episode 378: Rutherford and Atoms and Episode 392: The Standard Model – Intro.


How Does Light Travel?

Ever since Democritus – a Greek philosopher who lived between the 5th and 4th century’s BCE – argued that all of existence was made up of tiny indivisible atoms, scientists have been speculating as to the true nature of light. Whereas scientists ventured back and forth between the notion that light was a particle or a wave until the modern, the 20th century led to breakthroughs that showed that it behaves as both.

These included the discovery of the electron, the development of quantum theory, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. However, there remains many fascinating and unanswered questions when it comes to light, many of which arise from its dual nature. For instance, how is it that light can be apparently without mass, but still behave as a particle? And how can it behave like a wave and pass through a vacuum, when all other waves require a medium to propagate?

Theory of Light to the 19th Century:

During the Scientific Revolution, scientists began moving away from Aristotelian scientific theories that had been seen as accepted canon for centuries. This included rejecting Aristotle’s theory of light, which viewed it as being a disturbance in the air (one of his four “elements” that composed matter), and embracing the more mechanistic view that light was composed of indivisible atoms.

In many ways, this theory had been previewed by atomists of Classical Antiquity – such as Democritus and Lucretius – both of whom viewed light as a unit of matter given off by the sun. By the 17th century, several scientists emerged who accepted this view, stating that light was made up of discrete particles (or “corpuscles”). This included Pierre Gassendi, a contemporary of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, and most famously, Sir Isaac Newton.

The first edition of Newton's Opticks: or, a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions and colours of light (1704). Credit: Public Domain.
The first edition of Newton’s Opticks: or, a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions and colours of light (1704). Credit: Public Domain.

Newton’s corpuscular theory was an elaboration of his view of reality as an interaction of material points through forces. This theory would remain the accepted scientific view for more than 100 years, the principles of which were explained in his 1704 treatise “Opticks, or, a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections, and Colours of Light“. According to Newton, the principles of light could be summed as follows:

  • Every source of light emits large numbers of tiny particles known as corpuscles in a medium surrounding the source.
  • These corpuscles are perfectly elastic, rigid, and weightless.

This represented a challenge to “wave theory”, which had been advocated by 17th century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. . These theories were first communicated in 1678 to the Paris Academy of Sciences and were published in 1690 in his Traité de la lumière (“Treatise on Light“). In it, he argued a revised version of Descartes views, in which the speed of light is infinite and propagated by means of spherical waves emitted along the wave front.

Double-Slit Experiment:

By the early 19th century, scientists began to break with corpuscular theory. This was due in part to the fact that corpuscular theory failed to adequately explain the diffraction, interference and polarization of light, but was also because of various experiments that seemed to confirm the still-competing view that light behaved as a wave.

The most famous of these was arguably the Double-Slit Experiment, which was originally conducted by English polymath Thomas Young in 1801 (though Sir Isaac Newton is believed to have conducted something similar in his own time). In Young’s version of the experiment, he used a slip of paper with slits cut into it, and then pointed a light source at them to measure how light passed through it.

According to classical (i.e. Newtonian) particle theory, the results of the experiment should have corresponded to the slits, the impacts on the screen appearing in two vertical lines. Instead, the results showed that the coherent beams of light were interfering, creating a pattern of bright and dark bands on the screen. This contradicted classical particle theory, in which particles do not interfere with each other, but merely collide.

The only possible explanation for this pattern of interference was that the light beams were in fact behaving as waves. Thus, this experiment dispelled the notion that light consisted of corpuscles and played a vital part in the acceptance of the wave theory of light. However subsequent research, involving the discovery of the electron and electromagnetic radiation, would lead to scientists considering yet again that light behaved as a particle too, thus giving rise to wave-particle duality theory.

Electromagnetism and Special Relativity:

Prior to the 19th and 20th centuries, the speed of light had already been determined. The first recorded measurements were performed by Danish astronomer Ole Rømer, who demonstrated in 1676 using light measurements from Jupiter’s moon Io to show that light travels at a finite speed (rather than instantaneously).

Prof. Albert Einstein uses the blackboard as he delivers the 11th Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the auditorium of the Carnegie Institue of Technology Little Theater at Pittsburgh, Pa., on Dec. 28, 1934. Using three symbols, for matter, energy and the speed of light respectively, Einstein offers additional proof of a theorem propounded by him in 1905 that matter and energy are the same thing in different forms. (AP Photo)
Prof. Albert Einstein delivering the 11th Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Dec. 28th, 1934. Credit: AP Photo

By the late 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell proposed that light was an electromagnetic wave, and devised several equations (known as Maxwell’s equations) to describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents. By conducting measurements of different types of radiation (magnetic fields, ultraviolet and infrared radiation), he was able to calculate the speed of light in a vacuum (represented as c).

In 1905, Albert Einstein published “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, in which he advanced one of his most famous theories and overturned centuries of accepted notions and orthodoxies. In his paper, he postulated that the speed of light was the same in all inertial reference frames, regardless of the motion of the light source or the position of the observer.

Exploring the consequences of this theory is what led him to propose his theory of Special Relativity, which reconciled Maxwell’s equations for electricity and magnetism with the laws of mechanics, simplified the mathematical calculations, and accorded with the directly observed speed of light and accounted for the observed aberrations. It also demonstrated that the speed of light had relevance outside the context of light and electromagnetism.

For one, it introduced the idea that major changes occur when things move close the speed of light, including the time-space frame of a moving body appearing to slow down and contract in the direction of motion when measured in the frame of the observer. After centuries of increasingly precise measurements, the speed of light was determined to be 299,792,458 m/s in 1975.

Einstein and the Photon:

In 1905, Einstein also helped to resolve a great deal of confusion surrounding the behavior of electromagnetic radiation when he proposed that electrons are emitted from atoms when they absorb energy from light. Known as the photoelectric effect, Einstein based his idea on Planck’s earlier work with “black bodies” – materials that absorb electromagnetic energy instead of reflecting it (i.e. white bodies).

At the time, Einstein’s photoelectric effect was attempt to explain the “black body problem”, in which a black body emits electromagnetic radiation due to the object’s heat. This was a persistent problem in the world of physics, arising from the discovery of the electron, which had only happened eight years previous (thanks to British physicists led by J.J. Thompson and experiments using cathode ray tubes).

At the time, scientists still believed that electromagnetic energy behaved as a wave, and were therefore hoping to be able to explain it in terms of classical physics. Einstein’s explanation represented a break with this, asserting that electromagnetic radiation behaved in ways that were consistent with a particle – a quantized form of light which he named “photons”. For this discovery, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921.

Wave-Particle Duality:

Subsequent theories on the behavior of light would further refine this idea, which included French physicist Louis-Victor de Broglie calculating the wavelength at which light functioned. This was followed by Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” (which stated that measuring the position of a photon accurately would disturb measurements of it momentum and vice versa), and Schrödinger’s paradox that claimed that all particles have a “wave function”.

In accordance with quantum mechanical explanation, Schrodinger proposed that all the information about a particle (in this case, a photon) is encoded in its wave function, a complex-valued function roughly analogous to the amplitude of a wave at each point in space. At some location, the measurement of the wave function will randomly “collapse”, or rather “decohere”, to a sharply peaked function. This was illustrated in Schrödinger famous paradox involving a closed box, a cat, and a vial of poison (known as the “Schrödinger Cat” paradox).

In this illustration, one photon (purple) carries a million times the energy of another (yellow). Some theorists predict travel delays for higher-energy photons, which interact more strongly with the proposed frothy nature of space-time. Yet Fermi data on two photons from a gamma-ray burst fail to show this effect. The animation below shows the delay scientists had expected to observe. Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet
Artist’s impression of two photons travelling at different wavelengths, resulting in different- colored light. Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet

According to his theory, wave function also evolves according to a differential equation (aka. the Schrödinger equation). For particles with mass, this equation has solutions; but for particles with no mass, no solution existed. Further experiments involving the Double-Slit Experiment confirmed the dual nature of photons. where measuring devices were incorporated to observe the photons as they passed through the slits.

When this was done, the photons appeared in the form of particles and their impacts on the screen corresponded to the slits – tiny particle-sized spots distributed in straight vertical lines. By placing an observation device in place, the wave function of the photons collapsed and the light behaved as classical particles once more. As predicted by Schrödinger, this could only be resolved by claiming that light has a wave function, and that observing it causes the range of behavioral possibilities to collapse to the point where its behavior becomes predictable.

The development of Quantum Field Theory (QFT) was devised in the following decades to resolve much of the ambiguity around wave-particle duality. And in time, this theory was shown to apply to other particles and fundamental forces of interaction (such as weak and strong nuclear forces). Today, photons are part of the Standard Model of particle physics, where they are classified as boson – a class of subatomic particles that are force carriers and have no mass.

So how does light travel? Basically, traveling at incredible speeds (299 792 458 m/s) and at different wavelengths, depending on its energy. It also behaves as both a wave and a particle, able to propagate through mediums (like air and water) as well as space. It has no mass, but can still be absorbed, reflected, or refracted if it comes in contact with a medium. And in the end, the only thing that can truly divert it, or arrest it, is gravity (i.e. a black hole).

What we have learned about light and electromagnetism has been intrinsic to the revolution which took place in physics in the early 20th century, a revolution that we have been grappling with ever since. Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrodinger, we have learned much, but still have much to learn.

For instance, its interaction with gravity (along with weak and strong nuclear forces) remains a mystery. Unlocking this, and thus discovering a Theory of Everything (ToE) is something astronomers and physicists look forward to. Someday, we just might have it all figured out!

We have written many articles about light here at Universe Today. For example, here’s How Fast is the Speed of Light?, How Far is a Light Year?, What is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?

If you’d like more info on light, check out these articles from The Physics Hypertextbook and NASA’s Mission Science page.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Interstellar Travel. Listen here, Episode 145: Interstellar Travel.

What Are The Parts Of An Atom?

Since the beginning of time, human beings have sought to understand what the universe and everything within it is made up of. And while ancient magi and philosophers conceived of a world composed of four or five elements – earth, air, water, fire (and metal, or consciousness) – by classical antiquity, philosophers began to theorize that all matter was actually made up of tiny, invisible, and indivisible atoms.

Since that time, scientists have engaged in a process of ongoing discovery with the atom, hoping to discover its true nature and makeup. By the 20th century, our understanding became refined to the point that we were able to construct an accurate model of it. And within the past decade, our understanding has advanced even further, to the point that we have come to confirm the existence of almost all of its theorized parts.

Continue reading “What Are The Parts Of An Atom?”

How Do Black Holes Evaporate?

Nothing lasts forever, not even black holes. According to Stephen Hawking, black holes will evaporate over vast periods of time. But how, exactly, does this happen?

The actor Stephen Hawking is best known for his cameo appearances in Futurama and Star Trek, you might surprised to learn that he’s also a theoretical astrophysicist. Is there anything that guy can’t do?

One of the most fascinating theories he came up with is that black holes, the Universe’s swiffer, can actually evaporate over vast periods of time.

Quantum theory suggests there are virtual particles popping in and out of existence all the time. When this happens, a particle and its antiparticle appear, and then they recombine and disappear again.

When this takes place near an event horizon, strange things can happen. Instead of the two particles existing for a moment and then annihilating each other, one particle can fall into the black hole, and the other particle can fly off into space. Over vast periods of time, the theory says that this trickle of escaping particles causes the black hole to evaporate.

Wait, if these virtual particles are falling into the black hole, shouldn’t that make it grow more massive? How does that cause it to evaporate? If I add pebbles to a rock pile, doesn’t my rock pile just get bigger?

It comes down to perspective. From an outside observer watching the black hole’s event horizon, it appears as if there’s a glow of radiation coming from the black hole. If that was all that was happening, it would violate the law of thermodynamics, as energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Since the black hole is now emitting energy, it needs to have given up a little bit of its mass to provide it.

Let’s try another way to think about this. A black hole has a temperature. The more massive it is, the lower its temperature, although it’s still not zero.

From now and until far off into the future, the temperature of the largest black holes will be colder than the background temperature of the Universe itself. Light from the cosmic microwave background radiation will fall in, increasing its mass.

Viewed in visible light, Markarian 739 resembles a smiling face.  Inside are two supermassive black holes, separated by about 11,000 light-years. The galaxy is 425 million light-years away from Earth. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey
Viewed in visible light, Markarian 739 resembles a smiling face. Inside are two supermassive black holes, separated by about 11,000 light-years. The galaxy is 425 million light-years away from Earth. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Now, fast forward to when the background temperature of the Universe drops below even the coolest black holes. Then they’ll slowly radiate heat away, which must come from the black hole converting its mass into energy.

The rate that this happens depends on the mass. For stellar mass black holes, it might take 10^67 years to evaporate completely.

For the big daddy supermassive ones at the cores of galaxies, you’re looking at 10^100. That’s a one, followed by 100 zero years. That’s huge number, but just like any gigantic and finite number, it’s still less than infinity. So over an incomprehensible amount of time, even the longest living objects in the Universe – our mighty black holes – will fade away into energy.

One last thing, the Large Hadron Collider might be capable of generating microscopic black holes, which would last for a fraction of a second and disappear in a burst of Hawking radiation. If they find them, then Hawking might want to the acting on hold and focus on physics.

The LHC. Image Credit: CERN
The LHC. Image Credit: CERN

Nothing is eternal, not even black holes. Over the longest time frames we’re pretty sure they’ll evaporate away into nothing. The only way to find out is to sit back and watch, well maybe it’s not the only way.

Does the idea of these celestial nightmares evaporating fill you with existential sadness? Feel free to share your thoughts with others in the comments below.

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Proton Parts

The proton has three parts, two up quarks and one down quark … and the gluons which these three quarks exchange, which is how the strong (nuclear) force works to keep them from getting out.

The proton’s world is a totally quantum one, and so it is described entirely by just a handful of numbers, characterizing its spin (a technical term, not to be confused with the everyday English word; the proton’s spin is 1/2), electric charge (+1 e, or 1.602176487(40)×10-19 C), isospin (also 1/2), and parity (+1). These properties are derived directly from those of the proton parts, the three quarks; for example, the up quark has an electric charge of +2/3 e, and the down -1/3 e, which sum to +1 e. Another example, color charge: the proton has a color charge of zero, but each of its constituent three quarks has a non-zero color charge – one is ‘blue’, one ‘red’, and one ‘green’ – which ‘sum’ to zero (of course, color charge has nothing whatsoever to do with the colors you and I see with our eyes!).

Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig independently came up with the idea that the proton’s parts are quarks, in 1964 (though it wasn’t until several years later that good evidence for the existence of such parts was obtained). Gell-Mann was later awarded the Nobel Prize of Physics for this, and other work on fundamental particles (Zweig has yet to receive a Nobel).

The quantum theory which describes the strong interaction (or strong nuclear force) is quantum chromodynamics, QCD for short (named in part after the ‘colors’ of quarks), and this explains why the proton has the mass it does. You see, the up quark’s mass is about 2.4 MeV (mega-electron volts; particle physicists measure mass in MeV/c2), and the down’s about 4.8 MeV. Gluons, like photons, are massless, so the proton should have a mass of about 9.6 MeV (= 2 x 2.4 + 4.8), right? But it is, in fact, 938 MeV! QCD accounts for this enormous difference by the energy of the QCD vacuum inside the proton; basically, the self-energy of ceaseless interactions of quarks and gluons.

Further reading: The Physics of RHIC (Brookhaven National Lab), How are the protons and neutrons held together in a nucleus?, and Are protons and neutrons fundamental? (the Particle Adventure) are three good places to go!

Some of the Universe Today articles relevant to proton parts are: Final Detector in Place at the Large Hadron Collider, Hidden Stores of Deuterium Discovered in the Milky Way, and New Study Finds Fundamental Force Hasn’t Changed Over Time.

Two Astronomy Cast episodes you won’t want to miss, on proton parts: The Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces, and Inside the Atom.


What is Schrodinger’s Cat?

Schrodinger’s cat is named after Erwin Schrödinger, a physicist from Austria who made substantial contributions to the development of quantum mechanics in the 1930s (he won a Nobel Prize for some of this work, in 1933). Apart from the poor cat (more later), his name is forever associated with quantum mechanics via the Schrödinger equation, which every physics student has to grapple with.

Schrodinger’s cat is actually a thought experiment (Gedankenexperiment) – and the cat may not have been Erwin’s, but his wife’s, or one of his lovers’ (Erwin had an unconventional lifestyle) – designed to test a really weird implication of the physics he and other physicists was developing at the time. It was motivated by a 1935 paper by Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen; this paper is the source of the famous EPR paradox.

In the thought experiment, Schrodinger’s cat is placed inside a box containing a piece of radioactive material, and a Geiger counter wired to a flask of poison in such a way that if the Geiger counter detects a decay, then the flask is smashed, the poison gas released, and the cat dies (fun piece of trivia: an animal rights group accused physicists of cruelty to animals, based on a distorted version of this thought experiment! though maybe that’s just an urban legend). The half-life of the radioactive material is an hour, so after an hour, there is a 50% probability that the cat is dead, and an equal probability that it is alive. In quantum mechanics, these two states are superposed (a technical term), and the cat is neither dead nor alive, or half-dead and half-alive, or … which is really, really weird.

Now the theory – quantum mechanics – has been tested perhaps more thoroughly than any other theory in physics, and it seems to describe how the universe behaves with extraordinary accuracy. And the theory says that when the box is opened – to see if the cat is dead, alive, half-dead and half-alive, or anything else – the wavefunction (describing the cat, Geiger counter, etc) collapses, or decoheres, or that the states are no longer entangled (all technical terms), and we see only a dead cat or cat very much alive.

There are several ways to get your mind around what’s going on – or several interpretations (you guessed it, yet another technical term!) – with names like Copenhagen interpretation, many worlds interpretation, etc, but the key thing is that the theory is mute on the interpretations … it simply says you can calculate stuff using the equations, and what your calculations show is what you’ll see, in any experiment.

Fast forward to some time after Schrödinger – and Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen – had died, and we find that tests of the EPR paradox were proposed, then conducted, and the universe does indeed seem to behave just like schrodinger’s cat! In fact, the results from these experimental tests are used for a kind of uncrackable cryptography, and the basis for a revolutionary kind of computer.

Keen to learn more? Try these: Schrödinger’s Rainbow is a slideshow review of the general topic (California Institute of Technology; caution, 3MB PDF file!); Schrodinger’s cat comes into view, a news story on a macroscopic demonstration; and Schrödinger’s Cat (University of Houston).

Schrodinger’s cat is indirectly referenced in several Astronomy Cast episodes, among them Quantum Mechanics, and Entanglement; check them out!

Sources: Cornell University, Wikipedia

What is Loop Quantum Gravity?

The two best theories we have, today, in physics – the Standard Model and General Relativity – are mutually incompatible; loop quantum gravity (LQG) is one of the best proposals for combining them in a consistent way.

General Relativity is a theory of spacetime, but it is not a quantum theory. Since the universe seems to be quantized in so many ways, one approach to extending GR is to quantize spacetime … somehow. In LQG, space is made up of a network of quantized loops of gravitational fields (see where the name comes from?), which are called spin networks (and which become spin foam when viewed over time). The quantization is at the Planck scale (as you would expect). LQG and string theory – perhaps the best known of theories which aim to both go deeper and encompass the Standard Model and General Relativity – differ in many ways; one of the most obvious is that LQG does not introduce extra dimensions. Another big difference: string theory aims to unify all forces, LQG does not (though it does include matter).

Starting with the Einstein field equations of GR, Abhay Ashtekar kicked of LQG in 1986, and in 1988 Carlo Rovelli and Lee Smolin built on Ashtekar’s work to introduce the loop representation of quantum general relativity. Since then lots of progress has been made, and so far no fatal flaws have been discovered. However, LQG suffers from a number of problems; perhaps the most frustrating is that we don’t know if LQG becomes GR as we move from the (quantized) Planck scale to the (continuum) scale at which our experiments and observations are done.

OK, so what about actual tests of LQG, you know, like in the lab or with telescopes?

Well, there are some, potential tests … such as whether the speed of light is indeed constant, and recently the Fermi telescope team reported the results of just such a test (result? No clear sign of LQG).

Interested in learning more? There is a lot of material freely available on the web, from easy reads like Quantum Foam and Loop Quantum Gravity and Lee Smolin’s Loop Quantum Gravity, to introductions for non-experts like Abhay Ashtekar’s Gravity and the Quantum, to reviews like Carlo Rovelli’s Loop Quantum Gravity, to this paper on an attempt to explain some observational results using loop quantum gravity (Loop Quantum Gravity and Ultra High Energy Cosmic Rays).

As you’d expect, Universe Today has several articles on, or which feature, loop quantum gravity; here is a selection What was Before the Big Bang? An Identical, Reversed Universe, Before the Big Bang?, and Before the Big Bang.

Source: Wikipedia