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Thirty Years that Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory
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Thirty Years that Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory

by George Gamow

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"Dr. Gamow, physicist and gifted writer, has sketched an intriguing portrait of the scientists and clashing ideas that made the quantum revolution." — Christian Science Monitor
In 1900, German physicist Max Planck postulated that light, or radiant energy, can exist only in the form of discrete packages or quanta. This profound insight, along


"Dr. Gamow, physicist and gifted writer, has sketched an intriguing portrait of the scientists and clashing ideas that made the quantum revolution." — Christian Science Monitor
In 1900, German physicist Max Planck postulated that light, or radiant energy, can exist only in the form of discrete packages or quanta. This profound insight, along with Einstein's equally momentous theories of relativity, completely revolutionized man's view of matter, energy, and the nature of physics itself.
In this lucid layman's introduction to quantum theory, an eminent physicist and noted popularizer of science traces the development of quantum theory from the turn of the century to about 1930 — from Planck's seminal concept (still developing) to anti-particles, mesons, and Enrico Fermi's nuclear research. Gamow was not just a spectator at the theoretical breakthroughs which fundamentally altered our view of the universe, he was an active participant who made important contributions of his own. This "insider's" vantage point lends special validity to his careful, accessible explanations of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Niels Bohr's model of the atom, the pilot waves of Louis de Broglie and other path-breaking ideas.
In addition, Gamow recounts a wealth of revealing personal anecdotes which give a warm human dimension to many giants of 20th-century physics. He ends the book with the Blegdamsvej Faust, a delightful play written in 1932 by Niels Bohr's students and colleagues to satirize the epochal developments that were revolutionizing physics. This celebrated play is available only in this volume.
Written in a clear, lively style, and enhanced by 12 photographs (including candid shots of Rutherford, Bohr, Pauli, Heisenberg, Fermi, and others), Thirty Years that Shook Physics offers both scientists and laymen a highly readable introduction to the brilliant conceptions that helped unlock many secrets of energy and matter and laid the groundwork for future discoveries.

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Thirty Years that Shook Physics

The Story of Quantum Theory

By George Gamow

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1966 R. Igor Gamow
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13516-8



The roots of Max Planck's revolutionary statement that light can be emitted and absorbed only in the form of certain discrete energy packages goes back to much earlier studies of Ludwig Boltzmann, James Clerk Maxwell, Josiah Willard Gibbs, and others on the statistical description of the thermal properties of material bodies. The Kinetic Theory of Heat considered heat to be the result of random motion of the numerous individual molecules of which all material bodies are formed. Since it would be impossible (and also purposeless) to follow the motion of each single individual molecule participating in thermal motion, the mathematical description of heat phenomena must necessarily use statistical method. Just as the government economist does not bother to know exactly how many acres are seeded by fanner John Doe or how many pigs he has, a physicist does not care about the position or velocity of a particular molecule of a gas which is formed by a very large number of individual molecules. All that counts here, and what is important for the economy of a country or the observed macroscopic behavior of a gas, are the averages taken over a large number of farmers or molecules.

One of the basic laws of Statistical Mechanics, which is the study of the average values of physical properties for very large assemblies of individual particles involved in random motion, is the so-called Equipartition Theorem, which can be derived mathematically from the Newtonian laws of Mechanics. It states that: The total energy contained in the assembly of a large number of individual particles exchanging energy among themselves through mutual collisions is shared equally (on the average) by all the particles. If all particles are identical, as for example in a pure gas such as oxygen or neon, all particles will have on the average equal velocities and equal kinetic energies. Writing E for the total energy available in the system, and N for the total number of particles, we can say that the average energy per particle is E/N. If we have a collection of several kinds of particles, as in a mixture of two or more different gases, the more massive molecules will have the lesser velocities, so that their kinetic energies (proportional to the mass and the square of the velocity) will be on the average the same as those of the lighter molecules.

Consider, for example, a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen molecules, which are 16 times more massive than those of hydrogen, will have average velocity [squareroot of 16] = 4 times smaller than the latter.

While the equipartition law governs the average distribution of energy among the members of a large assembly of particles, the velocities and energies of individual particles may deviate from the averages, a phenomenon known as statistical fluctuations. The fluctuations can also be treated mathematically, resulting in curves showing the relative number of particles having velocities greater or less than the average for any given temperature. These curves, first calculated by J. Clerk Maxwell and carrying his name, are shown in Fig. 1 for three different temperatures of the gas. The use of the statistical method in the study of thermal motion of molecules was very successful in explaining the thermal properties of material bodies, especially in the case of gases; in application to gases the theory is much simplified by the fact that gaseous molecules fly freely through space instead of being packed closely together as in liquids and solids.

Statistical Mechanics and Thermal Radiation

Toward the end of the nineteenth century Lord Rayleigh and Sir James Jeans attempted to extend the statistical method, so helpful in understanding thermal properties of material bodies, to the problems of thermal radiation. All heated material bodies emit electromagnetic waves of different wavelengths. When the temperature is comparatively low — the boiling point of water, for example — the predominant wavelength of the emitted radiation is rather large. These waves do not affect the retina of our eye (that is, they are invisible) but are absorbed by our skin, giving the sensation of warmth, and one speaks therefore of heat or infrared radiation. When the temperature rises to about 600°C (characteristic of the heating units of an electric range) a faint red light is seen. At 2000°C (as in the filament of an electric bulb) a bright white light which contains all the wavelengths of the visible radiation spectrum from red to violet is emitted. At the still higher temperature of an electric arc, 4000°C, a considerable amount of invisible ultraviolet radiation is emitted, the intensity of which rapidly increases as the temperature rises still higher. At each given temperature there is one predominant vibration frequency for which the intensity is the highest, and as the temperature rises this predominant frequency becomes higher and higher. The situation is represented graphically in Fig. 2, which gives the distribution of intensity in the spectra corresponding to three different temperatures.

Comparing the curves in Figs. 1 and 2, we notice a remarkable qualitative similarity. While in the first case the increase of temperature moves the maximum of the curve to higher molecular velocities, in the second case the maximum moves to higher radiation frequencies. This similarity prompted Rayleigh and Jeans to apply to thermal radiation the same Equipartition Principle that had turned out to be so successful in the case of gas; that is, to assume that the total available energy of radiation is distributed equally among all possible vibration frequencies. This attempt led, however, to catastrophic results! The trouble was that, in spite of all similarities between a gas formed by individual molecules and thermal radiation formed by electromagnetic vibrations, there exists one drastic difference: while the number of gas molecules in a given enclosure is always finite even though usually very large, the number of possible electromagnetic vibrations in the same enclosure is always infinite. To understand this statement, one must remember that the wave-motion pattern in a cubical enclosure, let us say, is formed by the superposition of various standing waves having their nodes on the walls of the enclosure.

The situation can be visualized more easily in a simpler case of one-dimensional wave motion, as of a string fastened at its two ends. Since the ends of the string cannot move, the only possible vibrations are those shown in Fig. 3 and correspond in musical terminology to the fundamental tone and various overtones of the vibrating string. There may be one half-wave on the entire length of the string, two half-waves, three half-waves, ten half-waves, ... a hundred, a thousand, a million, a billion ... any number of half-waves. The corresponding vibration frequencies of various overtones will be double, triple ... tenfold, a hundredfold, a millionfold, a billionfold ... etc., of the basic tone.

In the case of standing waves within a three-dimensional container, such as a cube, the situation will be similar though somewhat more complicated, leading to unlimited numbers of different vibrations with shorter and shorter wavelengths and correspondingly higher and higher frequencies. Thus, if E is the total amount of radiant energy available in the container, the Equipartition Principle will lead to the conclusion that each individual vibration will be allotted E/ ∞, an infinitely small amount of energy! The paradoxicalness of this conclusion is evident, but we can point it even more sharply by the following discussion.

Suppose we have a cubical container, known as "Jeans' cube," the inner walls of which are made of ideal mirrors reflecting 100 per cent of the light falling on them. Of course, such mirrors do not exist and cannot be manufactured; even the best mirror absorbs a small fraction of the incident light. But we can use the notion of such ideal mirrors in theoretical discussions as the limiting case of very good mirrors. Such reasoning, whereby one thinks what would be the result of an experiment in which ideal mirrors, frictionless surfaces, weightless bars, etc., are employed, is known as a "thought experiment" (Gedankenexperiment is the original term), and is often used in various branches of theoretical physics. If we make in a wall of Jeans' cube a small window and shine in some light, closing the ideal shutter after that operation, the light will stay in for an indefinite time, being reflected to and fro from the ideal mirror walls. When we open the shutter sometime later we will observe a flash of the escaping light. The situation here is identical in principle to pumping some gas into a closed container and letting it out again later. Hydrogen gas in a glass container can stay indefinitely, representing an ideal case. But hydrogen will not stay long in a container made of palladium metal, since hydrogen molecules are known to diffuse rather easily through this material. Nor can one use a glass container for keeping hydrofluoric acid, which reacts chemically with glass walls. Thus, Jeans' cube with the ideal mirror walls is after all not such a fantastic thing!

There is, however, a difference between the gas and the radiation enclosed in a container. Since the molecules are not mathematical points but have certain finite diameters, they undergo numerous mutual collisions in which their energy can be exchanged. Thus, if we inject into a container some hot gas and some cool gas, mutual collisions between the molecules will rapidly slow down the fast ones and speed up the slow ones, resulting in even distribution of energy in accordance to the Equipartition Principle. In the case of an ideal gas formed by point-molecules, which of course does not exist in nature, mutual collisions would be absent and the hot fraction of the gas would remain hot while the cool fraction would remain cool. The exchange of energy between the molecules of an ideal gas can be stimulated, however, by introducing into the container one or several particles with finite though small diameters (Brownian particles). Colliding with them, fast point-sized molecules will communicate to them their energy, which will be communicated in turn to the other slower point-sized molecules.

In the case of light waves the situation is different, since two light beams crossing each other's path do not affect each other's propagation in any way. Thus, to procure the exchange of energy between the standing waves of different lengths, we must introduce into the container small bodies that can absorb and re-emit all possible wavelengths, thus permitting energy exchange among all possible vibrations. Ordinary black bodies, such as charcoal, have this property, at least in the visible part of the spectrum, and we may imagine "ideal black bodies" which behave in the same way for all possible wavelengths. Placing into Jeans' cube a few particles of ideal coal dust, we will solve our energy-exchange problem.

Now let us perform a thought experiment, injecting into an originally empty Jeans' cube a certain amount of radiation of a given wavelength — let us say some red light. Immediately after injection, the interior of the cube will contain only red standing waves extending from wall to wall, while all other modes of vibrations will be absent. It is as if one strikes on a grand piano one single key. If, as it is in practice, there is only very weak energy exchange among different strings of the instrument, the tone will continue to sound until all the energy communicated to the string will be dissipated by damping. If, however, there is a leak of energy among the strings through the armature to which they are attached, other strings will begin to vibrate too until, according to the Equipartition Theorem, all 88 strings will have energy equal to 1/88 of the total energy communicated.

But if a piano is to represent a fairly good analogy of the Jeans' cube, it must have many more keys extending beyond any limit to the right into the ultrasonic region (Fig. 4). Thus the energy communicated to one string in an audible region would travel to the right into the region of higher pitches and be lost in the infinitely far regions of the ultrasonic vibrations, and a piece of music played on such a piano would turn into a sharp shrill. Similarly the energy of red light injected into Jeans' cube would turn into blue, violet, ultraviolet, X-rays, γ-rays, and so on without any limit. It would be foolhardy to sit in front of a fireplace since the red light coming from the friendly glowing cinders would quickly turn into dangerous high-frequency radiation of fission products!

The runaway of energy into the high-pitch region does not represent any real danger to concert pianists, not only because the keyboard is limited on the right, but mostly because, as was mentioned before, the vibration of each string is damped too fast to permit a transfer of even a small part of energy to a neighboring string. In the case of radiant energy, however, the situation is much more serious, and, if the Equipartition Law should hold in that case, the open door of a boiler would be an excellent source of X- and γ-rays. Clearly something must be wrong with the arguments of nineteenth-century physics, and some drastic changes must be made to avoid the Ultraviolet Catastrophe, which is expected theoretically but never occurs in reality.

Max Planck and the Quantum of Energy

The problem of radiation-thermodynamics was solved by Max Planck, who was a 100 per cent classical physicist (for which he cannot be blamed). It was he who originated what is now known as modern physics. At the turn of the century, at the December 14, 1900 meeting of the German Physical Society, Planck presented his ideas on the subject, which were so unusual and so grotesque that he himself could hardly believe them, even though they caused intense excitement in the audience and in the entire world of physics.

Max Planck was bom in Kiel, in 1858, and later moved with his family to Munich. He attended Maximilian Gymnasium (high school) in Munich and, after graduation, entered the University of Munich, where he studied physics for three years. The following year he spent at the University of Berlin, where he came in contact with the great physicists of that time, Herman von Helmholtz, Gustav Kirchhoff, and Rudolph Clausius, and learned much about the theory of heat, technically known as thermodynamics. Returning to Munich, he presented a doctoral thesis on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, receiving his Ph.D. degree in 1879, and then became an instructor at that university. Six years later he accepted the position of associate professor in Kiel. In 1889 he moved to the University of Berlin as an associate professor, becoming a full pro fessor in 1892. The latter position was, at that time, the highest academic position in Germany, and Planck kept it until his retirement at the age of seventy. After retirement he continued his activities and delivered public speeches until his death at the age of almost ninety. Two of his last papers (A Scientific Autobiography and The Notion of Causality in Physics) were published in 1947, the year he died.

Planck was a typical German professor of his time, serious and probably pedantic, but not without a warm human feeling, which is evidenced in his correspondence with Arnold Sommerfeld who, following the work of Niels Bohr, was applying the Quantum Theory to the structure of the atom. Referring to the quantum as Planck's notion, Sommerfeld in a letter to him wrote:

You cultivate the virgin soil,
Where picking flowers was my only toil.

and to this answered Planck:

You picked flowers — well, so have I.
Let them be, then, combined;
Let us exchange our flowers fair,
And in the brightest wreath them bind.

For his scientific achievements Max Planck received many academic honors. He became a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1894, and was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society of London in 1926. Although he made no contribution to the science of astronomy, one of the newly discovered asteroids was called Planckiana in his honor.

Throughout all his long life Max Planck was interested almost exclusively in the problems of thermodynamics, and the many papers he published were important enough to earn him the honorable position of full professor in Berlin at the age of thirty-four. But the real outburst in his scientific work, the discovery of the quantum of energy, for which, in 1918, he was awarded the Nobel Prize, came rather late in life, at the age of forty-two. Forty-two years is not so late in the life of a man in the usual run of occupations or professions, but it usually happens that the most important work of a theoretical physicist is done at the age of about twenty-five, when he has had time to learn enough of the existing theories but while his mind is still agile enough to conceive new, bold revolutionary ideas. For example, Isaac Newton conceived the Law of Universal Gravity at the age of twenty-three; Albert Einstein created his Theory of Relativity at the age of twenty-six; and Niels Bohr published his Theory of the Atomic Structure at the age of twenty-seven. In his small way, the author of this book also published his most important work, on natural and artificial transformations of the atomic nucleus, when he was twenty-four. In his lecture Planck stated that according to his rather complicated calculations the paradoxical conclusions obtained by Rayleigh and Jeans could be remedied and the danger of the Ultraviolet Catastrophe avoided if one postulates that the energy of electromagnetic waves (including light waves) can exist only in the form of certain discrete packages, or quanta, the energy content of each package being directly proportional to the corresponding frequency.


Excerpted from Thirty Years that Shook Physics by George Gamow. Copyright © 1966 R. Igor Gamow. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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