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The crisis of classical physics

2. The corpuscular interpretation of light

Ermanno Amata
Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali
INAF
Via del fosso del cavaliere, 100
00133 Roma

Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.

UV source

The photo-electric effect: the experiment.
In 1902 Philipp Lenard published some interesting experimental
results on the photo-electric effect.

L

M

i

Experimental setup.
Vacuum tube with two electrodes, L and M connected to an
electric circuit. A variable UV source hits L with its radiation.
Possibility to apply a voltage between L and M and to reverse it
ΔV = VM - VL
i = current intensity.
I1,2 = intensity of UV radiation.
A is an amperometer, V is a voltmeter.
When ΔV>0, a current will flow in the circuit towards M. It is
straightforward to interpret this current as due to electrons being
emitted by L and collected by M.

+

I2 = 2I1 When ΔV<<0, all electrons extracted from L will be repelled by
I1

-ΔVa

M’s negative potential. Therefore, no current will flow in the
circuit.

ΔV
Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.

UV source
The photo-electric effect: the experimental results.

L

M
When ΔV>>0, all electrons extracted from L are collected by M,
so that, even if ΔV further increases, the current intensity will not
change (saturation current).
The saturation current is found to be proportional to the intensity
of UV radiation.
When ΔV approaches 0, the current i decreases; i then falls to 0
when ΔV → - ΔVa
ΔVa does not vary with the radiation intensity.

i

I2 = 2I1
I1

-ΔVa

ΔV
Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.

The photo-electric effect: Kmax does not depend on radiation intensity.
L

M

Let us now consider in some detail what happens when ΔV =-ΔVa
and an electron leaves L to reach M.
In order for an electron to reach M, it needs to be emitted with
enough initial kinetic energy. We call this energy KL. The potential
energy of the electron will be UL.

The electron will move in an electrostatic potential from potential VL to potential VM and will be decelerated.
As the electron reaches M, its kinetic energy will be 0 and its potential energy will be UM.
Conservation of total energy tells us that KL + UL = UM
As we know that U = q V and q = -e, we can write
KL = -e VM + e VL = e(VL- VM) = -e ΔV = e Δva
In conclusion, by measuring the stop potential Δva we obtain a measure of the maximum kinetic energy of
the electrons extracted from L.
This energy, which we call Kmax, does not depend on the intensity of the radiation hitting L, as the stop
potential does not either. Instead, it varies from metal to metal.

Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.

The photo-electric effect: new ideas are needed
The figure on the left shows a plot of Kmax for sodium
as a function of frequency.
Similar plots can be drawn for other metals.
We notice that there is a cutoff frequency, fmin, below
which no photo-electric effect occurs.
As frequency increases from fmin, Kmax increases
linearly.
We now know enough to draw some surprising conclusions.
In fact, when physicists tried to explain the experimental results concerning the photoelectric effect, they ran
into two major problems.
1. Classical wave theory forecasts that the kinetic energy of photoelectrons should increase with the intensity
of the UV beam. On the contrary, Kmax is independent of the UV intensity.
2. According to wave theory, the photo-electric effect should take place for any frequency, provided that light
intensity is high enough. Instead, for each metal we find a characteristic cutoff frequency .
Similarly to what had happened a few years earlier for black body radiation, physicists were in bad
need of a new paradigm to explain experimental data.
Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.

The photo-electric effect: Einsteins’s bold hypothesis.

The solution to this problem came from Albert Einstein. He clearly drew inspiration from the new ideas
which had been recently proposed by Max Planck to explain black body radiation.
We recall that, although Planck quantised the energy in the black body cavity, he still treated the radiation as
an electromagnetic wave.
Einstein moved a big step forward and proposed that the energy of a light beam travels through space in
concentrated bundles, called photons, which behave like particles, but do not bear a mass.
He wrote for the energy of a single photon the following formula:
E = hf,
where f is the frequency of the electromagnetic radiation and h is just Planck’s constant.
Many years later, Millikan, who did a lot of experimental work to check Einstein’s theory of the photoelectric effect, commented that Einstein’s hypothesis was “bold, not to say reckless!”

Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.

The photo-electric effect explained through Einstein’s hypothesis.
Having quantised light in photons, Einstein then proposed that, when a metal is hit by a beam of ultraviolet
radiation, at a given time only a photon will interact with a single electron of the metal.
According to this hypothesis, an electron can gain enough energy to leave the metal only if
h f ≥ We
where We is the work needed to extract an electron.
This yields, that there exists a minimum frequency below which the photo-electric effect does not occur:
fmin = We/h
This conclusion is in accordance with experimental results.
Let us now consider an electron extracted from the metal by a single photon which gives it all its energy.
Clearly, if we neglect possible interactions with nearby metal ions, the electron will emerge with energy
E = h f - We
which can also be written as
Kmax = h f - We , or as
Kmax = h(f - fmin )
This is also in agreement with experimental data: the maximum frequency of the extracted photon
increases linearly with frequency and depends only on frequency (whatever is the number of photons
impinging on the metal, i.e. whatever is the light intensity).
In spite of the success of Einstein’s theory of photo-electric effect, the concept of light made of photons was
opposed by many great physicists for years (Planck, Lorentz and Millikan included), until Compton…

Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.

The Compton effect
Peak at λ’ > λ

Peak at the wavelength
emitted by the X-ray tube

In 1923 Arthur H. Compton published a paper
on the scattering of X-rays from electrons.
Compton's original experiment made use of
molybdenum K-alpha x-rays, which have a
wavelength λ=0.0709 nm. These were
scattered from a block of carbon and observed
at different angles with a Bragg spectrometer.
In the figure on the left we see a scheme of the
experiment for a scattering angle of 90°.

Compton observed a peak corresponding to the original wavelength of X-rays emitted by the tube, but, close
to it in wavelength, he got a second peak, at longer wavelength, which was completely unexpected.
He measured the wavelength shift and got Δλ = λ’ – λ = 0,22 x 10-11 m.
He also found that similar peaks appeared at all angles around the carbon target and noticed that Δλ varied
with the angle following a sort of cosine law.
He then performed the same experiment using X-rays of different wavelengths.
He found that, for each scattering angle, Δλ was always the same, with no dependence upon wavelength.
The secondary peak at longer wavelength cannot be explained by the classical theory of
electromagnetism. In fact, Maxwell’s equations tell us that all electrons in the graphite should oscillate at the
frequency of the incident radiation; therefore, they should emit exactly the same frequency (i.e. wavelength)
which is shot towards them.
Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.

The momentum of Einstein’s photon
We have seen, in the discussion of the photo-electric effect, that Einstein quantised electromagnetic radiation
and postulated the existence of photons.
According to Einstein’s idea, photons behave like particles, but do not have a mass.
However, it is possible to define for them a quantity which plays an essential role in the description of the
dynamics of any particle, i.e. the momentum, often indicated with the letter p.
In classical mechanics, given a particle of mass m and velocity v, its momentum is the vector
p=mv
In the following, we shall consider just the intensity of the momentum vector and shall use the symbol p.
In order to extend its definition to the case of a photon, which is a massless particle, Einstein made use of an
equation of his special relativity, relating energy to momentum of a particle, i.e.

where m0 is the rest mass of the particle and c is the speed of light.
As for the photon m0 = 0, Einstein concluded that a photon possesses a quantised momentum
p = E/c = hf/c
Instead, in special relativity, the usual expression for the momentum for a particle which has a rest mass m0 >
0, is

Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.

Compton’s explanation of the effect which is named after him.
y

hf’/c
(hf’/c) sin φ

x

(hf’/c) cos φ

E0_ph= hf
p0_ph= hf/c

E0_el= mec2
p0_el= 0

hf/c
pelcosθ
pelsinθ

Hereafter, suffix 0 refers to
initial values (before the
collision), while suffix f refers
to final values (after the
collision).

The incident photon has an energy E0_ph = hf and a momentum p0_ph = hf/c. It bumps into a target electron
and transfers to it some energy and some momentum: after the collision, the photon frequency will be f’.
As both energy and momentum must be conserved, we must write
E0_ph + E0_el = Ef_ph + Eel
p0_ph + p0_el = pf_ph + pel
The second equation is in vectorial form, i.e. it corresponds to two scalar equations, along the x and y axes.
Compton solved this system of three equations; then, used the λ= c/f relation and obtained the formula to
calculate the wavelength of the scattered photon:
λ’ = λ + (h/mec) (1-cosφ)
i.e.
Δλ = λ’ – λ = (h/mec) (1-cosφ)
This formula closely reproduced experimental data.
Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.

The φ = 90° case
Peak at λ’ > λ

Let us derive Compton’s result for φ = 90°, as in this case the three equations
written in the previous slide take a rather simple form.
We expect to obtain Δλ = λ’ – λ = (h/mec) (1-cos90°) = h/mec.
We start from the two equations concerning momentum
p0_ph _x = pf_ph_x + pel_x
These two equations tell us that momentum
must be conserved both along x and along y.
p0_ph _y = pf_ph_y + pel_y
where x and y refer to the two axes.

Peak at the wavelength
emitted by the X-ray tube

As φ = 90°, p0_ph _y = pf_ph_x = 0, so that the two equations can be written as
p0_ph _x = pel_x and -pf_ph _y = pel_y i.e.
pel_x = hf/c

and

pel_y = -hf’/c .

pel_x

At this point, we recall that f ~ f’, so that we can write that pel_x ~ -pel_y. = |pel_y|.
We conclude that θ ~ 45°, so that the kinetic energy of the electron can be written as
K = ½ mev2 = me2 v2/2me = p2/2me = (h2f 2/c2+ h2f ’2/c2)/2me ~ (2h2f 2/c2)/2me = h2f 2/mec2

pel_y

45°

We can now rewrite the conservation of energy, which readily tells us that the decrease of photon energy is
equal to K:
h f - h f’ = h2f 2/mec2
We now recall that f= c/λ, so that we can change to wavelengths and obtain c/λ - c/ λ’ = h/me λ 2
Finally, we multiply both sides by λ’ λ /c, so that
Δλ = λ’ – λ = (h/mec) (λ’ λ/ λ2 ) ~ h/mec
q.e.d.

Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.

The Compton effect: conclusions
Peak at λ’ > λ

Let us summarise Compton’s results.
At each scattering angle, Compton observed a
peak corresponding to the original X-ray
wavelength and a second peak, at longer
wavelength, which was completely unexpected.

Peak at the wavelength
emitted by the X-ray tube

He found that, for each scattering angle, Δλ
was exactly the same, with no dependence upon
the wavelength.

The secondary peak at longer wavelength cannot be explained by classical electromagnetism.
By treating X rays as Einstein’s photons (i.e. assigning to them energy and momentum as predicted by
Einstein’s relativity theory), Compton found the formula to calculate the wavelength of the scattered photon:
λ’ = λ + (h/mec) (1-cosφ)
i.e.
Δλ = λ’ – λ = (h/mec) (1-cosφ)
This formula closely reproduced experimental data.
Nobody could now deny that Einstein’s photon was real!
We still have to explain the peak at the original wavelength.
These are photons which are scattered by inner electrons, which are tightly bound to the atom, so that the
whole atom, which is much more massive than a single electron, does not recoil much. As a result, the energy
of the photon undergoes only a very small change, which is not detected by the experiment!
Two last remarks: the Compton effect also occurs when an energetic photon hits any elementary particle; in
astrophysics it is possible to observe the “inverse Compton effect”, in which an electron hits an X ray photon.
Lectures delivered at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Bruno Touschek, Grottaferrata, on February 16, 17 and 18, 2015.