Mar 24, Thomas Dietert rated it it was amazing Given a recent revelation that I know virtually nothing about how or what physical reality is comprised of at a most fundamental level and my subsequent pursuit of acquiring such conceptions, before reading this book I had read a series of pop-sci books on the nature of quantum physics, particle physics, quantum electro-dynamics, and the like. Most of the books in that series presented substantial historical context, high-level overviews, and a web of explicit and implicit interconnections Given a recent revelation that I know virtually nothing about how or what physical reality is comprised of at a most fundamental level and my subsequent pursuit of acquiring such conceptions, before reading this book I had read a series of pop-sci books on the nature of quantum physics, particle physics, quantum electro-dynamics, and the like. Most of the books in that series presented substantial historical context, high-level overviews, and a web of explicit and implicit interconnections between the discoveries and formalizations of such ubiquitous and fundamental notions about how physical reality "works" at quantum indivisibly small scale. None of these books provided me the insight that I obtained into the inner-workings of such theories as this book did, and I am so glad that I decided to read "Thirty Years that Shook Physics" when I did-- lest I wallow in the characteristic hand-wavingly vague, confounding, and imprecise explanations of such theories presented by most of modern pop-sci publications. In this brilliant work, George Gamow presents a linear, historical narrative and exposition of the inception of, elaboration upon, and impact of the aforementioned theories on the field of physics in the early 20th century, supported with insightfully clear figures, diagrams and drawings, and most notably the precise mathematical underpinnings that necessarily serve as the foundation for building a more coherent and intuitive conception of the theories at a high level.

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Igor Gamow All rights reserved. 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.

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.

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. 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. 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. Comparing the curves in Figs. 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. There may be one half-wave on the entire length of the string, two half-waves, three half-waves, ten half-waves, The corresponding vibration frequencies of various overtones will be double, triple 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.

The paradoxicalness of this conclusion is evident, but we can point it even more sharply by the following discussion.

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. 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. 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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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 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, 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 , 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. Six years later he accepted the position of associate professor in Kiel. In he moved to the University of Berlin as an associate professor, becoming a full pro fessor in 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.

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. 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 , and was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society of London in 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 , 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.

Igor Gamow. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc.


Thirty Years that Shook Physics : The Story of Quantum Theory



Thirty Years that Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory


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