1905 – Switzerland

  1. ‘the relativity principle: All laws of science are the same in all frames of reference.
  2. constancy of the speed of light: The speed of light in a vacuüm is constant and is independent of the speed of the observer’
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The laws of physics are identical to different spectators, regardless of their position, as long as they are moving at a constant speed in relation to each other. Above all the speed of light is constant. Classical laws of mechanics seem to be obeyed in our normal lives because the speeds involved are insignificant.

Newton’s recipe for measuring the speed of a body moving through space involved simply timing it as it passed between two fixed points. This is based on the assumptions that time is flowing at the same rate for everyone – that there is such a thing as ‘absolute’ time, and that two observers would always agree on the distance between any two points in space.
The implications of this principle if the observers are moving at different speeds are bizarre and normal indicators of velocity such as distance and time become warped. Absolute space and time do not exist. The faster an object is moving the slower time moves. Objects appear to become shorter in the direction of travel. Mass increases as the speed of an object increases. Ultimately nothing may move faster than or equal to the speed of light because at that point it would have infinite mass, no length and time would stand still.

‘The energy (E) of a body equals its mass (m) times the speed of light (c) squared’

This equation shows that mass and energy are mutually convertible under certain conditions.

The mass-energy equation is a consequence of Einstein’s theory of special relativity and declares that only a small amount of atomic mass could unleash huge amounts of energy.

Two of his early papers described Brownian motion and the ‘photoelectric’ effect (employing PLANCK’s quantum theory and helping to confirm Planck’s ideas in the process).

1915 – Germany

‘Objects do not attract each other by exerting pull, but the presence of matter in space causes space to curve in such a manner that a gravitational field is set up. Gravity is the property of space itself’

From 1907 to 1915 Einstein developed his special theory into a general theory that included equating accelerating forces and gravitational forces. This implies light rays would be bent by gravitational attraction and electromagnetic radiation wavelengths would be increased under gravity. Moreover, mass and the resultant gravity, warps space and time, which would otherwise be ‘flat’, into curved paths that other masses (e.g. the moons of planets) caught within the field of the distortion follow. The predictions from special and general relativity were gradually proven by experimental evidence.

Einstein spent much of the rest of his life trying to devise a unified theory of electromagnetic, gravitational and nuclear fields.

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NIELS BOHR (1885-1962)

1913 – Denmark

‘Electrons in atoms are restricted to certain orbits but they can move from one orbit to another’

Bohr’s was the first quantum model for the internal structure of the atom.

Bohr worked with RUTHERFORD in Manchester and improved upon Rutherford’s model, which said that electrons were free to orbit the nucleus at random.

Classical physics insisted that electrons moving around the nucleus would eventually expire and collapse into the nucleus as they radiated energy. Bohr resolved the issue surrounding Rutherford’s atomic structure by applying the concept of quantum physics set out by MAX PLANCK in 1900.
He suggested that the electrons would have to exist in one of a number of specific orbits, each being defined by specific levels of energy. From the perspective of quantum theory, electrons only existed in these fixed orbits where they did not radiate energy. The electrons could move to higher-level orbits if energy was added, or fall to lower ones if they gave out energy. The innermost orbit contains up to two electrons. The next may contain up to eight electrons. If an inner orbit is not full, an electron from an outer orbit can jump into it. Energy is released as light (a photon) when this happens. The energy that is released is a fixed amount, a quantum.

Quanta of radiation would only ever be emitted as an atom made the transition between states and released energy. Electrons could not exist in between these definite steps. This quantised theory of the electrons’ orbits had the benefits of explaining why atoms always emitted or absorbed specific frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and of providing an understanding of why atoms are stable.

Bohr calculated the amount of radiation emitted during these transitions using Planck’s constant. It fitted physical observations and made sense of the spectral lines of a hydrogen atom, observed when the electromagnetic radiation (caused by the vibrations of electrons) of the element was passed through a prism. The prism breaks it up into spectral lines, which show the intensities and frequencies of the radiation – and therefore the energy emissions and absorptions of the electrons.

Each of the elements has an atomic number, starting with hydrogen, with an atomic number of one. The atomic number corresponds to the number of protons in the element’s atoms. Bohr had already shown that electrons inhabit fixed orbits around the nucleus of the atom.
Atoms strive to have a full outer shell (allowed orbit), which gives a stable structure. They may share, give away or receive extra electrons to achieve stability. The way that atoms will form bonds with others, and the ease with which they will do it, is determined by the configuration of electrons.
As elements are ordered in the periodic table by atomic number, it can be seen that their position in the table can be used to predict how they will react.

In addition to showing that electrons are restricted to orbits, Bohr’s model also suggested that

  • the orbit closest to the nucleus is lowest in energy, with successively higher energies for more distant orbits.
  • when an electron jumps to a lower orbit it emits a photon.
  • when an electron absorbs energy, it jumps to a higher orbit.

Bohr called the jump to another orbit a quantum leap.

Although it contained elements of quantum theory, the Bohr model had its flaws. It ignored the wave character of the electron. Work by WERNER KARL HEISENBERG later tackled these weaknesses.

Bohr’s theory of complementarity states that electrons may be both a wave and a particle, but that we can only experience them as one or the other at any given time. He showed that contradictory characteristics of an electron could be proved in separate experiments and none of the results can be accepted singly – we need to hold all the possibilities in mind at once. This requires a slight adjustment to the original model of atomic structure, we can no longer say that an electron occupies a particular orbit, but can only give the probability that it is there.

In 1939 he developed a theory of nuclear fission with Jon Archibald Wheeler (b.1911) and realised that the 235uranium isotope would be more susceptible to fission than the more commonly used 238uranium.
The element bohrium is named after him.

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THOMAS YOUNG (1773-1829)

1801 – England

‘Interference between waves can be constructive or destructive’

Young’s principle advanced the wave theory of light of CHRISTIAAN HUYGENS. Further advances came from EINSTEIN and PLANCK.

ç Young rejected Newton’s view that if light consisted of waves it would not travel in a straight line and therefore sharp shadows would not be possible. He said that if the wavelength of light was extremely small, light would not spread around corners and shadows would appear sharp. His principle of interference provided strong evidence in support of the wave theory.

In Young’s double slit experiment a beam of sunlight is allowed to enter a darkened room through a pinhole. The beam is then passed through two closely spaced small slits in a cardboard screen. You would expect to see two bright lights on a screen placed behind the slits. Instead a series of alternate light and dark stripes are observed, known as interference fringes, produced when one wave of light interferes with another wave of light.

Two identical waves traveling together either reinforce each other (constructive interference) or cancel each other out (destructive interference). This effect is similar to the pattern produced when two stones are thrown into a pool of water.

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The mathematical explanation of this effect was provided by AUGUSTIN FRESNEL (1788-1827). The wave theory was further expanded by EINSTEIN in 1905 when he showed that light is transmitted as photons.

Light, an electromagnetic radiation, is transported in photons that are guided along their path by waves. This is known as ‘wave-particle duality’.

The current view of the nature of light is based on quantum theory.

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