Planck’s Constant

planck_electronThe UV catastrophe and the dilemma of spectral lines were already serious problems for attempts to understand how light and matter interact. Planck also noticed another fatal flaw in our physics by demonstrating that the electron in orbit around the nucleus accelerates. Acceleration means a changing electric field (the electron has charge), when means photons should be emitted. But, then the electron would lose energy and fall into the nucleus. Therefore, atoms shouldn’t exist!

To resolve this problem, Planck made a wild assumption that energy, at the sub-atomic level, can only be transfered in small units, called quanta. Due to his insight, we call this unit Planck’s constant (h). The word quantum derives from quantity and refers to a small packet of action or process, the smallest unit of either that can be associated with a single event in the microscopic world.
Quantum, in physics, discrete natural unit, or packet, of energy, charge, angular momentum, or other physical property. Light, for example, appearing in some respects as a continuous electromagnetic wave, on the submicroscopic level is emitted and absorbed in discrete amounts, or quanta; and for light of a given wavelength, the magnitude of all the quanta emitted or absorbed is the same in both energy and momentum. These particle-like packets of light are called photons, a term also applicable to quanta of other forms of electromagnetic energy such as X rays and gamma rays.

All phenomena in submicroscopic systems (the realm of quantum mechanics) exhibit quantization: observable quantities are restricted to a natural set of discrete values. When the values are multiples of a constant least amount, that amount is referred to as a quantum of the observable. Thus Planck’s constant h is the quantum of action, and h/ (i.e., h/2 ) is the quantum of angular momentum, or spin.

quantaChanges of energy, such as the transition of an electron from one orbit to another around the nucleus of an atom, is done in discrete quanta. Quanta are not divisible. The term quantum leap refers to the abrupt movement from one discrete energy level to another, with no smooth transition. There is no “in-between.”
The quantization, or “jumpiness” of action as depicted in quantum physics differs sharply from classical physics which represented motion as smooth, continuous change. Quantization limits the energy to be transfered to photons and resolves the UV catastrophe problem.

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