Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Energies of States in Hydrogen

The experimental technique for measuring the energy levels of an atom accurately is spectroscopy: the study of the spectrum of light emitted (or absorbed) by the atom. Only photons with certain energies can be emitted or absorbed by a hydrogen atom, for example, since the amount of energy gained or lost by the atom must equal the difference in energy between the atom's initial and final states. Spectroscopy had actually become a highly developed art several decades before Einstein even proposed the photon, and the Swiss spectroscopist Johann Balmer determined in 1885 that there was a simple equation that gave all the wavelengths emitted by hydrogen. In modern terms, we think of the photon wavelengths merely as indirect evidence about the underlying energy levels of the atom, and we rework Balmer's result into an equation for these atomic energy levels:

There's an interactive simulation available on the "Learning by Simulations" Web site which shows emission and absorption spectra of various chemical elements.
This energy includes both the kinetic energy of the electron and the electrical energy. The zero-level of the electrical energy scale is chosen to be the energy of an electron and a proton that are infinitely far apart. With this choice, negative energies correspond to bound states and positive energies to unbound ones.

Where does the mysterious numerical factor of 2.210-18 J come from? In 1913 the Danish theorist Niels Bohr realized that it was exactly numerically equal to a certain combination of fundamental physical constants:

where m is the mass of the electron, and k is the Coulomb force constant for electric forces.

Bohr was able to cook up a derivation of this equation based on the incomplete version of quantum physics that had been developed by that time, but his derivation is today mainly of historical interest. It assumes that the electron follows a circular path, whereas the whole concept of a path for a particle is considered meaningless in our more complete modern version of quantum physics. Although Bohr was able to produce the right equation for the energy levels, his model also gave various wrong results, such as predicting that the atom would be flat, and that the ground state would have $ = 1 rather than the correct $ = 0.

A full and correct treatment is impossible at the mathematical level of this book, but we can provide a straightforward explanation for the form of the equation using approximate arguments. A typical standing-wave pattern for the electron consists of a central oscillating area surrounded by a region in which the wavefunction tails off. As discussed in section 4.6, the oscillating type of pattern is typically encountered in the classically allowed region, while the tailing off occurs in the classically forbidden region where the electron has insufficient kinetic energy to penetrate according to classical physics. We use the symbol r for the radius of the spherical boundary between the classically allowed and classically forbidden regions.

When the electron is at the distance r from the proton, it has zero kinetic energy - in classical terms, this would be the distance at which the electron would have to stop, turn around, and head back toward the proton. Thus when the electron is at distance r, its energy is purely electrical:

Now comes the approximation. In reality, the electron's wavelength cannot be constant in the classically allowed region, but we pretend that it is. Since n is the number of nodes in the wavefunction, we can interpret it approximately as the number of wavelengths that fit across the diameter 2r. We are not even attempting a derivation that would produce all the correct numerical factors like 2 and π and so on, so we simply make the approximation

Finally we assume that the typical kinetic energy of the electron is on the same order of magnitude as the absolute value of its total energy. (This is true to within a factor of two for a typical classical system like a planet in a circular orbit around the sun.)

We now solve the equation ke2/r ∼ hn2/2mr2 for r and throw away numerical factors we can't hope to have gotten right, yielding

Plugging n = 1 into this equation gives r = 2 nm, which is indeed on the right order of magnitude. Finally we combine equations [3] and [1] to find

which is correct except for the numerical factors we never aimed to find.

Discussion Questions

G States of hydrogen with n greater than about 10 are never observed in the sun. Why might this be?
H Sketch graphs of r and E versus n for the hydrogen, and compare with analogous graphs for the one-dimensional particle in a box.

Last Update: 2010-11-11