Blackbody Radiation and the Ultraviolet Catastrophe

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A graph is shown with a horizontal axis labeled, “Wavelength ( n m ),” and a vertical axis labeled, “Spectral irradiance ( W divided by m superscript 2 divided by n m ).” The horizontal axis begins at 250 and extends to 4000 with markings provided every 250 n m. Similarly, the vertical axis begins at 0.00 and extends to 2.00 with markings every 0.25 units. Two vertical dashed lines are drawn. The first appears at about 400 nanometers and the second at nearly 700 nanometers. To the left of the first of these lines, the label, “U V,” appears at the top of the graph. Between these lines, the label, “Visible,” appears at the top of the graph. To the right of the second of these lines, the label, “Infrared,” appears at the top of the graph. A grey curve begins on the vertical axis at about 0.10. This curve increases steeply to a maximum value between the two vertical line segments of approximately 1.75 at about 625 nanometers. This curve decreases rapidly at first, then tapers off to reach a value of about 0 at the far right end of the graph. A golden colored curve traces along the same path as the grey curve, but shows a significant degree of variation in the region of the peak of the graph. In this general region, the gold curve is jagged and somewhat erratic. This curve reaches a maximum over 2.00 at around 475 nanometers. A key provided in the open space of the graph shows that the gold graph represents sunlight at the top of the atmosphere, and the grey curve represents the 5250 degrees C Blackbody spectrum.

Figure 1. The spectral distribution (light intensity vs. wavelength) of sunlight reaches the Earth’s atmosphere as UV light, visible light, and IR light. The unabsorbed sunlight at the top of the atmosphere has a distribution that approximately matches the theoretical distribution of a blackbody at 5250 °C, represented by the blue curve. (credit: modification of work by American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) Terrestrial Reference Spectra for Photovoltaic Performance Evaluation)

Blackbody Radiation and the Ultraviolet Catastrophe (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

The last few decades of the nineteenth century witnessed intense research activity in commercializing newly discovered electric lighting. This required obtaining a better understanding of the distributions of light emitted from various sources being considered. Artificial lighting is usually designed to mimic natural sunlight within the limitations of the underlying technology. Such lighting consists of a range of broadly distributed frequencies that form a continuous spectrum. Figure 1 shows the wavelength distribution for sunlight. The most intense radiation is in the visible region, with the intensity dropping off rapidly for shorter wavelength ultraviolet (UV) light, and more slowly for longer wavelength infrared (IR) light.

In Figure 1, the solar distribution is compared to a representative distribution, called a blackbody spectrum, that corresponds to a temperature of 5250 °C. The blackbody spectrum matches the solar spectrum quite well. A blackbody is a convenient, ideal emitter that approximates the behavior of many materials when heated. It is “ideal” in the same sense that an ideal gas is a convenient, simple representation of real gases that works well, provided that the pressure is not too high nor the temperature too low. A good approximation of a blackbody that can be used to observe blackbody radiation is a metal oven that can be heated to very high temperatures. The oven has a small hole allowing for the light being emitted within the oven to be observed with a spectrometer so that the wavelengths and their intensities can be measured. Figure 2 shows the resulting curves for some representative temperatures. Each distribution depends only on a single parameter: the temperature. The maxima in the blackbody curves, λmax, shift to shorter wavelengths as the temperature increases, reflecting the observation that metals being heated to high temperatures begin to glow a darker red that becomes brighter as the temperature increases, eventually becoming white hot at very high temperatures as the intensities of all of the visible wavelengths become appreciable. This common observation was at the heart of the first paradox that showed the fundamental limitations of classical physics that we will examine.

Physicists derived mathematical expressions for the blackbody curves using well-accepted concepts from the theories of classical mechanics and classical electromagnetism. The theoretical expressions as functions of temperature fit the observed experimental blackbody curves well at longer wavelengths, but showed significant discrepancies at shorter wavelengths. Not only did the theoretical curves not show a peak, they absurdly showed the intensity becoming infinitely large as the wavelength became smaller, which would imply that everyday objects at room temperature should be emitting large amounts of UV light. This became known as the “ultraviolet catastrophe” because no one could find any problems with the theoretical treatment that could lead to such unrealistic short-wavelength behavior. Finally, around 1900, Max Planck derived a theoretical expression for blackbody radiation that fit the experimental observations exactly (within experimental error). Planck developed his theoretical treatment by extending the earlier work that had been based on the premise that the atoms composing the oven vibrated at increasing frequencies (or decreasing wavelengths) as the temperature increased, with these vibrations being the source of the emitted electromagnetic radiation. But where the earlier treatments had allowed the vibrating atoms to have any energy values obtained from a continuous set of energies (perfectly reasonable, according to classical physics), Planck found that by restricting the vibrational energies to discrete values for each frequency, he could derive an expression for blackbody radiation that correctly had the intensity dropping rapidly for the short wavelengths in the UV region.

The quantity h is a constant now known as Planck’s constant, in his honor. Although Planck was pleased he had resolved the blackbody radiation paradox, he was disturbed that to do so, he needed to assume the vibrating atoms required quantized energies, which he was unable to explain. The value of Planck’s constant is very small, 6.626 ×× 10−34 joule seconds (J s), which helps explain why energy quantization had not been observed previously in macroscopic phenomena.

A graph is shown with a horizontal axis labeled, “Wavelength lambda (micrometers)” and a vertical axis labeled, “Intensity I (a r b. units).” The horizontal axis begins at 0 and extends to 3.0 with markings provided every 0.1 micrometer. Similarly, the vertical axis begins at 0 and extends to 10 with markings every 1 unit. Two vertical dashed lines are drawn. The first appears at about 0.39 micrometers and the second at about 0.72 micrometers. To the left of the first of these lines, the label, “Ultraviolet,” appears at the top of the graph. Between these lines, the label, “Visible,” appears at the top of the graph. To the right of the second of these lines, the label, “Infrared,” appears at the top of the graph. To the far right of the graph in open space a purple dot is placed which is labeled, “lambda maximum.” A “Temperature” label is located in a central region of the graph. A blue curve begins on the horizontal axis at about 0.05 micrometers. This curve increases steeply to a maximum value between the two vertical line segments of approximately 9.5 at about 0.55 micrometers. This curve decreases rapidly at first, then tapers off to reach a value of about 1.5 at the far right end of the graph. This blue curve is labeled 6000 K beneath the “Temperature” label. Curves are similarly drawn in green for 5000 K, orange for 4000 K, and red for 3000 K. As the temperature decreases, the height of the peak is lower and shifted right on the graph. The maximum value for the green curve is around 4.5 at 7.2 micrometers. This curve tapers at the right end of the graph to a value around 0.6. The maximum for the orange curve is around 2 at about 0.9 micrometers. This curve tapers at the right end of the graph to a value around 0.2. The maximum for the red curve is around 0.7 at about 1.2 micrometers. This curve tapers at the right end of the graph to a value around 0.1. The entire region under the blue curve that is between the two dashed lines, indicating the visible region, is shaded with vertical bands of color. The colors extending left to right across this region are violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. A purple dot is placed at the peak of each of the four colored curves. These peaks are connected with a dashed curve.
Figure 2. Blackbody spectral distribution curves are shown for some representative temperatures. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Related Research: Research Article: The Physical Mechanism for Retinal Discrete Dark Noise: Thermal Activation or Cellular Ultraweak Photon Emission?

Source:

Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/books/chemistry-2e

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