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....

Emission and absorption of light waves by atoms

In a very thin gas, the atoms are sufficiently far apart that they can act as individual vibrating systems. Although the vibrations are of a very strange and abstract type described by the theory of quantum mechanics, they nevertheless obey the same basic rules as ordinary mechanical vibrations. When a thin gas made of a certain element is heated, it emits light waves with certain specific frequencies, which are like a fingerprint of that element. As with all other vibrations, these atomic vibrations respond most strongly to a driving force that matches their own natural frequency. Thus if we have a relatively cold gas with light waves of various frequencies passing through it, the gas will absorb light at precisely those frequencies at which it would emit light if heated.

Last Update: 2009-06-21