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....

Spectra of thin gases

g / The spectrum of the light from the star Sirius. Photograph by the author.

A fact that was inexplicable by classical physics was that thin gases absorb and emit light only at certain wavelengths. This was observed both in earthbound laboratories and in the spectra of stars. Figure g shows the example of the spectrum of the star Sirius, in which there are "gap teeth" at certain wavelengths. Taking this spectrum as an example, we can give a straightforward explanation using quantum physics.

Energy is released in the dense interior of the star, but the outer layers of the star are thin, so the atoms are far apart and electrons are confined within individual atoms. Although their standing-wave patterns are not as simple as those of the particle in the box, their energies are quantized.

When a photon is on its way out through the outer layers, it can be absorbed by an electron in an atom, but only if the amount of energy it carries happens to be the right amount to kick the electron from one of the allowed energy levels to one of the higher levels. The photon energies that are missing from the spectrum are the ones that equal the difference in energy between two electron energy levels. (The most prominent of the absorption lines in Sirius's spectrum are absorption lines of the hydrogen atom.)

Last Update: 2009-06-21