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....

The stability of atoms

In many Star Trek episodes the Enterprise, in orbit around a planet, suddenly lost engine power and began spiraling down toward the planet's surface. This was utter nonsense, of course, due to conservation of energy: the ship had no way of getting rid of energy, so it did not need the engines to replenish it.

Consider, however, the electron in an atom as it orbits the nucleus. The electron does have a way to release energy: it has an acceleration due to its continuously changing direction of motion, and according to classical physics, any accelerating charged particle emits electromagnetic waves. According to classical physics, atoms should collapse!

The solution lies in the observation that a bound state has a minimum energy. An electron in one of the higher-energy atomic states can and does emit photons and hop down step by step in energy. But once it is in the ground state, it cannot emit a photon because there is no lowerenergy state for it to go to.

Last Update: 2009-06-21