Planck Constant - Origins - Photoelectric Effect

Photoelectric Effect

The photoelectric effect is the emission of electrons (called "photoelectrons") from a surface when light is shone on it. It was first observed by Alexandre Edmond Becquerel in 1839, although credit is usually reserved for Heinrich Hertz, who published the first thorough investigation in 1887. Another particularly thorough investigation was published by Philipp Lenard in 1902. Einstein's 1905 paper discussing the effect in terms of light quanta would earn him the Nobel Prize in 1921, when his predictions had been confirmed by the experimental work of Robert Andrews Millikan. The Nobel committee awarded the prize for his work on the photo-electric effect, rather than relativity, both because of a bias against purely theoretical physics not grounded in discovery or experiment, and dissent amongst its members as to the actual proof that relativity was real.

Prior to Einstein's paper, electromagnetic radiation such as visible light was considered to behave as a wave: hence the use of the terms "frequency" and "wavelength" to characterise different types of radiation. The energy transferred by a wave in a given time is called its intensity. The light from a theatre spotlight is more intense than the light from a domestic lightbulb; that is to say that the spotlight gives out more energy per unit time (and hence consumes more electricity) than the ordinary bulb, even though the colour of the light might be very similar. Other waves, such as sound or the waves crashing against a seafront, also have their own intensity. However the energy account of the photoelectric effect didn't seem to agree with the wave description of light.

The "photoelectrons" emitted as a result of the photoelectric effect have a certain kinetic energy, which can be measured. This kinetic energy (for each photoelectron) is independent of the intensity of the light, but depends linearly on the frequency; and if the frequency is too low (corresponding to a kinetic energy for the photoelectrons of zero or less), no photoelectrons are emitted at all, unless a plurality of photons, whose energetic sum is greater than the energy of the photoelectrons, acts virtually simultaneously (multiphoton effect) Assuming the frequency is high enough to cause the photoelectric effect, a rise in intensity of the light source causes more photoelectrons to be emitted with the same kinetic energy, rather than the same number of photoelectrons to be emitted with higher kinetic energy.

Einstein's explanation for these observations was that light itself is quantized; that the energy of light is not transferred continuously as in a classical wave, but only in small "packets" or quanta. The size of these "packets" of energy, which would later be named photons, was to be the same as Planck's "energy element", giving the modern version of Planck's relation:

Einstein's postulate was later proven experimentally: the constant of proportionality between the frequency of incident light (ν) and the kinetic energy of photoelectrons (E) was shown to be equal to the Planck constant (h).

Read more about this topic:  Planck Constant, Origins

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