Bohr and the breakaway from classical mechanics

One hundred years ago, Niels Bohr developed the Bohr model of the atom, where electrons go around a nucleus at the center like planets in the Solar System. The model and its implications brought a lot of clarity to the field of physics at a time when physicists didn’t know what was inside an atom, and how that influenced the things around it. For his work, Bohr was awarded the physics Nobel Prize in 1922.

The Bohr model marked a transition from the world of Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics, where gravity was the dominant force and values like mass and velocity were accurately measurable, to that of quantum mechanics, where objects were too small to be seen even with powerful instruments and their exact position didn’t matter.

Even though modern quantum mechanics is still under development, its origins can be traced to humanity’s first thinking of energy as being quantized and not randomly strewn about in nature, and the Bohr model was an important part of this thinking.

The Bohr model

According to the Dane, electrons orbiting the nucleus at different distances were at different energies, and an electron inside an atom – any atom – could only have specific energies. Thus, electrons could ascend or descend through these orbits by gaining or losing a certain quantum of energy, respectively. By allowing for such transitions, the model acknowledged a more discrete energy conservation policy in physics, and used it to explain many aspects of chemistry and chemical reactions.

Unfortunately, this model couldn’t evolve continuously to become its modern equivalent because it could properly explain only the hydrogen atom, and it couldn’t account for the Zeeman effect.

What is the Zeeman effect? When an electron jumps from a higher to a lower energy-level, it loses some energy. This can be charted using a “map” of energies like the electromagnetic spectrum, showing if the energy has been lost as infrared, UV, visible, radio, etc., radiation. In 1896, Dutch physicist Pieter Zeeman found that this map could be distorted when the energy was emitted in the presence of a magnetic field, leading to the effect named after him.

It was only in 1925 that the cause of this behavior was found (by Wolfgang Pauli, George Uhlenbeck and Samuel Goudsmit), attributed to a property of electrons called spin.

The Bohr model couldn’t explain spin or its effects. It wasn’t discarded for this shortcoming, however, because it had succeeded in explaining a lot more, such as the emission of light in lasers, an application developed on the basis of Bohr’s theories and still in use today.

The model was also important for being a tangible breakaway from the principles of classical mechanics, which were useless at explaining quantum mechanical effects in atoms. Physicists recognized this and insisted on building on what they had.

A way ahead

To this end, a German named Arnold Sommerfeld provided a generalization of Bohr’s model – a correction – to let it explain the Zeeman effect in ionized helium (which is a hydrogen atom with one proton and one neutron more).

In 1924, Louis de Broglie introduced particle-wave duality into quantum mechanics, invoking that matter at its simplest could be both particulate and wave-like. As such, he was able to verify Bohr’s model mathematically from a waves’ perspective. Before him, in 1905, Albert Einstein had postulated the existence of light-particles called photons but couldn’t explain how they could be related to heat waves emanating from a gas, a problem he solved using de Broglie’s logic.

All these developments reinforced the apparent validity of Bohr’s model. Simultaneously, new discoveries were emerging that continuously challenged its authority (and classical mechanics’, too): molecular rotation, ground-state energy, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Bose-Einstein statistics, etc. One option was to fall back to classical mechanics and rework quantum theory thereon. Another was to keep moving ahead in search of a solution.

However, this decision didn’t have to be taken because the field of physics itself had started to move ahead in different ways, ways which would become ultimately unified.

Leaps of faith

Between 1900 and 1925, there were a handful of people responsible for opening this floodgate to tide over the centuries old Newtonian laws. Perhaps the last among them was Niels Bohr; the first was Max Planck, who originated quantum theory when he was working on making light bulbs glow brighter. He found that the smallest bits of energy to be found in nature weren’t random, but actually came in specific amounts that he called quanta.

It is notable that when either of these men began working on their respective contributions to quantum mechanics, they took a leap of faith that couldn’t be spanned by purely scientific reasoning, as is the dominant process today, but by faith in philosophical reasoning and, simply, hope.

For example, Planck wasn’t fond of a class of mechanics he used to establish quantum mechanics. When asked about it, he said it was an “act of despair”, that he was “ready to sacrifice any of [his] previous convictions about physics”. Bohr, on the other hand, had relied on the intuitive philosophy of correspondence to conceive of his model. In fact, even before he had received his Nobel in 1922, Bohr had begun to deviate from his most eminent finding because it disagreed with what he thought were more important, and to be preserved, foundational ideas.

It was also through this philosophy of correspondence that the many theories were able to be unified over the course of time. According to it, a new theory should replicate the results of an older, well-established one in the domain where it worked.

Coming a full circle

Since humankind’s investigation into the nature of physics has proceeded from the large to the small, new attempts to investigate from the small to the large were likely to run into old theories. And when multiple new quantum theories were found to replicate the results of one classical theory, they could be translated between each other by corresponding through the old theory (thus the name).

Because the Bohr model could successfully explain how and why energy was emitted by electrons jumping orbits in the hydrogen atom, it had a domain of applicability. So, it couldn’t be entirely wrong and would have to correspond in some way with another, possibly more successful, theory.

Earlier, in 1924, de Broglie’s formulation was suffering from its own inability to explain certain wave-like phenomena in particulate matter. Then, in 1926, Erwin Schrodinger built on it and, like Sommerfeld did with Bohr’s ideas, generalized them so that they could apply in experimental quantum mechanics. The end result was the famous Schrodinger’s equation.

The Sommerfeld-Bohr theory corresponds with the equation, and this is where it comes “full circle”. After the equation became well known, the Bohr model was finally understood as being a semi-classical approximation of the Schrodinger equation. In other words, the model represented some of the simplest corrections to be made to classical mechanics for it to become quantum in any way.

An ingenious span

After this, the Bohr model was, rather became, a fully integrable part of the foundational ancestry of modern quantum mechanics. While its significance in the field today is great yet still one of many like it, by itself it had a special place in history: a bridge, between the older classical thinking and the newer quantum thinking.

Even philosophically speaking, Niels Bohr and his pathbreaking work were important because they planted the seeds of ingenuity in our minds, and led us to think outside of convention.

This article, as written by me, originally appeared in The Copernican science blog on May 19, 2013.