ATOMS – Ernst Rutherford, Electron Orbits, Atomic Spectra, Spectral series, BOHR MODEL OF THE HYDROGEN ATOM, Niels Henrik David Bohr, ORBIT VS STATE (ORBITAL PICTURE) OF ELECTRON IN ATOM,  FRANCK – HERTZ EXPERIMENT and Laser Light (NCERT 12TH PHYSICS)

By the nineteenth century, enough evidence had accumulated in favour of atomic hypothesis of matter. In 1897, the experiments on electric discharge through gases carried out by the English physicist J. J. Thomson (1856 – 1940) revealed that atoms of different elements contain negatively charged constituents (electrons) that are identical for all atoms. However, atoms on a whole are electrically neutral. Therefore, an atom must also contain some positive charge to neutralise the negative charge of the electrons. But what is the arrangement of the positive charge and the electrons inside the atom? In other words, what is the structure of an atom?

The first model of atom was proposed by J. J. Thomson in 1898. According to this model, the positive charge of the atom is uniformly distributed throughout the volume of the atom and the negatively charged electrons are embedded in it like seeds in a watermelon. This model was picturesquely called plum pudding model of the atom. However subsequent studies on atoms, as described in this chapter, showed that the distribution of the electrons and positive charges are very different from that proposed in this model.

We know that condensed matter (solids and liquids) and dense gases at all temperatures emit electromagnetic radiation in which a continuous distribution of several wavelengths is present, though with different intensities. This radiation is considered to be due to oscillations of atoms and molecules, governed by the interaction of each atom or molecule with its neighbours. In contrast, light emitted from rarefied gases heated in a flame, or excited electrically in a glow tube such as the familiar neon sign or mercury vapour light has only certain discrete wavelengths. The spectrum appears as a series of bright lines. In such gases, the average spacing between atoms is large. Hence, the radiation emitted can be considered due to individual atoms rather than because of interactions between atoms or molecules. In the early nineteenth century it was also established that each element is associated with a characteristic spectrum of radiation, for example, hydrogen always gives a set of lines with fixed relative position between the lines. This fact suggested an intimate relationship between the internal structure of an atom and the spectrum of radiation emitted by it. In 1885, Johann Jakob Balmer (1825 – 1898) obtained a simple empirical formula which gave the wavelengths of a group of lines emitted by atomic hydrogen. Since hydrogen is simplest of the elements known, we shall consider its spectrum in detail in this chapter.

Ernst Rutherford (1871–1937), a former research student of J. J. Thomson, was engaged in experiments on a-particles emitted by some radioactive elements. In 1906, he proposed a classic experiment of scattering of these a-particles by atoms to investigate the atomic structure. This experiment was later performed around 1911 by Hans Geiger (1882–1945) and Ernst Marsden (1889–1970, who was 20 year-old student and had not yet earned his bachelor’s degree). The explanation of the results led to the birth of Rutherford’s planetary model of atom (also called the nuclear model of the atom). According to this the entire positive charge and most of the mass of the atom is concentrated in a small volume called the nucleus with electrons revolving around the nucleus just as planets revolve around the sun. Rutherford’s nuclear model was a major step towards how we see the atom today. However, it could not explain why atoms emit light of only discrete wavelengths. How could an atom as simple as hydrogen, consisting of a single electron and a single proton, emit a complex spectrum of specific wavelengths? In the classical picture of an atom, the electron revolves round the nucleus much like the way a planet revolves round the sun. However, we shall see that there are  some serious difficulties in accepting such a model.

Ernst Rutherford

Ernst Rutherford (1871 – 1937) New Zealand born, British physicist who did pioneering work on radioactive radiation. He discovered alpha-rays and beta-rays. Along with Federick Soddy, he created the modern theory of radioactivity. He studied the ‘emanation’ of thorium and discovered a new noble gas, an isotope of radon, now known as thoron. By scattering alpha-rays from the metal foils, he discovered the atomic nucleus and proposed the plenatery model of the atom. He also estimated the approximate size of the nucleus.

Electron orbits

The Rutherford nuclear model of the atom which involves classical concepts, pictures the atom as an electrically neutral sphere consisting of a very small, massive and positively charged nucleus at the centre surrounded by the revolving electrons in their respective dynamically stable orbits. The electrostatic force of attraction, Fe between the revolving electrons and the nucleus provides the requisite centripetal force (Fc ) to keep them in their orbits.


Each element has a characteristic spectrum of radiation, which it emits. When an atomic gas or vapour is excited at low pressure, usually by passing an electric current through it, the emitted radiation has a spectrum which contains certain specific wavelengths only. A spectrum of this kind is termed as emission line spectrum and it consists of bright lines on a dark background. The spectrum emitted by atomic hydrogen. Study of emission line spectra of a material can therefore serve as a type of “fingerprint” for identification of the gas. When white light passes through a gas and we analyse the transmitted light using a  spectrometer we find some dark lines in the spectrum. These dark lines correspond precisely to those wavelengths which were found in the emission line spectrum of the gas. This is called the absorption spectrum of the material of the gas.

Spectral series

We might expect that the frequencies of the light emitted by a particular element would exhibit some regular pattern. Hydrogen is the simplest atom and therefore, has the simplest spectrum. In the observed spectrum, however, at first sight, there does not seem to be any resemblance of order or regularity in spectral lines. But the spacing between lines within certain sets of the hydrogen spectrum decreases in a regular way. Each of these sets is called a spectral series. In 1885, the first such series was observed by a Swedish school teacher Johann Jakob Balmer (1825–1898) in the visible region of the hydrogen spectrum. This series is called Balmer series


The model of the atom proposed by Rutherford assumes that the atom, consisting of a central nucleus and revolving electron is stable much like sun-planet system which the model imitates. However, there are some fundamental differences between the two situations. While the planetary system is held by gravitational force, the nucleus-electron system being charged objects, interact by Coulomb’s Law of force. We know that an object which moves in a circle is being constantly accelerated – the acceleration being centripetal in nature.

According to classical electromagnetic theory, an accelerating charged particle emits radiation in the form of electromagnetic waves. The energy of an accelerating electron should therefore, continuously decrease. The electron would spiral inward and eventually fall into the nucleus. Thus, such an atom can not be stable.

Further, according to the classical electromagnetic theory, the frequency of the electromagnetic waves emitted by the revolving electrons is equal to the frequency of revolution. As the electrons spiral inwards, their angular velocities and hence their frequencies would change continuously, and so will the frequency of the light emitted. Thus, they would emit a continuous spectrum, in contradiction to the line spectrum actually observed. Clearly Rutherford model tells only a part of the story implying that the classical ideas are not sufficient to explain the atomic structure.

It was Niels Bohr (1885 – 1962) who made certain modifications in this model by adding the ideas of the newly developing quantum hypothesis. Niels Bohr studied in Rutherford’s laboratory for several months in 1912 and he was convinced about the validity of Rutherford nuclear model. Faced with the dilemma as discussed above, Bohr, in 1913, concluded that in spite of the success of  electromagnetic theory in explaining large-scale phenomena, it could not be applied to the processes at the atomic scale. It became clear that a fairly radical departure from the established principles of classical mechanics and  electromagnetism would be needed to understand the structure of atoms and the relation of atomic structure to atomic spectra. Bohr combined classical and early quantum concepts and gave his theory in the form of three postulates.

These are :

(i) Bohr’s first postulate was that an electron in an atom could revolve in certain stable orbits without the emission of radiant energy, contrary to the predictions of electromagnetic theory. According to this postulate, each atom has certain definite stable states in which it can exist, and each possible state has definite total energy. These are called the stationary states of the atom.

Niels Henrik David Bohr

Niels Henrik David Bohr (1885 – 1962) Danish physicist who explained the spectrum of hydrogen atom based on quantum ideas. He gave a theory of nuclear fission based on the liquiddrop model of nucleus. Bohr contributed to the clarification of conceptual problems in quantum mechanics, in particular by proposing the complementary principle.


We are introduced to the Bohr Model of atom one time or the other in the course of physics. This model has its place in the history of quantum mechanics and particularly in explaining the structure of an atom. It has become a milestone since Bohr introduced the revolutionary idea of definite energy orbits for the electrons, contrary to the classical picture requiring an accelerating particle to radiate. Bohr also introduced the idea of quantisation of angular momentum of electrons moving in definite orbits. Thus it was a semi-classical picture of the structure of atom.

Now with the development of quantum mechanics, we have a better understanding of the structure of atom. Solutions of the Schrödinger wave equation assign a wave-like description to the electrons bound in an atom due to attractive forces of the protons. An orbit of the electron in the Bohr model is the circular path of motion of an electron around the nucleus. But according to quantum mechanics, we cannot associate a definite path with the motion of the electrons in an atom. We can only talk about the probability of finding an electron in a certain region of space around the nucleus. This probability can be inferred from the one-electron wave function called the orbital. This function depends only on the coordinates of the electron. It is therefore essential that we understand the subtle differences that exist in the two models:

l Bohr model is valid for only one-electron atoms/ions; an energy value, assigned to each orbit, depends on the principal quantum number n in this model. We know that energy associated with a stationary state of an electron depends on n only, for one-electron atoms/ions. For a multi-electron atom/ion, this is not true.

l The solution of the Schrödinger wave equation, obtained for hydrogen-like atoms/ions, called the wave function, gives information about the probability of finding an electron in various regions around the nucleus. This orbital has no resemblance whatsoever with the orbit defined for an electron in the Bohr model.


The existence of discrete energy levels in an atom was directly verified in 1914 by James Franck and Gustav Hertz. They studied the spectrum of mercury vapour when electrons having different kinetic energies passed through the vapour. The electron energy was varied by subjecting the electrons to electric fields of varying strength. The electrons collide with the mercury atoms and can transfer energy to the mercury atoms. This can only happen when the energy of the electron is higher than the energy difference between an energy level of Hg occupied by an electron and a higher unoccupied level.

For instance, the difference between an occupied energy level of Hg and a higher unoccupied level is 4.9 eV. If an electron of having an energy of 4.9 eV or more passes through mercury, an electron in mercury atom can absorb energy from the bombarding electron and get excited to the higher level [Fig (a)]. The colliding electron’s kinetic energy would reduce by this amount.


Imagine a crowded market place or a railway platform with people entering a gate and going towards all directions. Their footsteps are random and there is no phase correlation between them. On the other hand, think of a large number of soldiers in a regulated march. Their footsteps are very well correlated. See figure here. This is similar to the difference between light emitted by an ordinary source like a candle or a bulb and that emitted by a laser. The acronym LASER stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Since its development in 1960, it has entered into all areas of science and technology. It has found applications in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, surgery, engineering, etc. There are low power lasers, with a power of 0.5 mW, called pencil lasers, which serve as pointers. There are also lasers of different power, suitable for delicate surgery of eye or glands in the stomach. Finally, there are lasers which can cut or weld steel. Light is emitted from a source in the form of packets of waves. Light coming out from an ordinary source contains a mixture of many wavelengths.

There is also no phase relation between the various waves. Therefore, such light, even if it is passed through an aperture, spreads very fast and the beam size increases rapidly with distance. In the case of laser light, the wavelength of each packet is almost the same. Also the average length of the packet of waves is much larger. This means that there is better phase correlation over a longer duration of time. This results in reducing the divergence of a laser beam substantially.

If there are N atoms in a source, each emitting light with intensity I, then the total intensity produced by an ordinary source is proportional to NI, whereas in a laser source, it is proportional to N2I. Considering that N is very large, we see that the light from a laser can be much stronger than that from an ordinary source.

When astronauts of the Apollo missions visited the moon, they placed a mirror on its surface, facing the earth. Then scientists on the earth sent a strong laser beam, which was reflected by the mirror on the moon and received back on the earth. The size of the reflected laser beam and the time taken for the round trip were measured. This allowed a very accurate determination of (a) the extremely small divergence of a laser beam and (b) the distance of the moon from the earth.

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