The Wave Nature of Matter
That's how most scientists felt about the Bohr model when it was first proposed. In 1923,
about ten years after Bohr published his results, Louis de Broglie came up with a
fascinating idea to explain them: matter, he suggested, actually consists of waves.
Oh, yeah? Explain how thinking of matter as waves can answer my questions about the Bohr model.
Gladly. First of all, it gives a very nice reason why an electron can only be in
certain orbits. What de Broglie did was to assume that any particle--an electron, an atom,
a bowling ball, whatever--had a "wavelength" that was equal to
Planck's constant divided by its momentum...
And why would one assume such a thing? I thought we were going to get away from
all these out-of-the-blue assumptions.
Photons don't have mass, but they do have energy--and as Einstein famously proved, mass
and energy are really the same thing. So photons have momentum--but what exactly is a
photon? For centuries, a heated debate went on as to whether light is made up of
particles or waves. In some experiments, like Young's
double slit experiment, light clearly showed
itself to be a wave, but other phenomena, such as the
photoelectric effect, demonstrated equally clearly that light was a particle.
And that's why you've been talking sometimes about "electromagnetic waves" and sometimes
about "photons," which seem more like particles.
That's right. Now, de Broglie's idea was that maybe it's not just light that has this dual
personality; maybe it's everything.
All right...let's say I accept this idea. How does it explain Bohr's energy levels?
If we begin to think of electrons as waves, we'll have to change our whole concept of what
an "orbit" is. Instead of having a little particle whizzing around the nucleus in a
circular path, we'd have a wave sort of strung out around the whole circle. Now, the only
way such a wave could exist is if a whole number of its wavelengths fit exactly around the
circle. If the circumference is exactly as long as two wavelengths, say, or three or four
or five, that's great, but two and a half won't cut it.
So there could only be orbits of certain sizes, depending on the electrons' wavelengths
--which depend on their momentum.
Exactly. And if you do the algebra--set the wavelength equal to the circumference of a
circle--you'll get precisely the condition that Bohr used: an electron's angular momentum
must be an integer multiple of h bar.
I'm impressed; that works out so nicely. But is this just some mathematical trick that
happens to work, or do particles actually behave like waves sometimes?
They actually behave like waves; just a few years after de Broglie published his hypothesis,
several experiments were
done proving that electrons really do display wavelike properties.
So how come when I look at a bowling ball, I don't notice it acting in a wavelike manner?
You said that everything is affected by wave/particle duality.
Think about what the wavelength of the bowling ball would be. According to de Broglie, the
wavelength is equal to Planck's constant divided by the object's momentum; Planck's
constant is very, very, very tiny, and the momentum of a bowling ball, relatively speaking,
is huge. If you had abowling ball with a mass of, say, one kilogram, moving at one meter
per second, its wavelength would be about a septillionth of a nanometer. This is so
ridiculously small compared to the size of the bowling ball itself that you'd never notice
any wavelike stuff going on; that's why we can generally ignore the effects of quantum
mechanics when we're talking about everyday objects. It's only at the molecular or atomic
level that the waves begin to be large enough (compared to the size of an atom) to have a
If electrons are waves, then it kind of makes sense that they don't give off or
absorb photons unless they change energy levels. If it stays in the same energy level, the
wave isn't really orbiting or "vibrating" the way an electron does in Rutherford's model,
so there's no reason for it to emit any radiation. And if it drops to a lower energy level...
let's see, the wavelength would be longer, which means the frequency would decrease, so the
electron would have less energy. Then it makes sense that the extra energy would have to go
someplace, so it would escape as a photon--and the opposite would happen if a photon came
in with the right amount of energy to bump the electron up to a higher level.
Very good! Now we can look at how Schrödinger extended de Broglie's idea of waves
into a whole new model for the atom...