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Quantum Mechanics

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Higgs Force: The Dreams that Stuff is Made Of

The French 19th century philosopher Auguste Comte believed that there were certain facts that would always remain beyond the reach of human knowledge. One example chosen by Comte to illustrate this ultimate human ignorance was the chemical composition of the stars. This must have seemed quite reasonable at the time when Comte was writing, but his scepticism was soon to be proved completely wrong. Comte died in 1857. Just two years later a whole new world of chemistry was opened up by a sensational discovery made by two German scientists Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff. An ecstatic Bunsen excitedly reported to a colleague:

“At present Kirchhoff and I are engaged in a common work which doesn’t let us sleep ... Kirchhoff has made a wonderful, entirely unexpected discovery in finding the cause of the dark lines in the solar spectrum.... thus a means has been found to determine the composition of the sun and fixed stars with the same accuracy as we determine sulfuric acid, chlorine, etc., with our chemical reagents. Substances on the earth can be determined by this method just as easily as on the sun, so that, for example, I have been able to detect lithium in twenty grams of sea water.”

Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee

Bunsen and Kirchhoff had discovered a unique fingerprint for each chemical element that would allow them to track down its presence throughout the universe. This technique became an invaluable tool for the chemists of the 19th century, but no-one could explain its physical origin. The solution to this puzzle would require the development of quantum mechanics, the biggest revolution in physics in the 250 years since the publication of Newton’s Principia. And that is the story of this chapter.

Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee

The electrons in atoms behave like waves, so the ancient idea of the music of the spheres provides a much better metaphor for the properties of atoms than for the orbits of the planets as the classical philosophers had supposed. This fact was used by the pioneers of quantum theory to produce a triumphant explanation of the origin of Mendeleev’s periodicity of the elements. But this was just the start ....

Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee

Quantum mechanics gave theorists the mathematical weapons to take on a whole range of physical problems for the first time. Quantum mechanics was applied everywhere. To give just a few examples: it became possible to understand how atoms bonded together to form molecules and how chemical reactions occurred, the properties of crystals and other types of solids could be analysed at the atomic level, the structure of the atomic nucleus and the origin of radioactivity became explicable and, as we will see in a later chapter, it became possible to explain how stars are able to shine for billions of years.

Much of our everyday modern technology is dependent on the principles of quantum mechanics for its operation. And we are set to become ever more dependent on gadgets that utilise mysterious quantum phenomena.

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