The Discovery of the Higgs Boson: Week 2 Review Light Bulbs and Railroad Schedules

The second week of the FutureLearn course “The Discovery of the Higgs Boson” looks at physics of the 20th century–special relativity and quantum mechanics. These two branches of physics represented a fundamental shift in the way we view the world.

It may come as a surprise to some that these deep philosophical shifts have very unexpected origins. Our view of a quantized world came from the need to create a more efficient light bulb while the connection between space and time came from our need to run a more efficient railroad network and international time conventions.

Need for a more efficient light-bulb

Philipp Lenard

Hungarian physicist Philipp Lenard, discoverer of the photoelectric effect in 1902.

In 1902, Hungarian physicist, Philipp Lenard, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Physics for cathode rays, observed that the energy of individual emitted electrons increased with light frequency–the photoelectric effect. This appeared to be at odds with Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism which predicted that an electron’s kinetic energy should be proportional to light intensity. In 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper that explained the experimental data from the photoelectric effect. Based on Max Plank’s theory of black body radiation Einstein postulated that light energy was being carried in discreet quantized packets.

In 1894, German theoretical physicist Max Planck was commissioned by the German Bureau of Standards with the task of creating more efficient light-bulbs. To do so, Planck needed to find one that would emit as much visible light as possible with very little to no infra-red and untra-violet light. Planck knew from experiments at when an object is heated, it emits radiation in the form of black-body radiation. Planck turned his attention to this problem.

Black Body Radiation


Black body curves for various temperatures and comparison with classical theory of Rayleigh-Jeans. As the temperature decreases, the peak of the black-body radiation curve moves to lower intensities and longer wavelengths.

“Blackbody radiation” or “cavity radiation” is the characteristic radiation that a body emits when heated. This is seen in the form of a curve which peaks at a characteristic temperature where most of the radiation is emitted. Experiments showed that as the temperature changes, so too does the emitted radiation. When the wave picture of light was applied to this problem, it failed to predict the observed intensity for any given temperature.

Planck made several attempts to understand this problem. His first proposed solution in 1899 based on the entropy of an ideal oscillator, in what he called the “principle of elementary disorder”, failed to predict experimental observations. Planck revised his approach in 1900 using Boltzmann statistics to gain a more fundamental understanding of black-body radiation. This approach worked but Planck held an aversion towards statistical mechanics. He was also deeply suspicious of the philosophical and physical implications of its interpretation. His recourse was, as he later put it, “an act of despair… I was ready to sacrifice any of my previous convictions about physics.”

The central assumption behind his third attempt was the hypothesis, now known as the Planck postulate, that electromagnetic energy could only be emitted in quantized form. Planck didn’t think much of this method, regarding it as a mere trick. We know now that assumption is regarded as the birth of quantum mechanics. Try as he might, Planck struggled to grasp the meaning of energy quanta, going so far as to reject Einstein’s hypothesis and explanation of Lenard’s photoelectric effect. He was unwilling to completely discard Maxwell’s theory of electrodynamics.

Not everyone was convinced by Einstein’s hypothesis either, even after it was experimentally verified by Robert Millikan in 1914. Many physicists were reluctant to believe that electromagnetic radiation could be particulate in nature. Instead, it was believed that the observed energy quantization was the result of some constraint of matter and the way that it absorbs and emits radiation. It wasn’t until Compton’s experiments showed that light cannot be purely be explained as a wave that the idea of light quanta was accepted.

Train Schedules and Time Zones

The first passenger carriage in Europe, 1830, George Stephenson´s steam locomotive, Liverpool and Manchester Railway

The first passenger carriage in Europe, 1830, George Stephenson´s steam locomotive, Liverpool and Manchester Railway

The mid to late-19th century saw considerable and rapid improvements in transportation, communication and technology. One of these inventions, the steam locomotive, not only changed the way goods and people traveled but also the way we view time. Products could be moved more cheaply and much faster.

Before the invention of clocks, people marked the time of the day with apparent solar time or by noting the sun’s position in the sky. Local time was different for each town and settlement. With the invention of well regulated mechanical clocks, cities used local mean solar time. As clocks differed between towns by an amount corresponding to the difference in geographic longitude–a variation of four minutes for every degree of longitude–communication between towns and rail transport became awkward. The time difference between Bristol and London, for example, a difference of 2°35′ longitude, is about 10 minutes while the difference between New York and Boston is about two degrees or 8 minutes.

25-0621E.6LTime keeping on American railroads was even more confusing. Each railroad had their own standard of time time, usually based on the local time of its headquarters or main terminus. Each railroad schedule was published using the company’s own time and stations had a clock for each railroad, each showing a different time.

Non-uniform time zones weren’t just confusing. It was dangerous. The incidents of accidents and near-misses became more frequent as more people started using trains for travel. What was needed was a means to know exactly where trains were at all times. The use of time zones solves this problem and with it came the need to synchronize clocks at a distance.

It’s not surprising that many of Einstein’s though experiments concerns trains. As a young patent clerk, many of the inventions he reviewed focused on using light signals to synchronize clocks. Einstein took it a step further and realized that clocks moving with respect to each other would not tick at the same rate.

Physics students are familiar with Einstien’s Gedankenexperiments and that the power of abstract thought can allow one to fully visualize the consequences of an experiment without having to actually perform said experiment. Far from being esoteric examples, Einstein’s thought experiments are firmly grounded in reality and shares its origins in something as simple as a train schedule.

The Higgs Boson Course

In one of the course’s lectures, Peter Higgs says that when he teaches undergraduates special relativity, he ignores the way that Einstein did it and asks, “how do you realize the principle of relativity, which was what was formulated by Henri Poincare?” To do this, you have to abandon Newton’s assumption of absolute time. Peter Higgs is correct, the development of special relativity need not have had anything to do with the Michelson-Morley experiment. In Einstein’s case, it came about from the practical need to synchronize clocks.

The second week of the course builds on the previous week. Though the concepts are quite literally mind-blowing, the ideas and mathematics were conveyed in a way that makes it easy for students to grasp. The third week looks even more exciting as we combine both special relativity and quantum mechanics to make much deeper predictions about our world.

The Discovery of the Higgs Boson: Week 2 Review - Light Bulbs and Railroad Schedules
A look at the history of the discovery of special relativity and quantum mechanics in the "The Discovery of the Higgs Boson" course.

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