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Calculating the Lamb shift


The Lamb shift
Hans Bethe Scientist
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Another great influence was Willis Lamb, who had done experiments using the newly developed microwave technique, he had done experiments on excited states of hydrogen, in particular, the first excited state of principle quantum number two. According to Dirac Theory, it should have a... two... fine structure consisting of two levels. One involving an S-electron... no, one having a total spin of one half and the other having a spin of three halves. And the Dirac's theory gave us the exact formula for this... the separation of these two states. So Lamb was able to verify that by microwaves. But he found in addition that there really three states, not two, that there were two states of spin one half, one having orbital momentum zero and the other, orbital momentum one, called, in spectroscopy, an S-state and a P-state. According to Dirac theory, they should coincide. But they didn't. And Lamb not only showed us that they didn't, but they... he also measured how much they differed in energy. They differed by about an energy corresponding to a frequency of 1000MHz, that is, a 1000 million cycles per second. And that is known as the Lamb Shift. Now, there had been vague inklings of that in spectroscopy before, but the resolution of optical spectroscopy was not good enough to make sure. And Lamb's experiment made it perfectly clear that these were two completely separate states, that one was an S-state and one a P-state.

The late German-American physicist Hans Bethe once described himself as the H-bomb's midwife. He left Nazi Germany in 1933, after which he helped develop the first atomic bomb, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 for his contribution to the theory of nuclear reactions, advocated tighter controls over nuclear weapons and campaigned vigorously for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Lamb shift, Shelter Island Conference, Dirac equation, Willis Lamb

Duration: 2 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008