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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: June 2018

1 - Preliminary Concepts

from Part I - Fundamental Principles


Atomic physics is the subject that studies the inner workings of the atom. It remains one of the most important testing grounds for quantum theory and is therefore a very active area of research, both for its contribution to fundamental physics and to technology. Furthermore, many other branches of science rely heavily on atomic physics, especially astrophysics, laser physics, solid-state physics, quantum information science, and chemistry. So much so, that Richard Feynman once wrote (1964):

If, in some cataclysm, all scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence you will see an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

The task of atomic physics is to understand the structure of atoms, and hence to explain experimental observations such as the wavelengths of spectral lines. For all elements apart from hydrogen, we have to deal with a complicated many-body problem consisting of a nucleus and more than one electron. Atomic physics proceeds by a series of approximations that make this problem tractable. Before we set about this task, it is first necessary to cover a number of important basic concepts and definitions.

Quantized Energy States in Atoms

The first basic concept we need is that of bound states. Atoms are held together by the attractive force between the positively charged nucleus and the negatively charged electrons: the electrons are bound to the atom, rather than being free to move though space. In the limit where the electron is very far away from the nucleus, the attractive force is negligible; the electron is free to move with velocity (v) without any influence from the nucleus, as illustrated schematically in Figure 1.1(a). It is natural to define the energy (E) of this free (or unbound) state as being zero when v = 0.