IB DP Physics : Topic 12. Quantum and Nuclear Physics : 12.1 The interaction of matter with radiation : Study Notes

12.1 The interaction of matter with radiation

Essential Idea:
The microscopic quantum world offers a range of phenomena, the interpretation and explanation of which require new ideas and concepts not found in the
classical world.


  • Photons
  • The photoelectric effect
  • Matter waves
  • Pair production and pair annihilation
  • Quantization of angular momentum in the Bohr model for hydrogen
  • The wave function
  • The uncertainty principle for energy and time and position and momentum
  • Tunnelling, potential barrier and factors affecting tunnelling probability

Applications and Skills:

  • Discussing the photoelectric effect experiment and explaining which features of the experiment cannot be explained by the classical wave theory of light
  • Solving photoelectric problems both graphically and algebraically
  • Discussing experimental evidence for matter waves, including an experiment in which the wave nature of electrons is evident
  • Stating order of magnitude estimates from the uncertainty principle

Data booklet reference:

The Interaction of Matter with Radiation

The photoelectric effect

  • Definition: Phenomenon in which light (or other forms of electromagnetic radiation) incident on a metallic surface causes electron to be emitted from the surface.
  • Experiment: Evacuated tube, with a metallic photo-surface (), in which light passes through a small opening and causes electrons to be ejected. These electrons are collected by a collecting surface C

  • Since the collecting plate is connected to the negative terminal of the power supply, it will repel normally repel electrons and only absorb the energetic ones.​
  • As the voltage is made more negative, there is a point at which the current ceases, called stopping voltage/potential \(\mathbf{V}_{\mathbf{s}}\)

**Tip: **The  \(\mathbf{I – V}\) graph will change if the frequency of the light is increased. Each photon will have more energy, and hence, the stopping potential will be greater. The saturation current will depend upon the intensity of the light, but in the case of two lights with the same intensity, the saturation current for the higher frequency will be less. This follows logically from the photon nature of light: Same current means the same amount of electrons (charge-carriers) per second, but higher frequency means that electrons have more energy. Less photons per second means that fewer electrons are emitted, and so, smaller saturation current.


  1. The intensity of the incident light neither affects the kinetic energy or the stopping voltage, solely the number of electrons emitted.
  2. The frequency of light influences the emitted electrons’ energy.
  3. Electrons are emitted without a time delay.
  4. There is a minimum/threshold frequency,\(\mathbf{\text{fc}}\), below which no electrons are emitted.

If light was only a wave

  1. Intense beams, which have more energy, should cause the emissions of electrons with higher kinetic energy.
  2. Frequency should play a role in the energy of electrons
  3. Low intensity beams should cause a time delay, since energy would need to accumulate before the emission of an electron.

Einstein’s explanation​: Light consists of photons, which are quanta or bundles of energy and momentum.

  • Photon’s energy: 
    \(\mathbf{E\ = \ hf\ = \ hc/\lambda}\)
  • Planck’s constant 
    \(\mathbf{= \ h\ = \ 6.63 \times 1}\mathbf{0}^{\mathbf{- 34}}\)
  • **Photoelectric effect: **Single photon of frequency  is absorbed by a single electron in the photo-surface, so the electron’s energy increases by  \(\text{hf}\). The electron will spend Ф  Joules, called the work function, to free itself.
  • **Electron’s kinetic energy (after emission): **

Matter (or “de Broglie”) Waves

As suggested by de Broglie, to any particle of momentum p, there corresponds a wave of wavelength given by the formula  , something known as the duality of matter.

  • **Electron diffraction: **Electrons shot through or to a thin slice of crystal have a low probability of reaching a place where the path difference is not an integer number of wavelengths (constructive and destructive interference).
    • , they gain kinetic energy. Hence, we have 
  • Davisson-Germer experiment verifies de Broglie hypothesis.

The Bohr Model

Model proposed by Niels Bohr to interpret the scattering of alpha particles, which states that electrons are found at orbitals: fixed multiples of angular momentum that can be represented as a wave function.​

  • Electrons in any atom have a definite/discrete energy (which explains the emission and absorption spectra).​​​
    • Energy levels = electron wave = standing wave, since there is no energy transfer in standing waves​
    • Hydrogen atom: Energy is given by , where  is the principal quantum number and represents the  energy level.

Hydrogen atom’s electrons

  • **Angular momentum (mvr): **A vector product of the momentum of a particle and the radius of its orbit, of an electron in a stationary state is an integral value of  Hence, we have
  • Assumptions: ​
    • Electrons in an atom exist in stationary states, without emitting any electromagnetic radiation.
    • Electrons may move from one stationary state to another by absorbing or emitting a quantum of electromagnetic radiation, with difference in energy between stationary states given by 
  • Limitations Bohr’s Model failed to explain:
    • Why some energy transitions are more likely to occur than others
    • Predict behavior of other elements
    • Explain behaviors theoretically

Schrödinger’s equation (wave function)

Describes the quantum state of the particles, where the square of the amplitude of the wave function ** **is proportional to the probability per unit volume of finding the particle at a distance r from the nucleus​

  • **Copenhagen interpretation: **For double-slit interference, the wave function is considered to be such that a single photon or electron passes through both slits and be everywhere on the screen until it is observed or measured.
    • Nothing is real unless it is observed. When observed, the wave function collapses.

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle

It is impossible to simultaneously measure the position and momentum of a particle with indefinite precision. The same applies to energy and time

  • **Uncertainty in position and momentum: **
    • Example: ​Since we know the wavelength of the electron and momentum and wavelength are related by is infinite. Single-slit diffraction: The uncertainty in position for beam going through a hole of diameter b is approximately  . When the opening is approximately of the same order as the de Broglie wavelength of the electrons, the wave will diffract.
  •  Uncertainty in energy and time: ∆E∆t ≥ h/4π (where  is half the difference between the excited state and the ground state)
    • Useful to estimate the lifetime of an electron in excited state
  • **Single-slit diffraction: **The uncertainty in position for beam going through a hole of diameter b is approximately 
    . When the opening is approximately of the same order as the de Broglie wavelength of the electrons, the wave will diffract
    • **Formula: **
  • **Electron in a box: **If an electron is confined to a region of length L where it can only move back and forth, the uncertainty in position is 
    , and thus, .
    • Kinetic energy

Pair production and annihilation

  • Pair production: close to an atomic nucleus, where the electric field is very strong, a photon with minimum energy given by 
     can produce a particle and its anti-particle (e.g.  and ), where   is the rest mass.
    • The atomic nucleus helps conserving energy and momentum.​
    • Any excess energy (above  ) will be converted into kinetic energy of the particles

  • **Pair annihilation: **when a particle collides with its anti-particle, producing 2 photons
    • When​ they move in the opposite directions, the total energy of the system is 
       and the photons will travel in opposite direction.

**Quantum Tunneling **

  • **Tunneling: **A particle can effectively “borrow” energy from its surroundings, pass through a barrier and pay the energy back
  • The energy required to go through a potential barrier is due to the uncertainty principle less than 

  • The wave function is continuous despite the fact that the particle requires more energy to “jump” the barrier, which is borrowed from surroundings
  • Energy level remains unchanged after barrier, but the amplitude decreases since it is proportional to
  • In order to increase 
    , one may reduce:
    • The mass  of the particles ​
    • The width  of the barrier
    • The difference  between the energy barrier and that of the particles
  • Responsible for the relatively low temperature fusion that occurs in the Sun and useful in scanning tunneling microscopes (STM).


Nuclear Physics

Rutherford Scattering

Simple energy considerations can be used to calculate the distance of closest approach of an alpha-particle.

  • If the alpha-particle initially has kinetic energy upon approaching, when it stops close to the nucleus due to the electrostatic repulsion, the electrical potential energy of the alpha particle will , where   is the atom’s proton number.
  • An alpha-particle approaching with high kinetic energy will get closer to the nuclear (closest = nuclear radius).​​
  • \(\mathbf{R\ = \ }\mathbf{R}_{\mathbf{0}}\mathbf{A}^{\mathbf{1/3}}\) is the radius,  is the Fermi radius ( \(1.2 \times 10^{- 15}\text{\ m}\)) and   is the mass number.
    • All nuclei have the same density, and so their volume is given by 
      \(\mathbf{V\ = \ 4/3\ \pi}\mathbf{R}^{\mathbf{3}}\mathbf{\ = \ 4/3\ \pi A}{\mathbf{R}_{\mathbf{0}}}^{\mathbf{3}}.\)

  • Derivations from Rutherford scattering: When the alpha-particles have very high kinetic energy, and thus, the distance of closest approach is equal or less than \(10^{- 15}m\), deviations are observed, which is an evidence of the existence of the strong nuclear force, i.e. they are absorbed.

Electron diffraction

If the de Broglie wavelength ​** **of the electrons is about the same as the nuclear diameter , then a minimum will be formed at . **Useful **to measure nuclear radius.

  • More accurate than Rutherford scattering, because strong force does not affect electrons.
  • When electrons of much higher energy are used, the collisions are no longer elastic and energy is converted into mass, as several mesons are emitted from the nucleus
  • At high energies,** **the electrons penetrate into the nucleus and scatter off the quarks within protons and neutrons, something known as deep inelastic scattering, providing evidence for the quark model.

Nuclear energy levels

The emission of alpha and beta particles by radioactive decay often leaves the **daughter nuclei in an excited discrete energy state **(similar to electron energy levels). The state depends on the energy of the alpha or beta particle.​

Alpha decay

Alpha-particles form as clusters of two protons and two neutros inside the nucleus well before they are emitted as alpha-particles. This is because the nucleons are in random motion within the nucleus but their kinetic energies are much smaller than those needed to escape.

  • The wave function │Ψ│ of the alpha-particles is not localized to the nucleus and allows overlaps with the potential energy barrier provided by the strong nuclear force, which means that there is a finite but very small probability of observing the alpha-particles outside the nucleus (thanks to quantum tunneling).
  • Higher potential barriers and greater thickness to cross means a longer lifetime (e.g. polonium).

Negative beta decay

Since the beta particles have a continuous energy spectrum, in order to conserve mass, energy, and momentum, the existence of the neutrino was suggested by Pauli (and later anti-neutrino)

The law of radioactive decay

  • Decay constant (): The probability that an individual nucleus will decay in a given time interval (e.g.)
  • Units:\(s^{- 1},\ min^{- 1},\ hour^{- 1},\ day^{- 1}\text{…\!}\)
  • Relationship with half-life: 
  • Activity (): ​Number of nuclei decaying in a second in a sample
  • Units: becquerel (Bq)​
  • In a sample of  undecayed nuclei, the activity will be given by  ​.
  • Formulas: 
    \(\mathbf{N\ = \ }\mathbf{N}_{\mathbf{0}}\mathbf{e}^{\mathbf{- \lambda t}}\mathbf{;\ A\ = \ }\mathbf{A}_{\mathbf{0}}\mathbf{e}^{\mathbf{- \lambda t}}\mathbf{;\ A\ = \ \lambda}\mathbf{N}_{\mathbf{0}}\mathbf{e}^{\mathbf{- \lambda t}}\)

     where \(\mathbf{A}_{\mathbf{0}}\mathbf{\ = \ \lambda}\mathbf{N}_{\mathbf{0}}\) is the initial activity.

  • **Measuring long half-lives: **Not possible to measure using a G-M tube. In these cases, a pure sample of the nuclide in a known chemical form needs to be separated, its mass measured and then a count rate taken. From this reading, the activity can be calculated by multiplying the count rate by the ratio

Leave a Reply