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Quantum Mechanics - Quantum Results

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Quantum mechanics requires advanced mathematics to give numerical predictions for the outcome of measurements. However, one can understand many significant results of the theory from the basic properties of the probability waves. An important example is the behavior of electrons within atoms. Since such electrons are confined in some manner, we expect that they must be represented by standing waves that correspond to a set of allowed frequencies. Quantum mechanics states that for this new type of wave, its frequency is proportional to the energy associated with the microscopic particle. Thus, we reach the conclusion that electrons within atoms can only exist in certain states, each of which corresponds to only one possible amount of energy. The energy of an electron in an atom is an example of an observable which is quantized, that is it comes in certain allowed amounts, called quanta (like quantities).

When an atom contains more than one electron, quantum mechanics predicts that two of the electrons both exist in the state with the lowest energy, called the ground state. The next eight electrons are in the state of the next highest energy, and so on following a specific relationship. This is the origin of the idea of electron "shells" or "orbits," although these are just convenient ways of talking about the states. The first shell is "filled" by two electrons, the second shell is filled by another eight, etc. This explains why some atoms try to combine with other atoms in chemical reactions.

This idea of electron states also explains why different atoms emit different colors of light when they are heated. Heating an object gives extra energy to the atoms inside it and this can transform an electron within an atom from one state to another of higher energy. The atom eventually loses the energy when the electron transforms back to the lower-energy state. Usually the extra energy is carried away in the form of light which we say was produced by the electron making a transition, or a change of its state. The difference in energy between the two states of the electron (before and after the transition) is the same for all atoms of the same kind. Thus, those atoms will always give off a wavelength and frequency of light (i.e., color) that corresponds to that energy. Another element's atomic structure contains electron states with different energies (since the electron is confined differently) and so the differing energy levels produce light in other regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Using this principle, scientists can determine which elements are present in stars by measuring the exact colors in the emitted light.

Quantum mechanics theory has been extremely successful in explaining a wide range of phenomena, including a description of how electrons move in materials (e.g., through chips in a personal computer). Quantum mechanics is also used to understand superconductivity, the decay of nuclei, and how lasers work.


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