Blackbody Radiation and the Ultraviolet Catastrophe

The last few decades of the nineteenth century witnessed intense research activity in commercializing newly discovered electric lighting. This required obtaining a better understanding of the distributions of light emitted from various sources being considered. Artificial lighting is usually designed to mimic natural sunlight within the limitations of the underlying technology. Such lighting consists of a range of broadly distributed frequencies that form a continuous spectrum. Figure 1 shows the wavelength distribution for sunlight. The most intense radiation is in the visible region, with the intensity dropping off rapidly for shorter wavelength ultraviolet (UV) light, and more slowly for longer wavelength infrared (IR) light.

The spectral distribution (light intensity vs. wavelength) of sunlight reaches the Earth’s atmosphere as UV light, visible light, and IR light. The unabsorbed sunlight at the top of the atmosphere has a distribution that approximately matches the theoretical distribution of a blackbody at 5250 °C, represented by the blue curve. (credit: modification of work by American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) Terrestrial Reference Spectra for Photovoltaic Performance Evaluation)

In Figure 1, the solar distribution is compared to a representative distribution, called a blackbody spectrum, that corresponds to a temperature of 5250 °C. The blackbody spectrum matches the solar spectrum quite well. A blackbody is a convenient, ideal emitter that approximates the behavior of many materials when heated. It is “ideal” in the same sense that an ideal gas is a convenient, simple representation of real gases that works well, provided that the pressure is not too high nor the temperature too low. A good approximation of a blackbody that can be used to observe blackbody radiation is a metal oven that can be heated to very high temperatures. The oven has a small hole allowing for the light being emitted within the oven to be observed with a spectrometer so that the wavelengths and their intensities can be measured. Figure 2 shows the resulting curves for some representative temperatures. Each distribution depends only on a single parameter: the temperature. The maxima in the blackbody curves, λmax, shift to shorter wavelengths as the temperature increases, reflecting the observation that metals being heated to high temperatures begin to glow a darker red that becomes brighter as the temperature increases, eventually becoming white hot at very high temperatures as the intensities of all of the visible wavelengths become appreciable. This common observation was at the heart of the first paradox that showed the fundamental limitations of classical physics that we will examine.

Physicists derived mathematical expressions for the blackbody curves using well-accepted concepts from the theories of classical mechanics and classical electromagnetism. The theoretical expressions as functions of temperature fit the observed experimental blackbody curves well at longer wavelengths, but showed significant discrepancies at shorter wavelengths. Not only did the theoretical curves not show a peak, they absurdly showed the intensity becoming infinitely large as the wavelength became smaller, which would imply that everyday objects at room temperature should be emitting large amounts of UV light. This became known as the “ultraviolet catastrophe” because no one could find any problems with the theoretical treatment that could lead to such unrealistic short-wavelength behavior. Finally, around 1900, Max Planck derived a theoretical expression for blackbody radiation that fit the experimental observations exactly (within experimental error). Planck developed his theoretical treatment by extending the earlier work that had been based on the premise that the atoms composing the oven vibrated at increasing frequencies (or decreasing wavelengths) as the temperature increased, with these vibrations being the source of the emitted electromagnetic radiation. But where the earlier treatments had allowed the vibrating atoms to have any energy values obtained from a continuous set of energies (perfectly reasonable, according to classical physics), Planck found that by restricting the vibrational energies to discrete values for each frequency, he could derive an expression for blackbody radiation that correctly had the intensity dropping rapidly for the short wavelengths in the UV region.

$$E\;=\;nhν,\quad n\;= \; 1, \; 2, \; 3, \, . \, . \, .$$

The quantity h is a constant now known as Planck’s constant, in his honor. Although Planck was pleased he had resolved the blackbody radiation paradox, he was disturbed that to do so, he needed to assume the vibrating atoms required quantized energies, which he was unable to explain. The value of Planck’s constant is very small, 6.626 × 10−34 joule seconds (J s), which helps explain why energy quantization had not been observed previously in macroscopic phenomena.

Blackbody spectral distribution curves are shown for some representative temperatures.