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6: Photons and Matter Waves

In this chapter, you will learn about the energy quantum, a concept that was introduced in 1900 by the German physicist Max Planck to explain blackbody radiation. We discuss how Albert Einstein extended Planck’s concept to a quantum of light (a “photon”) to explain the photoelectric effect. We also show how American physicist Arthur H. Compton used the photon concept in 1923 to explain wavelength shifts observed in X-rays. After a discussion of Bohr’s model of hydrogen, we describe how matter waves were postulated in 1924 by Louis-Victor de Broglie to justify Bohr’s model and we examine the experiments conducted in 1923–1927 by Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer that confirmed the existence of de Broglie’s matter waves.

  • 6.0: Prelude to Photons and Matter Waves
    Two of the most revolutionary concepts of the twentieth century were the description of light as a collection of particles, and the treatment of particles as waves. These wave properties of matter have led to the discovery of technologies such as electron microscopy, which allows us to examine submicroscopic objects such as grains of pollen, as shown above.
  • 6.1: Blackbody Radiation
    All bodies radiate energy. The amount of radiation a body emits depends on its temperature. The experimental Wien’s displacement law states that the hotter the body, the shorter the wavelength corresponding to the emission peak in the radiation curve. The experimental Stefan’s law states that the total power of radiation emitted across the entire spectrum of wavelengths at a given temperature is proportional to the fourth power of the Kelvin temperature of the radiating body.
  • 6.2: Photoelectric Effect
    The photoelectric effect occurs when photoelectrons are ejected from a metal surface in response to monochromatic radiation incident on the surface. It has three characteristics: (1) it is instantaneous, (2) it occurs only when the radiation is above a cut-off frequency, and (3) kinetic energies of photoelectrons at the surface do not depend of the intensity of radiation. The photoelectric effect cannot be explained by classical theory.
  • 6.3: The Compton Effect
    The Compton effect is the term used for an unusual result observed when X-rays are scattered on some materials. By classical theory, when an electromagnetic wave is scattered off atoms, the wavelength of the scattered radiation is expected to be the same as the wavelength of the incident radiation. Contrary to this prediction of classical physics, observations show that when X-rays are scattered off some materials, such as graphite, the scattered X-rays have different wavelengths from the wavele
  • 6.4: Bohr’s Model of the Hydrogen Atom
    Classical physics cannot explain the spectrum of atomic hydrogen. The Bohr model of hydrogen was the first model of atomic structure to correctly explain the radiation spectra of atomic hydrogen. It was preceded by the Rutherford nuclear model of the atom. In Rutherford’s model, an atom consists of a positively charged point-like nucleus that contains almost the entire mass of the atom and of negative electrons that are located far away from the nucleus.
  • 6.5: De Broglie’s Matter Waves
    According to de Broglie’s hypothesis, massless photons as well as massive particles must satisfy one common set of relations that connect the energy E with the frequency f, and the linear momentum p with the wavelength λ
  • 6.6: Wave-Particle Duality
    Wave-particle duality exists in nature: Under some experimental conditions, a particle acts as a particle; under other experimental conditions, a particle acts as a wave. Conversely, under some physical circumstances, electromagnetic radiation acts as a wave, and under other physical circumstances, radiation acts as a beam of photons. Modern-era double-slit experiments with electrons demonstrated conclusively that electron-diffraction images are formed because of the wave nature of electrons.
  • 6.A: Photons and Matter Waves Page Title (Answer)
  • 6.E: Photons and Matter Waves (Exercise)
  • 6.S: Photons and Matter Waves (Summary)

Thumbnails: An experimental setup to study the photoelectric effect. The anode and cathode are enclosed in an evacuated glass tube. The voltmeter measures the electric potential difference between the electrodes, and the ammeter measures the photocurrent. The incident radiation is monochromatic.


  • Samuel J. Ling (Truman State University), Jeff Sanny (Loyola Marymount University), and Bill Moebs with many contributing authors. This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).