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The Ultraviolet Catastrophe

The first crack in the edifice of classical physics came with attempts to explain the colour of hot objects using classical physics and electromagnetism. The light from these objects is a mixture of different frequencies (colours). Observations reveal that such objects have a distinctive spectrum (pattern of energy distribution at different frequencies). However attempts to explain this in classical terms failed abjectly - they predicted instead that the amount of energy would tend towards infinity at the high-energy (violet) end of the spectrum - an ultraviolet catastrophe.

Enter Max Planck. In 1900 he suggested that physics should abandon the assumption that electromagnetic energy is continuous and wavelike. If, instead, energy can only be absorbed and emitted in discrete packets (or quanta), theory can be made to fit observations exactly. However, while his suggestion certainly gave the right answer, its abandonment of a cherished assumption of classical physics gave it an air of contrivance that led to its relative neglect for several years.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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