“Published in a series of three papers in the summer and fall of 1913, Niels Bohr’s seminal atomic theory revolutionized physicists’ conception of matter; to this day it is presented in high school and undergraduate-level textbooks.”I find Bohr’s model fascinating for several reasons: 1) it was the first application of quantum ideas to atom structure, 2) it predicts the size of the atom, 3) it implies discrete atomic energy levels, 4) it explains the hydrogen spectrum in terms of transitions between energy levels, and 5) it provides an expression for the Rydberg constant in terms of fundamental parameters. In his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes discusses the background leading to Bohr’s discovery.

“Johann Balmer, a nineteenth-century Swiss mathematical physicist, identified in 1885 … a formula for calculating the wavelengths of the spectral lines of hydrogen…A Swedish spectroscopist, Johannes Rydberg, went Balmer one better and published in 1890 a general formula valid for a great many different line spectra. The Balmer formula then became a special case of the more general Rydberg equation, which was built around a number called the Rydberg constant [In chapter 14 of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, Russ Hobbie and I discuss the Bohr model, but interestingly we do not attribute the model to Bohr. However, at other locations in the book, we casually refer to Bohr’s model by name: see Problem 33 of Chapter 15 where we mention “Bohr orbits,” and Sections 15.9 and 16.1.1 where we refer to the “Bohr formula.” I guess we assumed that everyone knows what the Bohr model is (a pretty safe assumption for readers of IPMB). In Problem 4 of Chapter 14 (one of the new homework problems in the 4th edition), the reader is asked to derive the expression for the Rydberg constant in terms of fundamental parameters (you don't get exactly the same answer as in the quote above; presumably Rhodes didn't use SI units).R]. That number, subsequently derived by experiment and one of the most accurately known of all universal constants, takes the precise modern value of 109,677 cm^{-1}.

Bohr would have known these formulae and numbers from undergraduate physics, especially since Christensen [Bohr’s doctorate advisor] was an admirer of Rydberg and had thoroughly studied his work. But spectroscopy was far from Bohr’s field and he presumably had forgotten them. He sought out his old friend and classmate, Hans Haansen, a physicist and student of spectroscopy just returned from Gottingen. Hansen reviewed the regularity of the line spectra with him. Bohr looked up the numbers. ‘As soon as I saw Balmer’s formula,’ he said afterward, ‘the whole thing was immediately clear to me.’

What was immediately clear was the relationship between his orbiting electrons and the lines of spectral light….The lines of the Balmer series turn out to be exactly the energies of the photons that the hydrogen electron emits when it jumps down from orbit to orbit to its ground state. Then, sensationally, with the simple formulaR=2π^{2}me^{4}/h^{3}(wheremis the mass of the electron,ethe electron charge andhPlanck’s constant—all fundamental numbers, not arbitrary numbers Bohr made up) Bohr produced Rydberg’s constant, calculating it within 7 percent of its experimentally measured value!...”

Bohr would become one the principle figures in the development of modern quantum mechanics. He also made fundamental contributions to nuclear physics, and contributed to the Manhattan project. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 “for his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them.” He is Denmark’s most famous scientist, and for years he led the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen. A famous play, titled “Copenhagen” is about his meeting with former collaborator Werner Heisenberg in then-Nazi-controlled Denmark in 1941. Watch the BBC production of this play on youtube here.

Physicists around the world are celebrating this 100-year anniversary; for instance here, here, here and here.

I end with Bohr’s own words: an excerpt from the introduction of his first 1913 paper (references removed).

“In order to explain the results of experiments on scattering of α rays by matter Prof. Rutherford has given a theory of the structure of atoms. According to this theory, the atoms consist of a positively charged nucleus surrounded by a system of electrons kept together by attractive forces from the nucleus; the total negative charge of the electrons is equal to the positive charge of the nucleus. Further, the nucleus is assumed to be the seat of the essential part of the mass of the atom, and to have linear dimensions exceedingly small compared with the linear dimensions of the whole atom. The number of electrons in an atom is deduced to be approximately equal to half the atomic weight. Great interest is to be attributed to this atom-model; for, as Rutherford has shown, the assumption of the existence of nuclei, as those in question, seems to be necessary in order to account for the results of the experiments on large angle scattering of the α rays.

In an attempt to explain some of the properties of matter on the basis of this atom-model we meet however, with difficulties of a serious nature arising from the apparent instability of the system of electrons: difficulties purposely avoided in atom-models previously considered, for instance, in the one proposed by Sir J. J. Thomson. According to the theory of the latter the atom consists of a sphere of uniform positive electrification, inside which the electrons move in circular orbits. The principal difference between the atom-models proposed by Thomson and Rutherford consists in the circumstance the forces acting on the electrons in the atom-model of Thomson allow of certain configurations and motions of the electrons for which the system is in a stable equilibrium; such configurations, however, apparently do not exist for the second atom-model. The nature of the difference in question will perhaps be most clearly seen by noticing that among the quantities characterizing the first atom a quantity appears -- the radius of the positive sphere -- of dimensions of a length and of the same order of magnitude as the linear extension of the atom, while such a length does not appear among the quantities characterizing the second atom, viz. the charges and masses of the electrons and the positive nucleus; nor can it be determined solely by help of the latter quantities.

The way of considering a problem of this kind has, however, undergone essential alterations in recent years owing to the development of the theory of the energy radiation, and the direct affirmation of the new assumptions introduced in this theory, found by experiments on very different phenomena such as specific heats, photoelectric effect, Röntgen [etc]. The result of the discussion of these questions seems to be a general acknowledgment of the inadequacy of the classical electrodynamics in describing the behaviour of systems of atomic size. Whatever the alteration in the laws of motion of the electrons may be, it seems necessary to introduce in the laws in question a quantity foreign to the classical electrodynamics, i. e. Planck's constant, or as it often is called the elementary quantum of action. By the introduction of this quantity the question of the stable configuration of the electrons in the atoms is essentially changed as this constant is of such dimensions and magnitude that it, together with the mass and charge of the particles, can determine a length of the order of magnitude required. This paper is an attempt to show that the application of the above ideas to Rutherford's atom-model affords a basis for a theory of the constitution of atoms. It will further be shown that from this theory we are led to a theory of the constitution of molecules.

In the present first part of the paper the mechanism of the binding of electrons by a positive nucleus is discussed in relation to Planck's theory. It will be shown that it is possible from the point of view taken to account in a simple way for the law of the line spectrum of hydrogen. Further, reasons are given for a principal hypothesis on which the considerations contained in the following parts are based.

I wish here to express my thanks to Prof. Rutherford his kind and encouraging interest in this work.”

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