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Nobel-Vorlesung von Otto Stern - Ausschnitt
The method of molecular rays Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1946

Hinweis: Zur besseren Orientierung für Sie wurde der Text mit deutschen Begriffen strukturiert

Beschreibung der grundsätzlichen Methode:
In the following lecture I shall try to analyze the method of molecular rays. My aim is to bring out its distinctive features, the points where it is different from other methods used in physics, for what kind of problems it is especially suited and why. Let me state from the beginning that I consider the directness and simplicity as the distinguishing properties of the molecular ray method. For this reason it is particularly well suited for shedding light on fundamental problems. I hope to make this clear by discussing the actual experiments.
Let us first consider the group of experiments which prove directly the fundamental assumptions of the kinetic theory. The existence of molecular rays in itself, the possibility of producing molecular rays, is a direct proof of one fundamental assumption of that theory. This assumption is that in gases the molecules move in straight lines until they collide with other molecules or the walls of the containing vessel. The usual arrangement for producing molecular rays is as follows (Fig. 1)

Fig. I. Arrangement for producing molecular rays.

We have a vessel filled with gas or vapor, the oven. This vessel is closed except for a narrow slit, the oven slit. Through this slit the molecules escape into the surrounding larger vessel which is continually evacuated so that the escaping molecules do not suffer any collisions. Now we have another narrow slit, the collimating slit, opposite and parallel to the oven slit. If the molecules really move in straight lines then the collimating slit should cut out a narrow beam whose cross section by simple geometry can be calculated from the dimensions of the slits and their distance. That it is actually the case was proven first by Dunoyer in 1911. He used sodium vapor and condensed the beam molecules hitting the wall by cooling it with liquid air. The sodium deposit formed on the wall had exactly the shape calculated under the assumption that the molecules move in straight lines like rays of light. Therefore we call such a beam a "molecular ray" or "molecular beam".

The next step was the direct measurement of the velocity of the molecules. The kinetic theory gives quite definite numerical values for this velocity, depending on the temperature and the molecular weight. For example, for silver atoms of 1,000° the average velocity is about 600 m/sec (silver molecules are monoatomic). We measured the velocity in different ways.

One way - historically not the first one - was sending the molecular ray through a system of rotating tooth wheels, the method used by Fizeau to measure the velocity of light. We had two tooth wheels sitting on the same axis at a distance of several cm. When the wheels were at rest the molecular beam went through two corresponding gaps of the first and the second wheel. When the wheels rotated a molecule going through a gap in the first wheel could not go through the corresponding gap in the second wheel. The gap had moved during the time in which the molecule travelled from the first wheel to the second. However, under a certain condition the molecule could go through the next gap of the second wheel, the condition being that the travelling time for the molecule is just the time for the wheel to turn the distance between two neighboring gaps. By determining this time, that means the number of rotations per second for which the beam goes through both tooth wheels, we measure the velocity of the molecules. We found agreement with the theory with regard to the numerical values and to the velocity distribution according to Maxwell’s law. This method has the advantage of producing a beam of molecules with nearly uniform velocity. However, it is not very accurate.

As the last one in this group of experiments I want to report on experiments carried out in Pittsburgh by Drs. Estermann, Simpson, and myself before the War, which are now being published. In these experiments we used the free fall of molecules to measure their velocities. In vacuo all bodies, large and small, fall equal distances in equal times, s = ½ gt2 (t = time, s = distance of fall, g = acceleration of gravity). We used a beam of cesium atoms about 2 m long. Since the average velocity of the atoms is about 200 m/sec the travel time is about 1/100 sec. During this time a body falls not quite a mm. So our cesium atoms did not travel exactly on the straight horizontal line through oven and collimating slit but arrived a little lower depending on their velocity. The fast ones fell less, the slow ones more. So by measuring the intensity (the number of cesium atoms arriving per second) at the end of the beam perpendicular to it as a function of the distance from the straight line, we get directly the distribution of velocities (Fig. 2). As you see the agreement with Maxwell’s law is very good. I might mention that we measured the intensity not by condensation but by the socalled Taylor-Langmuir method worked out by Taylor in our Hamburg laboratory in 1928.

Fig. 2. Gravity deflection of a cesium beam. (Full line): calculated from Maxwell´s law; (points): measurements; (pecked line b): undeflected beam.

It is based on Langmuir´s discovery that every alkali atom striking the surface of a hot tungsten wire (eventually oxygen-coated) goes away as an ion. By measuring the ion current outgoing from the wire we measured directly the number of atoms striking the wire. What can we conclude about the method of molecular rays from the group of experiments we have considered so far? It gives us certainly a great satisfaction to demonstrate in such a simple direct manner the fundamentals of the kinetic theory. Furthermore, even if so many conclusions of the theory were checked by experiments that practically no reasonable doubt about the correctness of this part of the theory was possible, these experiments reinforced and strengthened the fundamentals beyond any doubt. I said this part of the theory. The classical theory is a grandiose conception. The same fundamental laws govern the movements of the stars, the fall of this piece of chalk, and the fall of molecules [...].

Mit der Molekularstrahlmethode und zusätzlichen Magnetfeldern konnte Stern zusammen mit Gerlach eine wesentliche Voraussage der Quantentheorie experimentell bestätigen (Stern-Gerlach-Experiment). Hierfür bekam er 1943 den Physik-Nobelpreis.

Die gesamte Nobelpreis-Vorlesung von Otto Stern findet sich hier: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1943/stern-lecture.pdf (engl)