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Marcela Reyna

Modern Physics


0. Introduction
A blackbody is a body of any shape that absorbs all electromagnetic radiation. Through
this paper I hope to accomplish an introduction on radiation and electromagnetic waves,
define and detail a blackbody and describe the origins of quantized radiation.

1. Radiation & Electromagnetic Waves

Radiation is the transfer of heat by electromagnetic waves. All objects at a finite temper-
ature emit radiation. When an electric charge moves, it generates a magnetic field. The
magnetic field then induces an electric field. When the electric field and magnetic field
are oscillating at the same frequency, electromagnetic waves are produced (Maxwell's
Equations). Therefore any charged particle that moves with acceleration will emit elec-
tromagnetic radiation. The electric and magnetic fields are always perpendicular to one
another. Together, they form an electromagnetic wave.

Illustration 1: Electromagnetic Wave with Electric Field

and Magnetic Field Components

Electromagnetic waves are light and have various wavelengths and frequencies. The
wavelength and frequency are proportional to one another and given a wavelength or
frequency, you can determine its classification within the electromagnetic spectrum. No
matter whether the light is a radio wave or visible light, the speed remains 3.0x108 m/s.
Electromagnetic waves can travel through vacuum. This is because electromagnetic
waves do not need a medium to propagate through, unlike sound waves which use air
as a medium. Because electromagnetic waves do not need a medium to travel, we are
able to see the light emitted from stars even after that light has traveled billions of miles
through the vacuum of space.
Marcela Reyna
Modern Physics

Illustration 2: Electromagnetic Spectrum

Every body emits electromagnetic radiation. At ordinary temperatures (below 600 de-
grees Celsius) the radiations emitted contains wavelengths that fall within the infrared
range. However, when temperature increases, the wavelengths become shorter which
shifts its range in the electromagnetic spectrum to visible light. From the figure above
we see that the visible light color closest to infrared is red. As a result, we often hear the
terms “red-hot” and “white-hot”. These terms are also associated with stars such as “red
giant” and “white dwarf” which carry the same meanings previously described. What this
means is that red giants emit electromagnetic radiation of longer wavelengths and white
dwarves emit electromagnetic radiation of shorter wavelengths, and therefore a white
dwarf will be hotter than a red giant.

2. Body and Blackbody Defined

When electromagnetic radiation enters a body, part is absorbed and part is reflected.
The body which the radiation falls on is made up of atoms and molecules. These atoms
and molecules contain charges, electric fields and magnetic fields. When the radiation
falls on the body, it causes the atoms to to oscillate about their equilibrium positions.
This process increases the temperature of the body (the definition of temperature is the
average translational kinetic energy of the body’s atoms); therefore, with the atoms os-
cillating, the kinetic energy increases and temperature increases. The increase in the
atoms’ kinetic energy results in electromagnetic radiation being emitted by those atoms
of the body. Electromagnetic theory states electric field and magnetic field disturbances
cause electromagnetic radiation (see the Radiation and Electromagnetic Waves section
of this paper). This in turn reduces the kinetic energy of the oscillations, then the tem-
perature of the body begins to cool. When the rate of absorption equals the rate of
emission, this is called thermal equilibrium. Electromagnetic radiation emitted under
these circumstances is called thermal radiation.

By definition, an ideal blackbody absorbs all radiation that falls on its surface. Actual
blackbodies do not exist in nature (because any material found in nature is not going to
fully absorb, and will always reflect a tiny bit of radiation); however, their characteristics
Marcela Reyna
Modern Physics

can be approximated by the following statement: “The best practical realization of an

ideal blackbody is a small hole leading into a cavity”, such as the figure below depicts.
Ideally all radiation is absorbed within the cavity walls before it can escape.

Illustration 3: Ideal Black-


Blackbodies absorb all light and therefore reflect no light. Because of this, the body ap-
pears black when its temperature is low enough (not self-luminous). Bodies which are
not blackbodies are called gray bodies and contain emissivity coefficients which do not
exceed unity (1). Emissivity is defined as “a dimensionless number between 0 and 1, it
represents the ratio of the rate of radiation from a particular surface at the same temper-
ature”. And Kirchoff's Law Reads “The ratio of the emissivity (ε) and the absorptivity (α)
of a body does not depend on the nature of the body and equals the emissivity of a
black body for a given wavelength and temperature”.

Because blackbodies absorb everything, their absorptivity is maximum, making black-

bodies the most intense sources of radiation in thermal equilibrium.

Within the University Physics and Modern Physics texts there are two equations which
were derived empirically (through experiment), both represent the relationship between
Power, Surface Area and Temperature of a blackbody. From the University Physics text
there is the equation:

H = A * e * σ * T4 (Eq 1)

Where H is the heat current or Power, A is the Area, σ is the Stefan-Boltzmann constant
which is equal to 5.670400(40) x 10-8 W/m2 · K4, T is the absolute temperature in Kelvin
and e is the emissivity. The Stefan-Boltzmann constant relates energy (at the particle
level) to temperature and is calculated by taking R (universal gas constant, R =
8.314472(15) J · K−1 · mol−1 ) divided by Avogadro's Number.

From the Modern Physics text we have equation

R = σ * T4 (Eq 2)

Where R is the power/surface area, σ is again the Stefan-Boltzmann constant and T is

again the absolute temperature. This equation is given for a blackbody and not a gray
Marcela Reyna
Modern Physics

body. However if we set emissivity to 1 for Eq 1, then divide by A on both sides of Eq 1

then recall that power is work done per unit time (transmitted energy) and heat current
is the amount of heat per unit time, and we know heat is the the flow of energy, then
both H/A and R are equivalent. Therefore Eq 1 and Eq 2 are equivalent.

Given this equation which represents the rate of radiation, we can see that the rate in-
creases very rapidly with a large temperature (because temperature is raised to the
fourth power) and that the rate of energy radiation from the surface is proportional to the
surface area. Smaller area, higher rate of radiation; similarly, larger area, lower rate of

Once again, we can think of the red giant and white dwarf. Because the electromagnetic
radiation emitted for a white dwarf has a shorter wavelength, we know the white dwarf is
hotter than a red giant. White dwarves are also smaller in size than red giants. This
agrees with the the statement “smaller area, higher rate of radiation” and therefore
agrees with Equations 1 and 2.

3. Origins of Quantized Radiation

Quantum mechanics is the study of mechanical systems with extremely small dimen-
sions ( i.e molecules, electrons, protons). Quantum mechanics provides an accurate de-
scription of blackbody radiation and its energy distribution function which classically ap-
proaches infinity (infinite energy) for small wavelengths. Blackbody radiation was unin-
tentionally used to prove that radiation is quantized/discrete when Planck reluctantly dis-
covered a solution for the ultraviolet catastrophe.

Just like Eq 1, a blackbody's spectral distribution of the radiation emitted was also de-
rived empirically and depends on temperature only. The experiment which determines
the spectral distribution is performed as follows: radiation emitted by the blackbody
passes through a slit where the light is then dispersed by passing through a prism. The
results can be plotted on a graph of R λ d(λ) versus the wavelength where R λ d(λ) is
power emitted per unit area with wavelength between λ and λ + d(λ)

R λ versus d(λ) (from figure below) shows that the wavelength at which the distribution
is maximum varies inversely with the temperature.

The maximum wavelength (λ) is proportional to 1/T. This is called Wien’s displacement

λ sub max * T = constant = 2.898 X 10-3 mK (Eq 3)

This equation shows that spectral distributions with a larger max wavelength have a
cooler temperature and vice versa (spectral distributions with a shorter max wavelength
have a hotter temperature). But despite the max wavelength and its corresponding pro-
portional temperature, its product always equals the same constant of 2.898 X 10-3 mK.
Marcela Reyna
Modern Physics

To determine the spectral distribution of the power radiated per unit area, the energy
density is needed as well.

R=1/4 * c * U (Eq 4)

Where R is the power radiated per unit area, U is the energy density and c/4 is the pro-
portionality constant (where c is the speed of light). This equation shows that the power
radiated out of the cavity is proportional to the total energy density U (energy per unit

R(λ) = 1/4 * c * u(λ) (Eq 5)

Where R(λ) is the spectral distribution of the power emitted from the hole and u(λ) is the
energy distribution function. R(λ) and u(λ) are related to one another as shown by Eq 5
in a similar fashion as Eq 4.

Rayleigh, among others, calculated the energy distribution function classically by “find-
ing the number of modes of oscillation of the electromagnetic field in the cavity with
wavelengths in the interval d λ and multiplying by the average energy per mode”, giving
the following equation.

n(λ) = 8 * π * λ-4 (Eq 6)

Where n(λ) is the number of modes of oscillation per unit volume.

Marcela Reyna
Modern Physics

Oscillating atoms/electric charges produce the electromagnetic radiation within the cavi-
ty which vibrates like a simple harmonic oscillator. The average energy for a simple har-
monic oscillator is calculated classically from the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution func-

f(E)= Ae^(-E/kT) (Eq 7)

Where A is a constant and f(E) is the fraction of the oscillators with energy equal to E.
And the average energy E bar is:

E bar = kT

Rayleigh then plugged the average energy per mode of oscillation equation into the en-
ergy distribution function which resulted in the Rayleigh-Jean Law.

u(λ) = kTn(λ) = 8*π *k*T* λ-4 (Eq 8: Rayleigh-Jeans law)

For long wavelengths Rayleigh-Jean’s Law works and agrees with experimental results
but fails for short wavelengths. It fails because Rayleigh-Jean’s Law predicts that the
energy density function approaches infinity as the wavelength approaches zero, but ex-
periments show when the wavelength approaches zero (gets very small) the energy
density function also approaches zero. This particular conflict in calculation and experi-
ment is called the ultraviolet catastrophe.

Because this was the first time these classical calculations failed, many physicists, in-
cluding Planck, attempted to re-derive each the number of modes of oscillation and av-
erage energy per mode equations. Planck derived a new energy distribution function
that would agree with experimental data and noted that as the wavelength approaches
zero in the cavity, the number of modes of oscillation approaches infinity (same classi-
cally and agrees experimentally). It turned out that the classical average energy per
mode equation (kinetic theory) was responsible for the inconsistencies between calcula-
tion and experiment.

Planck proposed that a system undergoing simple harmonic motion with a frequency v
can only have specific energies when he realized that he could derive his equation
when assuming the energy emitted was a discrete variable (0, ε, 2* ε,...n, where n is an
integer and ε is proportional to the frequency of the oscillators/ radiation )

E = n * ε = nhv

where n = 0, 1, 2,...

and h is Planck's constant. Planck's constant is a link between energy of the quanta
(discrete unit of energy) radiation and the frequency. The energy is proportional to the
frequency and seems to be emitted in small discrete chunks (quanta) of Planck's con-
stant: 6.626 * 10-34 J*s.
Marcela Reyna
Modern Physics

Thus, Planck derived a correct energy distribution function of radiation in a cavity which
is called “Planck's Law”

u(λ) = (8 * π * h * c * λ-5)/(e^[(hc)/( λ * k * T)] – 1)

Even though Planck is credited for being the father of Quantum Mechanics, many peo-
ple disagree because just like other physicists during Planck's time, he was reluctant to
truly accept his solution and the probabilistic nature of his results. Later, Einstein built
upon Planck's results when writing his paper on special relativity.

4. Conclusion
Blackbodies have been an important topic within physics because of their contributions
to quantum mechanics because, through the exploration and understanding of black-
bodies, radiation was proved to be quantized. Today we see blackbody applications
within astrophysics. Stars and even the universe are often treated as blackbodies and
support the Big Bang theory.

5. Sources
University Physics 11th edition, Young and Freedman Pages 670, 1474, 1477
Modern Physics 4th edition, Tipler and Llewellyn Pages132-140