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Name: Matthew Johnson
Status: N/A
Age: N/A
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Date: 1999 

Hi, I am Matthew Johnson from West Chicago High School. Why is the electron given the quantum spin of +1/2 or -1/2? Is this number arbitrary or is the 1/2 a value of "something?"

An excellent question. Indeed it does...and its interpretation is not trivial at all. A short answer is the following; atomic orbitals have integer amounts of angular momentum, right? An s orbital has l = 0, a p orbital has l = 1, etc...what's more, if you put a 2p electron into a magnetic field, you see a separation of the states in energy; these correspond to the "magnetic" quantum number, m_l, having values 1, 0, -1... these numbers represent how much of the orbital momentum can be projected along the z axis; if m_l = 1, then the projection = +h; if m_l = -1, the projection = -h; if zero, the projection = 0. With me so far?

As it happens, if you turn up the strength of the magnetic field, you start to see each of the m_l states split into two states; each of which corresponds to an electron having m_s = 1/2 or m_s = -1/2...thus, if m_s = 1/2 there is an additional component of angular momentum along the z axis = +h/2; if m_s = -1/2 there's an additional component = -h/2.

So, the electron behaves as if it has "built-in" angular momentum which can add to, or subtract from, the orbital angular momentum...and it adds/subtracts half as much angular momentum projection (in units of h) as orbital angular momentum does. Whew!! I hope that helped. Some short answer!!!

-prof topper

There is a very basic reason why the electron must be defined to have spin angular momentum L_spin = 1/2. It is that there are two and only two possible values for the component m_L of this angular momentum along any given direction. The number of values of m_L for any value of L in quantum mechanics is always equal to 2 times L plus 1, so L must be 1/2 when exactly two values of m_L are seen. The 2 L + 1 rule is familiar in the "shell" picture of the atom: recall each subshell (s,p,d,f,...) with an angular momentum L has 2 times L plus 1 subsubshells, into each of which exactly two electrons can fit. Thus an s subshell, for which L = 0, has only 2 times 0 + 1 = 1 subsubshell, which can accomodate two electrons. A p subshell, for which L = 1, has 2 times 1 + 1 = 3 subsubshells (p_x, p_y, p_z orbitals) into which fit a total of 2 times 3 = 6 electrons, and so on. How does one know there are exactly 2 allowed m_L values? The Stern- Gerlach experiment, which you may read about in nearly any quantum mechanics textbook, measures the number of values of m_L directly. Alternatively, each energy level of an atom with one valence electron (e.g. hydrogen, sodium, potassium etc.) is split into two very closely spaced energy levels ("a doublet") due to the different energies the two states of different m_L values have in the magnetic field created by the orbiting motion of the electron. Explaining the "fine structure" this produces in the spectra of these atoms is exactly why Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit in 1925 suggested that an electron has spin angular momentum of value 1/2.

christopher grayce

Ummm..isn't that the same thing I said, chris? Or did I miss something?

After all, the Stern-Gerlach experiment sends the atom through an inhomogenous magnetic field, eh? And withut that field, the spin states are pretty much degenerate.

prof topper

Oops, I guess I wasn't clear. I thought Mr. Johnson posed implicitly the following question: can't you redefine the elementary unit of angular momentum such that the spin of an electron is 1? It would still have half the angular momentum of a p-electron, which in the new units would be 2 (d-electrons would have angular momentum 4, etc.) What I wanted to emphasize is that this isn't possible, that the fraction cannot be scaled away, and highlight the reason (the relationship between number of m_L values and value of L), because it illustrates the unusual and powerful counting rules that quantization gives you. The spin energy levels are not exactly degenerate in the absence of a magnetic field even for light atoms, because of the spin-orbit interaction. You get emission from two P states to the ground state in sodium, for example, giving the famous yellow doublet "sodium D line" at 5896 and 5890 angstroms that gives streetlights their color. I mentioned these doublets mostly because they appear to have been a primary motivation for the original proposal that the electron had spin 1/2. It might be worth adding that the Zeeman splitting (of, e.g. the three p states in hydrogen) that occurs when you turn on an external magnetic field is usually *smaller* than the spin-orbit splitting. This is because of the larger Lande g factor for spin magnetic moment versus orbital magnetic moment, and because laboratory magnetic fields are weak by atomic standards. A crude estimate of the magnetic field generated by an orbiting 1s electron in an H atom, which is what gives the small spin-orbit splitting, is 20,000 gauss. (Earth's magnetic field is about 0.5 gauss.)

christopher grayce

True, true.

prof topper

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