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A century ago the Stern-Gerlach experiment ruled unequivocally in favor of Quantum Mechanics


Friedrich,  Bretislav
Molecular Physics, Fritz Haber Institute, Max Planck Society;

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Friedrich, B. (2023). A century ago the Stern-Gerlach experiment ruled unequivocally in favor of Quantum Mechanics. Israel Journal of Chemistry, 63(7-8): e202300047. doi:10.1002/ijch.202300047.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000D-6060-A
In 1921, Otto Stern conceived the idea for an experiment that would decide between a classical and a quantum description of atomic behavior, as epitomized by the Bohr–Sommerfeld–Debye model of the atom. This model entailed not only the quantization of the magnitude of the orbital electronic angular momentum but also of the projection of the angular momentum on an external magnetic field – the so-called space quantization. Stern recognized that space quantization would have observable consequences: namely, that the magnetic dipole moment due to the orbital angular momentum would be space quantized as well, taking two opposite values for atoms whose only unpaired electron has just one quantum of orbital angular momentum. When acted upon by a suitable inhomogeneous magnetic field, a beam of such atoms would be split into two beams consisting of deflected atoms with opposite projections of the orbital angular momentum on the magnetic field. In contradistinction, if atoms behaved classically, the atomic beam would only broaden along the field gradient and have maximum intensity at zero deflection, i. e., where there would be a minimum or no intensity for a beam split due to space quantization. Stern anticipated that, although simple in principle, the experiment would be difficult to carry out – and invited Walther Gerlach to team up with him. Gerlach's realism and experimental skills together with his sometimes stubborn determination to make things work proved invaluable for the success of the Stern–Gerlach experiment (SGE). After a long struggle, Gerlach finally saw, on 8 February 1922, the splitting of a beam of silver atoms in a magnetic field. The absence of the concept of electron spin confused and confounded the interpretation of the SGE, as the silver atoms were, in fact, in a 2S state, with zero orbital and 1/2 spin angular momentum. However, a key quantum feature whose existence the SGE was designed to test – namely space quantization of electronic angular momentum – was robust enough to transpire independent of whether the electronic angular momentum was orbital or due to spin. The SGE entails other key aspects of quantum mechanics such as quantum measurement, state preparation, coherence, and entanglement. Confronted with the outcome of the SGE, Stern noted: “I still have objections to the idea of beauty of quantum mechanics. But she is correct.”