The trouble with orbits: The Stark effect in the old and the new quantum theory

Anthony Duncan, Michel Janssen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

6 Scopus citations


The old quantum theory and Schrödinger's wave mechanics (and other forms of quantum mechanics) give the same results for the line splittings in the first-order Stark effect in hydrogen, the leading terms in the splitting of the spectral lines emitted by a hydrogen atom in an external electric field. We examine the account of the effect in the old quantum theory, which was hailed as a major success of that theory, from the point of view of wave mechanics. First, we show how the new quantum mechanics solves a fundamental problem that one runs into in the old quantum theory with the Stark effect. It turns out that, even without an external field, it depends on the coordinates in which the quantum conditions are imposed which electron orbits are allowed in a hydrogen atom. The allowed energy levels and hence the line splittings are independent of the coordinates used but the size and eccentricity of the orbits are not. In the new quantum theory, this worrisome non-uniqueness of orbits turns into the perfectly innocuous non-uniqueness of bases in Hilbert space. Second, we review how the so-called WKB (Wentzel-Kramers-Brillouin) approximation method for solving the Schrödinger equation reproduces the quantum conditions of the old quantum theory amended by some additional half-integer terms. These extra terms remove the need for some arbitrary extra restrictions on the allowed orbits that the old quantum theory required over and above the basic quantum conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)68-83
Number of pages16
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B - Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics
Issue numberPA
StatePublished - Nov 1 2014


  • Bohr-Sommerfeld theory
  • Epstein
  • Hamilton-Jacobi theory
  • Stark effect
  • WKB approximation
  • Wave mechanics

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'The trouble with orbits: The Stark effect in the old and the new quantum theory'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

  • Cite this