Zeeman effect, splitting of a single spectral line (see spectrum) into a group of closely spaced lines when the substance producing the single line is subjected to a uniform magnetic field. The effect was discovered in 1896 by the Dutch physicist Pieter Zeeman. In the so-called normal Zeeman effect, the spectral line corresponding to the original frequency of the light (in the absence of the magnetic field) appears with two other lines arranged symmetrically on either side of the original line. In the anomalous Zeeman effect (which is actually more common than the normal effect), several lines appear, forming a complex pattern. The normal Zeeman effect was successfully explained by H. A. Lorentz using the laws of classical physics (Zeeman and Lorentz shared the 1902 Nobel Prize in Physics). The anomalous Zeeman effect could not be explained using classical physics; the development of the quantum theory and the discovery of the electron's intrinsic spin led to a satisfactory explanation. According to the quantum theory all spectral lines arise from transitions of electrons between different allowed energy levels within the atom, the frequency of the spectral line being proportional to the energy difference between the initial and final levels. Because of its intrinsic spin, the electron has a magnetic field associated with it. When an external magnetic field is applied, the electron's magnetic field may assume only certain alignments. Slight differences in energy are associated with these different orientations, so that what was once a single energy level becomes three or more. Practical applications based on the Zeeman effect include spectral analysis and measurement of magnetic field strength. Since the separation of the components of the spectral line is proportional to the field strength, the Zeeman effect is particularly useful where the magnetic field cannot be measured by more direct methods.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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