As a physicist, Philipp Lenard’s major contributions were in the study of cathode rays, which he began in 1888. Prior to his work, cathode rays were produced in primitive, partially evacuated glass tubes that had metallic electrodes in them, across which a high voltage could be placed. Cathode rays were difficult to study using this arrangement, because they were inside sealed glass tubes, difficult to access, and because the rays were in the presence of air molecules. Philipp Lenard overcame these problems by devising a method of making small metallic windows in the glass that were thick enough to be able to withstand the pressure differences, but thin enough to allow passage of the rays. Having made a window for the rays, he could pass them out into the laboratory, or, alternatively, into another chamber that was completely evacuated. These windows have come to be known as Lenard windows. He was able to conveniently detect the rays and measure their intensity by means of paper sheets coated with phosphorescent materials.
Philipp Lenard observed that the absorption of the rays was, to first order, proportional to the density of the material they were made to pass through. This appeared to contradict the idea that they were some sort of electromagnetic radiation. He also showed that the rays could pass through some inches of air of a normal density, and appeared to be scattered by it, implying that they must be particles that were even smaller than the molecules in air. He confirmed some of J.J. Thomson’s work, which eventually arrived at the understanding that cathode rays were streams of negatively charged energetic particles. He called them quanta of electricity or for short quanta, after Helmholtz, while J.J. Thomson proposed the name corpuscles, but eventually electrons became the everyday term. In conjunction with his and other earlier experiments on the absorption of the rays in metals, the general realization that electrons were constituent parts of the atom enabled Lenard to claim correctly that for the most part atoms consist of empty space. He proposed that every atom consists of empty space and electrically neutral corpuscules called “dynamids”, each consisting of an electron and an equal positive charge.
As a result of his Crookes tube investigations, he showed that the rays produced by irradiating metals in a vacuum with ultraviolet light were similar in many respects to cathode rays. His most important observations were that the energy of the rays was independent of the light intensity, but was greater for shorter wavelengths of light. These latter observations were explained by Albert Einstein as a quantum effect. This theory predicted that the plot of the cathode ray energy versus the frequency would be a straight line with a slope equal to Planck’s constant, h. This was shown to be the case some years later. The photo-electric quantum theory was the work cited when Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Suspicious of the general adulation of Einstein, Philipp Lenard became a prominent skeptic of relativity and of Einstein’s theories generally; he did not, however, dispute Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect.
- June, 07, 1862
- Bratislava, Slovakia
- May, 20, 1947
- Messelhausen, Lauda-Königshofen, Germany
- Cemetery of Messelhausen
- Baden-Württemberg, Germany