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A century ago the Stern-Gerlach experiment ruled unequivocally in favor of Quantum Mechanics
  • Bretislav Friedrich
Bretislav Friedrich
Fritz-Haber-Institut, Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

Corresponding Author:bretislav.friedrich@fhi-berlin.mpg.de

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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.