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Fraunhofer Lines Essay

1339 words - 6 pages

Scientific discoveries never come from nowhere. In a letter to Robert Hooke, Isaac newton said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” What he meant by that was that all of his discoveries were based upon earlier ones. This is true for all discoveries. Everything we know today, we know because someone before us discovered something that led to our modern discoveries. Before that person was another, and another, and another. In 1813, a man named Joseph von Fraunhofer discovered strange lines in the spectrum coming from a prism. He was building on the optical work of Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. His discovery would later lead to the work of men such as ...view middle of the document...

Before Newton, everyone had simply thought that light was just light, and that it didn’t do anything else. They also thought that a prism added colors to light when light passed through it. Newton didn’t think that was the case, as he had observed that images viewed through telescopes had a strange rainbow ring around them. He devised an experiment to test what prisms did. He set up two prisms. One had white light sent through it, which produced a rainbow. The second prism was upside-down, and when he sent the rainbow light through it, it reverted back to white. Newton determined that the prism was splitting the white light into component parts, rather than adding color (Optics). This discovery was a major turning point in the understanding of light, and would prove absolutely crucial to the discovery of Fraunhofer Lines.
Joseph von Fraunhofer was born in 1787, in Bavaria, which is today Germany. He was the son of a poor glass grinder and maker. When he was 11, he was orphaned and apprenticed to a lens maker in Munich (Davidson). In 1801, the lens factory he was working in collapsed. When he was rescued, he caught the attention of Joseph Utzschneider, a politician who was interested in optics. Fraunhofer got a job at a workshop that was owned by Utzschneider, where he did work on new lens making techniques, inventing a polishing machine and new types of glass for better lenses. He also worked on developing new telescope and microscope lenses, some of which are still used today (Davidson). Despite all of his new discoveries, Fraunhofer could not share them with the world. He was working for the government, and his lens techniques were highly guarded state secret (Hiding in the Light). Despite all his amazing work in lenses, Fraunhofer’s greatest discover came in 1813, when he focused light from a telescope through a prism. He was building on Newton’s work, but he was also going beyond it. He looked closely at the spectrum that came out of the prism, and he noticed small black lines a seemingly random places in the spectrum. What he had discovered would come to be called Fraunhofer Lines. The small black lines are caused when light passes through a gas. When the electron in that gas are hit by photons from the light, they can absorb the energy of the photon to “jump” up an energy level, causing a black line in the spectrum (Absorption Spectra). Each element absorbs photons of specific wavelengths. While Fraunhofer didn’t know it then, his discovery would lead to many new discoveries in the fields of physics and astrophysics.
After Fraunhofer discovered the Fraunhofer Lines, several scientists began experimenting with them to try and understand what caused them. Chemists Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen were the first to understand the relationship between the lines and the elements they passed through (Hellman). After Bunsen and Kirchhoff’s discovery, many...

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