Pieter Zeeman and the Zeeman Effect

Pieter Zeeman (left) together with Albert Einstein and Paul Ehrenfest

Pieter Zeeman (left) together with Albert Einstein and Paul Ehrenfest

On October 9, 1943, Dutch physicist Pieter Zeeman passed away. Zeeman shared the 1902 Nobel Prize in Physics with Hendrik Lorentz for his discovery of the Zeeman effect, the effect of splitting a spectral line into several components in the presence of a static magnetic field.

Pieter Zeeman witnessed the Aurora borealis in the Netherlands during 1883 and created a drawing of the phenomenon which was published in Nature. During the same year, Zeeman finished highschool and moved to Delft to study classical languages. Zeeman passed the university qualification exams in 1885 and began to study physics at Leiden under Kamerlingh Onnes and Hendrik Lorentz. In 1890, Zeeman became Lorentz’s assistant and began researching on the Kerr effect, which describes the changes to light reflected from a magnetized surface. Zeeman submitted his thesis on the topic three years later. After a short period in Strasbourg, Pieter Zeeman became Privatdozent in mathematics and physics at Leiden.

Picture of the Zeeman Effect

Picture of the Zeeman Effect

It is believed that in 1896, Pieter Zeeman used laboratory equipment to measure the splitting of spectral lines by a strong magnetic field against the orders of his supervisor. While at the time, Zeeman was fired for his actions he was later vindicated. In 1902, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of what has now become known as the Zeeman effect. When Zeeman started to research the effect of magnetic fields on a light source, he discovered that a spectral line is split into several components in the presence of a magnetic field. It is believed that Hendrik Lorentz first heard of Zeeman’s results at the meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam in 1896. He then called Zeeman into his office and presented him with an explanation of his observations, based on Lorentz’s theory of electromagnetic radiation.

Zeeman’s discovery confirmed Lorentz’s prediction about the polarization of light emitted in the presence of a magnetic field. Thanks to his work it became clear that the oscillating particles that according to Lorentz were the source of light emission were negatively charged, and were a thousandfold lighter than the hydrogen atom. The Zeeman effect became an important tool for elucidating the structure of the atom.

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