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Gustav Robert Kirchhoff. A Brief Digest of His Life and Work by Mike Rasmussen. Vital Statistics. Born: 12 March 1824, Königsberg, Prussia Christened: 11 April 1824 Father: Friedrich Kirchhoff (lawyer) Mother: Johanna Henriette Wittke

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Gustav Robert Kirchhoff

A Brief Digest of His Life and Work

by Mike Rasmussen

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Vital Statistics

  • Born: 12 March 1824, Königsberg, Prussia

  • Christened: 11 April 1824

  • Father: Friedrich Kirchhoff (lawyer)

  • Mother: Johanna Henriette Wittke

  • Married: 1847, to Clara Richelot (his math professor’s daughter – good reason to study math!)

  • Died: 17 October 1887, Berlin

  • Temple work: Done several times, 1929-2001. (Often just sealed to Mr. and Mrs. Kirchhoff – good reason to study physics!)

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Scientific contributions in brief

  • Kirchhoff’s Law (Thermodynamics)

  • Kirchhoff’s Circuit Laws

  • Spectroscopy (with Bunsen)

  • Fresnel-Kirchhoff diffraction formula.

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Kirchhoff’s Law (Thermodynamics)

  • At thermal equilibrium, light emitted equals light absorbed.

  • (Otherwise it wouldn’t be at equilibrium.)

  • So, black bodies are great emitters.

  • And “Space Blankets” are good at not emitting.

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Kirchhoff’s Circuit Laws

  • The Sum of voltage rises and drops around a loop equals zero.

  • (Energy is conserved.)

  • Currents entering a junction are equal to currents leaving a junction.

  • (Charge is conserved, similar to thermodynamic law. Remember, a lot of people thought charge was like heat, and might accumulate at a junction.)

  • So, we can do circuit analysis.

  • Obvious, but useful – maybe we can all get laws named after us someday!

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“Two old telescopes, a prism, and a cigar box”

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A Great Spectroscopy Experiment

  • Burned highly purified sodium, observed two strong yellow lines

  • Lit a Drummond light, which is a stick of lime heated by a flame to white hot – it radiates nearly as a black body, with no dark lines

  • Lit a sodium flame in between the “limelight” and the spectroscope, and observed two dark lines – the sodium absorbed more energy than it emitted

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Spectroscopy results

  • Identified Fraunhofer’s yellow lines in several lamp spectra as sodium emission

  • Identified Fraunhofer’s dark lines in the solar spectrum as absorption

  • Identified the chemical content of the sun

  • Identified Cesium and Rubidium

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Fresnel-Kirchhoff diffraction formula.

  • Fresnel derived a formula for diffraction by applying Newton’s calculus to Huygen’s wavelets.

  • In 1887, Kirchhoff used Maxwell’s Equations to justify Fresnel’s formula.

  • Hence, it was named after both Fresnel and Kirchhoff.

  • Apparently, it killed him, as he died that year.

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