Measuring Planck’s Constant With LEDs And A DMM

The remarkable thing about our universe is that it’s possible to explore at least some of its inner workings with very simple tools. Gravity is one example, to which [Galileo]’s inclined planes and balls bear witness. But that’s classical mechanics: surely the weirdness that is quantum mechanics requires far more sophisticated instrumentation to explore, right?

That’s true enough — if you consider a voltmeter and a Mark 1 eyeball to be sophisticated. That’s pretty much all you need for instruments to determine Planck’s constant to a decent degree of precision, the way that [poblocki1982]’s did. There’s a little more to it, of course; the method is based on measuring the voltage at which LEDs of various wavelengths start shining, so a simple circuit was built to select an LED from the somewhat grandly named “photon energy array” and provide a way to adjust and monitor the voltage and current.

By performing the experiment in a dark room with adapted eyes, or by using an opaque tube to block out stray light, it’s possible to slowly ramp the voltage up until the first glimmer of light is seen from each LED. Recording the voltage and the wavelength gives you the raw numbers to calculate the Planck constant h, as well as the Planck error Δh, with the help of a handy spreadsheet. [poblocki1982] managed to get within 11% of the published value — not too shabby at all.

Does this all still sound too complicated for you? Maybe a Watt balance made from Lego is more your speed.