The ultraviolet catastrophe, also called the Rayleigh-Jeans catastrophe, was a prediction of late 19th century/early 20th century classical physics that an ideal black body at thermal equilibrium will emit radiation with infinite power.

Solution

Einstein pointed out that the difficulty could be avoided by making use of a hypothesis put forward five years earlier by Max Planck. Planck postulated that electromagnetic energy did not follow the classical description, but could only oscillate or be emitted in discrete packets of energy proportional to the frequency, as given by Planck’s law. This has the effect of reducing the number of possible modes with a given energy at high frequencies in the cavity described above, and thus the average energy at those frequencies by application of the equipartition theorem.

Historical inaccuracies

Many popular histories of physics, as well as a number of physics textbooks, present an incorrect version of the history of the ultraviolet catastrophe. In this version, the “catastrophe” was first noticed by Planck, who developed his formula in response. In fact Planck never concerned himself with this aspect of the problem, because he did not believe that the equipartition theorem was fundamental – his motivation for introducing “quanta” was entirely different. That Planck’s proposal happened to provide a solution for it was realized much later, as stated above.

Though this has been known by historians for many decades, the historically incorrect version persists, in part because Planck’s actual motivations for the proposal of the quantum are complicated and difficult to summarize to a modern audience.

— Wikipedia on Ultraviolet catastrophe

2010.08.14 Saturday ACHK