Field of Science

Weird Words of Science 10: Eigenvalue

We're looking at the Schrödinger equation to start the term in physical chemistry. It is, of course, an eignevalue equation. The term is really a pastiche of German and English, or perhpas a quasi-translation of the German term, eigenwert. The prefix "eigen" is best translated for quantum mechanics as "characteristic". Chemists often use the eigenvalues to "characterize" or "classify" the wavefunctions or states of a systems. For example, the 1s orbital takes its designation from two eigenvalues of the wavefunction: n=1 and l=0.

"Among those ... trying to acquire a general acquaintance with Schrödinger's wave mechanics there must be many who find their mathematical equipment insufficient to follow his first great problem to determine the eigenvalues and eigenfunctions for the hydrogen atom. " Nature 23 July 192

Culture of Chemistry returns with the new term!

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