That Shifty Hydrogen Atom

Landmarks—Lamb Shift Verifies New Quantum Concept

In the second quarter of the 20th century, quantum theory faced some serious challenges, including unexplained details of atomic spectra and difficulties calculating basic properties of charged particles. In 1947 Willis Lamb and Robert Retherford of Columbia University discovered an unexpected detail in the hydrogen spectrum, later called the Lamb shift, that became an essential clue in solving both problems. The measurement agreed with new calculations and was the first indication that the theoretical approach called renormalization could resolve the mathematical infinities that had threatened to derail the progress of quantum mechanics.