Crookes radiometer

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The Crookes radiometer, also known as the light mill, consists of an airtight glass bulb, containing a partial vacuum. Inside are a set of vanes which are mounted on a spindle. The vanes rotate when exposed to light, with faster rotation for more intense light, providing a quantitative measurement of electromagnetic radiation intensity. The reason for the rotation has historically been a cause of much scientific debate.[1][2]

It was invented in 1873 by the chemist Sir William Crookes as the by-product of some chemical research. In the course of very accurate quantitative chemical work, he was weighing samples in a partially evacuated chamber to reduce the effect of air currents, and noticed the weighings were disturbed when sunlight shone on the balance. Investigating this effect, he created the device named after him. It is still manufactured and sold as a novelty item.


General description

The radiometer is made from a glass bulb from which much of the air has been removed to form a partial vacuum. Inside the bulb, on a low friction spindle, is a rotor with several (usually four) vertical lightweight metal vanes spaced equally around the axis. The vanes are polished or white on one side, black on the other. When exposed to sunlight, artificial light, or infrared radiation (even the heat of a hand nearby can be enough), the vanes turn with no apparent motive power, the dark sides retreating from the radiation source and the light sides advancing. Cooling the radiometer causes rotation in the opposite direction.

The effect begins to be seen at partial vacuum pressures of a few torr (several hundred pascals), reaches a peak at around 10−2 torr (1 pascal) and has disappeared by the time the vacuum reaches 10−6 torr (10-4 pascal) (see explanations note 1). At these very high vacuums the effect of photon radiation pressure on the vanes can be observed in very sensitive apparatus (see Nichols radiometer) but this is insufficient to cause rotation.

The word-element "radio-" in the title originates from the combining form of Latin radius, a ray. Here it refers to electromagnetic radiation. A Crookes radiometer, consistent with the word-element "meter" in its title, can provide a quantitative measurement of electromagnetic radiation intensity. This can be done, for example, by visual means (e.g., a spinning slotted disk, which functions as a simple stroboscope) without interfering with the measurement itself.

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