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How a WashU physicist paved the way for quantum mechanics 100 years ago

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Washington University archives
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Arthur Holly Compton conducted groundbreaking research at Washington University in the 1920s. He also enjoyed playing banjo with his students.

One hundred years ago, physicist Arthur Holly Compton made his Nobel Prize-winning discovery related to X-rays at Washington University in St. Louis.

At that time, X-rays were largely understood to be a wave-like phenomenon. Compton’s experiments showed that X-rays have duality: They behave like a particle as well.

Erik Henriksen joins St. Louis on the Air

“It was really huge; this was an unexpected discovery,” said Erik Henriksen, an associate professor of physics at Washington University. “To say that something could behave both like a wave and a particle in somehow the same object was confounding then — and honestly, it's quite confounding now, but it underlies our entire understanding of the universe through quantum mechanics.”

Henriksen joined Friday’s St. Louis on the Air to discuss how Compton’s discovery paved the way for quantum mechanics and modern-day astrophysics.

Related Event
What: Washington University’s Compton Centennial Celebration
When: "Compton and WWII: the Manhattan Project" on Oct. 22, "Arthur Holly Compton’s influence on WashU Chemistry" on Oct. 29 and "Compton Forever" on Nov. 5
Where: Crow Hall (off Throop Drive on Washington University’s campus)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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