Scattering theory

Last updated
Top: the real part of a plane wave travelling upwards. Bottom: The real part of the field after inserting in the path of the plane wave a small transparent disk of index of refraction higher than the index of the surrounding medium. This object scatters part of the wave field, although at any individual point, the wave's frequency and wavelength remain intact. Scattering theory illust.png
Top: the real part of a plane wave travelling upwards. Bottom: The real part of the field after inserting in the path of the plane wave a small transparent disk of index of refraction higher than the index of the surrounding medium. This object scatters part of the wave field, although at any individual point, the wave's frequency and wavelength remain intact.

In mathematics and physics, scattering theory is a framework for studying and understanding the scattering of waves and particles. Wave scattering corresponds to the collision and scattering of a wave with some material object, for instance sunlight scattered by rain drops to form a rainbow. Scattering also includes the interaction of billiard balls on a table, the Rutherford scattering (or angle change) of alpha particles by gold nuclei, the Bragg scattering (or diffraction) of electrons and X-rays by a cluster of atoms, and the inelastic scattering of a fission fragment as it traverses a thin foil. More precisely, scattering consists of the study of how solutions of partial differential equations, propagating freely "in the distant past", come together and interact with one another or with a boundary condition, and then propagate away "to the distant future". The direct scattering problem is the problem of determining the distribution of scattered radiation/particle flux basing on the characteristics of the scatterer. The inverse scattering problem is the problem of determining the characteristics of an object (e.g., its shape, internal constitution) from measurement data of radiation or particles scattered from the object.


Since its early statement for radiolocation, the problem has found vast number of applications, such as echolocation, geophysical survey, nondestructive testing, medical imaging and quantum field theory, to name just a few.

Conceptual underpinnings

The concepts used in scattering theory go by different names in different fields. The object of this section is to point the reader to common threads.

Composite targets and range equations

Equivalent quantities used in the theory of scattering from composite specimens, but with a variety of units. Xsection2.png
Equivalent quantities used in the theory of scattering from composite specimens, but with a variety of units.

When the target is a set of many scattering centers whose relative position varies unpredictably, it is customary to think of a range equation whose arguments take different forms in different application areas. In the simplest case consider an interaction that removes particles from the "unscattered beam" at a uniform rate that is proportional to the incident flux of particles per unit area per unit time, i.e. that

where Q is an interaction coefficient and x is the distance traveled in the target.

The above ordinary first-order differential equation has solutions of the form:

where Io is the initial flux, path length Δx  x  xo, the second equality defines an interaction mean free path λ, the third uses the number of targets per unit volume η to define an area cross-section σ, and the last uses the target mass density ρ to define a density mean free path τ. Hence one converts between these quantities via Q = 1/λ = ησ = ρ/τ, as shown in the figure at left.

In electromagnetic absorption spectroscopy, for example, interaction coefficient (e.g. Q in cm1) is variously called opacity, absorption coefficient, and attenuation coefficient. In nuclear physics, area cross-sections (e.g. σ in barns or units of 1024 cm2), density mean free path (e.g. τ in grams/cm2), and its reciprocal the mass attenuation coefficient (e.g. in cm2/gram) or area per nucleon are all popular, while in electron microscopy the inelastic mean free path [1] (e.g. λ in nanometers) is often discussed [2] instead.

In theoretical physics

In mathematical physics, scattering theory is a framework for studying and understanding the interaction or scattering of solutions to partial differential equations. In acoustics, the differential equation is the wave equation, and scattering studies how its solutions, the sound waves, scatter from solid objects or propagate through non-uniform media (such as sound waves, in sea water, coming from a submarine). In the case of classical electrodynamics, the differential equation is again the wave equation, and the scattering of light or radio waves is studied. In particle physics, the equations are those of Quantum electrodynamics, Quantum chromodynamics and the Standard Model, the solutions of which correspond to fundamental particles.

In regular quantum mechanics, which includes quantum chemistry, the relevant equation is the Schrödinger equation, although equivalent formulations, such as the Lippmann-Schwinger equation and the Faddeev equations, are also largely used. The solutions of interest describe the long-term motion of free atoms, molecules, photons, electrons, and protons. The scenario is that several particles come together from an infinite distance away. These reagents then collide, optionally reacting, getting destroyed or creating new particles. The products and unused reagents then fly away to infinity again. (The atoms and molecules are effectively particles for our purposes. Also, under everyday circumstances, only photons are being created and destroyed.) The solutions reveal which directions the products are most likely to fly off to and how quickly. They also reveal the probability of various reactions, creations, and decays occurring. There are two predominant techniques of finding solutions to scattering problems: partial wave analysis, and the Born approximation.

Elastic and inelastic scattering

The term "elastic scattering" implies that the internal states of the scattered particles do not change, and hence they emerge unchanged from the scattering process. In inelastic scattering, by contrast, the particles' internal state is changed, which may amount to exciting some of the electrons of a scattering atom, or the complete annihilation of a scattering particle and the creation of entirely new particles.

The example of scattering in quantum chemistry is particularly instructive, as the theory is reasonably complex while still having a good foundation on which to build an intuitive understanding. When two atoms are scattered off one another, one can understand them as being the bound state solutions of some differential equation. Thus, for example, the hydrogen atom corresponds to a solution to the Schrödinger equation with a negative inverse-power (i.e., attractive Coulombic) central potential. The scattering of two hydrogen atoms will disturb the state of each atom, resulting in one or both becoming excited, or even ionized, representing an inelastic scattering process.

The term "deep inelastic scattering" refers to a special kind of scattering experiment in particle physics.

The mathematical framework

In mathematics, scattering theory deals with a more abstract formulation of the same set of concepts. For example, if a differential equation is known to have some simple, localized solutions, and the solutions are a function of a single parameter, that parameter can take the conceptual role of time. One then asks what might happen if two such solutions are set up far away from each other, in the "distant past", and are made to move towards each other, interact (under the constraint of the differential equation) and then move apart in the "future". The scattering matrix then pairs solutions in the "distant past" to those in the "distant future".

Solutions to differential equations are often posed on manifolds. Frequently, the means to the solution requires the study of the spectrum of an operator on the manifold. As a result, the solutions often have a spectrum that can be identified with a Hilbert space, and scattering is described by a certain map, the S matrix, on Hilbert spaces. Spaces with a discrete spectrum correspond to bound states in quantum mechanics, while a continuous spectrum is associated with scattering states. The study of inelastic scattering then asks how discrete and continuous spectra are mixed together.

An important, notable development is the inverse scattering transform, central to the solution of many exactly solvable models.

See also


  1. R. F. Egerton (1996) Electron energy-loss spectroscopy in the electron microscope (Second Edition, Plenum Press, NY) ISBN   0-306-45223-5
  2. Ludwig Reimer (1997) Transmission electron microscopy: Physics of image formation and microanalysis (Fourth Edition, Springer, Berlin) ISBN   3-540-62568-2

Related Research Articles

In physics, the cross section is a measure of the probability that a specific process will take place when some kind of radiant excitation intersects a localized phenomenon. For example, the Rutherford cross-section is a measure of probability that an alpha-particle will be deflected by a given angle during a collision with an atomic nucleus. Cross section is typically denoted σ (sigma) and is expressed in units of transverse area. In a way, it can be thought of as the size of the object that the excitation must hit in order for the process to occur, but more exactly, it is a parameter of a stochastic process.

Quantum field theory Theoretical framework combining classical field theory, special relativity, and quantum mechanics

In theoretical physics, quantum field theory (QFT) is a theoretical framework that combines classical field theory, special relativity and quantum mechanics, but not general relativity's description of gravity. QFT is used in particle physics to construct physical models of subatomic particles and in condensed matter physics to construct models of quasiparticles.

Compton scattering Scattering of photons off charged particles

Compton scattering, discovered by Arthur Holly Compton, is the scattering of a photon by a charged particle, usually an electron. If it results in a decrease in energy of the photon, it is called the Compton effect. Part of the energy of the photon is transferred to the recoiling electron. Inverse Compton scattering occurs when a charged particle transfers part of its energy to a photon.

Schrödinger equation Linear partial differential equation whose solution describes the quantum-mechanical system.

The Schrödinger equation is a linear partial differential equation that describes the wave function or state function of a quantum-mechanical system. It is a key result in quantum mechanics, and its discovery was a significant landmark in the development of the subject. The equation is named after Erwin Schrödinger, who postulated the equation in 1925, and published it in 1926, forming the basis for the work that resulted in his Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933.

Wave function Mathematical description of the quantum state of a system; complex-valued probability amplitude, and the probabilities for the possible results of measurements made on the system can be derived from it

A wave function in quantum physics is a mathematical description of the quantum state of an isolated quantum system. The wave function is a complex-valued probability amplitude, and the probabilities for the possible results of measurements made on the system can be derived from it. The most common symbols for a wave function are the Greek letters ψ and Ψ.


Scattering is a term used in physics to describe a wide range of physical processes where moving particles or radiation of some form, such as light or sound, is forced to deviate from a straight trajectory by localized non-uniformities in the medium through which they pass. In conventional use, this also includes deviation of reflected radiation from the angle predicted by the law of reflection. Reflections of radiation that undergo scattering are often called diffuse reflections and unscattered reflections are called specular (mirror-like) reflections. Originally, the term was confined to light scattering. As more "ray"-like phenomena were discovered, the idea of scattering was extended to them, so that William Herschel could refer to the scattering of "heat rays" in 1800. John Tyndall, a pioneer in light scattering research, noted the connection between light scattering and acoustic scattering in the 1870s. Near the end of the 19th century, the scattering of cathode rays and X-rays was observed and discussed. With the discovery of subatomic particles and the development of quantum theory in the 20th century, the sense of the term became broader as it was recognized that the same mathematical frameworks used in light scattering could be applied to many other phenomena.

Mie scattering

The Mie solution to Maxwell's equations describes the scattering of an electromagnetic plane wave by a homogeneous sphere. The solution takes the form of an infinite series of spherical multipole partial waves. It is named after Gustav Mie.

Drude model

The Drude model of electrical conduction was proposed in 1900 by Paul Drude to explain the transport properties of electrons in materials. The model, which is an application of kinetic theory, assumes that the microscopic behaviour of electrons in a solid may be treated classically and looks much like a pinball machine, with a sea of constantly jittering electrons bouncing and re-bouncing off heavier, relatively immobile positive ions.

In physics, the S-matrix or scattering matrix relates the initial state and the final state of a physical system undergoing a scattering process. It is used in quantum mechanics, scattering theory and quantum field theory (QFT).

Pilot wave theory

In theoretical physics, the pilot wave theory, also known as Bohmian mechanics, was the first known example of a hidden-variable theory, presented by Louis de Broglie in 1927. Its more modern version, the de Broglie–Bohm theory, interprets quantum mechanics as a deterministic theory, avoiding troublesome notions such as wave–particle duality, instantaneous wave function collapse, and the paradox of Schrödinger's cat. To solve these problems, the theory is inherently nonlocal.

Electron scattering Deviation of electrons from their original trajectories

Electron scattering occurs when electrons are deviated from their original trajectory. This is due to the electrostatic forces within matter interaction or, if an external magnetic field is present, the electron may be deflected by the Lorentz force. This scattering typically happens with solids such as metals, semiconductors and insulators; and is a limiting factor in integrated circuits and transistors.

The Debye–Waller factor (DWF), named after Peter Debye and Ivar Waller, is used in condensed matter physics to describe the attenuation of x-ray scattering or coherent neutron scattering caused by thermal motion. It has also been called the B factor or the temperature factor. Often, "Debye–Waller factor" is used as a generic term that comprises the Lamb–Mössbauer factor of incoherent neutron scattering and Mössbauer spectroscopy.

Asım Orhan Barut was a Turkish-American theoretical physicist.

The Poisson–Boltzmann equation is a useful equation in many settings, whether it be to understand physiological interfaces, polymer science, electron interactions in a semiconductor, or more. It aims to describe the distribution of the electric potential in solution in the direction normal to a charged surface. This distribution is important to determine how the electrostatic interactions will affect the molecules in solution. The Poisson–Boltzmann equation is derived via mean-field assumptions. From the Poisson–Boltzmann equation many other equations have been derived with a number of different assumptions.

In quantum mechanics the delta potential is a potential well mathematically described by the Dirac delta function - a generalized function. Qualitatively, it corresponds to a potential which is zero everywhere, except at a single point, where it takes an infinite value. This can be used to simulate situations where a particle is free to move in two regions of space with a barrier between the two regions. For example, an electron can move almost freely in a conducting material, but if two conducting surfaces are put close together, the interface between them acts as a barrier for the electron that can be approximated by a delta potential.

Static light scattering is a technique in physical chemistry that measures the intensity of the scattered light to obtain the average molecular weight Mw of a macromolecule like a polymer or a protein in solution. Measurement of the scattering intensity at many angles allows calculation of the root mean square radius, also called the radius of gyration Rg. By measuring the scattering intensity for many samples of various concentrations, the second virial coefficient A2, can be calculated.

Atomic form factor

In physics, the atomic form factor, or atomic scattering factor, is a measure of the scattering amplitude of a wave by an isolated atom. The atomic form factor depends on the type of scattering, which in turn depends on the nature of the incident radiation, typically X-ray, electron or neutron. The common feature of all form factors is that they involve a Fourier transform of a spatial density distribution of the scattering object from real space to momentum space. For an object with spatial density distribution, , the form factor, , is defined as

Defect types include atom vacancies, adatoms, steps, and kinks that occur most frequently at surfaces due to the finite material size causing crystal discontinuity. What all types of defects have in common, whether surface or bulk defects, is that they produce dangling bonds that have specific electron energy levels different from those of the bulk. This difference occurs because these states cannot be described with periodic Bloch waves due to the change in electron potential energy caused by the missing ion cores just outside the surface. Hence, these are localized states that require separate solutions to the Schrödinger equation so that electron energies can be properly described. The break in periodicity results in a decrease in conductivity due to defect scattering.

The Monte Carlo method for electron transport is a semiclassical Monte Carlo(MC) approach of modeling semiconductor transport. Assuming the carrier motion consists of free flights interrupted by scattering mechanisms, a computer is utilized to simulate the trajectories of particles as they move across the device under the influence of an electric field using classical mechanics. The scattering events and the duration of particle flight is determined through the use of random numbers.

Heat transfer physics describes the kinetics of energy storage, transport, and energy transformation by principal energy carriers: phonons, electrons, fluid particles, and photons. Heat is energy stored in temperature-dependent motion of particles including electrons, atomic nuclei, individual atoms, and molecules. Heat is transferred to and from matter by the principal energy carriers. The state of energy stored within matter, or transported by the carriers, is described by a combination of classical and quantum statistical mechanics. The energy is also transformed (converted) among various carriers. The heat transfer processes are governed by the rates at which various related physical phenomena occur, such as the rate of particle collisions in classical mechanics. These various states and kinetics determine the heat transfer, i.e., the net rate of energy storage or transport. Governing these process from the atomic level to macroscale are the laws of thermodynamics, including conservation of energy.