The Balmer series is calculated using the Balmer formula, an empirical equation discovered by Johann Balmer in 1885. The visible spectrum of light from hydrogen displays four wavelengths, 410 nm, 434 nm, 486 nm, and 656 nm, that reflect emissions of photons by electrons in excited states transitioning to the quantum level described by the principal quantum number n equals 2.
Although physicists were aware of atomic emissions before 1885, they lacked a tool to accurately predict where the spectral lines should appear. The Balmer equation predicts the four visible absorption/emission lines of hydrogen with high accuracy. Balmer's equation inspired the Rydberg equation as a generalization of it, and this in turn led physicists to find the Lyman, Paschen, and Brackett series which predicted other absorption/emission lines of hydrogen found outside the visible spectrum.
The familiar red H-alpha spectral line of hydrogen gas, which is the transition from the shell n = 3 to the Balmer series shell n = 2, is one of the conspicuous colors of the universe. It contributes a bright red line to the spectra of emission or ionization nebula, like the Orion Nebula, which are often H II regions found in star forming regions. In true-color pictures, these nebula have a distinctly pink color from the combination of visible Balmer lines that hydrogen emits.
Later, it was discovered that when the spectral lines of the hydrogen spectrum are examined at very high resolution, they are found to be closely-spaced doublets. This splitting is called fine structure. It was also found that excited electrons could jump to the Balmer series n=2 from orbitals where n was greater than 6, emitting shades of violet when doing so.
The Balmer equation could be used to find the wavelength of the absorption/emission lines and was originally presented as follows (save for a notation change to give Balmer's constant as B):
In 1888 the physicist Johannes Rydberg generalized the Balmer equation for all transitions of hydrogen. The equation commonly used to calculate the Balmer series is a specific example of the Rydberg formula and follows as a simple reciprocal mathematical rearrangement of the formula above (conventionally using a notation of n for m as the single integral constant needed):
where λ is the wavelength of the absorbed/emitted light and RH is the Rydberg constant for hydrogen. The Rydberg constant is seen to be equal to 4/B in Balmer's formula, and for an infinitely heavy nucleus is 4/(3.6456*10-7m) = 10,973,731.57 m−1.
The spectral classification of stars, which is primarily a determination of surface temperature, is based on the relative strength of spectral lines, and the Balmer series in particular are very important. Other characteristics of a star can be determined by close analysis of its spectrum include surface gravity (related to physical size) and composition.
Because the Balmer lines are commonly seen in the spectra of various objects, they are often used to determine radial velocities due to doppler shifting of the Balmer lines. This has important uses all over astronomy, from detecting binary stars, exoplanets, compact objects such as neutron stars and black holes (by the motion of hydrogen in accretion disks around them), identifying groups of objects with similar motions and presumably origins (moving groups, star clusters, galaxy clusters, and debris from collisions), determining distances (actually redshifts) of galaxies or quasars, and identifying unfamiliar objects by analysis of their spectrum.
Balmer lines can appear as absorption or emission lines in a spectrum, depending on the nature of the object observed. In stars, the Balmer lines are usually seen in absorption, and they are "strongest" in stars with a surface temperature of about 10,000 kelvin (spectral type A). In the spectra of most spiral and irregular galaxies, AGNs, H II regions and planetary nebulae, the Balmer lines are emission lines.
In stellar spectra, the H-epsilon line (transition 7-2) is often mixed in with another absorption line caused by ionized calcium known by astronomers as "H" (the original designation given by Fraunhofer). That is, H-epsilon's wavelength is quite close to CaH at 396.847nm, and cannot be resolved in low resolution spectra. The H-zeta line (transition 8-2) is similarly mixed in with a neutral helium line seen in hot stars.