In astronomy, spin-orbit coupling reflects the general law of conservation of angular momentum, which holds for celestial systems as well. In simple cases, the direction of the angular momentum vector is neglected, and the spin-orbit coupling is the ratio between the frequency with which a planet or other celestial body spins about its own axis to that with which it orbits another body. This is more commonly known as orbital resonance. Often, the underlying physical effects are tidal forces.
An example of the second situation is a rigid rotor moving in field-free space. A rigid rotor has a well-defined, time-independent, angular momentum.
These two situations originate in classical mechanics. The third kind of conserved angular momentum, associated with spin, does not have a classical counterpart. However, all rules of angular momentum coupling apply to spin as well.
In general the conservation of angular momentum implies full rotational symmetry (described by the groups SO(3) and SU(2)) and, conversely, spherical symmetry implies conservation of angular momentum. If two or more physical systems have conserved angular momenta, it can be useful to add these momenta to a total angular momentum of the combined system—a conserved property of the total system. The building of eigenstates of the total conserved angular momentum from the angular momentum eigenstates of the individual subsystems is referred to as angular momentum coupling.
Application of angular momentum coupling is useful when there is an interaction between subsystems that, without interaction, would have conserved angular momentum. By the very interaction the spherical symmetry of the subsystems is broken, but the angular momentum of the total system remains a constant of motion. Use of the latter fact is helpful in the solution of the Schrödinger equation.
As an example we consider two electrons, 1 and 2, in an atom (say the helium atom). If there is no electron-electron interaction, but only electron nucleus interaction, the two electrons can be rotated around the nucleus independently of each other; nothing happens to their energy. Both operators, l(1) and l(2), are conserved. However, if we switch on the electron-electron interaction depending on the distance d(1,2) between the electrons, then only a simultaneous and equal rotation of the two electrons will leave d(1,2) invariant. In such a case neither l(1) nor l(2) is a constant of motion but L = l(1) + l(2) is. Given eigenstates of l(1) and l(2), the construction of eigenstates of L (which still is conserved) is the coupling of the angular momenta of electron 1 and 2.
Reiterating slightly differently the above: one expands the quantum states of composed systems (i.e. made of subunits like two hydrogen atoms or two electrons) in basis sets which are made of direct products of quantum states which in turn describe the subsystems individually. We assume that the states of the subsystems can be chosen as eigenstates of their angular momentum operators (and of their component along any arbitrary z axis). The subsystems are therefore correctly described by a set of l, m quantum numbers (see angular momentum for details). When there is interaction between the subsystems, the total Hamiltonian contains terms that do not commute with the angular operators acting on the subsystems only. However, these terms do commute with the total angular momentum operator. Sometimes one refers to the non-commuting interaction terms in the Hamiltonian as angular momentum coupling terms, because they necessitate the angular momentum coupling.
In atomic physics, spin-orbit coupling also known as spin-pairing describes a weak magnetic interaction, or coupling, of the particle spin and the orbital motion of this particle, e.g. the electron spin and its motion around an atomic nucleus. One of its effects is to separate the energy of internal states of the atom, e.g. spin-aligned and spin-antialigned that would otherwise be identical in energy. This interaction is responsible for many of the details of atomic structure.
In light atoms (generally Z<30), electron spins si interact among themselves so they combine to form a total spin angular momentum S. The same happens with orbital angular momenta li, forming a single orbital angular momentum L. The interaction between the quantum numbers L and S is called Russell-Saunders coupling or LS coupling. Then S and L add together and form a total angular momentum J:
This is an approximation which is good as long as any external magnetic fields are weak. In larger magnetic fields, these two momenta decouple, giving rise to a different splitting pattern in the energy levels (the Paschen-Back effect.), and the size of LS coupling term becomes small.
For an extensive example on how LS-coupling is practically applied, see the article on Term symbols.
Spin-spin coupling is the coupling of the intrinsic angular momentum (spin) of different particles. Such coupling between pairs of nuclear spins is an important feature of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy as it can provide detailed information about the structure and conformation of molecules. Spin-spin coupling between nuclear spin and electronic spin is responsible for hyperfine structure in atomic spectra.
In very heavy atoms, relativistic shifting of the energies of the electron energy levels accentuates spin-orbit coupling effect. Thus, for example, uranium molecular orbital diagrams must directly incorporate relativistic symbols when considering interactions with other atoms.
In atomic nuclei, the spin-orbit interaction is much stronger than for atomic electrons, and is incorporated directly into the nuclear shell model. In addition, unlike atomic-electron term symbols, the lowest energy state is not L - S, but rather, l + s. All nuclear levels whose l value (orbital angular momentum) is greater than zero are thus split in the shell model to create states designated by l + s and l - s. Due to the nature of the shell model, which assumes an average potential rather than a central Coulombic potential, the nucleons that go into the l + s and l - s nuclear states are considered degenerate within each orbital (e.g. The 2p3/2 contains four nucleons, all of the same energy. Higher in energy is the 2p1/2 which contains two equal-energy nucleons).
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