Excitation dynamics for pulsed optical excitation are described with the density-matrix equations and the rate equations for a two-level system. A critical comparison of the two descriptions is made with complete and consistent formalisms that are amenable to the modeling of applied laser-diagnostic techniques. General solutions, resulting from numerical integration of the differential equations describing the excitation process, are compared for collisional conditions that range from the completely coherent limit to the steady-state limit, for which the two formalisms are identical. This analysis demonstrates the failure of the rate equations to correctly describe the transient details of the excitation process outside the steady-state limit. However, reasonable estimates of the resultant population are obtained for nonsaturating (linear) excitation. This comparison provides the laser diagnostician with the means to evaluate the appropriate model for excitation through a simple picture of the breakdown of the rate-equation validity.
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