The Many Dimensions of Oskar Klein

The idea of parallel dimensions in physics has a long history dating back to Bernhard Riemann’s famous 1954 lecture on the foundations of geometry that he gave as a requirement to attain a teaching position at the University of Göttingen.  Riemann laid out a program of study that included physics problems solved in multiple dimensions, but it was Rudolph Lipschitz twenty years later who first composed a rigorous view of physics as trajectories in many dimensions.  Nonetheless, the three spatial dimensions we enjoy in our daily lives remained the only true physical space until Hermann Minkowski re-expressed Einstein’s theory of relativity in 4-dimensional space time.  Even so, Minkowski’s time dimension was not on an equal footing with the three spatial dimensions—the four dimensions were entwined, but time had a different characteristic, what is known as pseudo-Riemannian metric.  It is this pseudo-metric that allows space-time distances to be negative as easily as positive.

In 1919 Theodore Kaluza of the University of Königsberg in Prussia extended Einstein’s theory of gravitation to a fifth spatial dimension, and physics had its first true parallel dimension.  It was more than just an exercise in mathematics—adding a fifth dimension to relativistic dynamics adds new degrees of freedom that allow the dynamical 5-dimensional theory to include more than merely relativistic massive particles and the electric field they generate.  In addition to electro-magnetism, something akin to Einstein’s field equation of gravitation emerges.  Here was a five-dimensional theory that seemed to unify E&M with gravity—a first unified theory of physics.  Einstein, to whom Kaluza communicated his theory, was intrigued but hesitant to forward Kaluza’s paper for publication.  It seemed too good to be true.  But Einstein finally sent it to be published in the proceedings of the Prussian Academy of Sciences [Kaluza, 1921]. He later launched his own effort to explore such unified field theories more deeply.

Yet Kaluza’s theory was fully classical—if a fifth dimension can be called that—because it made no connection to the rapidly developing field of quantum mechanics. The person who took the step to make five-dimensional space-time into a quantum field theory was Oskar Klein.

Oskar Klein (1894 – 1977)

Oskar Klein was a Swedish physicist who was in the “second wave” of quantum physicists just a few years behind the titans Heisenberg and Schrödinger and Pauli.  He began as a student in physical chemistry working in Stockholm under the famous Arrhenius.  It was arranged for him to work in France and Germany in 1914, but he was caught in Paris at the onset of World War I.  Returning to Sweden, he enlisted in military service from 1915 to 1916 and then joined Arrhenius’ group at the Nobel Institute where he met Hendrick Kramers—Bohr’s direct assistant at Copenhagen at that time.  At Kramer’s invitation, Klein traveled to Copenhagen and worked for a year with Kramers and Bohr before returning to defend his doctoral thesis in 1921 in the field of physical chemistry.  Klein’s work with Bohr had opened his eyes to the possibilities of quantum theory, and he shifted his research interest away from physical chemistry.  Unfortunately, there were no positions at that time in such a new field, so Klein accepted a position as assistant professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he stayed from 1923 to 1925. 

Oskar Klein in the late 1920’s

The Fifth Dimension

In an odd twist of fate, this isolation of Klein from the mainstream quantum theory being pursued in Europe freed him of the bandwagon effect and allowed him to range freely on topics of his own devising and certainly in directions all his own.  Unaware of Kaluza’s previous work, Klein expanded Minkowski’s space-time from four to five spatial dimensions, just as Kaluza had done, but now with a quantum interpretation.  This was not just an incremental step but had far-ranging consequences in the history of physics.

Klein found a way to keep the fifth dimension Euclidean in its metric properties while rolling itself up compactly into a cylinder with the radius of the Planck length—something inconceivably small.  This compact fifth dimension made the manifold into something akin to an infinitesimal string.  He published a short note in Nature magazine in 1926 on the possibility of identifying the electric charge within the 5-dimensional theory [Klein, 2916a]. He then returned to Sweden to take up a position at the University of Lund.  This odd string-like feature of 5-dimensional space-time was picked up by Einstein and others in their search for unified field theories of physics, but the topic soon drifted from the lime light where it lay dormant for nearly fifty years until the first forays were made into string theory. String theory resurrected the Kaluza-Klein theory which has bourgeoned into the vast topic of String Theory today, including Superstrings that occur in 10+1 dimensions at the frontiers of physics. 

Dirac Electrons without the Spin: Klein-Gordon Equation

Once back in Europe, Klein reengaged with the mainstream trends in the rapidly developing quantum theory and in 1926 developed a relativistic quantum theory of the electron [Klein, 1926b].  Around the same time Walter Gordon also proposed this equation, which is now called the “Klein-Gordon Equation”.  The equation was a classic wave equation that was second order in both space and time.  This was the most natural form for a wave equation for quantum particles and Schrödinger himself had started with this form.  But Schrödinger had quickly realized that the second-order time term in the equation did not capture the correct structure of the hydrogen atom, which led him to express the time-dependent term in first order and non-relativistically—which is today’s “Schrödinger Equation”.  The problem was in the spin of the electron.  The electron is a spin-1/2 particle, a Fermion, which has special transformation properties.  It was Dirac a few years later who discovered how to express the relativistic wave equation for the electron—not by promoting the time-dependent term to second order, but by demoting the space-dependent term to first order.  The first-order expression for both the space and time derivatives goes hand in hand with the Pauli spin matrices for the electron, and the Dirac Equation is the appropriate relativistically-correct wave equation for the electron.

Klein’s relativistic quantum wave equation does turn out to be the relevant form for a spin-less particle like the pion, but the pion decays by the strong nuclear force and the Klein-Gordon equation is not a practical description.  However, the Higgs boson also is a spin-zero particle, and the Klein-Gordon expression does have relevance for this fundamental exchange particle.

Klein Tunneling

In those early days of the late 1920’s, the nature of the nucleus was still a mystery, especially the problem of nuclear radioactivity where a neutron could convert to a proton with the emission of an electron.  Some suggested that the neutron was somehow a proton that had captured an electron in a potential barrier.  Klein showed that this was impossible, that the electrons would be highly relativistic—something known as a Dirac electron—and they would tunnel with perfect probability through any potential barrier [Klein, 1929].  Therefore, Klein concluded, no nucleon or nucleus could bind an electron. 

This phenomenon of unity transmission through a barrier became known as Klein tunneling. The relativistic electron transmits perfectly through an arbitrary potential barrier—independent of its width or height. This is unlike light that transmits through a dielectric slab in resonances that depend on the thickness of the slab—also known as a Fabry-Perot interferometer. The Dirac electron can have any energy, and the potential barrier can have any width, yet the electron will tunnel with 100% probability. How can this happen?

The answer has to do with the dispersion (velocity versus momentum) of the Dirac electron. As the momentum changes in a potential the speed of the Dirac electron stays constant. In the potential barrier, the moment flips sign, but the speed remains unchanged. This is equivalent to the effects of negative refractive index in optics. If a photon travels through a material with negative refractive index, its momentum is flipped, but its speed remains unchanged. From Fermat’s principle, it is speed which determines how a particle like a photon refracts, so if there is no speed change, then there is no reflection.

For the case of Dirac electrons in a potential with field F, speed v and transverse momentum py, the transmission coefficient is given by

If the transverse momentum is zero, then the transmission is perfect. A visual schematic of the role of dispersion and potentials for Dirac electrons undergoing Klein tunneling is shown in the next figure.

Dispersion of Dirac electrons at a potential step. Reprinted from

In this case, even if the transverse momentum is not strictly zero, there can still be perfect transmission. It is simply a matter of matching speeds.

Graphene became famous over the past decade because its electron dispersion relation is just like a relativistic Dirac electron with a Dirac point between conduction and valence bands. Evidence for Klein tunneling in graphene systems has been growing, but clean demonstrations have remained difficult to observe.

Now, published in the Dec. 2020 issue of Science magazine—almost a century after Klein first proposed it—an experimental group at the University of California at Berkeley reports a beautiful experimental demonstration of Klein tunneling—not from a nucleus, but in an acoustic honeycomb sounding board the size of a small table—making an experimental analogy between acoustics and Dirac electrons that bears out Klein’s theory.

The accoustic Klein tunneling sounding board at Berkeley. Reprinted from

In this special sounding board, it is not electrons but phonons—acoustic vibrations—that have a Dirac point. Furthermore, by changing the honeycomb pattern, the bands can be shifted, just like in a p-n-p junction, to produce a potential barrier. The Berkeley group, led by Xiang Zhang (now president of Hong Kong University), fabricated the sounding board that is about a half-meter in length, and demonstrated dramatic Klein tunneling.

It is amazing how long it can take between the time a theory is first proposed and the time a clean experimental demonstration is first performed.  Nearly 90 years has elapsed since Klein first derived the phenomenon. Performing the experiment with actual relativistic electrons was prohibitive, but bringing the Dirac electron analog into the solid state has allowed the effect to be demonstrated easily.


[1921] Kaluza, Theodor (1921). “Zum Unitätsproblem in der Physik”. Sitzungsber. Preuss. Akad. Wiss. Berlin. (Math. Phys.): 966–972

[1926a] Klein, O. (1926). “The Atomicity of Electricity as a Quantum Theory Law”. Nature 118: 516-516.

[1926b] Klein, O. (1926). “Quantentheorie und fünfdimensionale Relativitätstheorie”. Zeitschrift für Physik. 37 (12): 895

[1929] Klein, O. (1929). “Die Reflexion von Elektronen an einem Potentialsprung nach der relativistischen Dynamik von Dirac”. Zeitschrift für Physik. 53 (3–4): 157