The Solvay Debates: Einstein versus Bohr

Einstein is the alpha of the quantum. Einstein is also the omega. Although he was the one who established the quantum of energy and matter (see my Blog Einstein vs Planck), Einstein pitted himself in a running debate against Niels Bohr’s emerging interpretation of quantum physics that had, in Einstein’s opinion, severe deficiencies. Between sessions during a series of conferences known as the Solvay Congresses over a period of eight years from 1927 to 1935, Einstein constructed a challenges of increasing sophistication to confront Bohr and his quasi-voodoo attitudes about wave-function collapse. To meet the challenge, Bohr sharpened his arguments and bested Einstein, who ultimately withdrew from the field of battle. Einstein, as quantum physics’ harshest critic, played a pivotal role, almost against his will, establishing the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics that rules to this day, and also inventing the principle of entanglement which lies at the core of almost all quantum information technology today.

Debate Timeline

  • Fifth Solvay Congress: 1927 October Brussels: Debate Round 1
    • Einstein and ensembles
  • Sixth Solvay Congress: 1930 Debate Round 2
    • Photon in a box
  • Seventh Solvay Congress: 1933
    • Einstein absent (visiting the US when Hitler takes power…decides not to return to Germany.)
  • Physical Review 1935: Debate Round 3
    • EPR paper and Bohr’s response
    • Schrödinger’s Cat
  • Notable Nobel Prizes
    • 1918 Planck
    • 1921 Einstein
    • 1922 Bohr
    • 1932 Heisenberg
    • 1933 Dirac and Schrödinger

The Solvay Conferences

The Solvay congresses were unparalleled scientific meetings of their day.  They were attended by invitation only, and invitations were offered only to the top physicists concerned with the selected topic of each meeting.  The Solvay congresses were held about every three years always in Belgium, supported by the Belgian chemical industrialist Ernest Solvay.  The first meeting, held in 1911, was on the topic of radiation and quanta. 

Fig. 1 First Solvay Congress (1911). Einstein (standing second from right) was one of the youngest attendees.

The fifth meeting, held in 1927, was on electrons and photons and focused on the recent rapid advances in quantum theory.  The old quantum guard was invited—Planck, Bohr and Einstein.  The new quantum guard was invited as well—Heisenberg, de Broglie, Schrödinger, Born, Pauli, and Dirac.  Heisenberg and Bohr joined forces to present a united front meant to solidify what later became known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics.  The basic principles of the interpretation include the wavefunction of Schrödinger, the probabilistic interpretation of Born, the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg, the complementarity principle of Bohr and the collapse of the wavefunction during measurement.  The chief conclusion that Heisenberg and Bohr sought to impress on the assembled attendees was that the theory of quantum processes was complete, meaning that unknown or uncertain  characteristics of measurements could not be attributed to lack of knowledge or understanding, but were fundamental and permanently inaccessible.

Fig. 2 Fifth Solvay Congress (1927). Einstein front and center. Bohr on the far right middle row.

Einstein was not convinced with that argument, and he rose to his feet to object after Bohr’s informal presentation of his complementarity principle.  Einstein insisted that uncertainties in measurement were not fundamental, but were caused by incomplete information, that , if known, would accurately account for the measurement results.  Bohr was not prepared for Einstein’s critique and brushed it off, but what ensued in the dining hall and the hallways of the Hotel Metropole in Brussels over the next several days has become one of the most famous scientific debates of the modern era, known as the Bohr-Einstein debate on the meaning of quantum theory.  The debate gently raged night and day through the fifth congress, and was renewed three years later at the 1930 congress.  It finished, in a final flurry of published papers in 1935 that launched some of the central concepts of quantum theory, including the idea of quantum entanglement and, of course, Schrödinger’s cat.

Einstein’s strategy, to refute Bohr, was to construct careful thought experiments that envisioned perfect experiments, without errors, that measured properties of ideal quantum systems.  His aim was to paint Bohr into a corner from which he could not escape, caught by what Einstein assumed was the inconsistency of complementarity.  Einstein’s “thought experiments” used electrons passing through slits, diffracting as required by Schrödinger’s theory, but being detected by classical measurements.  Einstein would present a thought experiment to Bohr, who would then retreat to consider the way around Einstein’s arguments, returning the next hour or the next day with his answer, only to be confronted by yet another clever device of Einstein’s clever imagination that would force Bohr to retreat again.  The spirit of this back and forth encounter between Bohr and Einstein is caught dramatically in the words of Paul Ehrenfest who witnessed the debate first hand, partially mediating between Bohr and Einstein, both of whom he respected deeply.

“Brussels-Solvay was fine!… BOHR towering over everybody.  At first not understood at all … , then  step by step defeating everybody.  Naturally, once again the awful Bohr incantation terminology.  Impossible for anyone else to summarise … (Every night at 1 a.m., Bohr came into my room just to say ONE SINGLE WORD to me, until three a.m.)  It was delightful for me to be present during the conversation between Bohr and Einstein.  Like a game of chess, Einstein all the time with new examples.  In a certain sense a sort of Perpetuum Mobile of the second kind to break the UNCERTAINTY RELATION.  Bohr from out of philosophical smoke clouds constantly searching for the tools to crush one example after the other.  Einstein like a jack-in-the-box; jumping out fresh every morning.  Oh, that was priceless.  But I am almost without reservation pro Bohr and contra Einstein.  His attitude to Bohr is now exacly like the attitude of the defenders of absolute simultaneity towards him …” [1]

The most difficult example that Einstein constructed during the fifth Solvary Congress involved an electron double-slit apparatus that could measure, in principle, the momentum imparted to the slit by the passing electron, as shown in Fig.3.  The electron gun is a point source that emits the electrons in a range of angles that illuminates the two slits.  The slits are small relative to a de Broglie wavelength, so the electron wavefunctions diffract according to Schrödinger’s wave mechanics to illuminate the detection plate.  Because of the interference of the electron waves from the two slits, electrons are detected clustered in intense fringes separated by dark fringes. 

So far, everyone was in agreement with these suggested results.  The key next step is the assumption that the electron gun emits only a single electron at a time, so that only one electron is present in the system at any given time.  Furthermore, the screen with the double slit is suspended on a spring, and the position of the screen is measured with complete accuracy by a displacement meter.  When the single electron passes through the entire system, it imparts a momentum kick to the screen, which is measured by the meter.  It is also detected at a specific location on the detection plate.  Knowing the position of the electron detection, and the momentum kick to the screen, provides information about which slit the electron passed through, and gives simultaneous position and momentum values to the electron that have no uncertainty, apparently rebutting the uncertainty principle.             

Fig. 3 Einstein’s single-electron thought experiment in which the recoil of the screen holding the slits can be measured to tell which way the electron went. Bohr showed that the more “which way” information is obtained, the more washed-out the interference pattern becomes.

This challenge by Einstein was the culmination of successively more sophisticated examples that he had to pose to combat Bohr, and Bohr was not going to let it pass unanswered.  With ingenious insight, Bohr recognized that the key element in the apparatus was the fact that the screen with the slits must have finite mass if the momentum kick by the electron were to produce a measurable displacement.  But if the screen has finite mass, and hence a finite momentum kick from the electron, then there must be an uncertainty in the position of the slits.  This uncertainty immediately translates into a washout of the interference fringes.  In fact the more information that is obtained about which slit the electron passed through, the more the interference is washed out.  It was a perfect example of Bohr’s own complementarity principle.  The more the apparatus measures particle properties, the less it measures wave properties, and vice versa, in a perfect balance between waves and particles. 

Einstein grudgingly admitted defeat at the end of the first round, but he was not defeated.  Three years later he came back armed with more clever thought experiments, ready for the second round in the debate.

The Sixth Solvay Conference: 1930

At the Solvay Congress of 1930, Einstein was ready with even more difficult challenges.  His ultimate idea was to construct a box containing photons, just like the original black bodies that launched Planck’s quantum hypothesis thirty years before.  The box is attached to a weighing scale so that the weight of the box plus the photons inside can be measured with arbitrarily accuracy. A shutter over a hole in the box is opened for a time T, and a photon is emitted.  Because the photon has energy, it has an equivalent weight (Einstein’s own famous E = mc2), and the mass of the box changes by an amount equal to the photon energy divided by the speed of light squared: m = E/c2.  If the scale has arbitrary accuracy, then the energy of the photon has no uncertainty.  In addition, because the shutter was open for only a time T, the time of emission similarly has no uncertainty.  Therefore, the product of the energy uncertainty and the time uncertainty is much smaller than Planck’s constant, apparently violating Heisenberg’s precious uncertainty principle.

Bohr was stopped in his tracks with this challenge.  Although he sensed immediately that Einstein had missed something (because Bohr had complete confidence in the uncertainty principle), he could not put his finger immediately on what it was.  That evening he wandered from one attendee to another, very unhappy, trying to persuade them and saying that Einstein could not be right because it would be the end of physics.  At the end of the evening, Bohr was no closer to a solution, and Einstein was looking smug.  However, by the next morning Bohr reappeared tired but in high spirits, and he delivered a master stroke.  Where Einstein had used special relaitivity against Bohr, Bohr now used Einstein’s own general relativity against him. 

The key insight was that the weight of the box must be measured, and the process of measurement was just as important as the quantum process being measured—this was one of the cornerstones of the Copenhagen interpretation.  So Bohr envisioned a measuring apparatus composed of a spring and a scale with the box suspended in gravity from the spring.  As the photon leaves the box, the weight of the box changes, and so does the deflection of the spring, changing the height of the box.  This change in height, in a gravitational potential, causes the timing of the shutter to change according to the law of gravitational time dilation in general relativity.  By calculating the the general relativistic uncertainty in the time, coupled with the special relativistic uncertainty in the weight of the box, produced a product that was at least as big as Planck’s constant—Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was saved!

Fig. 4 Einstein’s thought experiment that uses special relativity to refute quantum mechanics. Bohr then invoked Einstein’s own general relativity to refute him.

Entanglement and Schrödinger’s Cat

Einstein ceded the point to Bohr but was not convinced. He still believed that quantum mechanics was not a “complete” theory of quantum physics and he continued to search for the perfect thought experiment that Bohr could not escape. Even today when we have become so familiar with quantum phenomena, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics has weird consequences that seem to defy common sense, so it is understandable that Einstein had his reservations.

After the sixth Solvay congress Einstein and Schrödinger exchanged many letters complaining to each other about Bohr’s increasing strangle-hold on the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Egging each other on, they both constructed their own final assault on Bohr. The irony is that the concepts they devised to throw down quantum mechanics have today become cornerstones of the theory. For Einstein, his final salvo was “Entanglement”. For Schrödinger, his final salvo was his “cat”. Today, Entanglement and Schrödinger’s Cat have become enshrined on the alter of quantum interpretation even though their original function was to thwart that interpretation.

The final round of the debate was carried out, not at a Solvay congress, but in the Physical review journal by Einstein [2] and Bohr [3], and in the Naturwissenshaften by Schrödinger [4].

In 1969, Heisenberg looked back on these years and said,

To those of us who participated in the development of atomic theory, the five years following the Solvay Conference in Brussels in 1927 looked so wonderful that we often spoke of them as the golden age of atomic physics. The great obstacles that had occupied all our efforts in the preceding years had been cleared out of the way, the gate to an entirely new field, the quantum mechanics of the atomic shells stood wide open, and fresh fruits seemed ready for the picking. [5]


[1] A. Whitaker, Einstein, Bohr, and the quantum dilemma : from quantum theory to quantum information, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2006. (pg. 210)

[2] A. Einstein, B. Podolsky, and N. Rosen, “Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?,” Physical Review, vol. 47, no. 10, pp. 0777-0780, May (1935)

[3] N. Bohr, “Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?,” Physical Review, vol. 48, no. 8, pp. 696-702, Oct (1935)

[4] E. Schrodinger, “The current situation in quantum mechanics,” Naturwissenschaften, vol. 23, pp. 807-812, (1935)

[5] W Heisenberg, Physics and beyond : Encounters and conversations (Harper, New York, 1971)

Timelines in the History and Physics of Dynamics (with links to primary texts)

These timelines in the History of Dynamics are organized along the Chapters in Galileo Unbound (Oxford, 2018). The book is about the physics and history of dynamics including classical and quantum mechanics as well as general relativity and nonlinear dynamics (with a detour down evolutionary dynamics and game theory along the way). The first few chapters focus on Galileo, while the following chapters follow his legacy, as theories of motion became more abstract, eventually to encompass the evolution of species within the same theoretical framework as the orbit of photons around black holes.

Galileo: A New Scientist

Galileo Galilei was the first modern scientist, launching a new scientific method that superseded, after one and a half millennia, Aristotle’s physics.  Galileo’s career began with his studies of motion at the University of Pisa that were interrupted by his move to the University of Padua and his telescopic discoveries of mountains on the moon and the moons of Jupiter.  Galileo became the first rock star of science, and he used his fame to promote the ideas of Copernicus and the Sun-centered model of the solar system.  But he pushed too far when he lampooned the Pope.  Ironically, Galileo’s conviction for heresy and his sentence to house arrest for the remainder of his life gave him the free time to finally finish his work on the physics of motion, which he published in Two New Sciences in 1638.

1543 Copernicus dies, publishes posthumously De Revolutionibus

1564    Galileo born

1581    Enters University of Pisa

1585    Leaves Pisa without a degree

1586    Invents hydrostatic balance

1588    Receives lecturship in mathematics at Pisa

1592    Chair of mathematics at Univeristy of Padua

1595    Theory of the tides

1595    Invents military and geometric compass

1596    Le Meccaniche and the principle of horizontal inertia

1600    Bruno Giordano burned at the stake

1601    Death of Tycho Brahe

1609    Galileo constructs his first telescope, makes observations of the moon

1610    Galileo discovers 4 moons of Jupiter, Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius), appointed chief philosopher and mathematician of the Duke of Tuscany, moves to Florence, observes Saturn, Venus goes through phases like the moon

1611    Galileo travels to Rome, inducted into the Lyncean Academy, name “telescope” is first used

1611    Scheiner discovers sunspots

1611    Galileo meets Barberini, a cardinal

1611 Johannes Kepler, Dioptrice

1613    Letters on sunspots published by Lincean Academy in Rome

1614    Galileo denounced from the pulpit

1615    (April) Bellarmine writes an essay against Coperinicus

1615    Galileo investigated by the Inquisition

1615    Writes Letter to Christina, but does not publish it

1615    (December) travels to Rome and stays at Tuscan embassy

1616    (January) Francesco Ingoli publishes essay against Copernicus

1616    (March) Decree against copernicanism

1616    Galileo publishes theory of tides, Galileo meets with Pope Paul V, Copernicus’ book is banned, Galileo warned not to support the Coperinican system, Galileo decides not to reply to Ingoli, Galileo proposes eclipses of Jupter’s moons to determine longitude at sea

1618    Three comets appear, Grassi gives a lecture not hostile to Galileo

1618    Galileo, through Mario Guiducci, publishes scathing attack on Grassi

1619    Jesuit Grassi (Sarsi) publishes attack on Galileo concerning 3 comets

1619    Marina Gamba dies, Galileo legitimizes his son Vinczenzio

1619 Kepler’s Laws, Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae.

1623    Barberini becomes Urban VIII, The Assayer published (response to Grassi)

1624    Galileo visits Rome and Urban VIII

1629    Birth of his grandson Galileo

1630    Death of Johanes Kepler

1632    Publication of the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo is indicted by the Inquisition (68 years old)

1633    (February) Travels to Rome

1633    Convicted, abjurs, house arrest in Rome, then Siena, then home to Arcetri

1638    Blind, publication of Two New Sciences

1642    Galileo dies (77 years old)

Galileo’s Trajectory

Galileo’s discovery of the law of fall and the parabolic trajectory began with early work on the physics of motion by predecessors like the Oxford Scholars, Tartaglia and the polymath Simon Stevin who dropped lead weights from the leaning tower of Delft three years before Galileo (may have) dropped lead weights from the leaning tower of Pisa.  The story of how Galileo developed his ideas of motion is described in the context of his studies of balls rolling on inclined plane and the surprising accuracy he achieved without access to modern timekeeping.

1583    Galileo Notices isochronism of the pendulum

1588    Receives lecturship in mathematics at Pisa

1589 – 1592  Work on projectile motion in Pisa

1592    Chair of mathematics at Univeristy of Padua

1596    Le Meccaniche and the principle of horizontal inertia

1600    Guidobaldo shares technique of colored ball

1602    Proves isochronism of the pendulum (experimentally)

1604    First experiments on uniformly accelerated motion

1604    Wrote to Scarpi about the law of fall (s ≈ t2)

1607-1608  Identified trajectory as parabolic

1609    Velocity proportional to time

1632    Publication of the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo is indicted by the Inquisition (68 years old)

1636    Letter to Christina published in Augsburg in Latin and Italian

1638    Blind, publication of Two New Sciences

1641    Invented pendulum clock (in theory)

1642    Dies (77 years old)

On the Shoulders of Giants

Galileo’s parabolic trajectory launched a new approach to physics that was taken up by a new generation of scientists like Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Edmund Halley.  The English Newtonian tradition was adopted by ambitious French iconoclasts who championed Newton over their own Descartes.  Chief among these was Pierre Maupertuis, whose principle of least action was developed by Leonhard Euler and Joseph Lagrange into a rigorous new science of dynamics.  Along the way, Maupertuis became embroiled in a famous dispute that entangled the King of Prussia as well as the volatile Voltaire who was mourning the death of his mistress Emilie du Chatelet, the lone female French physicist of the eighteenth century.

1644    Descartes’ vortex theory of gravitation

1662    Fermat’s principle

1669 – 1690    Huygens expands on Descartes’ vortex theory

1687 Newton’s Principia

1698    Maupertuis born

1729    Maupertuis entered University in Basel.  Studied under Johann Bernoulli

1736    Euler publishes Mechanica sive motus scientia analytice exposita

1737   Maupertuis report on expedition to Lapland.  Earth is oblate.  Attacks Cassini.

1744    Maupertuis Principle of Least Action.  Euler Principle of Least Action.

1745    Maupertuis becomes president of Berlin Academy.  Paris Academy cancels his membership after a campaign against him by Cassini.

1746    Maupertuis principle of Least Action for mass

1751    Samuel König disputes Maupertuis’ priority

1756    Cassini dies.  Maupertuis reinstated in the French Academy

1759    Maupertuis dies

1759    du Chatelet’s French translation of Newton’s Principia published posthumously

1760    Euler 3-body problem (two fixed centers and coplanar third body)

1760-1761 Lagrange, Variational calculus (J. L. Lagrange, “Essai d’une nouvelle méthod pour dEeterminer les maxima et lest minima des formules intégrales indéfinies,” Miscellanea Teurinensia, (1760-1761))

1762    Beginning of the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia

1763    Euler colinear 3-body problem

1765    Euler publishes Theoria motus corporum solidorum on rotational mechanics

1766    Euler returns to St. Petersburg

1766    Lagrange arrives in Berlin

1772    Lagrange equilateral 3-body problem, Essai sur le problème des trois corps, 1772, Oeuvres tome 6

1775    Beginning of the American War of Independence

1776    Adam Smith Wealth of Nations

1781    William Herschel discovers Uranus

1783    Euler dies in St. Petersburg

1787    United States Constitution written

1787    Lagrange moves from Berlin to Paris

1788    Lagrange, Méchanique analytique

1789    Beginning of the French Revolution

1799    Pierre-Simon Laplace Mécanique Céleste (1799-1825)

Geometry on My Mind

This history of modern geometry focuses on the topics that provided the foundation for the new visualization of physics.  It begins with Carl Gauss and Bernhard Riemann, who redefined geometry and identified the importance of curvature for physics.  Vector spaces, developed by Hermann Grassmann, Giuseppe Peano and David Hilbert, are examples of the kinds of abstract new spaces that are so important for modern physics, such as Hilbert space for quantum mechanics.  Fractal geometry developed by Felix Hausdorff later provided the geometric language needed to solve problems in chaos theory.

1629    Fermat described higher-dim loci

1637    Descarte’s Geometry

1649    van Schooten’s commentary on Descartes Geometry

1694    Leibniz uses word “coordinate” in its modern usage

1697    Johann Bernoulli shortest distance between two points on convex surface

1732    Euler geodesic equations for implicit surfaces

1748    Euler defines modern usage of function

1801    Gauss calculates orbit of Ceres

1807    Fourier analysis (published in 1822(

1807    Gauss arrives in Göttingen

1827    Karl Gauss establishes differential geometry of curved surfaces, Disquisitiones generales circa superficies curvas

1830    Bolyai and Lobachevsky publish on hyperbolic geometry

1834    Jacobi n-fold integrals and volumes of n-dim spheres

1836    Liouville-Sturm theorem

1838    Liouville’s theorem

1841    Jacobi determinants

1843    Arthur Cayley systems of n-variables

1843    Hamilton discovers quaternions

1844    Hermann Grassman n-dim vector spaces, Die Lineale Ausdehnungslehr

1846    Julius Plücker System der Geometrie des Raumes in neuer analytischer Behandlungsweise

1848 Jacobi Vorlesungen über Dynamik

1848    “Vector” coined by Hamilton

1854    Riemann’s habilitation lecture

1861    Riemann n-dim solution of heat conduction

1868    Publication of Riemann’s Habilitation

1869    Christoffel and Lipschitz work on multiple dimensional analysis

1871    Betti refers to the n-ply of numbers as a “space”.

1871    Klein publishes on non-euclidean geometry

1872 Boltzmann distribution

1872    Jordan Essay on the geometry of n-dimensions

1872    Felix Klein’s “Erlangen Programme”

1872    Weierstrass’ Monster

1872    Dedekind cut

1872    Cantor paper on irrational numbers

1872    Cantor meets Dedekind

1872 Lipschitz derives mechanical motion as a geodesic on a manifold

1874    Cantor beginning of set theory

1877    Cantor one-to-one correspondence between the line and n-dimensional space

1881    Gibbs codifies vector analysis

1883    Cantor set and staircase Grundlagen einer allgemeinen Mannigfaltigkeitslehre

1884    Abbott publishes Flatland

1887    Peano vector methods in differential geometry

1890    Peano space filling curve

1891    Hilbert space filling curve

1887    Darboux vol. 2 treats dynamics as a point in d-dimensional space.  Applies concepts of geodesics for trajectories.

1898    Ricci-Curbastro Lesons on the Theory of Surfaces

1902    Lebesgue integral

1904    Hilbert studies integral equations

1904    von Koch snowflake

1906    Frechet thesis on square summable sequences as infinite dimensional space

1908    Schmidt Geometry in a Function Space

1910    Brouwer proof of dimensional invariance

1913    Hilbert space named by Riesz

1914    Hilbert space used by Hausdorff

1915    Sierpinski fractal triangle

1918    Hausdorff non-integer dimensions

1918    Weyl’s book Space, Time, Matter

1918    Fatou and Julia fractals

1920    Banach space

1927    von Neumann axiomatic form of Hilbert Space

1935    Frechet full form of Hilbert Space

1967    Mandelbrot coast of Britain

1982    Mandelbrot’s book The Fractal Geometry of Nature

The Tangled Tale of Phase Space

Phase space is the central visualization tool used today to study complex systems.  The chapter describes the origins of phase space with the work of Joseph Liouville and Carl Jacobi that was later refined by Ludwig Boltzmann and Rudolf Clausius in their attempts to define and explain the subtle concept of entropy.  The turning point in the history of phase space was when Henri Poincaré used phase space to solve the three-body problem, uncovering chaotic behavior in his quest to answer questions on the stability of the solar system.  Phase space was established as the central paradigm of statistical mechanics by JW Gibbs and Paul Ehrenfest.

1804    Jacobi born (1904 – 1851) in Potsdam

1804    Napoleon I Emperor of France

1806    William Rowan Hamilton born (1805 – 1865)

1807    Thomas Young describes “Energy” in his Course on Natural Philosophy (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2)

1808    Bethoven performs his Fifth Symphony

1809    Joseph Liouville born (1809 – 1882)

1821    Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz born (1821 – 1894)

1824    Carnot published Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire

1834    Jacobi n-fold integrals and volumes of n-dim spheres

1834-1835       Hamilton publishes his principle (1834, 1835).

1836    Liouville-Sturm theorem

1837    Queen Victoria begins her reign as Queen of England

1838    Liouville develops his theorem on products of n differentials satisfying certain first-order differential equations.  This becomes the classic reference to Liouville’s Theorem.

1847    Helmholtz  Conservation of Energy (force)

1849    Thomson makes first use of “Energy” (From reading Thomas Young’s lecture notes)

1850    Clausius establishes First law of Thermodynamics: Internal energy. Second law:  Heat cannot flow unaided from cold to hot.  Not explicitly stated as first and second laws

1851    Thomson names Clausius’ First and Second laws of Thermodynamics

1852    Thomson describes general dissipation of the universe (“energy” used in title)

1854    Thomson defined absolute temperature.  First mathematical statement of 2nd law.  Restricted to reversible processes

1854    Clausius stated Second Law of Thermodynamics as inequality

1857    Clausius constructs kinetic theory, Mean molecular speeds

1858    Clausius defines mean free path, Molecules have finite size. Clausius assumed that all molecules had the same speed

1860    Maxwell publishes first paper on kinetic theory. Distribution of speeds. Derivation of gas transport properties

1865    Loschmidt size of molecules

1865    Clausius names entropy

1868    Boltzmann adds (Boltzmann) factor to Maxwell distribution

1872    Boltzmann transport equation and H-theorem

1876    Loschmidt reversibility paradox

1877    Boltzmann  S = k logW

1890    Poincare: Recurrence Theorem. Recurrence paradox with Second Law (1893)

1896    Zermelo criticizes Boltzmann

1896    Boltzmann posits direction of time to save his H-theorem

1898    Boltzmann Vorlesungen über Gas Theorie

1905    Boltzmann kinetic theory of matter in Encyklopädie der mathematischen Wissenschaften

1906    Boltzmann dies

1910    Paul Hertz uses “Phase Space” (Phasenraum)

1911    Ehrenfest’s article in Encyklopädie der mathematischen Wissenschaften

1913    A. Rosenthal writes the first paper using the phrase “phasenraum”, combining the work of Boltzmann and Poincaré. “Beweis der Unmöglichkeit ergodischer Gassysteme” (Ann. D. Physik, 42, 796 (1913)

1913    Plancheral, “Beweis der Unmöglichkeit ergodischer mechanischer Systeme” (Ann. D. Physik, 42, 1061 (1913).  Also uses “Phasenraum”.

The Lens of Gravity

Gravity provided the backdrop for one of the most important paradigm shifts in the history of physics.  Prior to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, trajectories were paths described by geometry.  After the theory of general relativity, trajectories are paths caused by geometry.  This chapter explains how Einstein arrived at his theory of gravity, relying on the space-time geometry of Hermann Minkowski, whose work he had originally harshly criticized.  The confirmation of Einstein’s theory was one of the dramatic high points in 20th century history of physics when Arthur Eddington journeyed to an island off the coast of Africa to observe stellar deflections during a solar eclipse.  If Galileo was the first rock star of physics, then Einstein was the first worldwide rock star of science.

1697    Johann Bernoulli was first to find solution to shortest path between two points on a curved surface (1697).

1728    Euler found the geodesic equation.

1783    The pair 40 Eridani B/C was discovered by William Herschel on 31 January

1783    John Michell explains infalling object would travel faster than speed of light

1796    Laplace describes “dark stars” in Exposition du system du Monde

1827    The first orbit of a binary star computed by Félix Savary for the orbit of Xi Ursae Majoris.

1827    Gauss curvature Theoriem Egregum

1844    Bessel notices periodic displacement of Sirius with period of half a century

1844    The name “geodesic line” is attributed to Liouville.

1845    Buys Ballot used musicians with absolute pitch for the first experimental verification of the Doppler effect

1854    Riemann’s habilitationsschrift

1862    Discovery of Sirius B (a white dwarf)

1868    Darboux suggested motions in n-dimensions

1872    Lipshitz first to apply Riemannian geometry to the principle of least action.

1895    Hilbert arrives in Göttingen

1902    Minkowski arrives in Göttingen

1905    Einstein’s miracle year

1906    Poincaré describes Lorentz transformations as rotations in 4D

1907    Einstein has “happiest thought” in November

1907    Einstein’s relativity review in Jahrbuch

1908    Minkowski’s Space and Time lecture

1908    Einstein appointed to unpaid position at University of Bern

1909    Minkowski dies

1909    Einstein appointed associate professor of theoretical physics at U of Zürich

1910    40 Eridani B was discobered to be of spectral type A (white dwarf)

1910    Size and mass of Sirius B determined (heavy and small)

1911    Laue publishes first textbook on relativity theory

1911    Einstein accepts position at Prague

1911    Einstein goes to the limits of special relativity applied to gravitational fields

1912    Einstein’s two papers establish a scalar field theory of gravitation

1912    Einstein moves from Prague to ETH in Zürich in fall.  Begins collaboration with Grossmann.

1913    Einstein EG paper

1914    Adams publishes spectrum of 40 Eridani B

1915    Sirius B determined to be also a low-luminosity type A white dwarf

1915    Einstein Completes paper

1916    Density of 40 Eridani B by Ernst Öpik

1916    Schwarzschild paper

1916 Einstein’s publishes theory of gravitational waves

1919    Eddington expedition to Principe

1920    Eddington paper on deflection of light by the sun

1922    Willem Luyten coins phrase “white dwarf”

1924    Eddington found a set of coordinates that eliminated the singularity at the Schwarzschild radius

1926    R. H. Fowler publishes paper on degenerate matter and composition of white dwarfs

1931    Chandrasekhar calculated the limit for collapse to white dwarf stars at 1.4MS

1933    Georges Lemaitre states the coordinate singularity was an artefact

1934    Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky proposed the existence of the neutron star only a year after the discovery of the neutron by Sir James Chadwick.

1939    Oppenheimer and Snyder showed ultimate collapse of a 3MS  “frozen star”

1958    David Finkelstein paper

1965    Antony Hewish and Samuel Okoye discovered “an unusual source of high radio brightness temperature in the Crab Nebula”. This source turned out to be the Crab Nebula neutron star that resulted from the great supernova of 1054.

1967    Jocelyn Bell and Antony Hewish discovered regular radio pulses from CP 1919. This pulsar was later interpreted as an isolated, rotating neutron star.

1967    Wheeler’s “black hole” talk

1974    Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse discovered the first binary pulsar, PSR B1913+16, which consists of two neutron stars (one seen as a pulsar) orbiting around their center of mass.

2015    LIGO detects gravitational waves on Sept. 14 from the merger of two black holes

2017    LIGO detects the merger of two neutron stars

On the Quantum Footpath

The concept of the trajectory of a quantum particle almost vanished in the battle between Werner Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics and Erwin Schrödinger’s wave mechanics.  It took Niels Bohr and his complementarity principle of wave-particle duality to cede back some reality to quantum trajectories.  However, Schrödinger and Einstein were not convinced and conceived of quantum entanglement to refute the growing acceptance of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics.  Schrödinger’s cat was meant to be an absurdity, but ironically it has become a central paradigm of practical quantum computers.  Quantum trajectories took on new meaning when Richard Feynman constructed quantum theory based on the principle of least action, inventing his famous Feynman Diagrams to help explain quantum electrodynamics.

1885    Balmer Theory: 

1897    J. J. Thomson discovered the electron

1904    Thomson plum pudding model of the atom

1911    Bohr PhD thesis filed. Studies on the electron theory of metals.  Visited England.

1911    Rutherford nuclear model

1911    First Solvay conference

1911    “ultraviolet catastrophe” coined by Ehrenfest

1913    Bohr combined Rutherford’s nuclear atom with Planck’s quantum hypothesis: 1913 Bohr model

1913    Ehrenfest adiabatic hypothesis

1914-1916       Bohr at Manchester with Rutherford

1916    Bohr appointed Chair of Theoretical Physics at University of Copenhagen: a position that was made just for him

1916    Schwarzschild and Epstein introduce action-angle coordinates into quantum theory

1920    Heisenberg enters University of Munich to obtain his doctorate

1920    Bohr’s Correspondence principle: Classical physics for large quantum numbers

1921    Bohr Founded Institute of Theoretical Physics (Copenhagen)

1922-1923       Heisenberg studies with Born, Franck and Hilbert at Göttingen while Sommerfeld is in the US on sabbatical.

1923    Heisenberg Doctorate.  The exam does not go well.  Unable to derive the resolving power of a microscope in response to question by Wien.  Becomes Born’s assistant at Göttingen.

1924    Heisenberg visits Niels Bohr in Copenhagen (and met Einstein?)

1924    Heisenberg Habilitation at Göttingen on anomalous Zeeman

1924 – 1925    Heisenberg worked with Bohr in Copenhagen, returned summer of 1925 to Göttiingen

1924    Pauli exclusion principle and state occupancy

1924    de Broglie hypothesis extended wave-particle duality to matter

1924    Bohr Predicted Halfnium (72)

1924    Kronig’s proposal for electron self spin

1924    Bose (Einstein)

1925    Heisenberg paper on quantum mechanics

1925    Dirac, reading proof from Heisenberg, recognized the analogy of noncommutativity with Poisson brackets and the correspondence with Hamiltonian mechanics.

1925    Uhlenbeck and Goudschmidt: spin

1926    Born, Heisenberg, Kramers: virtual oscillators at transition frequencies: Matrix mechanics (alternative to Bohr-Kramers-Slater 1924 model of orbits).  Heisenberg was Born’s student at Göttingen.

1926    Schrödinger wave mechanics

1927    de Broglie hypotehsis confirmed by Davisson and Germer

1927    Complementarity by Bohr: wave-particle duality “Evidence obtained under different experimental conditions cannot be comprehended within a single picture, but must be regarded as complementary in the sense that only the totality of the phenomena exhausts the possible information about the objects.

1927    Heisenberg uncertainty principle (Heisenberg was in Copenhagen 1926 – 1927)

1927    Solvay Conference in Brussels

1928    Heisenberg to University of Leipzig

1928    Dirac relativistic QM equation

1929    de Broglie Nobel Prize

1930    Solvay Conference

1932    Heisenberg Nobel Prize

1932    von Neumann operator algebra

1933    Dirac Lagrangian form of QM (basis of Feynman path integral)

1933    Schrödinger and Dirac Nobel Prize

1935    Einstein, Poldolsky and Rosen EPR paper

1935 Bohr’s response to Einsteins “EPR” paradox

1935    Schrodinger’s cat

1939    Feynman graduates from MIT

1941    Heisenberg (head of German atomic project) visits Bohr in Copenhagen

1942    Feynman PhD at Princeton, “The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics

1942 – 1945    Manhattan Project, Bethe-Feynman equation for fission yield

1943    Bohr escapes to Sweden in a fishing boat.  Went on to England secretly.

1945    Pauli Nobel Prize

1945    Death of Feynman’s wife Arline (married 4 years)

1945    Fall, Feynman arrives at Cornell ahead of Hans Bethe

1947    Shelter Island conference: Lamb Shift, did Kramer’s give a talk suggesting that infinities could be subtracted?

1947    Fall, Dyson arrives at Cornell

1948    Pocono Manor, Pennsylvania, troubled unveiling of path integral formulation and Feynman diagrams, Schwinger’s master presentation

1948    Feynman and Dirac. Summer drive across the US with Dyson

1949    Dyson joins IAS as a postdoc, trains a cohort of theorists in Feynman’s technique

1949    Karplus and Kroll first g-factor calculation

1950    Feynman moves to Cal Tech

1965    Schwinger, Tomonaga and Feynman Nobel Prize

1967    Hans Bethe Nobel Prize

From Butterflies to Hurricanes

Half a century after Poincaré first glimpsed chaos in the three-body problem, the great Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov presented a sketch of a theorem that could prove that orbits are stable.  In the hands of Vladimir Arnold and Jürgen Moser, this became the KAM theory of Hamiltonian chaos.  This chapter shows how KAM theory fed into topology in the hands of Stephen Smale and helped launch the new field of chaos theory.  Edward Lorenz discovered chaos in numerical models of atmospheric weather and discovered the eponymous strange attractor.  Mathematical aspects of chaos were further developed by Mitchell Feigenbaum studying bifurcations in the logistic map that describes population dynamics.

1760    Euler 3-body problem (two fixed centers and coplanar third body)

1763    Euler colinear 3-body problem

1772    Lagrange equilateral 3-body problem

1881-1886       Poincare memoires “Sur les courbes de ́finies par une equation differentielle”

1890    Poincare “Sur le probleme des trois corps et les equations de la dynamique”. First-return map, Poincare recurrence theorem, stable and unstable manifolds

1892 – 1899    Poincare New Methods in Celestial Mechanics

1892    Lyapunov The General Problem of the Stability of Motion

1899    Poincare homoclinic trajectory

1913    Birkhoff proves Poincaré’s last geometric theorem, a special case of the three-body problem.

1927    van der Pol and van der Mark

1937    Coarse systems, Andronov and Pontryagin

1938    Morse theory

1942    Hopf bifurcation

1945    Cartwright and Littlewood study the van der Pol equation (Radar during WWII)

1954    Kolmogorov A. N., On conservation of conditionally periodic motions for a small change in Hamilton’s function.

1960    Lorenz: 12 equations

1962    Moser On Invariant Curves of Area-Preserving Mappings of an Annulus.

1963    Arnold Small denominators and problems of the stability of motion in classical and celestial mechanics

1963    Lorenz: 3 equations

1964    Arnold diffusion

1965    Smale’s horseshoe

1969    Chirikov standard map

1971    Ruelle-Takens (Ruelle coins phrase “strange attractor”)

1972    “Butterfly Effect” given for Lorenz’ talk (by Philip Merilees)

1975    Gollub-Swinney observe route to turbulence along lines of Ruelle

1975    Yorke coins “chaos theory”

1976    Robert May writes review article of the logistic map

1977    New York conference on bifurcation theory

1987    James Gleick Chaos: Making a New Science

Darwin in the Clockworks

The preceding timelines related to the central role played by families of trajectories phase space to explain the time evolution of complex systems.  These ideas are extended to explore the history and development of the theory of natural evolution by Charles Darwin.  Darwin had many influences, including ideas from Thomas Malthus in the context of economic dynamics.  After Darwin, the ideas of evolution matured to encompass broad topics in evolutionary dynamics and the emergence of the idea of fitness landscapes and game theory driving the origin of new species.  The rise of genetics with Gregor Mendel supplied a firm foundation for molecular evolution, leading to the moleculer clock of Linus Pauling and the replicator dynamics of Richard Dawkins.

1202    Fibonacci

1766    Thomas Robert Malthus born

1776    Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations

1798    Malthus “An Essay on the Principle of Population

1817    Ricardo Principles of Political Economy and Taxation

1838    Cournot early equilibrium theory in duopoly

1848    John Stuart Mill

1848    Karl Marx Communist Manifesto

1859    Darwin Origin of Species

1867    Karl Marx Das Kapital

1871    Darwin Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex

1871    Jevons Theory of Political Economy

1871    Menger Principles of Economics

1874    Walrus Éléments d’économie politique pure, or Elements of Pure Economics (1954)

1890    Marshall Principles of Economics

1908    Hardy constant genetic variance

1910    Brouwer fixed point theorem

1910    Alfred J. Lotka autocatylitic chemical reactions

1913    Zermelo determinancy in chess

1922    Fisher dominance ratio

1922    Fisher mutations

1925    Lotka predator-prey in biomathematics

1926    Vita Volterra published same equations independently

1927    JBS Haldane (1892—1964) mutations

1928    von Neumann proves the minimax theorem

1930    Fisher ratio of sexes

1932    Wright Adaptive Landscape

1932    Haldane The Causes of Evolution

1933    Kolmogorov Foundations of the Theory of Probability

1934    Rudolph Carnap The Logical Syntax of Language

1936    John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

1936    Kolmogorov generalized predator-prey systems

1938    Borel symmetric payoff matrix

1942    Sewall Wright    Statistical Genetics and Evolution

1943    McCulloch and Pitts A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity

1944    von Neumann and Morgenstern Theory of Games and Economic Behavior

1950    Prisoner’s Dilemma simulated at Rand Corportation

1950    John Nash Equilibrium points in n-person games and The Bargaining Problem

1951    John Nash Non-cooperative Games

1952    McKinsey Introduction to the Theory of Games (first textbook)

1953    John Nash Two-Person Cooperative Games

1953    Watson and Crick DNA

1955    Braithwaite’s Theory of Games as a Tool for the Moral Philosopher

1961    Lewontin Evolution and the Theory of Games

1962    Patrick Moran The Statistical Processes of Evolutionary Theory

1962    Linus Pauling molecular clock

1968    Motoo Kimura  neutral theory of molecular evolution

1972    Maynard Smith introduces the evolutionary stable solution (ESS)

1972    Gould and Eldridge Punctuated equilibrium

1973    Maynard Smith and Price The Logic of Animal Conflict

1973    Black Scholes

1977    Eigen and Schuster The Hypercycle

1978    Replicator equation (Taylor and Jonker)

1982    Hopfield network

1982    John Maynard Smith Evolution and the Theory of Games

1984    R. Axelrod The Evolution of Cooperation

The Measure of Life

This final topic extends the ideas of dynamics into abstract spaces of high dimension to encompass the idea of a trajectory of life.  Health and disease become dynamical systems defined by all the proteins and nucleic acids that comprise the physical self.  Concepts from network theory, autonomous oscillators and synchronization contribute to this viewpoint.  Healthy trajectories are like stable limit cycles in phase space, but disease can knock the system trajectory into dangerous regions of health space, as doctors turn to new developments in personalized medicine try to return the individual to a healthy path.  This is the ultimate generalization of Galileo’s simple parabolic trajectory.

1642    Galileo dies

1656    Huygens invents pendulum clock

1665    Huygens observes “odd kind of sympathy” in synchronized clocks

1673    Huygens publishes Horologium Oscillatorium sive de motu pendulorum

1736    Euler Seven Bridges of Königsberg

1845    Kirchhoff’s circuit laws

1852    Guthrie four color problem

1857    Cayley trees

1858    Hamiltonian cycles

1887    Cajal neural staining microscopy

1913    Michaelis Menten dynamics of enzymes

1924    Berger, Hans: neural oscillations (Berger invented the EEG)

1926    van der Pol dimensioness form of equation

1927    van der Pol periodic forcing

1943    McCulloch and Pits mathematical model of neural nets

1948    Wiener cybernetics

1952    Hodgkin and Huxley action potential model

1952    Turing instability model

1956    Sutherland cyclic AMP

1957    Broadbent and Hammersley bond percolation

1958    Rosenblatt perceptron

1959    Erdös and Renyi random graphs

1962    Cohen EGF discovered

1965    Sebeok coined zoosemiotics

1966    Mesarovich systems biology

1967    Winfree biological rythms and coupled oscillators

1969    Glass Moire patterns in perception

1970    Rodbell G-protein

1971    phrase “strange attractor” coined (Ruelle)

1972    phrase “signal transduction” coined (Rensing)

1975    phrase “chaos theory” coined (Yorke)

1975    Werbos backpropagation

1975    Kuramoto transition

1976    Robert May logistic map

1977    Mackey-Glass equation and dynamical disease

1982    Hopfield network

1990    Strogatz and Murillo pulse-coupled oscillators

1997    Tomita systems biology of a cell

1998    Strogatz and Watts Small World network

1999    Barabasi Scale Free networks

2000    Sequencing of the human genome

Who Invented the Quantum? Einstein vs. Planck

Albert Einstein defies condensation—it is impossible to condense his approach, his insight, his motivation—into a single word like “genius”.  He was complex, multifaceted, contradictory, revolutionary as well as conservative.  Some of his work was so simple that it is hard to understand why no-one else did it first, even when they were right in the middle of it.  Lorentz and Poincaré spring to mind—they had been circling the ideas of spacetime for decades—but never stepped back to see what the simplest explanation could be.  Einstein did, and his special relativity was simple and beautiful, and the math is just high-school algebra.  On the other hand, parts of his work—like gravitation—are so embroiled in mathematics and the religion of general covariance that it remains opaque to physics neophytes 100 years later and is usually reserved for graduate study. 

            Yet there is a third thread in Einstein’s work that relies on pure intuition—neither simple nor complicated—but almost impossible to grasp how he made his leap.  This is the case when he proposed the real existence of the photon—the quantum particle of light.  For ten years after this proposal, it was considered by almost everyone to be his greatest blunder. It even came up when Planck was nominating Einstein for membership in the German Academy of Science. Planck said

That he may sometimes have missed the target of his speculations, as for example, in his hypothesis of light quanta, cannot really be held against him.

In this single statement, we have the father of the quantum being criticized by the father of the quantum discontinuity.

Max Planck’s Discontinuity

In histories of the development of quantum theory, the German physicist Max Planck (1858—1947) is characterized as an unlikely revolutionary.  He was an establishment man, in the stolid German tradition, who was already embedded in his career, in his forties, holding a coveted faculty position at the University of Berlin.  In his research, he was responding to a theoretical challenge issued by Kirchhoff many years ago in 1860 to find the function of temperature and wavelength that described and explained the observed spectrum of radiating bodies.  Planck was not looking for a revolution.  In fact, he was looking for the opposite.  One of his motivations in studying the thermodynamics of electromagnetic radiation was to rebut the statistical theories of Boltzmann.  Planck had never been convinced by the atomistic and discrete approach Boltzmann had used to explain entropy and the second law of thermodynamics.  With the continuum of light radiation he thought he had the perfect system that would show how entropy behaved in a continuous manner, without the need for discrete quantities. 

Therefore, Planck’s original intentions were to use blackbody radiation to argue against Boltzmann—to set back the clock.  For this reason, not only was Planck an unlikely revolutionary, he was a counter-revolutionary.  But Planck was a revolutionary because that is what he did, whatever his original intentions were, and he accepted his role as a revolutionary when he had the courage to stand in front of his scientific peers and propose a quantum hypothesis that lay at the heart of physics.

            Blackbody radiation, at the end of the nineteenth century, was a topic of keen interest and had been measured with high precision.  This was in part because it was such a “clean” system, having fundamental thermodynamic properties independent of any of the material properties of the black body, unlike the so-called ideal gases, which always showed some dependence on the molecular properties of the gas. The high-precision measurements of blackbody radiation were made possible by new developments in spectrometers at the end of the century, as well as infrared detectors that allowed very precise and repeatable measurements to be made of the spectrum across broad ranges of wavelengths. 

In 1893 the German physicist Wilhelm Wien (1864—1928) had used adiabatic expansion arguments to derive what became known as Wien’s Displacement Law that showed a simple linear relationship between the temperature of the blackbody and the peak wavelength.  Later, in 1896, he showed that the high-frequency behavior could be described by an exponential function of temperature and wavelength that required no other properties of the blackbody.  This was approaching the solution of Kirchhoff’s challenge of 1860 seeking a universal function.  However, at lower frequencies Wien’s approximation failed to match the measured spectrum.  In mid-year 1900, Planck was able to define a single functional expression that described the experimentally observed spectrum.  Planck had succeeded in describing black-body radiation, but he had not satisfied Kirchhoff’s second condition—to explain it. 

            Therefore, to describe the blackbody spectrum, Planck modeled the emitting body as a set of ideal oscillators.  As an expert in the Second Law, Planck derived the functional form for the radiation spectrum, from which he found the entropy of the oscillators that produced the spectrum.  However, once he had the form for the entropy, he needed to explain why it took that specific form.  In this sense, he was working backwards from a known solution rather than forwards from first principles.  Planck was at an impasse.  He struggled but failed to find any continuum theory that could work. 

Then Planck turned to Boltzmann’s statistical theory of entropy, the same theory that he had previously avoided and had hoped to discredit.  He described this as “an act of despair … I was ready to sacrifice any of my previous convictions about physics.”  In Boltzmann’s expression for entropy, it was necessary to “count” possible configurations of states.  But counting can only be done if the states are discrete.  Therefore, he lumped the energies of the oscillators into discrete ranges, or bins, that he called “quanta”.  The size of the bins was proportional to the frequency of the oscillator, and the proportionality constant had the units of Maupertuis’ quantity of action, so Planck called it the “quantum of action”. Finally, based on this quantum hypothesis, Planck derived the functional form of black-body radiation.

            Planck presented his findings at a meeting of the German Physical Society in Berlin on November 15, 1900, introducing the word quantum (plural quanta) into physics from the Latin word that means quantity [1].  It was a casual meeting, and while the attendees knew they were seeing an intriguing new physical theory, there was no sense of a revolution.  But Planck himself was aware that he had created something fundamentally new.  The radiation law of cavities depended on only two physical properties—the temperature and the wavelength—and on two constants—Boltzmann’s constant kB and a new constant that later became known as Planck’s constant h = ΔE/f = 6.6×10-34 J-sec.  By combining these two constants with other fundamental constants, such as the speed of light, Planck was able to establish accurate values for long-sought constants of nature, like Avogadro’s number and the charge of the electron.

            Although Planck’s quantum hypothesis in 1900 explained the blackbody radiation spectrum, his specific hypothesis was that it was the interaction of the atoms and the light field that was somehow quantized.  He certainly was not thinking in terms of individual quanta of the light field.

Figure. Einstein and Planck at a dinner held by Max von Laue in Berlin on Nov. 11, 1931.

Einstein’s Quantum

When Einstein analyzed the properties of the blackbody radiation in 1905, using his deep insight into statistical mechanics, he was led to the inescapable conclusion that light itself must be quantized in amounts E = hf, where h is Planck’s constant and f is the frequency of the light field.  Although this equation is exactly the same as Planck’s from 1900, the meaning was completely different.  For Planck, this was the discreteness of the interaction of light with matter.  For Einstein, this was the quantum of light energy—whole and indivisible—just as if the light quantum were a particle with particle properties.  For this reason, we can answer the question posed in the title of this Blog—Einstein takes the honor of being the inventor of the quantum.

            Einstein’s clarity of vision is a marvel to behold even to this day.  His special talent was to take simple principles, ones that are almost trivial and beyond reproach, and to derive something profound.  In Special Relativity, he simply assumed the constancy of the speed of light and derived Lorentz’s transformations that had originally been based on obtuse electromagnetic arguments about the electron.  In General Relativity, he assumed that free fall represented an inertial frame, and he concluded that gravity must bend light.  In quantum theory, he assumed that the low-density limit of Planck’s theory had to be consistent with light in thermal equilibrium in thermal equilibrium with the black body container, and he concluded that light itself must be quantized into packets of indivisible energy quanta [2].  One immediate consequence of this conclusion was his simple explanation of the photoelectric effect for which the energy of an electron ejected from a metal by ultraviolet irradiation is a linear function of the frequency of the radiation.  Einstein published his theory of the quanta of light [3] as one of his four famous 1905 articles in Annalen der Physik in his Annus Mirabilis

Figure. In the photoelectric effect a photon is absorbed by an electron state in a metal promoting the electron to a free electron that moves with a maximum kinetic energy given by the difference between the photon energy and the work function W of the metal. The energy of the photon is absorbed as a whole quantum, proving that light is composed of quantized corpuscles that are today called photons.

            Einstein’s theory of light quanta was controversial and was slow to be accepted.  It is ironic that in 1914 when Einstein was being considered for a position at the University in Berlin, Planck himself, as he championed Einstein’s case to the faculty, implored his colleagues to accept Einstein despite his ill-conceived theory of light quanta [4].  This comment by Planck goes far to show how Planck, father of the quantum revolution, did not fully grasp, even by 1914, the fundamental nature and consequences of his original quantum hypothesis.  That same year, the American physicist Robert Millikan (1868—1953) performed a precise experimental measurement of the photoelectric effect, with the ostensible intention of proving Einstein wrong, but he accomplished just the opposite—providing clean experimental evidence confirming Einstein’s theory of the photoelectric effect. 

The Stimulated Emission of Light

About a year after Millikan proved that the quantum of energy associated with light absorption was absorbed as a whole quantum of energy that was not divisible, Einstein took a step further in his theory of the light quantum. In 1916 he published a paper in the proceedings of the German Physical Society that explored how light would be in a state of thermodynamic equilibrium when interacting with atoms that had discrete energy levels. Once again he used simple arguments, this time using the principle of detailed balance, to derive a new and unanticipated property of light—stimulated emission!

Figure. The stimulated emission of light. An excited state is stimulated to emit an identical photon when the electron transitions to its ground state.

The stimulated emission of light occurs when an electron is in an excited state of a quantum system, like an atom, and an incident photon stimulates the emission of a second photon that has the same energy and phase as the first photon. If there are many atoms in the excited state, then this process leads to a chain reaction as 1 photon produces 2, and 2 produce 4, and 4 produce 8, etc. This exponential gain in photons with the same energy and phase is the origin of laser radiation. At the time that Einstein proposed this mechanism, lasers were half a century in the future, but he was led to this conclusion by extremely simple arguments about transition rates.

Figure. Section of Einstein’s 1916 paper that describes the absorption and emission of light by atoms with discrete energy levels [5].

Detailed balance is a principle that states that in thermal equilibrium all fluxes are balanced. In the case of atoms with ground states and excited states, this principle requires that as many transitions occur from the ground state to the excited state as from the excited state to the ground state. The crucial new element that Einstein introduced was to distinguish spontaneous emission from stimulated emission. Just as the probability to absorb a photon must be proportional to the photon density, there must be an equivalent process that de-excites the atom that also must be proportional the photon density. In addition, an electron must be able to spontaneously emit a photon with a rate that is independent of photon density. This leads to distinct coefficients in the transition rate equations that are today called the “Einstein A and B coefficients”. The B coefficients relate to the photon density, while the A coefficient relates to spontaneous emission.

Figure. Section of Einstein’s 1917 paper that derives the equilibrium properties of light interacting with matter. The “B”-coefficient for transition from state m to state n describes stimulated emission. [6]

Using the principle of detailed balance together with his A and B coefficients as well as Boltzmann factors describing the number of excited states relative to ground state atoms in equilibrium at a given temperature, Einstein was able to derive an early form of what is today called the Bose-Einstein occupancy function for photons.

Derivation of the Einstein A and B Coefficients

Detailed balance requires the rate from m to n to be the same as the rate from n to m

where the first term is the spontaneous emission rate from the excited state m to the ground state n, the second term is the stimulated emission rate, and the third term (on the right) is the absorption rate from n to m. The numbers in each state are Nm and Nn, and the density of photons is ρ. The relative numbers in the excited state relative to the ground state is given by the Boltzmann factor

By assuming that the stimulated transition coefficient from n to m is the same as m to n, and inserting the Boltzmann factor yields

The Planck density of photons for ΔE = hf is

which yields the final relation between the spontaneous emission coefficient and the stimulated emission coefficient

The total emission rate is

where the p-bar is the average photon number in the cavity. One of the striking aspects of this derivation is that no assumptions are made about the physical mechanisms that determine the coefficient B. Only arguments of detailed balance are required to arrive at these results.

Einstein’s Quantum Legacy

Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921 for the photoelectric effect, not for the photon nor for any of Einstein’s other theoretical accomplishments.  Even in 1921, the quantum nature of light remained controversial.  It was only in 1923, after the American physicist Arthur Compton (1892—1962) showed that energy and momentum were conserved in the scattering of photons from electrons, that the quantum nature of light began to be accepted.  The very next year, in 1924, the quantum of light was named the “photon” by the American American chemical physicist Gilbert Lewis (1875—1946). 

            A blog article like this, that attributes the invention of the quantum to Einstein rather than Planck, must say something about the irony of this attribution.  If Einstein is the father of the quantum, he ultimately was led to disinherit his own brain child.  His final and strongest argument against the quantum properties inherent in the Copenhagen Interpretation was his famous EPR paper which, against his expectations, launched the concept of entanglement that underlies the coming generation of quantum computers.

Einstein’s Quantum Timeline

1900 – Planck’s quantum discontinuity for the calculation of the entropy of blackbody radiation.

1905 – Einstein’s “Miracle Year”. Proposes the light quantum.

1911 – First Solvay Conference on the theory of radiation and quanta.

1913 – Bohr’s quantum theory of hydrogen.

1914 – Einstein becomes a member of the German Academy of Science.

1915 – Millikan measurement of the photoelectric effect.

1916 – Einstein proposes stimulated emission.

1921 – Einstein receives Nobel Prize for photoelectric effect and the light quantum. Third Solvay Conference on atoms and electrons.

1927 – Heisenberg’s uncertainty relation. Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons in Brussels. “First” Bohr-Einstein debate on indeterminancy in quantum theory.

1930 – Sixth Solvay Conference on magnetism. “Second” Bohr-Einstein debate.

1935 – Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paper on the completeness of quantum mechanics.

Selected Einstein Quantum Papers

Einstein, A. (1905). “Generation and conversion of light with regard to a heuristic point of view.” Annalen Der Physik 17(6): 132-148.

Einstein, A. (1907). “Die Plancksche Theorie der Strahlung und die Theorie der spezifischen W ̈arme.” Annalen der Physik 22: 180–190.

Einstein, A. (1909). “On the current state of radiation problems.” Physikalische Zeitschrift 10: 185-193.

Einstein, A. and O. Stern (1913). “An argument for the acceptance of molecular agitation at absolute zero.” Annalen Der Physik 40(3): 551-560.

Einstein, A. (1916). “Strahlungs-Emission un -Absorption nach der Quantentheorie.” Verh. Deutsch. Phys. Ges. 18: 318.

Einstein, A. (1917). “Quantum theory of radiation.” Physikalische Zeitschrift 18: 121-128.

Einstein, A., B. Podolsky and N. Rosen (1935). “Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?” Physical Review 47(10): 0777-0780.


[1] M. Planck, “Elementary quanta of matter and electricity,” Annalen Der Physik, vol. 4, pp. 564-566, Mar 1901.

[2] Klein, M. J. (1964). Einstein’s First Paper on Quanta. The natural philosopher. D. A. Greenberg and D. E. Gershenson. New York, Blaidsdell. 3.

[3] A. Einstein, “Generation and conversion of light with regard to a heuristic point of view,” Annalen Der Physik, vol. 17, pp. 132-148, Jun 1905.

[4] Chap. 2 in “Mind at Light Speed”, by David Nolte (Free Press, 2001)

[5] Einstein, A. (1916). “Strahlungs-Emission un -Absorption nach der Quantentheorie.” Verh. Deutsch. Phys. Ges. 18: 318.

[6] Einstein, A. (1917). “Quantum theory of radiation.” Physikalische Zeitschrift 18: 121-128.

Science 1916: A Hundred-year Time Capsule

In one of my previous blog posts, as I was searching for Schwarzschild’s original papers on Einstein’s field equations and quantum theory, I obtained a copy of the January 1916 – June 1916 volume of the Proceedings of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences through interlibrary loan.  The extremely thick volume arrived at Purdue about a week after I ordered it online.  It arrived from Oberlin College in Ohio that had received it as a gift in 1928 from the library of Professor Friedrich Loofs of the University of Halle in Germany.  Loofs had been the Haskell Lecturer at Oberlin for the 1911-1912 semesters. 

As I browsed through the volume looking for Schwarzschild’s papers, I was amused to find a cornucopia of turn-of-the-century science topics recorded in its pages.  There were papers on the overbite and lips of marsupials.  There were papers on forgotten languages.  There were papers on ancient Greek texts.  On the origins of religion.  On the philosophy of abstraction.  Histories of Indian dramas.  Reflections on cancer.  But what I found most amazing was a snapshot of the field of physics and mathematics in 1916, with historic papers by historic scientists who changed how we view the world. Here is a snapshot in time and in space, a period of only six months from a single journal, containing papers from authors that reads like a who’s who of physics.

In 1916 there were three major centers of science in the world with leading science publications: London with the Philosophical Magazine and Proceedings of the Royal Society; Paris with the Comptes Rendus of the Académie des Sciences; and Berlin with the Proceedings of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences and Annalen der Physik. In Russia, there were the scientific Journals of St. Petersburg, but the Bolshevik Revolution was brewing that would overwhelm that country for decades.  And in 1916 the academic life of the United States was barely worth noticing except for a few points of light at Yale and Johns Hopkins. 

Berlin in 1916 was embroiled in war, but science proceeded relatively unmolested.  The six-month volume of the Proceedings of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences contains a number of gems.  Schwarzschild was one of the most prolific contributors, publishing three papers in just this half-year volume, plus his obituary written by Einstein.  But joining Schwarzschild in this volume were Einstein, Planck, Born, Warburg, Frobenious, and Rubens among others—a pantheon of German scientists mostly cut off from the rest of the world at that time, but single-mindedly following their individual threads woven deep into the fabric of the physical world.

Karl Schwarzschild (1873 – 1916)

Schwarzschild had the unenviable yet effective motivation of his impending death to spur him to complete several projects that he must have known would make his name immortal.  In this six-month volume he published his three most important papers.  The first (pg. 189) was on the exact solution to Einstein’s field equations to general relativity.  The solution was for the restricted case of a point mass, yet the derivation yielded the Schwarzschild radius that later became known as the event horizon of a non-roatating black hole.  The second paper (pg. 424) expanded the general relativity solutions to a spherically symmetric incompressible liquid mass. 

Schwarzschild’s solution to Einstein’s field equations for a point mass.


Schwarzschild’s extension of the field equation solutions to a finite incompressible fluid.

The subject, content and success of these two papers was wholly unexpected from this observational astronomer stationed on the Russian Front during WWI calculating trajectories for German bombardments.  He would not have been considered a theoretical physicist but for the importance of his results and the sophistication of his methods.  Within only a year after Einstein published his general theory, based as it was on the complicated tensor calculus of Levi-Civita, Christoffel and Ricci-Curbastro that had taken him years to master, Schwarzschild found a solution that evaded even Einstein.

Schwarzschild’s third and final paper (pg. 548) was on an entirely different topic, still not in his official field of astronomy, that positioned all future theoretical work in quantum physics to be phrased in the language of Hamiltonian dynamics and phase space.  He proved that action-angle coordinates were the only acceptable canonical coordinates to be used when quantizing dynamical systems.  This paper answered a central question that had been nagging Bohr and Einstein and Ehrenfest for years—how to quantize dynamical coordinates.  Despite the simple way that Bohr’s quantized hydrogen atom is taught in modern physics, there was an ambiguity in the quantization conditions even for this simple single-electron atom.  The ambiguity arose from the numerous possible canonical coordinate transformations that were admissible, yet which led to different forms of quantized motion. 

Schwarzschild’s proposal of action-angle variables for quantization of dynamical systems.

 Schwarzschild’s doctoral thesis had been a theoretical topic in astrophysics that applied the celestial mechanics theories of Henri Poincaré to binary star systems.  Within Poincaré’s theory were integral invariants that were conserved quantities of the motion.  When a dynamical system had as many constraints as degrees of freedom, then every coordinate had an integral invariant.  In this unexpected last paper from Schwarzschild, he showed how canonical transformation to action-angle coordinates produced a unique representation in terms of action variables (whose dimensions are the same as Planck’s constant).  These action coordinates, with their associated cyclical angle variables, are the only unambiguous representations that can be quantized.  The important points of this paper were amplified a few months later in a publication by Schwarzschild’s friend Paul Epstein (1871 – 1939), solidifying this approach to quantum mechanics.  Paul Ehrenfest (1880 – 1933) continued this work later in 1916 by defining adiabatic invariants whose quantum numbers remain unchanged under slowly varying conditions, and the program started by Schwarzschild was definitively completed by Paul Dirac (1902 – 1984) at the dawn of quantum mechanics in Göttingen in 1925.

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

In 1916 Einstein was mopping up after publishing his definitive field equations of general relativity the year before.  His interests were still cast wide, not restricted only to this latest project.  In the 1916 Jan. to June volume of the Prussian Academy Einstein published two papers.  Each is remarkably short relative to the other papers in the volume, yet the importance of the papers may stand in inverse proportion to their length.

The first paper (pg. 184) is placed right before Schwarzschild’s first paper on February 3.  The subject of the paper is the expression of Maxwell’s equations in four-dimensional space time.  It is notable and ironic that Einstein mentions Hermann Minkowski (1864 – 1909) in the first sentence of the paper.  When Minkowski proposed his bold structure of spacetime in 1908, Einstein had been one of his harshest critics, writing letters to the editor about the absurdity of thinking of space and time as a single interchangeable coordinate system.  This is ironic, because Einstein today is perhaps best known for the special relativity properties of spacetime, yet he was slow to adopt the spacetime viewpoint. Einstein only came around to spacetime when he realized around 1910 that a general approach to relativity required the mathematical structure of tensor manifolds, and Minkowski had provided just such a manifold—the pseudo-Riemannian manifold of space time.  Einstein subsequently adopted spacetime with a passion and became its greatest champion, calling out Minkowski where possible to give him his due, although he had already died tragically of a burst appendix in 1909.

Relativistic energy density of electromagnetic fields.

The importance of Einstein’s paper hinges on his derivation of the electromagnetic field energy density using electromagnetic four vectors.  The energy density is part of the source term for his general relativity field equations.  Any form of energy density can warp spacetime, including electromagnetic field energy.  Furthermore, the Einstein field equations of general relativity are nonlinear as gravitational fields modify space and space modifies electromagnetic fields, producing a coupling between gravity and electromagnetism.  This coupling is implicit in the case of the bending of light by gravity, but Einstein’s paper from 1916 makes the connection explicit. 

Einstein’s second paper (pg. 688) is even shorter and hence one of the most daring publications of his career.  Because the field equations of general relativity are nonlinear, they are not easy to solve exactly, and Einstein was exploring approximate solutions under conditions of slow speeds and weak fields.  In this “non-relativistic” limit the metric tensor separates into a Minkowski metric as a background on which a small metric perturbation remains.  This small perturbation has the properties of a wave equation for a disturbance of the gravitational field that propagates at the speed of light.  Hence, in the June 22 issue of the Prussian Academy in 1916, Einstein predicts the existence and the properties of gravitational waves.  Exactly one hundred years later in 2016, the LIGO collaboration announced the detection of gravitational waves generated by the merger of two black holes.

Einstein’s weak-field low-velocity approximation solutions of his field equations.
Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves.

Max Planck (1858 – 1947)

Max Planck was active as the secretary of the Prussian Academy in 1916 yet was still fully active in his research.  Although he had launched the quantum revolution with his quantum hypothesis of 1900, he was not a major proponent of quantum theory even as late as 1916.  His primary interests lay in thermodynamics and the origins of entropy, following the theoretical approaches of Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 – 1906).  In 1916 he was interested in how to best partition phase space as a way to count states and calculate entropy from first principles.  His paper in the 1916 volume (pg. 653) calculated the entropy for single-atom solids.

Counting microstates by Planck.

Max Born (1882 – 1970)

Max Born was to be one of the leading champions of the quantum mechanical revolution based at the University of Göttingen in the 1920’s. But in 1916 he was on leave from the University of Berlin working on ranging for artillery.  Yet he still pursued his academic interests, like Schwarzschild.  On pg. 614 in the Proceedings of the Prussian Academy, Born published a paper on anisotropic liquids, such as liquid crystals and the effect of electric fields on them.  It is astonishing to think that so many of the flat-panel displays we have today, whether on our watches or smart phones, are technological descendants of work by Born at the beginning of his career.

Born on liquid crystals.

Ferdinand Frobenius (1849 – 1917)

Like Schwarzschild, Frobenius was at the end of his career in 1916 and would pass away one year later, but unlike Schwarzschild, his career had been a long one, receiving his doctorate under Weierstrass and exploring elliptic functions, differential equations, number theory and group theory.  One of the papers that established him in group theory appears in the May 4th issue on page 542 where he explores the series expansion of a group.

Frobenious on groups.

Heinrich Rubens (1865 – 1922)

Max Planck owed his quantum breakthrough in part to the exquisitely accurate experimental measurements made by Heinrich Rubens on black body radiation.  It was only by the precise shape of what came to be called the Planck spectrum that Planck could say with such confidence that his theory of quantized radiation interactions fit Rubens spectrum so perfectly.  In 1916 Rubens was at the University of Berlin, having taken the position vacated by Paul Drude in 1906.  He was a specialist in infrared spectroscopy, and on page 167 of the Proceedings he describes the spectrum of steam and its consequences for the quantum theory.

Rubens and the infrared spectrum of steam.

Emil Warburg (1946 – 1931)

Emil Warburg’s fame is primarily as the father of Otto Warburg who won the 1931 Nobel prize in physiology.  On page 314 Warburg reports on photochemical processes in BrH gases.     In an obscure and very indirect way, I am an academic descendant of Emil Warburg.  One of his students was Robert Pohl who was a famous early researcher in solid state physics, sometimes called the “father of solid state physics”.  Pohl was at the physics department in Göttingen in the 1920’s along with Born and Franck during the golden age of quantum mechanics.  Robert Pohl’s son, Robert Otto Pohl, was my professor when I was a sophomore at Cornell University in 1978 for the course on introductory electromagnetism using a textbook by the Nobel laureate Edward Purcell, a quirky volume of the Berkeley Series of physics textbooks.  This makes Emil Warburg my professor’s father’s professor.

Warburg on photochemistry.

Papers in the 1916 Vol. 1 of the Prussian Academy of Sciences

Schulze,  Alt– und Neuindisches

Orth,  Zur Frage nach den Beziehungen des Alkoholismus zur Tuberkulose

Schulze,  Die Erhabunen auf der Lippin- und Wangenschleimhaut der Säugetiere

von Wilamwitz-Moellendorff, Die Samie des Menandros

Engler,  Bericht über das >>Pflanzenreich<<

von Harnack,  Bericht über die Ausgabe der griechischen Kirchenväter der dri ersten Jahrhunderte

Meinecke,  Germanischer und romanischer Geist im Wandel der deutschen Geschichtsauffassung

Rubens und Hettner,  Das langwellige Wasserdampfspektrum und seine Deutung durch die Quantentheorie

Einstein,  Eine neue formale Deutung der Maxwellschen Feldgleichungen der Electrodynamic

Schwarschild,  Über das Gravitationsfeld eines Massenpunktes nach der Einsteinschen Theorie

Helmreich,  Handschriftliche Verbesserungen zu dem Hippokratesglossar des Galen

Prager,  Über die Periode des veränderlichen Sterns RR Lyrae

Holl,  Die Zeitfolge des ersten origenistischen Streits

Lüders,  Zu den Upanisads. I. Die Samvargavidya

Warburg,  Über den Energieumsatz bei photochemischen Vorgängen in Gasen. VI.

Hellman,  Über die ägyptischen Witterungsangaben im Kalender von Claudius Ptolemaeus

Meyer-Lübke,  Die Diphthonge im Provenzaslischen

Diels,  Über die Schrift Antipocras des Nikolaus von Polen

Müller und Sieg,  Maitrisimit und >>Tocharisch<<

Meyer,  Ein altirischer Heilsegen

Schwarzschild,  Über das Gravitationasfeld einer Kugel aus inkompressibler Flüssigkeit nach der Einsteinschen Theorie

Brauer,  Die Verbreitung der Hyracoiden

Correns,  Untersuchungen über Geschlechtsbestimmung bei Distelarten

Brahn,  Weitere Untersuchungen über Fermente in der Lever von Krebskranken

Erdmann,  Methodologische Konsequenzen aus der Theorie der Abstraktion

Bang,  Studien zur vergleichenden Grammatik der Türksprachen. I.

Frobenius,  Über die  Kompositionsreihe einer Gruppe

Schwarzschild,  Zur Quantenhypothese

Fischer und Bergmann,  Über neue Galloylderivate des Traubenzuckers und ihren Vergleich mit der Chebulinsäure

Schuchhardt,  Der starke Wall und die breite, zuweilen erhöhte Berme bei frügeschichtlichen Burgen in Norddeutschland

Born,  Über anisotrope Flüssigkeiten

Planck,  Über die absolute Entropie einatomiger Körper

Haberlandt,  Blattepidermis und Lichtperzeption

Einstein,  Näherungsweise Integration der Feldgleichungen der Gravitation

Lüders,  Die Saubhikas.  Ein Beitrag zur Gecschichte des indischen Dramas

Dirac: From Quantum Field Theory to Antimatter

Paul Adrian Maurice Dirac (1902 – 1984) was given the moniker of “the strangest man” by Niels Bohr while he was reminiscing about the many great scientists with whom he had worked over the years [1].  It is a moniker that resonates with the innumerable “Dirac stories” that abound in the mythology of the hallways of physics departments around the world.  Dirac was awkward, shy, a loner, rarely said anything, was completely literal, had not the slightest comprehension of art or poetry, nor any clear understanding of human interpersonal interaction.  Dirac was also brilliant, providing the theoretical foundation for the central paradigm of modern physics—quantum field theory.  The discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, a human achievement that capped nearly a century of scientific endeavor, rests solidly on the theory of quantum fields that permeate space.  The Higgs particle, when it pops into existence at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, is a singular quantum excitation of the Higgs field, a field that usually resides in a vacuum state, frothing with quantum fluctuations that imbue all particles—and you and me—with mass.  The Higgs field is Dirac’s legacy.

… all of a sudden he had a new equation with four-dimensional space-time symmetry.

Copenhagen and Bohr

Although Dirac as a young scientist was initially enthralled with relativity theory, he was working under Ralph Fowler (1889 – 1944) in the physics department at Cambridge in 1923 when he had the chance to read advanced proofs of Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics paper.  This chance event launched him on his own trajectory in quantum theory.  After Dirac was awarded his doctorate from Cambridge in 1926, he received a stipend that sent him to work with Niels Bohr (1885 – 1962) in Copenhagen—ground zero of the new physics. During his time there, Dirac became famous for taking long walks across Copenhagen as he played about with things in his mind, performing mental juggling of abstract symbols, envisioning how they would permute and act.  His attention was focused on the electromagnetic field and how it interacted with the quantized states of atoms.  Although the electromagnetic field was the classical field of light, it was also the quantum field of Einstein’s photon, and he wondered how the quantized harmonic oscillators of the electromagnetic field could be generated by quantum wavefunctions acting as operators.  But acting on what?  He decided that, to generate a photon, the wavefunction must operate on a state that had no photons—the ground state of the electromagnetic field known as the vacuum state.

            In late 1926, nearing the end of his stay in Copenhagen with Bohr, Dirac put these thoughts into their appropriate mathematical form and began work on two successive manuscripts.  The first manuscript contained the theoretical details of the non-commuting electromagnetic field operators.  He called the process of generating photons out of the vacuum “second quantization”.  This phrase is a bit of a misnomer, because there is no specific “first quantization” per se, although he was probably thinking of the quantized energy levels of Schrödinger and Heisenberg.  In second quantization, the classical field of electromagnetism is converted to an operator that generates quanta of the associated quantum field out of the vacuum (and also annihilates photons back into the vacuum).  The creation operators can be applied again and again to build up an N-photon state containing N photons that obey Bose-Einstein statistics, as they must, as required by their integer spin, agreeing with Planck’s blackbody radiation. 

            Dirac then went further to show how an interaction of the quantized electromagnetic field with quantized energy levels involved the annihilation and creation of photons as they promoted electrons to higher atomic energy levels, or demoted them through stimulated emission.  Very significantly, Dirac’s new theory explained the spontaneous emission of light from an excited electron level as a direct physical process that creates a photon carrying away the energy as the electron falls to a lower energy level.  Spontaneous emission had been explained first by Einstein more than ten years earlier when he derived the famous A and B coefficients, but Einstein’s arguments were based on the principle of detailed balance, which is a thermodynamic argument.  It is impressive that Einstein’s deep understanding of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics could allow him to derive the necessity of both spontaneous and stimulated emission, but the physical mechanism for these processes was inferred rather than derived. Dirac, in late 1926, had produced the first direct theory of photon exchange with matter.  This was the birth of quantum electrodynamics, known as QED, and the birth of quantum field theory [2].

Fig. 1 Paul Dirac in his early days.

Göttingen and Born

            Dirac’s next stop on his postodctoral fellowship was in Göttingen to work with Max Born (1882 – 1970) and the large group of theoreticians and mathematicians who were like electrons in a cloud orbiting around the nucleus represented by the new quantum theory.  Göttingen was second only to Copenhagen as the Mecca for quantum theorists.  Hilbert was there and von Neumann too, as well as the brash American J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967) who was finishing his PhD with Born.  Dirac and Oppenheimer struck up an awkward friendship.  Oppenheimer was considered arrogant by many others in the group, but he was in awe of Dirac who arrived with his manuscript on quantum electrodynamics ready for submission.  Oppenheimer struggled at first to understand Dirac’s new approach to quantizing fields, but he quickly grasped the importance, as did Pascual Jordan (1902 – 1980), who was also in Göttingen.

            Jordan had already worked on ideas very close to Dirac’s on the quantization of fields.  He and Dirac seemed to be going down the same path, independently arriving at very similar conclusions around the same time.  In fact, Jordan was often a step ahead of Dirac, tending to publish just before Dirac, as with non-commuting matrices, transformation theory and the relationship of canonical transformations to second quantization.  However, Dirac’s paper on quantum electrodynamics was a masterpiece in clarity and comprehensiveness, launching a new field in a way that Jordan had not yet achieved with his own work.  But because of the closeness of Jordan’s thinking to Dirac’s, he was able to see immediately how to extend Dirac’s approach.  Within the year, he published a series of papers that established the formalism of quantum electrodynamics as well as quantum field theory.  With Pauli, he systematized the operators for creation and annihilation of photons [3].  With Wigner, he developed second quantization for de Broglie matter waves, defining creation and annihilation operators that obeyed the Pauli exclusion principle of electrons[4].  Jordan was on a roll, forging ahead of Dirac on extensions of quantum electrodynamics and field theory, but Dirac was about to eclipse Jordan once and for all.

St. John’s at Cambridge

            At the end of the Spring semester in 1927, Dirac was offered a position as a fellow of St. John’s College at Cambridge, which he accepted, returning to England to begin his life as a college professor.  During the summer and into the Fall, Dirac returned to his first passion in physics, relativity, which had yet to be successfully incorporated into quantum physics.  Oskar Klein and Walter Gordon had made initial attempts at formulating relativistic quantum theory, but they could not correctly incorporate the spin properties of the electron, and their wave equation had the bad habit of producing negative probabilities.  Probabilities went negative because the Klein-Gordon equation had two time derivatives instead of one.  The reason it had two (while the non-relativistic Schrödinger equation has only one) is because space-time symmetry required the double space derivative of the Schrödinger equation to be paired with a double time derivative.  Dirac, with creative insight, realized that the problem could be flipped by requiring the single time derivative to be paired with a single space derivative.  The problem was that a single space derivative did not seem to make any sense [5].

St. John’s College at Cambridge

            As Dirac puzzled how to get an equation with only single derivatives, he was playing around with Pauli spin matrices and hit on a simple identity that related the spin matrices to the electron momentum.  At first he could not get the identity to apply to four-dimensional relativistic momenta using the usual 2×2 spin matrices.  Then he realized that four-dimensional space-time could be captured if he expanded Pauli’s 2×2 spin matrices to 4×4 spin matrices, and all of a sudden he had a new equation with four-dimensional space-time symmetry with single derivatives on space and time.  As a test of his new equation, he calculated fine details of the experimentally-measured hydrogen spectrum, known as the fine structure, which had resisted theoretical explanation, and he derived answers in close agreement with experiment.  He also showed that the electron had spin-1/2, and he calculated its magnetic moment.  He finished his manuscript at the end of the Fall semester in 1927, and the paper was published in early 1928[6].  His relativistic quantum wave equation was an instant sensation, becoming known for all time as “the Dirac Equation”.  He had succeeded at finding a correct and long-sought relativistic quantum theory where many before had failed.  It was a crowning achievment, placing Dirac firmly in the firmament of the quantum theorists.

Fig. 1 The relativistic Dirac equation. The wavefunction is a four-component spinor. The gamma-del product is a 4×4 matrix operator. The time and space derivatives are both first-order operators.


            In the process of ridding the Klein-Gordon equation of negative probability, which Dirac found abhorent, his new equation created an infinite number of negative energy states, which he did not find abhorent.  It is perhaps a matter of taste what one theoriest is willing to accept over another, and for Dirac, negative energies were better than negative probabilities.  Even so, one needed to deal with an infinite number of negative energy states in quantum theory, because they are available to quantum transitions.  In 1929 and 1930, as Dirac was writing his famous textbook on quantum theory, he became intrigued by the similarity between the positive and negative electron states of the vacuum and the energy levels of valence electrons on atoms.  An electron in a state outside a filled electron shell behaves very much like a single-electron atom, like sodium and lithium with their single valence electrons.  Conversely, an atomic shell that has one electron less than a full complement can be described as having a “hole” that behaves “as if” it were a positive particle.  It is like a bubble in water.  As water sinks, the bubble rises to the top of the water level.  For electrons, if all the electrons go one way in an electric field, then the hole goes the opposite direction, like a positive charge. 

            Dirac took this analogy of nearly-filled atomic shells and applied it to the vacuum states of the electron, viewing the filled negative energy states like the filled electron shells of atoms.  If there is a missing electron, a hole in this infinite sea, then it would behave as if it had positive charge.  Initially, Dirac speculated that the “hole” was the proton, and he even wrote a paper on that possibility.  But Oppenheimer pointed out that the idea was inconsistent with observations, especially the inability of the electron and proton to annihilate, and that the ground state of the infinite electron sea must be completely filled. Hermann Weyl further pointed out that the electron-proton theory did not have the correct symmetry, and Dirac had to rethink.  In early 1931 he hit on an audacious solution to the puzzle.  What if the hole in the infinite negative energy sea did not just behave like a positive particle, but actually was a positive particle, a new particle that Dirac dubbed the “anti-electron”?  The anti-electron would have the same mass as the electron, but would have positive charge. He suggested that such particles might be generated in high-energy collisions in vacuum, and he finished his paper with the suggestion that there also could be an anti-proton with the mass of the proton but with negative charge.  In this singular paper, titled “Quantized Singularities of the Electromagnetic Field” published in 1931, Dirac predicted the existence of antimatter.  A year later the positron was discovered by Carl David Anderson at Cal Tech.  Anderson had originally called the particle the positive electron, but a journal editor of the Physical Review changed it to positron, and the new name stuck.

Fig. 3 An electron-positron pair is created by the absorption of a photon (gamma ray). Positrons have negative energy and can be viewed as a hole in a sea of filled electron states. (Momentum conservation is satisfied if a near-by heavy particle takes up the recoil momentum.)

            The prediction and subsequent experimental validation of antmatter stands out in the history of physics in the 20th Century.  In previous centuries, theory was performed mainly in the service of experiment, explaining interesting new observed phenomena either as consequences of known physics, or creating new physics to explain the observations.  Quantum theory, revolutionary as a way of understanding nature, was developed to explain spectroscopic observations of atoms and molecules and gases.  Similarly, the precession of the perihelion of Mercury was a well-known phenomenon when Einstein used his newly developed general relativity to explain it.  As a counter example, Einstein’s prediction of the deflection of light by the Sun was something new that emerged from theory.  This is one reason why Einstein became so famous after Eddington’s expedition to observe the deflection of apparent star locations during the total eclipse.  Einstein had predicted something that had never been seen before.  Dirac’s prediction of the existence of antimatter similarly is a triumph of rational thought, following the mathematical representation of reality to an inevitable conclusion that cannot be ignored, no matter how wild and initially unimaginable it is.  Dirac went on to receive the Nobel prize in Physics in 1933, sharing the prize that year with Schrödinger (Heisenberg won it the previous year in 1932).

[1] Framelo, “The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac” (Basic Books, 2011)

[2] Dirac, P. A. M. (1927). “The quantum theory of the emission and absorption of radiation.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series A114(767): 243-265.;  Dirac, P. A. M. (1927). “The quantum theory of dispersion.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series A114(769): 710-728.

[3] Jordan, P. and W. Pauli, Jr. (1928). “To quantum electrodynamics of free charge fields.” Zeitschrift Fur Physik 47(3-4): 151-173.

[4] Jordan, P. and E. Wigner (1928). “About the Pauli’s equivalence prohibited.” Zeitschrift Fur Physik 47(9-10): 631-651.

[5] This is because two space derivatives measure the curvative of the wavefunction which is related to the kinetic energy of the electron.

[6] Dirac, P. A. M. (1928). “The quantum theory of the electron.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series A 117(778): 610-624.;  Dirac, P. A. M. (1928). “The quantum theory of the electron – Part II.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series A118(779): 351-361.