History of quantum mechanics

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10 of the most influential figures in the history of quantum mechanics. Left to right: Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrödinger, Richard Feynman.

The history of quantum mechanics is a fundamental part of the history of modern physics. Quantum mechanics' history, as it interlaces with the history of quantum chemistry, began essentially with a number of different scientific discoveries: the 1838 discovery of cathode rays by Michael Faraday; the 1859–60 winter statement of the black-body radiation problem by Gustav Kirchhoff; the 1877 suggestion by Ludwig Boltzmann that the energy states of a physical system could be discrete; the discovery of the photoelectric effect by Heinrich Hertz in 1887; and the 1900 quantum hypothesis by Max Planck that any energy-radiating atomic system can theoretically be divided into a number of discrete "energy elements" ε (Greek letter epsilon) such that each of these energy elements is proportional to the frequency ν with which each of them individually radiate energy, as defined by the following formula:

where h is a numerical value called Planck's constant.

Then, Albert Einstein in 1905, in order to explain the photoelectric effect previously reported by Heinrich Hertz in 1887, postulated consistently with Max Planck's quantum hypothesis that light itself is made of individual quantum particles, which in 1926 came to be called photons by Gilbert N. Lewis. The photoelectric effect was observed upon shining light of particular wavelengths on certain materials, such as metals, which caused electrons to be ejected from those materials only if the light quantum energy was greater than the work function of the metal's surface.

The phrase "quantum mechanics" was coined (in German, Quantenmechanik) by the group of physicists including Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, and Wolfgang Pauli, at the University of Göttingen in the early 1920s, and was first used in Born's 1924 paper "Zur Quantenmechanik".[1] In the years to follow, this theoretical basis slowly began to be applied to chemical structure, reactivity, and bonding.

Predecessors and the "old quantum theory"[edit]

During the early 19th century, chemical research by John Dalton and Amedeo Avogadro lent weight to the atomic theory of matter, an idea that James Clerk Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann and others built upon to establish the kinetic theory of gases. The successes of kinetic theory gave further credence to the idea that matter is composed of atoms, yet the theory also had shortcomings that would only be resolved by the development of quantum mechanics.[2] The existence of atoms was not universally accepted among physicists or chemists; Ernst Mach, for example, was a staunch anti-atomist.[3]

Ludwig Boltzmann suggested in 1877 that the energy levels of a physical system, such as a molecule, could be discrete (rather than continuous). Boltzmann's rationale for the presence of discrete energy levels in molecules such as those of iodine gas had its origins in his statistical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics theories and was backed up by mathematical arguments, as would also be the case twenty years later with the first quantum theory put forward by Max Planck.

In 1900, the German physicist Max Planck, who had never believed in discrete atoms, reluctantly introduced the idea that energy is quantized in order to derive a formula for the observed frequency dependence of the energy emitted by a black body, called Planck's law, that included a Boltzmann distribution (applicable in the classical limit). Planck's law[4] can be stated as follows:


I(ν, T) is the energy per unit time (or the power) radiated per unit area of emitting surface in the normal direction per unit solid angle per unit frequency by a black body at temperature T;
h is the Planck constant;
c is the speed of light in a vacuum;
k is the Boltzmann constant;
ν (nu) is the frequency of the electromagnetic radiation;
T is the temperature of the body in kelvins.

The earlier Wien approximation may be derived from Planck's law by assuming .

In 1905, Albert Einstein used kinetic theory to explain Brownian motion. French physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin used the model in Einstein's paper to experimentally determine the mass, and the dimensions, of atoms, thereby giving direct empirical verification of the atomic theory. Also in 1905, Einstein explained the photoelectric effect by postulating that light, or more generally all electromagnetic radiation, can be divided into a finite number of "energy quanta" that are localized points in space. From the introduction section of his March 1905 quantum paper "On a heuristic viewpoint concerning the emission and transformation of light", Einstein states:

According to the assumption to be contemplated here, when a light ray is spreading from a point, the energy is not distributed continuously over ever-increasing spaces, but consists of a finite number of "energy quanta" that are localized in points in space, move without dividing, and can be absorbed or generated only as a whole.

This statement has been called the most revolutionary sentence written by a physicist of the twentieth century.[5] These energy quanta later came to be called "photons", a term introduced by Gilbert N. Lewis in 1926. The idea that each photon had to consist of energy in terms of quanta was a remarkable achievement; it effectively solved the problem of black-body radiation attaining infinite energy, which occurred in theory if light were to be explained only in terms of waves.

An important step was taken in the evolution of quantum theory at the first Solvay Congress of 1911. There the top physicists of the scientific community met to discuss the problem of “Radiation and the Quanta.” By this time the Ernest Rutherford model of the atom had been published,[6][7] but much of the discussion involving atomic structure revolved around the quantum model of Arthur Haas in 1910. Also, at the Solvay Congress in 1911 Hendrik Lorentz suggested after Einstein’s talk on quantum structure that the energy of a rotator be set equal to nhv.[8][9]: 244  This was followed by other quantum models such as the John William Nicholson model of 1912 which was nuclear and quantized angular momentum.[10][11][12] Nicholson had introduced the spectra into his atomic model by using the oscillations of electrons in a nuclear atom perpendicular to the orbital plane thereby maintaining stability. Nicholson’s atomic spectra identified many unattributed lines in solar and nebular spectra.[10][13][14][9]: 278 

In 1913, Bohr explained the spectral lines of the hydrogen atom, again by using quantization, in his paper of July 1913 On the Constitution of Atoms and Molecules in which he discussed and cited the Nicholson model.[15][16][12] In the Bohr model, the hydrogen atom is pictured as a heavy, positively-charged nucleus orbited by a light, negatively-charged electron. The electron can only exist in certain, discretely separated orbits, labeled by their angular momentum, which is restricted to be an integer multiple of the reduced Planck constant. The model's key success lay in explaining the Rydberg formula for the spectral emission lines of atomic hydrogen by using the transitions of electrons between orbits.[9]: 276  While the Rydberg formula had been known experimentally, it did not gain a theoretical underpinning until the Bohr model was introduced. Not only did the Bohr model explain the reasons for the structure of the Rydberg formula, it also provided a justification for the fundamental physical constants that make up the formula's empirical results.

Moreover, the application of Planck's quantum theory to the electron allowed Ștefan Procopiu in 1911–1913, and subsequently Niels Bohr in 1913, to calculate the magnetic moment of the electron, which was later called the "magneton"; similar quantum computations, but with numerically quite different values, were subsequently made possible for both the magnetic moments of the proton and the neutron that are three orders of magnitude smaller than that of the electron.

These theories, though successful, were strictly phenomenological: during this time, there was no rigorous justification for quantization, aside, perhaps, from Henri Poincaré's discussion of Planck's theory in his 1912 paper Sur la théorie des quanta.[17][18] They are collectively known as the old quantum theory.

The phrase "quantum physics" was first used in Johnston's Planck's Universe in Light of Modern Physics (1931).

In 1923, the French physicist Louis de Broglie put forward his theory of matter waves by stating that particles can exhibit wave characteristics and vice versa. This theory was for a single particle and derived from special relativity theory. Building on de Broglie's approach, modern quantum mechanics was born in 1925, when the German physicists Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, and Pascual Jordan[19][20] developed matrix mechanics and the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger invented wave mechanics and the non-relativistic Schrödinger equation as an approximation of the generalised case of de Broglie's theory.[21] Schrödinger subsequently showed that the two approaches were equivalent. The first applications of quantum mechanics to physical systems were the algebraic determination of the hydrogen spectrum by Wolfgang Pauli[22] and the treatment of diatomic molecules by Lucy Mensing.[23]

Modern quantum mechanics[edit]

Heisenberg formulated an early version of the uncertainty principle in 1927, analyzing a thought experiment where one attempts to measure an electron's position and momentum simultaneously. However, Heisenberg did not give precise mathematical definitions of what the "uncertainty" in these measurements meant, a step that would be taken soon after by Earle Hesse Kennard, Wolfgang Pauli, and Hermann Weyl.[24][25] Starting around 1927, Paul Dirac began the process of unifying quantum mechanics with special relativity by proposing the Dirac equation for the electron. The Dirac equation achieves the relativistic description of the wavefunction of an electron that Schrödinger failed to obtain. It predicts electron spin and led Dirac to predict the existence of the positron. He also pioneered the use of operator theory, including the influential bra–ket notation, as described in his famous 1930 textbook. During the same period, Hungarian polymath John von Neumann formulated the rigorous mathematical basis for quantum mechanics as the theory of linear operators on Hilbert spaces, as described in his likewise famous 1932 textbook. These, like many other works from the founding period, still stand, and remain widely used.

The field of quantum chemistry was pioneered by physicists Walter Heitler and Fritz London, who published a study of the covalent bond of the hydrogen molecule in 1927. Quantum chemistry was subsequently developed by a large number of workers, including the American theoretical chemist Linus Pauling at Caltech, and John C. Slater into various theories such as Molecular Orbital Theory or Valence Theory.

Quantum field theory[edit]

Beginning in 1927, researchers attempted to apply quantum mechanics to fields instead of single particles, resulting in quantum field theories. Early workers in this area include P.A.M. Dirac, W. Pauli, V. Weisskopf, and P. Jordan. This area of research culminated in the formulation of quantum electrodynamics by R.P. Feynman, F. Dyson, J. Schwinger, and S. Tomonaga during the 1940s. Quantum electrodynamics describes a quantum theory of electrons, positrons, and the electromagnetic field, and served as a model for subsequent quantum field theories.[19][20][26]

Feynman diagram of gluon radiation in quantum chromodynamics

The theory of quantum chromodynamics was formulated beginning in the early 1960s. The theory as we know it today was formulated by Politzer, Gross and Wilczek in 1975.

Building on pioneering work by Schwinger, Higgs and Goldstone, the physicists Glashow, Weinberg and Salam independently showed how the weak nuclear force and quantum electrodynamics could be merged into a single electroweak force, for which they received the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Quantum information[edit]

Quantum information science developed in the latter decades of the 20th century, beginning with theoretical results like Holevo's theorem, the concept of generalized measurements or POVMs, the proposal of quantum key distribution by Bennett and Brassard, and Shor's algorithm.

Founding experiments[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Max Born, My Life: Recollections of a Nobel Laureate, Taylor & Francis, London, 1978. ("We became more and more convinced that a radical change of the foundations of physics was necessary, i.e., a new kind of mechanics for which we used the term quantum mechanics. This word appears for the first time in physical literature in a paper of mine...")
  2. ^ Feynman, Richard; Leighton, Robert; Sands, Matthew (1964). The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Vol. 1. California Institute of Technology. ISBN 978-0201500646. Retrieved 30 September 2021.
  3. ^ Pojman, Paul (2020), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Ernst Mach", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-09-30
  4. ^ M. Planck (1914). The theory of heat radiation, second edition, translated by M. Masius, Blakiston's Son & Co, Philadelphia, pp. 22, 26, 42–43.
  5. ^ Folsing, Albrecht (1997), Albert Einstein: A Biography, trans. Ewald Osers, Viking
  6. ^ Lakhtakia, A (1996). Models and modelers of hydrogen : Thales, Thomson, Rutherford, Bohr, Sommerfeld, Goudsmit, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Dirac, Sallhofer. Singapore River Edge, NJ: World Scientific. ISBN 981-02-2302-1. OCLC 35643527.
  7. ^ Rutherford, E. (1911). "LXXIX. The scattering of α and β particles by matter and the structure of the atom". The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. Informa UK Limited. 21 (125): 669–688. doi:10.1080/14786440508637080. ISSN 1941-5982.
  8. ^ Original Proceedings of the 1911 Solvay Conference published 1912. THÉORIE DU RAYONNEMENT ET LES QUANTA. RAPPORTS ET DISCUSSIONS DELA Réunion tenue à Bruxelles, du 30 octobre au 3 novembre 1911, Sous les Auspices dk M. E. SOLVAY. Publiés par MM. P. LANGEVIN et M. de BROGLIE. Translated from the French, p.447.
  9. ^ a b c Heilbron, John L.; Kuhn, Thomas S. (1969-01-01). "The Genesis of the Bohr Atom". Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences. University of California Press. 1: vi–290. doi:10.2307/27757291. ISSN 0073-2672.
  10. ^ a b Heilbron, John L. (2013). "The path to the quantum atom". Nature. Springer Science and Business Media LLC. 498 (7452): 27–30. doi:10.1038/498027a. ISSN 0028-0836.
  11. ^ J. W. Nicholson, Month. Not. Roy. Astr. Soc. lxxii. pp. 49,130, 677, 693, 729 (1912).
  12. ^ a b McCormmach, Russell (1966). "The atomic theory of John William Nicholson". Archive for History of Exact Sciences. Springer Science and Business Media LLC. 3 (2): 160–184. doi:10.1007/bf00357268. ISSN 0003-9519.
  13. ^ Nicholson, J. W. (1912-06-14). "The Constitution of the Solar Corona. II". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Oxford University Press (OUP). 72 (8): 677–693. doi:10.1093/mnras/72.8.677. ISSN 0035-8711.
  14. ^ Nicholson, J. W. (1912). "The Constitution of the Solar Corona. III". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Oxford University Press (OUP). 72 (9): 729–740. doi:10.1093/mnras/72.9.729. ISSN 0035-8711.
  15. ^ T. Hirosige and S. Nisio, "Formation of Bohr's Theory of Atomic Constitution," Jap. Studies Hist. Sci, No. 3 (1964), 6-28;
  16. ^ J. L. Heilbron, A History of Atomic Models from the Discovery of the Electron to the Beginnings of Quantum Mechanics, diss. (University of California, Berkeley, 1964).
  17. ^ McCormmach, Russell (Spring 1967), "Henri Poincaré and the Quantum Theory", Isis, 58 (1): 37–55, doi:10.1086/350182
  18. ^ Irons, F. E. (August 2001), "Poincaré's 1911–12 proof of quantum discontinuity interpreted as applying to atoms", American Journal of Physics, 69 (8): 879–84, Bibcode:2001AmJPh..69..879I, doi:10.1119/1.1356056
  19. ^ a b Edwards, David A. (1979). "The mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics". Synthese. Springer Science and Business Media LLC. 42 (1): 1–70. doi:10.1007/bf00413704. ISSN 0039-7857.
  20. ^ a b Edwards, David A. (1981). "Mathematical foundations of quantum field theory: Fermions, gauge fields, and supersymmetry part I: Lattice field theories". International Journal of Theoretical Physics. Springer Science and Business Media LLC. 20 (7): 503–517. doi:10.1007/bf00669437. ISSN 0020-7748.
  21. ^ Hanle, P. A. (December 1977), "Erwin Schrodinger's Reaction to Louis de Broglie's Thesis on the Quantum Theory.", Isis, 68 (4): 606–609, doi:10.1086/351880
  22. ^ Pauli, Wolfgang (1926-05-01). "Über das Wasserstoffspektrum vom Standpunkt der neuen Quantenmechanik". Zeitschrift für Physik (in German). 36 (5): 336–363. doi:10.1007/BF01450175. ISSN 0044-3328.
  23. ^ Mensing, Lucy (1926-11-01). "Die Rotations-Schwingungsbanden nach der Quantenmechanik". Zeitschrift für Physik (in German). 36 (11): 814–823. Bibcode:1926ZPhy...36..814M. doi:10.1007/BF01400216. ISSN 0044-3328. S2CID 123240532.
  24. ^ Busch, Paul; Lahti, Pekka; Werner, Reinhard F. (17 October 2013). "Proof of Heisenberg's Error-Disturbance Relation". Physical Review Letters. 111 (16): 160405. arXiv:1306.1565. Bibcode:2013PhRvL.111p0405B. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.111.160405. ISSN 0031-9007. PMID 24182239. S2CID 24507489.
  25. ^ Appleby, David Marcus (6 May 2016). "Quantum Errors and Disturbances: Response to Busch, Lahti and Werner". Entropy. 18 (5): 174. arXiv:1602.09002. Bibcode:2016Entrp..18..174A. doi:10.3390/e18050174.
  26. ^ S. Auyang, How is Quantum Field Theory Possible?, Oxford University Press, 1995.
  27. ^ The Davisson–Germer experiment, which demonstrates the wave nature of the electron

Further reading[edit]

  • Bacciagaluppi, Guido; Valentini, Antony (2009), Quantum theory at the crossroads: reconsidering the 1927 Solvay conference, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, p. 9184, arXiv:quant-ph/0609184, Bibcode:2006quant.ph..9184B, ISBN 978-0-521-81421-8, OCLC 227191829
  • Bernstein, Jeremy (2009), Quantum Leaps, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-03541-6
  • Cramer, JG (2015). The Quantum Handshake: Entanglement, Nonlocality and Transactions. Springer Verlag. ISBN 978-3-319-24642-0.
  • Greenberger, Daniel, Hentschel, Klaus, Weinert, Friedel (Eds.) Compendium of Quantum Physics. Concepts, Experiments, History and Philosophy, New York: Springer, 2009. ISBN 978-3-540-70626-7.
  • Jammer, Max (1966), The conceptual development of quantum mechanics, New York: McGraw-Hill, OCLC 534562
  • Jammer, Max (1974), The philosophy of quantum mechanics: The interpretations of quantum mechanics in historical perspective, New York: Wiley, ISBN 0-471-43958-4, OCLC 969760
  • F. Bayen, M. Flato, C. Fronsdal, A. Lichnerowicz and D. Sternheimer, Deformation theory and quantization I,and II, Ann. Phys. (N.Y.), 111 (1978) pp. 61–151.
  • D. Cohen, An Introduction to Hilbert Space and Quantum Logic, Springer-Verlag, 1989. This is a thorough and well-illustrated introduction.
  • Finkelstein, D. (1969), Matter, Space and Logic, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. V, p. 1969, doi:10.1007/978-94-010-3381-7_4, ISBN 978-94-010-3383-1.
  • A. Gleason. Measures on the Closed Subspaces of a Hilbert Space, Journal of Mathematics and Mechanics, 1957.
  • R. Kadison. Isometries of Operator Algebras, Annals of Mathematics, Vol. 54, pp. 325–38, 1951
  • G. Ludwig. Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, Springer-Verlag, 1983.
  • G. Mackey. Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, W. A. Benjamin, 1963 (paperback reprint by Dover 2004).
  • R. Omnès. Understanding Quantum Mechanics, Princeton University Press, 1999. (Discusses logical and philosophical issues of quantum mechanics, with careful attention to the history of the subject).
  • N. Papanikolaou. Reasoning Formally About Quantum Systems: An Overview, ACM SIGACT News, 36(3), pp. 51–66, 2005.
  • C. Piron. Foundations of Quantum Physics, W. A. Benjamin, 1976.
  • Hermann Weyl. The Theory of Groups and Quantum Mechanics, Dover Publications, 1950.
  • A. Whitaker. The New Quantum Age: From Bell's Theorem to Quantum Computation and Teleportation, Oxford University Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-19-958913-5
  • Stephen Hawking. The Dreams that Stuff is Made of, Running Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-76-243434-3
  • A. Douglas Stone. Einstein and the Quantum, the Quest of the Valiant Swabian, Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Richard P. Feynman. QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Princeton University Press, 2006. Print.

External links[edit]