Photon - Early Objections

Early Objections

Einstein's 1905 predictions were verified experimentally in several ways in the first two decades of the 20th century, as recounted in Robert Millikan's Nobel lecture. However, before Compton's experiment showing that photons carried momentum proportional to their wave number (or frequency) (1922), most physicists were reluctant to believe that electromagnetic radiation itself might be particulate. (See, for example, the Nobel lectures of Wien, Planck and Millikan.). Instead, there was a widespread belief that energy quantization resulted from some unknown constraint on the matter that absorbs or emits radiation. Attitudes changed over time. In part, the change can be traced to experiments such as Compton scattering, where it was much more difficult not to ascribe quantization to light itself to explain the observed results.

Even after Compton's experiment, Niels Bohr, Hendrik Kramers and John Slater made one last attempt to preserve the Maxwellian continuous electromagnetic field model of light, the so-called BKS model. To account for the data then available, two drastic hypotheses had to be made:

  1. Energy and momentum are conserved only on the average in interactions between matter and radiation, not in elementary processes such as absorption and emission. This allows one to reconcile the discontinuously changing energy of the atom (jump between energy states) with the continuous release of energy into radiation.
  2. Causality is abandoned. For example, spontaneous emissions are merely emissions induced by a "virtual" electromagnetic field.

However, refined Compton experiments showed that energy-momentum is conserved extraordinarily well in elementary processes; and also that the jolting of the electron and the generation of a new photon in Compton scattering obey causality to within 10 ps. Accordingly, Bohr and his co-workers gave their model "as honorable a funeral as possible". Nevertheless, the failures of the BKS model inspired Werner Heisenberg in his development of matrix mechanics.

A few physicists persisted in developing semiclassical models in which electromagnetic radiation is not quantized, but matter appears to obey the laws of quantum mechanics. Although the evidence for photons from chemical and physical experiments was overwhelming by the 1970s, this evidence could not be considered as absolutely definitive; since it relied on the interaction of light with matter, a sufficiently complicated theory of matter could in principle account for the evidence. Nevertheless, all semiclassical theories were refuted definitively in the 1970s and 1980s by photon-correlation experiments. Hence, Einstein's hypothesis that quantization is a property of light itself is considered to be proven.

Read more about this topic:  Photon

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