Spin (physics) - History

History

Spin was first discovered in the context of the emission spectrum of alkali metals. In 1924 Wolfgang Pauli introduced what he called a "two-valued quantum degree of freedom" associated with the electron in the outermost shell. This allowed him to formulate the Pauli exclusion principle, stating that no two electrons can share the same quantum state at the same time.

The physical interpretation of Pauli's "degree of freedom" was initially unknown. Ralph Kronig, one of Landé's assistants, suggested in early 1925 that it was produced by the self-rotation of the electron. When Pauli heard about the idea, he criticized it severely, noting that the electron's hypothetical surface would have to be moving faster than the speed of light in order for it to rotate quickly enough to produce the necessary angular momentum. This would violate the theory of relativity. Largely due to Pauli's criticism, Kronig decided not to publish his idea.

In the autumn of 1925, the same thought came to two Dutch physicists, George Uhlenbeck and Samuel Goudsmit. Under the advice of Paul Ehrenfest, they published their results. It met a favorable response, especially after Llewellyn Thomas managed to resolve a factor-of-two discrepancy between experimental results and Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit's calculations (and Kronig's unpublished ones). This discrepancy was due to the orientation of the electron's tangent frame, in addition to its position.

Mathematically speaking, a fiber bundle description is needed. The tangent bundle effect is additive and relativistic; that is, it vanishes if c goes to infinity. It is one half of the value obtained without regard for the tangent space orientation, but with opposite sign. Thus the combined effect differs from the latter by a factor two (Thomas precession).

Despite his initial objections, Pauli formalized the theory of spin in 1927, using the modern theory of quantum mechanics invented by Schrödinger and Heisenberg. He pioneered the use of Pauli matrices as a representation of the spin operators, and introduced a two-component spinor wave-function.

Pauli's theory of spin was non-relativistic. However, in 1928, Paul Dirac published the Dirac equation, which described the relativistic electron. In the Dirac equation, a four-component spinor (known as a "Dirac spinor") was used for the electron wave-function. In 1940, Pauli proved the spin-statistics theorem, which states that fermions have half-integer spin and bosons integer spin.

In retrospect, the first direct experimental evidence of the electron spin was the Stern–Gerlach experiment of 1922. However, the correct explanation of this experiment was only given in 1927.

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