Light: relating waves to photons

This is a concluding note on my ‘series’ on light. The ‘series’ gave you an overview of the ‘classical’ theory: light as an electromagnetic wave. It was very complete, including relativistic effects (see my previous post). I could have added more – there’s an equivalent for four-vectors, for example, when we’re dealing with frequencies and wave numbers: quantities that transform like space and time under the Lorentz transformations – but you got the essence.

One point we never ever touched upon, was that magnetic field vector though. It is there. It is tiny because of that 1/c factor, but it’s there. We wrote it as

magnetic field

All symbols in bold are vectors, of course. The force is another vector vector cross-product: F = qv×B, and you need to apply the usual right-hand screw rule to find the direction of the force. As it turns out, that force – as tiny as it is – is actually oriented in the direction of propagation, and it is what is responsible for the so-called radiation pressure.

So, yes, there is a ‘pushing momentum’. How strong is it? What power can it deliver? Can it indeed make space ships sail? Well… The magnitude of the unit vector er’ is obviously one, so it’s the values of the other vectors that we need to consider. If we substitute and average F, the thing we need to find is:

〈F〉 = q〈vE〉/c

But the charge q times the field is the electric force, and the force on the charge times the velocity is the work dW/dt being done on the charge. So that should equal the energy absorbed that is being absorbed from the light per second. Now, I didn’t look at that much. It’s actually one of the very few things I left – but I’ll refer you to Feynman’s Lectures if you want to find out more: there’s a fine section on light scattering, introducing the notion of the Thompson scattering cross section, but – as said – I think you had enough as for now. Just note that 〈F〉 = [dW/dt]/c and, hence, that the momentum that light delivers is equal to the energy that is absorbed (dW/dt) divided by c.

So the momentum carried is 1/c times the energy. Now, you may remember that Planck solved the ‘problem’ of black-body radiation – an anomaly that physicists couldn’t explain at the end of the 19th century – by re-introducing a corpuscular theory of light: he said light consisted of photons. We all know that photons are the kind of ‘particles’ that the Greek and medieval corpuscular theories of light envisaged but, well… They have a particle-like character – just as much as they have a wave-like character. They are actually neither, and they are physically and mathematically being described by these wave functions – which, in turn, are functions describing probability amplitudes. But I won’t entertain you with that here, because I’ve written about that in other posts. Let’s just go along with the ‘corpuscular’ theory of photons for a while.

Photons also have energy (which we’ll write as W instead of E, just to be consistent with the symbols above) and momentum (p), and Planck’s Law says how much:

W = hf and p = W/c

So that’s good: we find the same multiplier 1/c here for the momentum of a photon. In fact, this is more than just a coincidence of course: the “wave theory” of light and Planck’s “corpuscular theory” must of course link up, because they are both supposed to help us understand real-life phenomena.

There’s even more nice surprises. We spoke about polarized light, and we showed how the end of the electric field vector describes a circular or elliptical motion as the wave travels to space. It turns out that we can actually relate that to some kind of angular momentum of the wave (I won’t go into the details though – because I really think the previous posts have really been too heavy on equations and complicated mathematical arguments) and that we could also relate it to a model of photons carrying angular momentum, “like spinning rifle bullets” – as Feynman puts it.

However, he also adds: “But this ‘bullet’ picture is as incomplete as the ‘wave’ picture.” And so that’s true and that should be it. And it will be it. I will really end this ‘series’ now. It was quite a journey for me, as I am making my way through all of these complicated models and explanations of how things are supposed to work. But a fascinating one. And it sure gives me a much better feel for the ‘concepts’ that are hastily explained in all of these ‘popular’ books dealing with science and physics, hopefully preparing me better for what I should be doing, and that’s to read Penrose’s advanced mathematical theories.


4 thoughts on “Light: relating waves to photons

  1. Pingback: The Uncertainty Principle revisited… | Reading Penrose

  2. Pingback: The field of electric and magnetic dipoles | Reading Feynman

  3. Pingback: The energy of fields and the Poynting vector | Reading Feynman

  4. Pingback: The de Broglie relations, the wave equation, and relativistic length contraction | Reading Feynman

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