The Emperor has no clothes

Hi guys (and ladies) – I should copy the paper into this post but… Well… That’s rather tedious. :-/ The topic is one that is of interest of you. You’re looking for a classical explanation of the anomalous magnetic moment, right? Well… We don’t have one – but we’re pretty sure this paper has all the right ingredients for one. We also designed a test for it. Also check out my other paper on the fine-structure constant. It explains everything.

Everything? Well… Almost everything. 🙂 The Revolution has started. The (quantum-mechanical) Emperor seems to have no clothes. 🙂

I am damn serious. This is what I wrote on my FB page today:

The only thing I can be proud of this year is a series of papers on quantum math. I will probably turn them into a popular book on physics. Its working title is “The Emperor Has No Clothes !” Indeed – if anything – these papers show that a lot of the highbrow stuff is just unnecessary complexity or deliberate hyping up of models that can be simplified significantly.

Worse, through my interactions with some physicists, I found some serious research into the nature of matter and energy is being neglected or ignored just because it challenges the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. Most papers of Alexander Burinskii, for example, a brilliant physicist who developed a very plausible model of an electron, have been re-classified from ‘quantum physics’ to ‘general physics’ – which means no one will read them. Worse, he has had trouble just getting stuff published over the last four years! It’s plain censorship! 

I now summarize the Copenhagen interpretation as: “Calculate, don’t think !”  It’s a Diktatur, really! And I now also understand why the founding fathers of quantum mechanics (Dirac, Heisenberg, Pauli, Schroedinger,…) thought the theory they helped to create didn’t quite make the cut. It’s going to be a sad story to tell. In fact, I think Burinskii is in trouble because his model may show that a lot of the research on the anomalous magnetic moment is plain humbug – but so that got some people a Nobel Prize in 1955 and it’s popularly referred to as the ‘high-precision test’ of QED, so… Well… I looked at it too, and for quite a long time, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s plain nonsense – but so that cannot be said.

Hmm… If the state of physics is so poor, then we should not be surprised that we are constantly being misled in other fields as well. Let us remember Boltzmann:

“Bring forth what is true. Write it so it it’s clear. Defend it to your last breath.”

Oh – and I have a sort of classical explanation for what happens in the one-photon Mach-Zehnder experiment too. Check it out here. Quantum mechanics is not a mystery. Mr. Bell has got it all wrong. 🙂

Kind regards – JL


The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (III)

This is my third and final comments on Feynman’s popular little booklet: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, also known as Feynman’s Lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics (QED).

The origin of this short lecture series is quite moving: the death of Alix G. Mautner, a good friend of Feynman’s. She was always curious about physics but her career was in English literature and so she did not manage the math. Hence, Feynman introduces this 1985 publication by writing: “Here are the lectures I really prepared for Alix, but unfortunately I can’t tell them to her directly, now.”

Alix Mautner died from a brain tumor, and it is her husband, Leonard Mautner, who sponsored the QED lectures series at the UCLA, which Ralph Leigton transcribed and published as the booklet that we’re talking about here. Feynman himself died a few years later, at the relatively young age of 69. Tragic coincidence: he died of cancer too. Despite all this weirdness, Feynman’s QED never quite got the same iconic status of, let’s say, Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time. I wonder why, but the answer to that question is probably in the realm of chaos theory. 🙂 I actually just saw the movie on Stephen Hawking’s life (The Theory of Everything), and I noted another strange coincidence: Jane Wilde, Hawking’s first wife, also has a PhD in literature. It strikes me that, while the movie documents that Jane Wilde gave Hawking three children, after which he divorced her to marry his nurse, Elaine, the movie does not mention that he separated from Elaine too, and that he has some kind of ‘working relationship’ with Jane again.

Hmm… What to say? I should get back to quantum mechanics here or, to be precise, to quantum electrodynamics.

One reason why Feynman’s Strange Theory of Light and Matter did not sell like Hawking’s Brief History of Time, might well be that, in some places, the text is not entirely accurate. Why? Who knows? It would make for an interesting PhD thesis in History of Science. Unfortunately, I have no time for such PhD thesis. Hence, I must assume that Richard Feynman simply didn’t have much time or energy left to correct some of the writing of Ralph Leighton, who transcribed and edited these four short lectures a few years before Feynman’s death. Indeed, when everything is said and done, Ralph Leighton is not a physicist and, hence, I think he did compromise – just a little bit – on accuracy for the sake of readability. Ralph Leighton’s father, Robert Leighton, an eminent physicist who worked with Feynman, would probably have done a much better job.

I feel that one should not compromise on accuracy, even when trying to write something reader-friendly. That’s why I am writing this blog, and why I am writing three posts specifically on this little booklet. Indeed, while I’d warmly recommend that little book on QED as an excellent non-mathematical introduction to the weird world of quantum mechanics, I’d also say that, while Ralph Leighton’s story is great, it’s also, in some places, not entirely accurate indeed.

So… Well… I want to do better than Ralph Leighton here. Nothing more. Nothing less. 🙂 Let’s go for it.

I. Probability amplitudes: what are they?

The greatest achievement of that little QED publication is that it manages to avoid any reference to wave functions and other complicated mathematical constructs: all of the complexity of quantum mechanics is reduced to three basic events or actions and, hence, three basic amplitudes which are represented as ‘arrows’—literally.

Now… Well… You may or may not know that a (probability) amplitude is actually a complex number, but it’s not so easy to intuitively understand the concept of a complex number. In contrast, everyone easily ‘gets’ the concept of an ‘arrow’. Hence, from a pedagogical point of view, representing complex numbers by some ‘arrow’ is truly a stroke of genius.

Whatever we call it, a complex number or an ‘arrow’, a probability amplitude is something with (a) a magnitude and (b) a phase. As such, it resembles a vector, but it’s not quite the same, if only because we’ll impose some restrictions on the magnitude. But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. Let’s start with the basics.

A magnitude is some real positive number, like a length, but you should not associate it with some spatial dimension in physical space: it’s just a number. As for the phase, we could associate that concept with some direction but, again, you should just think of it as a direction in a mathematical space, not in the real (physical) space.

Let me insert a parenthesis here. If I say the ‘real’ or ‘physical’ space, I mean the space in which the electrons and photons and all other real-life objects that we’re looking at exist and move. That’s a non-mathematical definition. In fact, in math, the real space is defined as a coordinate space, with sets of real numbers (vectors) as coordinates, so… Well… That’s a mathematical space only, not the ‘real’ (physical) space. So the real (vector) space is not real. 🙂 The mathematical real space may, or may not, accurately describe the real (physical) space. Indeed, you may have heard that physical space is curved because of the presence of massive objects, which means that the real coordinate space will actually not describe it very accurately. I know that’s a bit confusing but I hope you understand what I mean: if mathematicians talk about the real space, they do not mean the real space. They refer to a vector space, i.e. a mathematical construct. To avoid confusion, I’ll use the term ‘physical space’ rather than ‘real’ space in the future. So I’ll let the mathematicians get away with using the term ‘real space’ for something that isn’t real actually. 🙂

End of digression. Let’s discuss these two mathematical concepts – magnitude and phase – somewhat more in detail.

A. The magnitude

Let’s start with the magnitude or ‘length’ of our arrow. We know that we have to square these lengths to find some probability, i.e. some real number between 0 and 1. Hence, the length of our arrows cannot be larger than one. That’s the restriction I mentioned already, and this ‘normalization’ condition reinforces the point that these ‘arrows’ do not have any spatial dimension (not in any real space anyway): they represent a function. To be specific, they represent a wavefunction.

If we’d be talking complex numbers instead of ‘arrows’, we’d say the absolute value of the complex number cannot be larger than one. We’d also say that, to find the probability, we should take the absolute square of the complex number, so that’s the square of the magnitude or absolute value of the complex number indeed. We cannot just square the complex number: it has to be the square of the absolute value.

Why? Well… Just write it out. [You can skip this section if you’re not interested in complex numbers, but I would recommend you try to understand. It’s not that difficult. Indeed, if you’re reading this, you’re most likely to understand something of complex numbers and, hence, you should be able to work your way through it. Just remember that a complex number is like a two-dimensional number, which is why it’s sometimes written using bold-face (z), rather than regular font (z). However, I should immediately add this convention is usually not followed. I like the boldface though, and so I’ll try to use it in this post.] The square of a complex number z = a + bi is equal to z= a+ 2abi – b2, while the square of its absolute value (i.e. the absolute square) is |z|= [√(a+ b2)]2 = a+ b2. So you can immediately see that the square and the absolute square of a complex numbers are two very different things indeed: it’s not only the 2abi term, but there’s also the minus sign in the first expression, because of the i= –1 factor. In case of doubt, always remember that the square of a complex number may actually yield a negative number, as evidenced by the definition of the imaginary unit itself: i= –1.

End of digression. Feynman and Leighton manage to avoid any reference to complex numbers in that short series of four lectures and, hence, all they need to do is explain how one squares a length. Kids learn how to do that when making a square out of rectangular paper: they’ll fold one corner of the paper until it meets the opposite edge, forming a triangle first. They’ll then cut or tear off the extra paper, and then unfold. Done. [I could note that the folding is a 90 degree rotation of the original length (or width, I should say) which, in mathematical terms, is equivalent to multiplying that length with the imaginary unit (i). But I am sure the kids involved would think I am crazy if I’d say this. 🙂 So let me get back to Feynman’s arrows.

B. The phase

Feynman and Leighton’s second pedagogical stroke of genius is the metaphor of the ‘stopwatch’ and the ‘stopwatch hand’ for the variable phase. Indeed, although I think it’s worth explaining why z = a + bi = rcosφ + irsinφ in the illustration below can be written as z = reiφ = |z|eiφ, understanding Euler’s representation of complex number as a complex exponential requires swallowing a very substantial piece of math and, if you’d want to do that, I’ll refer you to one of my posts on complex numbers).


The metaphor of the stopwatch represents a periodic function. To be precise, it represents a sinusoid, i.e. a smooth repetitive oscillation. Now, the stopwatch hand represents the phase of that function, i.e. the φ angle in the illustration above. That angle is a function of time: the speed with which the stopwatch turns is related to some frequency, i.e. the number of oscillations per unit of time (i.e. per second).

You should now wonder: what frequency? What oscillations are we talking about here? Well… As we’re talking photons and electrons here, we should distinguish the two:

  1. For photons, the frequency is given by Planck’s energy-frequency relation, which relates the energy (E) of a photon (1.5 to 3.5 eV for visible light) to its frequency (ν). It’s a simple proportional relation, with Planck’s constant (h) as the proportionality constant: E = hν, or ν = E/h.
  2. For electrons, we have the de Broglie relation, which looks similar to the Planck relation (E = hf, or f = E/h) but, as you know, it’s something different. Indeed, these so-called matter waves are not so easy to interpret because there actually is no precise frequency f. In fact, the matter wave representing some particle in space will consist of a potentially infinite number of waves, all superimposed one over another, as illustrated below.


For the sake of accuracy, I should mention that the animation above has its limitations: the wavetrain is complex-valued and, hence, has a real as well as an imaginary part, so it’s something like the blob underneath. Two functions in one, so to speak: the imaginary part follows the real part with a phase difference of 90 degrees (or π/2 radians). Indeed, if the wavefunction is a regular complex exponential reiθ, then rsin(φ–π/2) = rcos(φ), which proves the point: we have two functions in one here. 🙂 I am actually just repeating what I said before already: the probability amplitude, or the wavefunction, is a complex number. You’ll usually see it written as Ψ (psi) or Φ (phi). Here also, using boldface (Ψ or Φ instead of Ψ or Φ) would usefully remind the reader that we’re talking something ‘two-dimensional’ (in mathematical space, that is), but this convention is usually not followed.

Photon wave

In any case… Back to frequencies. The point to note is that, when it comes to analyzing electrons (or any other matter-particle), we’re dealing with a range of frequencies f really (or, what amounts to the same, a range of wavelengths λ) and, hence, we should write Δf = ΔE/h, which is just one of the many expressions of the Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics.

Now, that’s just one of the complications. Another difficulty is that matter-particles, such as electrons, have some rest mass, and so that enters the energy equation as well (literally). Last but not least, one should distinguish between the group velocity and the phase velocity of matter waves. As you can imagine, that makes for a very complicated relationship between ‘the’ wavelength and ‘the’ frequency. In fact, what I write above should make it abundantly clear that there’s no such thing as the wavelength, or the frequency: it’s a range really, related to the fundamental uncertainty in quantum physics. I’ll come back to that, and so you shouldn’t worry about it here. Just note that the stopwatch metaphor doesn’t work very well for an electron!

In his postmortem lectures for Alix Mautner, Feynman avoids all these complications. Frankly, I think that’s a missed opportunity because I do not think it’s all that incomprehensible. In fact, I write all that follows because I do want you to understand the basics of waves. It’s not difficult. High-school math is enough here. Let’s go for it.

One turn of the stopwatch corresponds to one cycle. One cycle, or 1 Hz (i.e. one oscillation per second) covers 360 degrees or, to use a more natural unit, 2π radians. [Why is radian a more natural unit? Because it measures an angle in terms of the distance unit itself, rather than in arbitrary 1/360 cuts of a full circle. Indeed, remember that the circumference of the unit circle is 2π.] So our frequency ν (expressed in cycles per second) corresponds to a so-called angular frequency ω = 2πν. From this formula, it should be obvious that ω is measured in radians per second.

We can also link this formula to the period of the oscillation, T, i.e. the duration of one cycle. T = 1/ν and, hence, ω = 2π/T. It’s all nicely illustrated below. [And, yes, it’s an animation from Wikipedia: nice and simple.]


The easy math above now allows us to formally write the phase of a wavefunction – let’s denote the wavefunction as φ (phi), and the phase as θ (theta) – as a function of time (t) using the angular frequency ω. So we can write: θ = ωt = 2π·ν·t. Now, the wave travels through space, and the two illustrations above (i.e. the one with the super-imposed waves, and the one with the complex wave train) would usually represent a wave shape at some fixed point in time. Hence, the horizontal axis is not t but x. Hence, we can and should write the phase not only as a function of time but also of space. So how do we do that? Well… If the hypothesis is that the wave travels through space at some fixed speed c, then its frequency ν will also determine its wavelength λ. It’s a simple relationship: c = λν (the number of oscillations per second times the length of one wavelength should give you the distance traveled per second, so that’s, effectively, the wave’s speed).

Now that we’ve expressed the frequency in radians per second, we can also express the wavelength in radians per unit distance too. That’s what the wavenumber does: think of it as the spatial frequency of the wave. We denote the wavenumber by k, and write: k = 2π/λ. [Just do a numerical example when you have difficulty following. For example, if you’d assume the wavelength is 5 units distance (i.e. 5 meter) – that’s a typical VHF radio frequency: ν = (3×10m/s)/(5 m) = 0.6×108 Hz = 60 MHz – then that would correspond to (2π radians)/(5 m) ≈ 1.2566 radians per meter. Of course, we can also express the wave number in oscillations per unit distance. In that case, we’d have to divide k by 2π, because one cycle corresponds to 2π radians. So we get the reciprocal of the wavelength: 1/λ. In our example, 1/λ is, of course, 1/5 = 0.2, so that’s a fifth of a full cycle. You can also think of it as the number of waves (or wavelengths) per meter: if the wavelength is λ, then one can fit 1/λ waves in a meter.


Now, from the ω = 2πν, c = λν and k = 2π/λ relations, it’s obvious that k = 2π/λ = 2π/(c/ν) = (2πν)/c = ω/c. To sum it all up, frequencies and wavelengths, in time and in space, are all related through the speed of propagation of the wave c. More specifically, they’re related as follows:

c = λν = ω/k

From that, it’s easy to see that k = ω/c, which we’ll use in a moment. Now, it’s obvious that the periodicity of the wave implies that we can find the same phase by going one oscillation (or a multiple number of oscillations back or forward in time, or in space. In fact, we can also find the same phase by letting both time and space vary. However, if we want to do that, it should be obvious that we should either (a) go forward in space and back in time or, alternatively, (b) go back in space and forward in time. In other words, if we want to get the same phase, then time and space sort of substitute for each other. Let me quote Feynman on this: “This is easily seen by considering the mathematical behavior of a(tr/c). Evidently, if we add a little time Δt, we get the same value for a(tr/c) as we would have if we had subtracted a little distance: ΔcΔt.” The variable a stands for the acceleration of an electric charge here, causing an electromagnetic wave, but the same logic is valid for the phase, with a minor twist though: we’re talking a nice periodic function here, and so we need to put the angular frequency in front. Hence, the rate of change of the phase in respect to time is measured by the angular frequency ω. In short, we write:

θ = ω(t–x/c) = ωt–kx

Hence, we can re-write the wavefunction, in terms of its phase, as follows:

φ(θ) = φ[θ(x, t)] = φ[ωt–kx]

Note that, if the wave would be traveling in the ‘other’ direction (i.e. in the negative x-direction), we’d write φ(θ) = φ[kx+ωt]. Time travels in one direction only, of course, but so one minus sign has to be there because of the logic involved in adding time and subtracting distance. You can work out an example (with a sine or cosine wave, for example) for yourself.

So what, you’ll say? Well… Nothing. I just hope you agree that all of this isn’t rocket science: it’s just high-school math. But so it shows you what that stopwatch really is and, hence, – but who am I? – would have put at least one or two footnotes on this in a text like Feynman’s QED.

Now, let me make a much longer and more serious digression:

Digression 1: on relativity and spacetime

As you can see from the argument (or phase) of that wave function φ(θ) = φ[θ(x, t)] = φ[ωt–kx] = φ[–k(x–ct)], any wave equation establishes a deep relation between the wave itself (i.e. the ‘thing’ we’re describing) and space and time. In fact, that’s what the whole wave equation is all about! So let me say a few things more about that.

Because you know a thing or two about physics, you may ask: when we’re talking time, whose time are we talking about? Indeed, if we’re talking photons going from A to B, these photons will be traveling at or near the speed of light and, hence, their clock, as seen from our (inertial) frame of reference, doesn’t move. Likewise, according to the photon, our clock seems to be standing still.

Let me put the issue to bed immediately: we’re looking at things from our point of view. Hence, we’re obviously using our clock, not theirs. Having said that, the analysis is actually fully consistent with relativity theory. Why? Well… What do you expect? If it wasn’t, the analysis would obviously not be valid. 🙂 To illustrate that it’s consistent with relativity theory, I can mention, for example, that the (probability) amplitude for a photon to travel from point A to B depends on the spacetime interval, which is invariant. Hence, A and B are four-dimensional points in spacetime, involving both spatial as well as time coordinates: A = (xA, yA, zA, tA) and B = (xB, yB, zB, tB). And so the ‘distance’ – as measured through the spacetime interval – is invariant.

Now, having said that, we should draw some attention to the intimate relationship between space and time which, let me remind you, results from the absoluteness of the speed of light. Indeed, one will always measure the speed of light c as being equal to 299,792,458 m/s, always and everywhere. It does not depend on your reference frame (inertial or moving). That’s why the constant c anchors all laws in physics, and why we can write what we write above, i.e. include both distance (x) as well as time (t) in the wave function φ = φ(x, t) = φ[ωt–kx] = φ[–k(x–ct)]. The k and ω are related through the ω/k = c relationship: the speed of light links the frequency in time (ν = ω/2π = 1/T) with the frequency in space (i.e. the wavenumber or spatial frequency k). There is only degree of freedom here: the frequency—in space or in time, it doesn’t matter: ν and ω are not independent.  [As noted above, the relationship between the frequency in time and in space is not so obvious for electrons, or for matter waves in general: for those matter-waves, we need to distinguish group and phase velocity, and so we don’t have a unique frequency.]

Let me make another small digression within the digression here. Thinking about travel at the speed of light invariably leads to paradoxes. In previous posts, I explained the mechanism of light emission: a photon is emitted – one photon only – when an electron jumps back to its ground state after being excited. Hence, we may imagine a photon as a transient electromagnetic wave–something like what’s pictured below. Now, the decay time of this transient oscillation (τ) is measured in nanoseconds, i.e. billionths of a second (1 ns = 1×10–9 s): the decay time for sodium light, for example, is some 30 ns only.

decay time

However, because of the tremendous speed of light, that still makes for a wavetrain that’s like ten meter long, at least (30×10–9 s times 3×10m/s is nine meter, but you should note that the decay time measures the time for the oscillation to die out by a factor 1/e, so the oscillation itself lasts longer than that). Those nine or ten meters cover like 16 to 17 million oscillations (the wavelength of sodium light is about 600 nm and, hence, 10 meter fits almost 17 million oscillations indeed). Now, how can we reconcile the image of a photon as a ten-meter long wavetrain with the image of a photon as a point particle?

The answer to that question is paradoxical: from our perspective, anything traveling at the speed of light – including this nine or ten meter ‘long’ photon – will have zero length because of the relativistic length contraction effect. Length contraction? Yes. I’ll let you look it up, because… Well… It’s not easy to grasp. Indeed, from the three measurable effects on objects moving at relativistic speeds – i.e. (1) an increase of the mass (the energy needed to further accelerate particles in particle accelerators increases dramatically at speeds nearer to c), (2) time dilation, i.e. a slowing down of the (internal) clock (because of their relativistic speeds when entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the measured half-life of muons is five times that when at rest), and (3) length contraction – length contraction is probably the most paradoxical of all.

Let me end this digression with yet another short note. I said that one will always measure the speed of light c as being equal to 299,792,458 m/s, always and everywhere and, hence, that it does not depend on your reference frame (inertial or moving). Well… That’s true and not true at the same time. I actually need to nuance that statement a bit in light of what follows: an individual photon does have an amplitude to travel faster or slower than c, and when discussing matter waves (such as the wavefunction that’s associated with an electron), we can have phase velocities that are faster than light! However, when calculating those amplitudes, is a constant.

That doesn’t make sense, you’ll say. Well… What can I say? That’s how it is unfortunately. I need to move on and, hence, I’ll end this digression and get back to the main story line. Part I explained what probability amplitudes are—or at least tried to do so. Now it’s time for part II: the building blocks of all of quantum electrodynamics (QED).

II. The building blocks: P(A to B), E(A to B) and j

The three basic ‘events’ (and, hence, amplitudes) in QED are the following:

1. P(A to B)

P(A to B) is the (probability) amplitude for a photon to travel from point A to B. However, I should immediately note that A and B are points in spacetime. Therefore, we associate them not only with some specific (x, y, z) position in space, but also with a some specific time t. Now, quantum-mechanical theory gives us an easy formula for P(A to B): it depends on the so-called (spacetime) interval between the two points A and B, i.e. I = Δr– Δt= (x2–x1)2+(y2–y1)2+(z2–z1)– (t2–t1)2. The point to note is that the spacetime interval takes both the distance in space as well as the ‘distance’ in time into account. As I mentioned already, this spacetime interval does not depend on our reference frame and, hence, it’s invariant (as long as we’re talking reference frames that move with constant speed relative to each other). Also note that we should measure time and distance in equivalent units when using that Δr– Δtformula for I. So we either measure distance in light-seconds or, else, we measure time in units that correspond to the time that’s needed for light to travel one meter. If no equivalent units are adopted, the formula is I = Δrc·Δt2.

Now, in quantum theory, anything is possible and, hence, not only do we allow for crooked paths, but we also allow for the difference in time to differ from  the time you’d expect a photon to need to travel along some curve (whose length we’ll denote by l), i.e. l/c. Hence, our photon may actually travel slower or faster than the speed of light c! There is one lucky break, however, that makes all come out alright: it’s easy to show that the amplitudes associated with the odd paths and strange timings generally cancel each other out. [That’s what the QED booklet shows.] Hence, what remains, are the paths that are equal or, importantly, those that very near to the so-called ‘light-like’ intervals in spacetime only. The net result is that light – even one single photon – effectively uses a (very) small core of space as it travels, as evidenced by the fact that even one single photon interferes with itself when traveling through a slit or a small hole!

[If you now wonder what it means for a photon to interfere for itself, let me just give you the easy explanation: it may change its path. We assume it was traveling in a straight line – if only because it left the source at some point in time and then arrived at the slit obviously – but so it no longer travels in a straight line after going through the slit. So that’s what we mean here.]

2. E(A to B)

E(A to B) is the (probability) amplitude for an electron to travel from point A to B. The formula for E(A to B) is much more complicated, and it’s the one I want to discuss somewhat more in detail in this post. It depends on some complex number j (see the next remark) and some real number n.

3. j

Finally, an electron could emit or absorb a photon, and the amplitude associated with this event is denoted by j, for junction number. It’s the same number j as the one mentioned when discussing E(A to B) above.

Now, this junction number is often referred to as the coupling constant or the fine-structure constant. However, the truth is, as I pointed out in my previous post, that these numbers are related, but they are not quite the same: α is the square of j, so we have α = j2. There is also one more, related, number: the gauge parameter, which is denoted by g (despite the g notation, it has nothing to do with gravitation). The value of g is the square root of 4πε0α, so g= 4πε0α. I’ll come back to this. Let me first make an awfully long digression on the fine-structure constant. It will be awfully long. So long that it’s actually part of the ‘core’ of this post actually.

Digression 2: on the fine-structure constant, Planck units and the Bohr radius

The value for j is approximately –0.08542454.

How do we know that?

The easy answer to that question is: physicists measured it. In fact, they usually publish the measured value as the square root of the (absolute value) of j, which is that fine-structure constant α. Its value is published (and updated) by the US National Institute on Standards and Technology. To be precise, the currently accepted value of α is 7.29735257×10−3. In case you doubt, just check that square root:

j = –0.08542454 ≈ –√0.00729735257 = –√α

As noted in Feynman’s (or Leighton’s) QED, older and/or more popular books will usually mention 1/α as the ‘magical’ number, so the ‘special’ number you may have seen is the inverse fine-structure constant, which is about 137, but not quite:

1/α = 137.035999074 ± 0.000000044

I am adding the standard uncertainty just to give you an idea of how precise these measurements are. 🙂 About 0.32 parts per billion (just divide the 137.035999074 number by the uncertainty). So that‘s the number that excites popular writers, including Leighton. Indeed, as Leighton puts it:

“Where does this number come from? Nobody knows. It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the “hand of God” wrote that number, and “we don’t know how He pushed his pencil.” We know what kind of a dance to do experimentally to measure this number very accurately, but we don’t know what kind of dance to do on the computer to make this number come out, without putting it in secretly!”

Is it Leighton, or did Feynman really say this? Not sure. While the fine-structure constant is a very special number, it’s not the only ‘special’ number. In fact, we derive it from other ‘magical’ numbers. To be specific, I’ll show you how we derive it from the fundamental properties – as measured, of course – of the electron. So, in fact, I should say that we do know how to make this number come out, which makes me doubt whether Feynman really said what Leighton said he said. 🙂

So we can derive α from some other numbers. That brings me to the more complicated answer to the question as to what the value of j really is: j‘s value is the electron charge expressed in Planck units, which I’ll denote by –eP:

j = –eP

[You may want to reflect on this, and quickly verify on the Web. The Planck unit of electric charge, expressed in Coulomb, is about 1.87555×10–18 C. If you multiply that j = –eP, so with –0.08542454, you get the right answer: the electron charge is about –0.160217×10–18 C.]

Now that is strange.

Why? Well… For starters, when doing all those quantum-mechanical calculations, we like to think of j as a dimensionless number: a coupling constant. But so here we do have a dimension: electric charge.

Let’s look at the basics. If is –√α, and it’s also equal to –eP, then the fine-structure constant must also be equal to the square of the electron charge eP, so we can write:

α = eP2

You’ll say: yes, so what? Well… I am pretty sure that, if you’ve ever seen a formula for α, it’s surely not this simple j = –eP or α = eP2 formula. What you’ve seen, most likely, is one or more of the following expressions below :

Fine-structure constant formula

That’s a pretty impressive collection of physical constants, isn’t it? 🙂 They’re all different but, somehow, when we combine them in one or the other ratio (we have not less than five different expressions here (each identity is a separate expression), and I could give you a few more!), we get the very same number: α. Now that is what I call strange. Truly strange. Incomprehensibly weird!

You’ll say… Well… Those constants must all be related… Of course! That’s exactly the point I am making here. They are, but look how different they are: mmeasures mass, rmeasures distance, e is a charge, and so these are all very different numbers with very different dimensions. Yet, somehow, they are all related through this α number. Frankly, I do not know of any other expression that better illustrates some kind of underlying unity in Nature than the one with those five identities above.

Let’s have a closer look at those constants. You know most of them already. The only constants you may not have seen before are μ0Rand, perhaps, ras well as m. However, these can easily be defined as some easy function of the constants that you did see before, so let me quickly do that:

  1. The μ0 constant is the so-called magnetic constant. It’s something similar as ε0 and it’s referred to as the magnetic permeability of the vacuum. So it’s just like the (electric) permittivity of the vacuum (i.e. the electric constant ε0) and the only reason why this blog hasn’t mentioned this constant before is because I haven’t really discussed magnetic fields so far. I only talked about the electric field vector. In any case, you know that the electric and magnetic force are part and parcel of the same phenomenon (i.e. the electromagnetic interaction between charged particles) and, hence, they are closely related. To be precise, μ0ε0 = 1/c= c–2. So that shows the first and second expression for α are, effectively, fully equivalent. [Just in case you’d doubt that μ0ε0 = 1/c2, let me give you the values: μ0 = 4π·10–7 N/A2, and ε0 = (1/4π·c2)·10C2/N·m2. Just plug them in, and you’ll see it’s bang on. Moreover, note that the ampere (A) unit is equal to the coulomb per second unit (C/s), so even the units come out alright. 🙂 Of course they do!]
  2. The ke constant is the Coulomb constant and, from its definition ke = 1/4πε0, it’s easy to see how those two expressions are, in turn, equivalent with the third expression for α.
  3. The Rconstant is the so-called von Klitzing constant. Huh? Yes. I know. I am pretty sure you’ve never ever heard of that one before. Don’t worry about it. It’s, quite simply, equal to Rh/e2. Hence, substituting (and don’t forget that h = 2πħ) will demonstrate the equivalence of the fourth expression for α.
  4. Finally, the re factor is the classical electron radius, which is usually written as a function of me, i.e. the electron mass: re = e2/4πε0mec2. Also note that this also implies that reme = e2/4πε0c2. In words: the product of the electron mass and the electron radius is equal to some constant involving the electron (e), the electric constant (ε0), and c (the speed of light).

I am sure you’re under some kind of ‘formula shock’ now. But you should just take a deep breath and read on. The point to note is that all these very different things are all related through α.

So, again, what is that α really? Well… A strange number indeed. It’s dimensionless (so we don’t measure in kg, m/s, eV·s or whatever) and it pops up everywhere. [Of course, you’ll say: “What’s everywhere? This is the first time I‘ve heard of it!” :-)]

Well… Let me start by explaining the term itself. The fine structure in the name refers to the splitting of the spectral lines of atoms. That’s a very fine structure indeed. 🙂 We also have a so-called hyperfine structure. Both are illustrated below for the hydrogen atom. The numbers n, JI, and are quantum numbers used in the quantum-mechanical explanation of the emission spectrum, which is  also depicted below, but note that the illustration gives you the so-called Balmer series only, i.e. the colors in the visible light spectrum (there are many more ‘colors’ in the high-energy ultraviolet and the low-energy infrared range).



To be precise: (1) n is the principal quantum number: here it takes the values 1 or 2, and we could say these are the principal shells; (2) the S, P, D,… orbitals (which are usually written in lower case: s, p, d, f, g, h and i) correspond to the (orbital) angular momentum quantum number l = 0, 1, 2,…, so we could say it’s the subshell; (3) the J values correspond to the so-called magnetic quantum number m, which goes from –l to +l; (4) the fourth quantum number is the spin angular momentum s. I’ve copied another diagram below so you see how it works, more or less, that is.

hydrogen spectrum

Now, our fine-structure constant is related to these quantum numbers. How exactly is a bit of a long story, and so I’ll just copy Wikipedia’s summary on this: ” The gross structure of line spectra is the line spectra predicted by the quantum mechanics of non-relativistic electrons with no spin. For a hydrogenic atom, the gross structure energy levels only depend on the principal quantum number n. However, a more accurate model takes into account relativistic and spin effects, which break the degeneracy of the the energy levels and split the spectral lines. The scale of the fine structure splitting relative to the gross structure energies is on the order of ()2, where Z is the atomic number and α is the fine-structure constant.” There you go. You’ll say: so what? Well… Nothing. If you aren’t amazed by that, you should stop reading this.

It is an ‘amazing’ number, indeed, and, hence, it does quality for being “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics”, as Feynman and/or Leighton put it. Having said that, I would not go as far as to write that it’s “a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man.” In fact, I think Feynman/Leighton could have done a much better job when explaining what it’s all about. So, yes, I hope to do better than Leighton here and, as he’s still alive, I actually hope he reads this. 🙂

The point is: α is not the only weird number. What’s particular about it, as a physical constant, is that it’s dimensionless, because it relates a number of other physical constants in such a way that the units fall away. Having said that, the Planck or Boltzmann constant are at least as weird.

So… What is this all about? Well… You’ve probably heard about the so-called fine-tuning problem in physics and, if you’re like me, your first reaction will be to associate fine-tuning with fine-structure. However, the two terms have nothing in common, except for four letters. 🙂 OK. Well… I am exaggerating here. The two terms are actually related, to some extent at least, but let me explain how.

The term fine-tuning refers to the fact that all the parameters or constants in the so-called Standard Model of physics are, indeed, all related to each other in the way they are. We can’t sort of just turn the knob of one and change it, because everything falls apart then. So, in essence, the fine-tuning problem in physics is more like a philosophical question: why is the value of all these physical constants and parameters exactly what it is? So it’s like asking: could we change some of the ‘constants’ and still end up with the world we’re living in? Or, if it would be some different world, how would it look like? What if was some other number? What if ke or ε0 was some other number? In short, and in light of those expressions for α, we may rephrase the question as: why is α what is is?

Of course, that’s a question one shouldn’t try to answer before answering some other, more fundamental, question: how many degrees of freedom are there really? Indeed, we just saw that ke and εare intimately related through some equation, and other constants and parameters are related too. So the question is like: what are the ‘dependent’ and the ‘independent’ variables in this so-called Standard Model?

There is no easy answer to that question. In fact, one of the reasons why I find physics so fascinating is that one cannot easily answer such questions. There are the obvious relationships, of course. For example, the ke = 1/4πεrelationship, and the context in which they are used (Coulomb’s Law) does, indeed, strongly suggest that both constants are actually part and parcel of the same thing. Identical, I’d say. Likewise, the μ0ε0 = 1/crelation also suggests there’s only one degree of freedom here, just like there’s only one degree of freedom in that ω/k = relationship (if we set a value for ω, we have k, and vice versa). But… Well… I am not quite sure how to phrase this, but… What physical constants could be ‘variables’ indeed?

It’s pretty obvious that the various formulas for α cannot answer that question: you could stare at them for days and weeks and months and years really, but I’d suggest you use your time to read more of Feynman’s real Lectures instead. 🙂 One point that may help to come to terms with this question – to some extent, at least – is what I casually mentioned above already: the fine-structure constant is equal to the square of the electron charge expressed in Planck units: α = eP2.

Now, that’s very remarkable because Planck units are some kind of ‘natural units’ indeed (for the detail, see my previous post: among other things, it explains what these Planck units really are) and, therefore, it is quite tempting to think that we’ve actually got only one degree of freedom here: α itself. All the rest should follow from it.


It should… But… Does it?

The answer is: yes and no. To be frank, it’s more no than yes because, as I noted a couple of times already, the fine-structure constant relates a lot of stuff but it’s surely not the only significant number in the Universe. For starters, I said that our E(A to B) formula has two ‘variables’:

  1. We have that complex number j, which, as mentioned, is equal to the electron charge expressed in Planck units. [In case you wonder why –eP ≈ –0.08542455 is said to be an amplitude, i.e. a complex number or an ‘arrow’… Well… Complex numbers include the real numbers and, hence, –0.08542455 is both real and complex. When combining ‘arrows’ or, to be precise, when multiplying some complex number with –0.08542455, we will (a) shrink the original arrow to about 8.5% of its original value (8.542455% to be precise) and (b) rotate it over an angle of plus or minus 180 degrees. In other words, we’ll reverse its direction. Hence, using Euler’s notation for complex numbers, we can write: –1 = eiπ eiπ and, hence, –0.085 = 0.085·eiπ = 0.085·eiπ. So, in short, yes, j is a complex number, or an ‘arrow’, if you prefer that term.]
  2. We also have some some real number n in the E(A to B) formula. So what’s the n? Well… Believe it or not, it’s the electron mass! Isn’t that amazing?

You’ll say: “Well… Hmm… I suppose so.” But then you may – and actually should – also wonder: the electron mass? In what units? Planck units again? And are we talking relativistic mass (i.e. its total mass, including the equivalent mass of its kinetic energy) or its rest mass only? And we were talking α here, so can we relate it to α too, just like the electron charge?

These are all very good questions. Let’s start with the second one. We’re talking rather slow-moving electrons here, so the relativistic mass (m) and its rest mass (m0) is more or less the same. Indeed, the Lorentz factor γ in the m = γm0 equation is very close to 1 for electrons moving at their typical speed. So… Well… That question doesn’t matter very much. Really? Yes. OK. Because you’re doubting, I’ll quickly show it to you. What is their ‘typical’ speed?

We know we shouldn’t attach too much importance to the concept of an electron in orbit around some nucleus (we know it’s not like some planet orbiting around some star) and, hence, to the concept of speed or velocity (velocity is speed with direction) when discussing an electron in an atom. The concept of momentum (i.e. velocity combined with mass or energy) is much more relevant. There’s a very easy mathematical relationship that gives us some clue here: the Uncertainty Principle. In fact, we’ll use the Uncertainty Principle to relate the momentum of an electron (p) to the so-called Bohr radius r (think of it as the size of a hydrogen atom) as follows: p ≈ ħ/r. [I’ll come back on this in a moment, and show you why this makes sense.]

Now we also know its kinetic energy (K.E.) is mv2/2, which we can write as p2/2m. Substituting our p ≈ ħ/r conjecture, we get K.E. = mv2/2 = ħ2/2mr2. This is equivalent to m2v2 = ħ2/r(just multiply both sides with m). From that, we get v = ħ/mr. Now, one of the many relations we can derive from the formulas for the fine-structure constant is re = α2r. [I haven’t showed you that yet, but I will shortly. It’s a really amazing expression. However, as for now, just accept it as a simple formula for interim use in this digression.] Hence, r = re2. The rfactor in this expression is the so-called classical electron radius. So we can now write v = ħα2/mre. Let’s now throw c in: v/c = α2ħ/mcre. However, from that fifth expression for α, we know that ħ/mcre = α, so we get v/c = α. We have another amazing result here: the v/c ratio for an electron (i.e. its speed expressed as a fraction of the speed of light) is equal to that fine-structure constant α. So that’s about 1/137, so that’s less than 1% of the speed of light. Now… I’ll leave it to you to calculate the Lorentz factor γ but… Well… It’s obvious that it will be very close to 1. 🙂 Hence, the electron’s speed – however we want to visualize that – doesn’t matter much indeed, so we should not worry about relativistic corrections in the formulas.

Let’s now look at the question in regard to the Planck units. If you know nothing at all about them, I would advise you to read what I wrote about them in my previous post. Let me just note we get those Planck units by equating not less than five fundamental physical constants to 1, notably (1) the speed of light, (2) Planck’s (reduced) constant, (3) Boltzmann’s constant, (4) Coulomb’s constant and (5) Newton’s constant (i.e. the gravitational constant). Hence, we have a set of five equations here (ħ = kB = ke = G = 1), and so we can solve that to get the five Planck units, i.e. the Planck length unit, the Planck time unit, the Planck mass unit, the Planck energy unit, the Planck charge unit and, finally (oft forgotten), the Planck temperature unit. Of course, you should note that all mass and energy units are directly related because of the mass-energy equivalence relation E = mc2, which simplifies to E = m if c is equated to 1. [I could also say something about the relation between temperature and (kinetic) energy, but I won’t, as it would only further confuse you.]

Now, you may or may not remember that the Planck time and length units are unimaginably small, but that the Planck mass unit is actually quite sizable—at the atomic scale, that is. Indeed, the Planck mass is something huge, like the mass of an eyebrow hair, or a flea egg. Is that huge? Yes. Because if you’d want to pack it in a Planck-sized particle, it would make for a tiny black hole. 🙂 No kidding. That’s the physical significance of the Planck mass and the Planck length and, yes, it’s weird. 🙂

Let me give you some values. First, the Planck mass itself: it’s about 2.1765×10−8 kg. Again, if you think that’s tiny, think again. From the E = mc2 equivalence relationship, we get that this is equivalent to 2 giga-joule, approximately. Just to give an idea, that’s like the monthly electricity consumption of an average American family. So that’s huge indeed! 🙂 [Many people think that nuclear energy involves the conversion of mass into energy, but the story is actually more complicated than that. In any case… I need to move on.]

Let me now give you the electron mass expressed in the Planck mass unit:

  1. Measured in our old-fashioned super-sized SI kilogram unit, the electron mass is me = 9.1×10–31 kg.
  2. The Planck mass is mP = 2.1765×10−8 kg.
  3. Hence, the electron mass expressed in Planck units is meP = me/mP = (9.1×10–31 kg)/(2.1765×10−8 kg) = 4.181×10−23.

We can, once again, write that as some function of the fine-structure constant. More specifically, we can write:

meP = α/reP = α/α2rP  = 1/αrP

So… Well… Yes: yet another amazing formula involving α.

In this formula, we have reP and rP, which are the (classical) electron radius and the Bohr radius expressed in Planck (length) units respectively. So you can see what’s going on here: we have all kinds of numbers here expressed in Planck units: a charge, a radius, a mass,… And we can relate all of them to the fine-structure constant

Why? Who knows? I don’t. As Leighton puts it: that’s just the way “God pushed His pencil.” 🙂

Note that the beauty of natural units ensures that we get the same number for the (equivalent) energy of an electron. Indeed, from the E = mc2 relation, we know the mass of an electron can also be written as 0.511 MeV/c2. Hence, the equivalent energy is 0.511 MeV (so that’s, quite simply, the same number but without the 1/cfactor). Now, the Planck energy EP (in eV) is 1.22×1028 eV, so we get EeP = Ee/EP = (0.511×10eV)/(1.22×1028 eV) = 4.181×10−23. So it’s exactly the same as the electron mass expressed in Planck units. Isn’t that nice? 🙂

Now, are all these numbers dimensionless, just like α? The answer to that question is complicated. Yes, and… Well… No:

  1. Yes. They’re dimensionless because they measure something in natural units, i.e. Planck units, and, hence, that’s some kind of relative measure indeed so… Well… Yes, dimensionless.
  2. No. They’re not dimensionless because they do measure something, like a charge, a length, or a mass, and when you chose some kind of relative measure, you still need to define some gauge, i.e. some kind of standard measure. So there’s some ‘dimension’ involved there.

So what’s the final answer? Well… The Planck units are not dimensionless. All we can say is that they are closely related, physically. I should also add that we’ll use the electron charge and mass (expressed in Planck units) in our amplitude calculations as a simple (dimensionless) number between zero and one. So the correct answer to the question as to whether these numbers have any dimension is: expressing some quantities in Planck units sort of normalizes them, so we can use them directly in dimensionless calculations, like when we multiply and add amplitudes.

Hmm… Well… I can imagine you’re not very happy with this answer but it’s the best I can do. Sorry. I’ll let you further ponder that question. I need to move on.  

Note that that 4.181×10−23 is still a very small number (23 zeroes after the decimal point!), even if it’s like 46 million times larger than the electron mass measured in our conventional SI unit (i.e. 9.1×10–31 kg). Does such small number make any sense? The answer is: yes, it does. When we’ll finally start discussing that E(A to B) formula (I’ll give it to you in a moment), you’ll see that a very small number for n makes a lot of sense.

Before diving into it all, let’s first see if that formula for that alpha, that fine-structure constant, still makes sense with me expressed in Planck units. Just to make sure. 🙂 To do that, we need to use the fifth (last) expression for a, i.e. the one with re in it. Now, in my previous post, I also gave some formula for re: re = e2/4πε0mec2, which we can re-write as reme = e2/4πε0c2. If we substitute that expression for reme  in the formula for α, we can calculate α from the electron charge, which indicates both the electron radius and its mass are not some random God-given variable, or “some magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man“, as Feynman – well… Leighton, I guess – puts it. No. They are magic numbers alright, one related to another through the equally ‘magic’ number α, but so I do feel we actually can create some understanding here.

At this point, I’ll digress once again, and insert some quick back-of-the-envelope argument from Feynman’s very serious Caltech Lectures on Physics, in which, as part of the introduction to quantum mechanics, he calculates the so-called Bohr radius from Planck’s constant h. Let me quickly explain: the Bohr radius is, roughly speaking, the size of the simplest atom, i.e. an atom with one electron (so that’s hydrogen really). So it’s not the classical electron radius re. However, both are also related to that ‘magical number’ α. To be precise, if we write the Bohr radius as r, then re = α2r ≈ 0.000053… times r, which we can re-write as:

α = √(re /r) = (re /r)1/2

So that’s yet another amazing formula involving the fine-structure constant. In fact, it’s the formula I used as an ‘interim’ expression to calculate the relative speed of electrons. I just used it without any explanation there, but I am coming back to it here. Alpha again…

Just think about it for a while. In case you’d still doubt the magic of that number, let me write what we’ve discovered so far:

(1) α is the square of the electron charge expressed in Planck units: α = eP2.

(2) α is the square root of the ratio of (a) the classical electron radius and (b) the Bohr radius: α = √(re /r). You’ll see this more often written as re = α2r. Also note that this is an equation that does not depend on the units, in contrast to equation 1 (above), and 4 and 5 (below), which require you to switch to Planck units. It’s the square of a ratio and, hence, the units don’t matter. They fall away.

(3) α is the (relative) speed of an electron: α = v/c. [The relative speed is the speed as measured against the speed of light. Note that the ‘natural’ unit of speed in the Planck system of units is equal to c. Indeed, if you divide one Planck length by one Planck time unit, you get (1.616×10−35 m)/(5.391×10−44 s) = m/s. However, this is another equation, just like (2), that does not depend on the units: we can express v and c in whatever unit we want, as long we’re consistent and express both in the same units.]

(4) Finally – I’ll show you in a moment – α is also equal to the product of (a) the electron mass (which I’ll simply write as me here) and (b) the classical electron radius re (if both are expressed in Planck units): α = me·re. Now think that’s, perhaps, the most amazing of all of the expressions for α. If you don’t think that’s amazing, I’d really suggest you stop trying to study physics. 🙂

Note that, from (2) and (4), we find that:

(5) The electron mass (in Planck units) is equal me = α/r= α/α2r = 1/αr. So that gives us an expression, using α once again, for the electron mass as a function of the Bohr radius r expressed in Planck units.

Finally, we can also substitute (1) in (5) to get:

(6) The electron mass (in Planck units) is equal to me = α/r = eP2/re. Using the Bohr radius, we get me = 1/αr = 1/eP2r.

So… As you can see, this fine-structure constant really links ALL of the fundamental properties of the electron: its charge, its radius, its distance to the nucleus (i.e. the Bohr radius), its velocity, its mass (and, hence, its energy),… In short,


Now that should answer the question in regard to the degrees of freedom we have here, doesn’t it? It looks like we’ve got only one degree of freedom here. Indeed, if we’ve got some value for α, then we’ve have the electron charge, and from the electron charge, we can calculate the Bohr radius r (as I will show below), and if we have r, we have mand re. And then we can also calculate v, which gives us its momentum (mv) and its kinetic energy (mv2/2). In short,


Isn’t that amazing? Hmm… You should reserve your judgment as for now, and carefully go over all of the formulas above and verify my statement. If you do that, you’ll probably struggle to find the Bohr radius from the charge (i.e. from α). So let me show you how you do that, because it will also show you why you should, indeed, reserve your judgment. In other words, I’ll show you why alpha does NOT give us everything! The argument below will, finally, prove some of the formulas that I didn’t prove above. Let’s go for it:

1. If we assume that (a) an electron takes some space – which I’ll denote by r 🙂 – and (b) that it has some momentum p because of its mass m and its velocity v, then the ΔxΔp = ħ relation (i.e. the Uncertainty Principle in its roughest form) suggests that the order of magnitude of r and p should be related in the very same way. Hence, let’s just boldly write r ≈ ħ/p and see what we can do with that. So we equate Δx with r and Δp with p. As Feynman notes, this is really more like a ‘dimensional analysis’ (he obviously means something very ‘rough’ with that) and so we don’t care about factors like 2 or 1/2. [Indeed, note that the more precise formulation of the Uncertainty Principle is σxσ≥ ħ/2.] In fact, we didn’t even bother to define r very rigorously. We just don’t care about precise statements at this point. We’re only concerned about orders of magnitude. [If you’re appalled by the rather rude approach, I am sorry for that, but just try to go along with it.]

2. From our discussions on energy, we know that the kinetic energy is mv2/2, which we can write as p2/2m so we get rid of the velocity factor. [Why? Because we can’t really imagine what it is anyway. As I said a couple of times already, we shouldn’t think of electrons as planets orbiting around some star. That model doesn’t work.] So… What’s next? Well… Substituting our p ≈ ħ/r conjecture, we get K.E. = ħ2/2mr2. So that’s a formula for the kinetic energy. Next is potential.

3. Unfortunately, the discussion on potential energy is a bit more complicated. You’ll probably remember that we had an easy and very comprehensible formula for the energy that’s needed (i.e. the work that needs to be done) to bring two charges together from a large distance (i.e. infinity). Indeed, we derived that formula directly from Coulomb’s Law (and Newton’s law of force) and it’s U = q1q2/4πε0r12. [If you think I am going too fast, sorry, please check for yourself by reading my other posts.] Now, we’re actually talking about the size of an atom here in my previous post, so one charge is the proton (+e) and the other is the electron (–e), so the potential energy is U = P.E. = –e2/4πε0r, with r the ‘distance’ between the proton and the electron—so that’s the Bohr radius we’re looking for!

[In case you’re struggling a bit with those minus signs when talking potential energy  – I am not ashamed to admit I did! – let me quickly help you here. It has to do with our reference point: the reference point for measuring potential energy is at infinity, and it’s zero there (that’s just our convention). Now, to separate the proton and the electron, we’d have to do quite a lot of work. To use an analogy: imagine we’re somewhere deep down in a cave, and we have to climb back to the zero level. You’ll agree that’s likely to involve some sweat, don’t you? Hence, the potential energy associated with us being down in the cave is negative. Likewise, if we write the potential energy between the proton and the electron as U(r), and the potential energy at the reference point as U(∞) = 0, then the work to be done to separate the charges, i.e. the potential difference U(∞) – U(r), will be positive. So U(∞) – U(r) = 0 – U(r) > 0 and, hence, U(r) < 0. If you still don’t ‘get’ this, think of the electron being in some (potential) well, i.e. below the zero level, and so it’s potential energy is less than zero. Huh? Sorry. I have to move on. :-)]

4. We can now write the total energy (which I’ll denote by E, but don’t confuse it with the electric field vector!) as

E = K.E. + P.E. =  ħ2/2mr– e2/4πε0r

Now, the electron (whatever it is) is, obviously, in some kind of equilibrium state. Why is that obvious? Well… Otherwise our hydrogen atom wouldn’t or couldn’t exist. 🙂 Hence, it’s in some kind of energy ‘well’ indeed, at the bottom. Such equilibrium point ‘at the bottom’ is characterized by its derivative (in respect to whatever variable) being equal to zero. Now, the only ‘variable’ here is r (all the other symbols are physical constants), so we have to solve for dE/dr = 0. Writing it all out yields:

dE/dr = –ħ2/mr+ e2/4πε0r= 0 ⇔ r = 4πε0ħ2/me2

You’ll say: so what? Well… We’ve got a nice formula for the Bohr radius here, and we got it in no time! 🙂 But the analysis was rough, so let’s check if it’s any good by putting the values in:

r = 4πε0h2/me2

= [(1/(9×109) C2/N·m2)·(1.055×10–34 J·s)2]/[(9.1×10–31 kg)·(1.6×10–19 C)2]

= 53×10–12 m = 53 pico-meter (pm)

So what? Well… Double-check it on the Internet: the Bohr radius is, effectively, about 53 trillionths of a meter indeed! So we’re right on the spot! 

[In case you wonder about the units, note that mass is a measure of inertia: one kg is the mass of an object which, subject to a force of 1 newton, will accelerate at the rate of 1 m/s per second. Hence, we write F = m·a, which is equivalent to m = F/a. Hence, the kg, as a unit, is equivalent to 1 N/(m/s2). If you make this substitution, we get r in the unit we want to see: [(C2/N·m2)·(N2·m2·s2)/[(N·s2/m)·C2] = m.]

Moreover, if we take that value for r and put it in the (total) energy formula above, we’d find that the energy of the electron is –13.6 eV. [Don’t forget to convert from joule to electronvolt when doing the calculation!] Now you can check that on the Internet too: 13.6 eV is exactly the amount of energy that’s needed to ionize a hydrogen atom (i.e. the energy that’s needed to kick the electron out of that energy well)!

Waw ! Isn’t it great that such simple calculations yield such great results? 🙂 [Of course, you’ll note that the omission of the 1/2 factor in the Uncertainty Principle was quite strategic. :-)] Using the r = 4πε0ħ2/meformula for the Bohr radius, you can now easily check the re = α2r formula. You should find what we jotted down already: the classical electron radius is equal to re = e2/4πε0mec2. To be precise, re = (53×10–6)·(53×10–12m) = 2.8×10–15 m. Now that’s again something you should check on the Internet. Guess what? […] It’s right on the spot again. 🙂

We can now also check that α = m·re formula: α = m·r= 4.181×10−23 times… Hey! Wait! We have to express re in Planck units as well, of course! Now, (2.81794×10–15 m)/(1.616×10–35 m) ≈ 1.7438 ×1020. So now we get 4.181×10−23 times 1.7438×1020 = 7.29×10–3 = 0.00729 ≈ 1/137. Bingo! We got the magic number once again. 🙂

So… Well… Doesn’t that confirm we actually do have it all with α?

Well… Yes and no… First, you should note that I had to use h in that calculation of the Bohr radius. Moreover, the other physical constants (most notably c and the Coulomb constant) were actually there as well, ‘in the background’ so to speak, because one needs them to derive the formulas we used above. And then we have the equations themselves, of course, most notably that Uncertainty Principle… So… Well…

It’s not like God gave us one number only (α) and that all the rest flows out of it. We have a whole bunch of ‘fundamental’ relations and ‘fundamental’ constants here.

Having said that, it’s true that statement still does not diminish the magic of alpha.

Hmm… Now you’ll wonder: how many? How many constants do we need in all of physics?

Well… I’d say, you should not only ask about the constants: you should also ask about the equations: how many equations do we need in all of physics? [Just for the record, I had to smile when the Hawking of the movie says that he’s actually looking for one formula that sums up all of physics. Frankly, that’s a nonsensical statement. Hence, I think the real Hawking never said anything like that. Or, if he did, that it was one of those statements one needs to interpret very carefully.]

But let’s look at a few constants indeed. For example, if we have c, h and α, then we can calculate the electric charge e and, hence, the electric constant ε= e2/2αhc. From that, we get Coulomb’s constant ke, because ke is defined as 1/4πε0… But…

Hey! Wait a minute! How do we know that ke = 1/4πε0? Well… From experiment. But… Yes? That means 1/4π is some fundamental proportionality coefficient too, isn’t it?

Wow! You’re smart. That’s a good and valid remark. In fact, we use the so-called reduced Planck constant ħ in a number of calculations, and so that involves a 2π factor too (ħ = h/2π). Hence… Well… Yes, perhaps we should consider 2π as some fundamental constant too! And, then, well… Now that I think of it, there’s a few other mathematical constants out there, like Euler’s number e, for example, which we use in complex exponentials.


I am joking, right? I am not saying that 2π and Euler’s number are fundamental ‘physical’ constants, am I? [Note that it’s a bit of a nuisance we’re also using the symbol for Euler’s number, but so we’re not talking the electron charge here: we’re talking that 2.71828…etc number that’s used in so-called ‘natural’ exponentials and logarithms.]

Well… Yes and no. They’re mathematical constants indeed, rather than physical, but… Well… I hope you get my point. What I want to show here, is that it’s quite hard to say what’s fundamental and what isn’t. We can actually pick and choose a bit among all those constants and all those equations. As one physicist puts its: it depends on how we slice it. The one thing we know for sure is that a great many things are related, in a physical way (α connects all of the fundamental properties of the electron, for example) and/or in a mathematical way (2π connects not only the circumference of the unit circle with the radius but quite a few other constants as well!), but… Well… What to say? It’s a tough discussion and I am not smart enough to give you an unambiguous answer. From what I gather on the Internet, when looking at the whole Standard Model (including the strong force, the weak force and the Higgs field), we’ve got a few dozen physical ‘fundamental’ constants, and then a few mathematical ones as well.

That’s a lot, you’ll say. Yes. At the same time, it’s not an awful lot. Whatever number it is, it does raise a very fundamental question: why are they what they are? That brings us back to that ‘fine-tuning’ problem. Now, I can’t make this post too long (it’s way too long already), so let me just conclude this discussion by copying Wikipedia on that question, because what it has on this topic is not so bad:

“Some physicists have explored the notion that if the physical constants had sufficiently different values, our Universe would be so radically different that intelligent life would probably not have emerged, and that our Universe therefore seems to be fine-tuned for intelligent life. The anthropic principle states a logical truism: the fact of our existence as intelligent beings who can measure physical constants requires those constants to be such that beings like us can exist.

I like this. But the article then adds the following, which I do not like so much, because I think it’s a bit too ‘frivolous’:

“There are a variety of interpretations of the constants’ values, including that of a divine creator (the apparent fine-tuning is actual and intentional), or that ours is one universe of many in a multiverse (e.g. the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics), or even that, if information is an innate property of the universe and logically inseparable from consciousness, a universe without the capacity for conscious beings cannot exist.”

Hmm… As said, I am quite happy with the logical truism: we are there because alpha (and a whole range of other stuff) is what it is, and we can measure alpha (and a whole range of other stuff) as what it is, because… Well… Because we’re here. Full stop. As for the ‘interpretations’, I’ll let you think about that for yourself. 🙂

I need to get back to the lesson. Indeed, this was just a ‘digression’. My post was about the three fundamental events or actions in quantum electrodynamics, and so I was talking about that E(A to B) formula. However, I had to do that digression on alpha to ensure you understand what I want to write about that. So let me now get back to it. End of digression. 🙂

The E(A to B) formula

Indeed, I must assume that, with all these digressions, you are truly despairing now. Don’t. We’re there! We’re finally ready for the E(A to B) formula! Let’s go for it.

We’ve now got those two numbers measuring the electron charge and the electron mass in Planck units respectively. They’re fundamental indeed and so let’s loosen up on notation and just write them as e and m respectively. Let me recap:

1. The value of e is approximately –0.08542455, and it corresponds to the so-called junction number j, which is the amplitude for an electron-photon coupling. When multiplying it with another amplitude (to find the amplitude for an event consisting of two sub-events, for example), it corresponds to a ‘shrink’ to less than one-tenth (something like 8.5% indeed, corresponding to the magnitude of e) and a ‘rotation’ (or a ‘turn’) over 180 degrees, as mentioned above.

Please note what’s going on here: we have a physical quantity, the electron charge (expressed in Planck units), and we use it in a quantum-mechanical calculation as a dimensionless (complex) number, i.e. as an amplitude. So… Well… That’s what physicists mean when they say that the charge of some particle (usually the electric charge but, in quantum chromodynamics, it will be the ‘color’ charge of a quark) is a ‘coupling constant’.

2. We also have m, the electron mass, and we’ll use in the same way, i.e. as some dimensionless amplitude. As compared to j, it’s is a very tiny number: approximately 4.181×10−23. So if you look at it as an amplitude, indeed, then it corresponds to an enormous ‘shrink’ (but no turn) of the amplitude(s) that we’ll be combining it with.

So… Well… How do we do it?

Well… At this point, Leighton goes a bit off-track. Just a little bit. 🙂 From what he writes, it’s obvious that he assumes the frequency (or, what amounts to the same, the de Broglie wavelength) of an electron is just like the frequency of a photon. Frankly, I just can’t imagine why and how Feynman let this happen. It’s wrong. Plain wrong. As I mentioned in my introduction already, an electron traveling through space is not like a photon traveling through space.

For starters, an electron is much slower (because it’s a matter-particle: hence, it’s got mass). Secondly, the de Broglie wavelength and/or frequency of an electron is not like that of a photon. For example, if we take an electron and a photon having the same energy, let’s say 1 eV (that corresponds to infrared light), then the de Broglie wavelength of the electron will be 1.23 nano-meter (i.e. 1.23 billionths of a meter). Now that’s about one thousand times smaller than the wavelength of our 1 eV photon, which is about 1240 nm. You’ll say: how is that possible? If they have the same energy, then the f = E/h and ν = E/h should give the same frequency and, hence, the same wavelength, no?

Well… No! Not at all! Because an electron, unlike the photon, has a rest mass indeed – measured as not less than 0.511 MeV/c2, to be precise (note the rather particular MeV/c2 unit: it’s from the E = mc2 formula) – one should use a different energy value! Indeed, we should include the rest mass energy, which is 0.511 MeV. So, almost all of the energy here is rest mass energy! There’s also another complication. For the photon, there is an easy relationship between the wavelength and the frequency: it has no mass and, hence, all its energy is kinetic, or movement so to say, and so we can use that ν = E/h relationship to calculate its frequency ν: it’s equal to ν = E/h = (1 eV)/(4.13567×10–15 eV·s) ≈ 0.242×1015 Hz = 242 tera-hertz (1 THz = 1012 oscillations per second). Now, knowing that light travels at the speed of light, we can check the result by calculating the wavelength using the λ = c/ν relation. Let’s do it: (2.998×10m/s)/(242×1012 Hz) ≈ 1240 nm. So… Yes, done!

But so we’re talking photons here. For the electron, the story is much more complicated. That wavelength I mentioned was calculated using the other of the two de Broglie relations: λ = h/p. So that uses the momentum of the electron which, as you know, is the product of its mass (m) and its velocity (v): p = mv. You can amuse yourself and check if you find the same wavelength (1.23 nm): you should! From the other de Broglie relation, f = E/h, you can also calculate its frequency: for an electron moving at non-relativistic speeds, it’s about 0.123×1021 Hz, so that’s like 500,000 times the frequency of the photon we we’re looking at! When multiplying the frequency and the wavelength, we should get its speed. However, that’s where we get in trouble. Here’s the problem with matter waves: they have a so-called group velocity and a so-called phase velocity. The idea is illustrated below: the green dot travels with the wave packet – and, hence, its velocity corresponds to the group velocity – while the red dot travels with the oscillation itself, and so that’s the phase velocity. [You should also remember, of course, that the matter wave is some complex-valued wavefunction, so we have both a real as well as an imaginary part oscillating and traveling through space.]

Wave_group (1)

To be precise, the phase velocity will be superluminal. Indeed, using the usual relativistic formula, we can write that p = γm0v and E = γm0c2, with v the (classical) velocity of the electron and what it always is, i.e. the speed of light. Hence, λ = h/γm0v and = γm0c2/h, and so λf = c2/v. Because v is (much) smaller than c, we get a superluminal velocity. However, that’s the phase velocity indeed, not the group velocity, which corresponds to v. OK… I need to end this digression.

So what? Well, to make a long story short, the ‘amplitude framework’ for electrons is differerent. Hence, the story that I’ll be telling here is different from what you’ll read in Feynman’s QED. I will use his drawings, though, and his concepts. Indeed, despite my misgivings above, the conceptual framework is sound, and so the corrections to be made are relatively minor.

So… We’re looking at E(A to B), i.e. the amplitude for an electron to go from point A to B in spacetime, and I said the conceptual framework is exactly the same as that for a photon. Hence, the electron can follow any path really. It may go in a straight line and travel at a speed that’s consistent with what we know of its momentum (p), but it may also follow other paths. So, just like the photon, we’ll have some so-called propagator function, which gives you amplitudes based on the distance in space as well as in the distance in ‘time’ between two points. Now, Ralph Leighton identifies that propagator function with the propagator function for the photon, i.e. P(A to B), but that’s wrong: it’s not the same.

The propagator function for an electron depends on its mass and its velocity, and/or on the combination of both (like it momentum p = mv and/or its kinetic energy: K.E. = mv2 = p2/2m). So we have a different propagator function here. However, I’ll use the same symbol for it: P(A to B).

So, the bottom line is that, because of the electron’s mass (which, remember, is a measure for inertia), momentum and/or kinetic energy (which, remember, are conserved in physics), the straight line is definitely the most likely path, but (big but!), just like the photon, the electron may follow some other path as well.

So how do we formalize that? Let’s first associate an amplitude P(A to B) with an electron traveling from point A to B in a straight line and in a time that’s consistent with its velocity. Now, as mentioned above, the P here stands for propagator function, not for photon, so we’re talking a different P(A to B) here than that P(A to B) function we used for the photon. Sorry for the confusion. 🙂 The left-hand diagram below then shows what we’re talking about: it’s the so-called ‘one-hop flight’, and so that’s what the P(A to B) amplitude is associated with.

Diagram 1Now, the electron can follow other paths. For photons, we said the amplitude depended on the spacetime interval I: when negative or positive (i.e. paths that are not associated with the photon traveling in a straight line and/or at the speed of light), the contribution of those paths to the final amplitudes (or ‘final arrow’, as it was called) was smaller.

For an electron, we have something similar, but it’s modeled differently. We say the electron could take a ‘two-hop flight’ (via point C or C’), or a ‘three-hop flight’ (via D and E) from point A to B. Now, it makes sense that these paths should be associated with amplitudes that are much smaller. Now that’s where that n-factor comes in. We just put some real number n in the formula for the amplitude for an electron to go from A to B via C, which we write as:

P(A to C)∗n2∗P(C to B)

Note what’s going on here. We multiply two amplitudes, P(A to C) and P(C to B), which is OK, because that’s what the rules of quantum mechanics tell us: if an ‘event’ consists of two sub-events, we need to multiply the amplitudes (not the probabilities) in order to get the amplitude that’s associated with both sub-events happening. However, we add an extra factor: n2. Note that it must be some very small number because we have lots of alternative paths and, hence, they should not be very likely! So what’s the n? And why n2 instead of just n?

Well… Frankly, I don’t know. Ralph Leighton boldly equates n to the mass of the electron. Now, because he obviously means the mass expressed in Planck units, that’s the same as saying n is the electron’s energy (again, expressed in Planck’s ‘natural’ units), so n should be that number m = meP = EeP = 4.181×10−23. However, I couldn’t find any confirmation on the Internet, or elsewhere, of the suggested n = m identity, so I’ll assume n = m indeed, but… Well… Please check for yourself. It seems the answer is to be found in a mathematical theory that helps physicists to actually calculate j and n from experiment. It’s referred to as perturbation theory, and it’s the next thing on my study list. As for now, however, I can’t help you much. I can only note that the equation makes sense.

Of course, it does: inserting a tiny little number n, close to zero, ensures that those other amplitudes don’t contribute too much to the final ‘arrow’. And it also makes a lot of sense to associate it with the electron’s mass: if mass is a measure of inertia, then it should be some factor reducing the amplitude that’s associated with the electron following such crooked path. So let’s go along with it, and see what comes out of it.

A three-hop flight is even weirder and uses that n2 factor two times:

P(A to E)∗n2∗P(E to D)∗n2∗P(D to B)

So we have an (n2)= nfactor here, which is good, because two hops should be much less likely than one hop. So what do we get? Well… (4.181×10−23)≈ 305×10−92. Pretty tiny, huh? 🙂 Of course, any point in space is a potential hop for the electron’s flight from point A to B and, hence, there’s a lot of paths and a lot of amplitudes (or ‘arrows’ if you want), which, again, is consistent with a very tiny value for n indeed.

So, to make a long story short, E(A to B) will be a giant sum (i.e. some kind of integral indeed) of a lot of different ways an electron can go from point A to B. It will be a series of terms P(A to E) + P(A to C)∗n2∗P(C to B) + P(A to E)∗n2∗P(E to D)∗n2∗P(D to B) + … for all possible intermediate points C, D, E, and so on.

What about the j? The junction number of coupling constant. How does that show up in the E(A to B) formula? Well… Those alternative paths with hops here and there are actually the easiest bit of the whole calculation. Apart from taking some strange path, electrons can also emit and/or absorb photons during the trip. In fact, they’re doing that constantly actually. Indeed, the image of an electron ‘in orbit’ around the nucleus is that of an electron exchanging so-called ‘virtual’ photons constantly, as illustrated below. So our image of an electron absorbing and then emitting a photon (see the diagram on the right-hand side) is really like the tiny tip of a giant iceberg: most of what’s going on is underneath! So that’s where our junction number j comes in, i.e. the charge (e) of the electron.

So, when you hear that a coupling constant is actually equal to the charge, then this is what it means: you should just note it’s the charge expressed in Planck units. But it’s a deep connection, isn’t? When everything is said and done, a charge is something physical, but so here, in these amplitude calculations, it just shows up as some dimensionless negative number, used in multiplications and additions of amplitudes. Isn’t that remarkable?

d2 d3

The situation becomes even more complicated when more than one electron is involved. For example, two electrons can go in a straight line from point 1 and 2 to point 3 and 4 respectively, but there’s two ways in which this can happen, and they might exchange photons along the way, as shown below. If there’s two alternative ways in which one event can happen, you know we have to add amplitudes, rather than multiply them. Hence, the formula for E(A to B) becomes even more complicated.


Moreover, a single electron may first emit and then absorb a photon itself, so there’s no need for other particles to be there to have lots of j factors in our calculation. In addition, that photon may briefly disintegrate into an electron and a positron, which then annihilate each other to again produce a photon: in case you wondered, that’s what those little loops in those diagrams depicting the exchange of virtual photons is supposed to represent. So, every single junction (i.e. every emission and/or absorption of a photon) involves a multiplication with that junction number j, so if there are two couplings involved, we have a j2 factor, and so that’s 0.085424552 = α ≈ 0.0073. Four couplings implies a factor of 0.085424554 ≈ 0.000053.

Just as an example, I copy two diagrams involving four, five or six couplings indeed. They all have some ‘incoming’ photon, because Feynman uses them to explain something else (the so-called magnetic moment of a photon), but it doesn’t matter: the same illustrations can serve multiple purposes.

d6 d7

Now, it’s obvious that the contributions of the alternatives with many couplings add almost nothing to the final amplitude – just like the ‘many-hop’ flights add almost nothing – but… Well… As tiny as these contributions are, they are all there, and so they all have to be accounted for. So… Yes. You can easily appreciate how messy it all gets, especially in light of the fact that there are so many points that can serve as a ‘hop’ or a ‘coupling’ point!

So… Well… Nothing. That’s it! I am done! I realize this has been another long and difficult story, but I hope you appreciated and that it shed some light on what’s really behind those simplified stories of what quantum mechanics is all about. It’s all weird and, admittedly, not so easy to understand, but I wouldn’t say an understanding is really beyond the reach of us, common mortals. 🙂

Post scriptum: When you’ve reached here, you may wonder: so where’s the final formula then for E(A to B)? Well… I have no easy formula for you. From what I wrote above, it should be obvious that we’re talking some really awful-looking integral and, because it’s so awful, I’ll let you find it yourself. 🙂

I should also note another reason why I am reluctant to identify n with m. The formulas in Feynman’s QED are definitely not the standard ones. The more standard formulations will use the gauge coupling parameter about which I talked already. I sort of discussed it, indirectly, in my first comments on Feynman’s QED, when I criticized some other part of the book, notably its explanation of the phenomenon of diffraction of light, which basically boiled down to: “When you try to squeeze light too much [by forcing it to go through a small hole], it refuses to cooperate and begins to spread out”, because “there are not enough arrows representing alternative paths.”

Now that raises a lot of questions, and very sensible ones, because that simplification is nonsensical. Not enough arrows? That statement doesn’t make sense. We can subdivide space in as many paths as we want, and probability amplitudes don’t take up any physical space. We can cut up space in smaller and smaller pieces (so we analyze more paths within the same space). The consequence – in terms of arrows – is that directions of our arrows won’t change but their length will be much and much smaller as we’re analyzing many more paths. That’s because of the normalization constraint. However, when adding them all up – a lot of very tiny ones, or a smaller bunch of bigger ones – we’ll still get the same ‘final’ arrow. That’s because the direction of those arrows depends on the length of the path, and the length of the path doesn’t change simply because we suddenly decide to use some other ‘gauge’.

Indeed, the real question is: what’s a ‘small’ hole? What’s ‘small’ and what’s ‘large’ in quantum electrodynamics? Now, I gave an intuitive answer to that question in that post of mine, but it’s much more accurate than Feynman’s, or Leighton’s. The answer to that question is: there’s some kind of natural ‘gauge’, and it’s related to the wavelength. So the wavelength of a photon, or an electron, in this case, comes with some kind of scale indeed. That’s why the fine-structure constant is often written in yet another form:

α = 2πree = rek

λe and kare the Compton wavelength and wavenumber of the electron (so kis not the Coulomb constant here). The Compton wavelength is the de Broglie wavelength of the electron. [You’ll find that Wikipedia defines it as “the wavelength that’s equivalent to the wavelength of a photon whose energy is the same as the rest-mass energy of the electron”, but that’s a very confusing definition, I think.]

The point to note is that the spatial dimension in both the analysis of photons as well as of matter waves, especially in regard to studying diffraction and/or interference phenomena, is related to the frequencies, wavelengths and/or wavenumbers of the wavefunctions involved. There’s a certain ‘gauge’ involved indeed, i.e. some measure that is relative, like the gauge pressure illustrated below. So that’s where that gauge parameter g comes in. And the fact that it’s yet another number that’s closely related to that fine-structure constant is… Well… Again… That alpha number is a very magic number indeed… 🙂


Post scriptum (5 October 2015):

Much stuff is physics is quite ‘magical’, but it’s never ‘too magical’. I mean: there’s always an explanation. So there is a very logical explanation for the above-mentioned deep connection between the charge of an electron, its energy and/or mass, its various radii (or physical dimensions) and the coupling constant too. I wrote a piece about that, much later than when I wrote the piece above. I would recommend you read that piece too. It’s a piece in which I do take the magic out of ‘God’s number’. Understanding it involves a deep understanding of electromagnetism, however, and that requires some effort. It’s surely worth the effort, though.

Fields and charges (II)

My previous posts was, perhaps, too full of formulas, without offering much reflection. Let me try to correct that here by tying up a few loose ends. The first loose end is about units. Indeed, I haven’t been very clear about that and so let me somewhat more precise on that now.

Note: In case you’re not interested in units, you can skip the first part of this post. However, please do look at the section on the electric constant εand, most importantly, the section on natural units—especially Planck units, as I will touch upon the topic of gauge coupling parameters there and, hence, on quantum mechanics. Also, the third and last part, on the theoretical contradictions inherent in the idea of point charges, may be of interest to you.]

The field energy integrals

When we wrote that down that u = ε0E2/2 formula for the energy density of an electric field (see my previous post on fields and charges for more details), we noted that the 1/2 factor was there to avoid double-counting. Indeed, those volume integrals we use to calculate the energy over all space (i.e. U = ∫(u)dV) count the energy that’s associated with a pair of charges (or, to be precise, charge elements) twice and, hence, they have a 1/2 factor in front. Indeed, as Feynman notes, there is no convenient way, unfortunately, of writing an integral that keeps track of the pairs so that each pair is counted just once. In fact, I’ll have to come back to that assumption of there being ‘pairs’ of charges later, as that’s another loose end in the theory.

U 6

U 7

Now, we also said that that εfactor in the second integral (i.e. the one with the vector dot product EE =|E||E|cos(0) = E2) is there to make the units come out alright. Now, when I say that, what does it mean really? I’ll explain. Let me first make a few obvious remarks:

  1. Densities are always measures in terms per unit volume, so that’s the cubic meter (m3). That’s, obviously, an astronomical unit at the atomic or molecular scale.
  2. Because of historical reasons, the conventional unit of charge is not the so-called elementary charge +e (i.e. the charge of a proton), but the coulomb. Hence, the charge density ρ is expressed in Coulomb per cubic meter (C/m3). The coulomb is a rather astronomical unit too—at the atomic or molecular scale at least: 1 e ≈ 1.6022×10−19 C. [I am rounding here to four digits after the decimal point.]
  3. Energy is in joule (J) and that’s, once again, a rather astronomical unit at the lower end of the scales. Indeed, theoretical physicists prefer to use the electronvolt (eV), which is the energy gained (or lost) when an electron (so that’s a charge of –e, i.e. minus e) moves across a potential difference of one volt. But so we’ll stick to the joule as for now, not the eV, because the joule is the SI unit that’s used when defining most electrical units, such as the ampere, the watt and… Yes. The volt. Let’s start with that one.

The volt

The volt unit (V) measures both potential (energy) as well as potential difference (in both cases, we mean electric potential only, of course). Now, from all that you’ve read so far, it should be obvious that potential (energy) can only be measured with respect to some reference point. In physics, the reference point is infinity, which is so far away from all charges that there is no influence there. Hence, any charge we’d bring there (i.e. at infinity) will just stay where it is and not be attracted or repelled by anything. We say the potential there is zero: Φ(∞) = 0. The choice of that reference point allows us, then, to define positive or negative potential: the potential near positive charges will be positive and, vice versa, the potential near negative charges will be negative. Likewise, the potential difference between the positive and negative terminal of a battery will be positive.

So you should just note that we measure both potential as well as potential difference in volt and, hence, let’s now answer the question of what a volt really is. The answer is quite straightforward: the potential at some point r = (x, y, z) measures the work done when bringing one unit charge (i.e. +e) from infinity to that point. Hence, it’s only natural that we define one volt as one joule per unit charge:

1 volt = 1 joule/coulomb (1 V = 1 J/C).

Also note the following:

  1. One joule is the energy energy transferred (or work done) when applying a force of one newton over a distance of one meter, so one volt can also be measured in newton·meter per coulomb: 1 V = 1 J/C = N·m/C.
  2. One joule can also be written as 1 J = 1 V·C.

It’s quite easy to see why that energy = volt-coulomb product makes sense: higher voltage will be associated with higher energy, and the same goes for higher charge. Indeed, the so-called ‘static’ on our body is usually associated with potential differences of thousands of volts (I am not kidding), but the charges involved are extremely small, because the ability of our body to store electric charge is minimal (i.e. the capacitance (aka capacity) of our body). Hence, the shock involved in the discharge is usually quite small: it is measured in milli-joules (mJ), indeed.

The farad

The remark on ‘static’ brings me to another unit which I should mention in passing: the farad. It measures the capacitance (formerly known as the capacity) of a capacitor (formerly known as a condenser). A condenser consists, quite simply, of two separated conductors: it’s usually illustrated as consisting of two plates or of thin foils (e.g. aluminum foil) separated by an insulating film (e.g. waxed paper), but one can also discuss the capacity of a single body, like our human body, or a charged sphere. In both cases, however, the idea is the same: we have a ‘positive’ charge on one side (+q), and a ‘negative’ charge on the other (–q). In case of a single object, we imagine the ‘other’ charge to be some other large object (the Earth, for instance, but it can also be a car or whatever object that could potentially absorb the charge on our body) or, in case of the charged sphere, we could imagine some other sphere of much larger radius. The farad will then measure the capacity of one or both conductors to store charge.

Now, you may think we don’t need another unit here if that’s the definition: we could just express the capacity of a condensor in terms of its maximum ‘load’, couldn’t we? So that’s so many coulomb before the thing breaks down, when the waxed paper fails to separate the two opposite charges on the aluminium foil, for example. No. It’s not like that. It’s true we can not continue to increase the charge without consequences. However, what we want to measure with the farad is another relationship. Because of the opposite charges on both sides, there will be a potential difference, i.e. a voltage difference. Indeed, a capacitor is like a little battery in many ways: it will have two terminals. Now, it is fairly easy to show that the potential difference (i.e. the voltage) between the two plates will be proportional to the charge. Think of it as follows: if we double the charges, we’re doubling the fields, right? So then we need to do twice the amount of work to carry the unit charge (against the field) from one plate to the other. Now, because the distance is the same, that means the potential difference must be twice what it was.

Now, while we have a simple proportionality here between the voltage and the charge, the coefficient of proportionality will depend on the type of conductors, their shape, the distance and the type of insulator (aka dielectric) between them, and so on and so on. Now, what’s being measured in farad is that coefficient of proportionality, which we’ll denote by C(the proportionality coefficient for the charge), CV ((the proportionality coefficient for the voltage) or, because we should make a choice between the two, quite simply, as C. Indeed, we can either write (1) Q = CQV or, alternatively, V = CVQ, with C= 1/CV. As Feynman notes, “someone originally wrote the equation of proportionality as Q = CV”, so that’s what it will be: the capacitance (aka capacity) of a capacitor (aka condenser) is the ratio of the electric charge Q (on each conductor) to the potential difference V between the two conductors. So we know that’s a constant typical of the type of condenser we’re talking about. Indeed, the capacitance is the constant of proportionality defining the linear relationship between the charge and the voltage means doubling the voltage, and so we can write:

C = Q/V

Now, the charge is measured in coulomb, and the voltage is measured in volt, so the unit in which we will measure C is coulomb per volt (C/V), which is also known as the farad (F):

1 farad = 1 coulomb/volt (1 F = 1 C/V)

[Note the confusing use of the same symbol C for both the unit of charge (coulomb) as well as for the proportionality coefficient! I am sorrry about that, but so that’s convention!].

To be precise, I should add that the proportionality is generally there, but there are exceptions. More specifically, the way the charge builds up (and the way the field builds up, at the edges of the capacitor, for instance) may cause the capacitance to vary a little bit as it is being charged (or discharged). In that case, capacitance will be defined in terms of incremental changes: C = dQ/dV.

Let me conclude this section by giving you two formulas, which are also easily proved but so I will just give you the result:

  1. The capacity of a parallel-plate condenser is C = ε0A/d. In this formula, we have, once again, that ubiquitous electric constant ε(think of it as just another coefficient of proportionality), and then A, i.e. the area of the plates, and d, i.e. the separation between the two plates.
  2. The capacity of a charged sphere of radius r (so we’re talking the capacity of a single conductor here) is C = 4πε0r. This may remind you of the formula for the surface of a sphere (A = 4πr2), but note we’re not squaring the radius. It’s just a linear relationship with r.

I am not giving you these two formulas to show off or fill the pages, but because they’re so ubiquitous and you’ll need them. In fact, I’ll need the second formula in this post when talking about the other ‘loose end’ that I want to discuss.

Other electrical units

From your high school physics classes, you know the ampere and the watt, of course:

  1. The ampere is the unit of current, so it measures the quantity of charge moving or circulating per second. Hence, one ampere is one coulomb per second: 1 A = 1 C/s.
  2. The watt measures power. Power is the rate of energy conversion or transfer with respect to time. One watt is one joule per second: 1 W = 1 J/s = 1 N·m/s. Also note that we can write power as the product of current and voltage: 1 W = (1 A)·(1 V) = (1 C/s)·(1 J/C) = 1 J/s.

Now, because electromagnetism is such well-developed theory and, more importantly, because it has so many engineering and household applications, there are many other units out there, such as:

  • The ohm (Ω): that’s the unit of electrical resistance. Let me quickly define it: the ohm is defined as the resistance between two points of a conductor when a (constant) potential difference (V) of one volt, applied to these points, produces a current (I) of one ampere. So resistance (R) is another proportionality coefficient: R = V/I, and 1 ohm (Ω) = 1 volt/ampere (V/A). [Again, note the (potential) confusion caused by the use of the same symbol (V) for voltage (i.e. the difference in potential) as well as its unit (volt).] Now, note that it’s often useful to write the relationship as V = R·I, so that gives the potential difference as the product of the resistance and the current.
  • The weber (Wb) and the tesla (T): that’s the unit of magnetic flux (i.e. the strength of the magnetic field) and magnetic flux density (i.e. one tesla = one weber per square meter) respectively. So these have to do with the field vector B, rather than E. So we won’t talk about it here.
  • The henry (H): that’s the unit of electromagnetic inductance. It’s also linked to the magnetic effect. Indeed, from Maxwell’s equations, we know that a changing electric current will cause the magnetic field to change. Now, a changing magnetic field causes circulation of E. Hence, we can make the unit charge go around in some loop (we’re talking circulation of E indeed, not flux). The related energy, or the work that’s done by a unit of charge as it travels (once) around that loop, is – quite confusingly! – referred to as electromotive force (emf). [The term is quite confusing because we’re not talking force but energy, i.e. work, and, as you know by now, energy is force times distance, so energy and force are related but not the same.] To ensure you know what we’re talking about, let me note that emf is measured in volts, so that’s in joule per coulomb: 1 V = 1 J/C. Back to the henry now. If the rate of change of current in a circuit (e.g. the armature winding of an electric motor) is one ampere per second, and the resulting electromotive force (remember: emf is energy per coulomb) is one volt, then the inductance of the circuit is one henry. Hence, 1 H = 1 V/(1 A/s) = 1 V·s/A.     

The concept of impedance

You’ve probably heard about the so-called impedance of a circuit. That’s a complex concept, literally, because it’s a complex-valued ratio. I should refer you to the Web for more details, but let me try to summarize it because, while it’s complex, that doesn’t mean it’s complicated. 🙂 In fact, I think it’s rather easy to grasp after all you’ve gone through already. 🙂 So let’s give it a try.

When we have a simple direct current (DC), then we have a very straightforward definition of resistance (R), as mentioned above: it’s a simple ratio between the voltage (as measured in volt) and the current (as measured in ampere). Now, with alternating current (AC) circuits, it becomes more complicated, and so then it’s the concept of impedance that kicks in. Just like resistance, impedance also sort of measures the ‘opposition’ that a circuit presents to a current when a voltage is applied, but we have a complex ratio—literally: it’s a ratio with a magnitude and a direction, or a phase as it’s usually referred to. Hence, one will often write the impedance (denoted by Z) using Euler’s formula:

Z = |Z|eiθ

Now, if you don’t know anything about complex numbers, you should just skip all of what follows and go straight to the next section. However, if you do know what a complex number is (it’s an ‘arrow’, basically, and if θ is a variable, then it’s a rotating arrow, or a ‘stopwatch hand’, as Feynman calls it in his more popular Lectures on QED), then you may want to carry on reading.

The illustration below (credit goes to Wikipedia, once again) is, probably, the most generic view of an AC circuit that one can jot down. If we apply an alternating current, both the current as well as the voltage will go up and down. However, the current signal will lag the voltage signal, and the phase factor θ tells us by how much. Hence, using complex-number notation, we write:

V = IZ = I∗|Z|eiθ


Now, while that resembles the V = R·I formula I mentioned when discussing resistance, you should note the bold-face type for V and I, and the ∗ symbol I am using here for multiplication. First the ∗ symbol: that’s a convention Feynman adopts in the above-mentioned popular account of quantum mechanics. I like it, because it makes it very clear we’re not talking a vector cross product A×B here, but a product of two complex numbers. Now, that’s also why I write V and I in bold-face: they have a phase too and, hence, we can write them as:

  • = |V|ei(ωt + θV)
  • = |I|ei(ωt + θI)

This works out as follows:

IZ = |I|ei(ωt + θI)∗|Z|eiθ = |I||Z|ei(ωt + θ+ θ) = |V|ei(ωt + θV)

Indeed, because the equation must hold for all t, we can equate the magnitudes and phases and, hence, we get: |V| = |I||Z| and θ= θI + θ. But voltage and current is something real, isn’t it? Not some complex number? You’re right. The complex notation is used mainly to simplify the calculus, but it’s only the real part of those complex-valued functions that count. [In any case, because we limit ourselves to complex exponentials here, the imaginary part (which is the sine, as opposed to the real part, which is the cosine) is the same as the real part, but with a lag of its own (π/2 or 90 degrees, to be precise). Indeed: when writing Euler’s formula out (eiθ = cos(θ) + isin(θ), you should always remember that the sine and cosine function are basically the same function: they differ only in the phase, as is evident from the trigonometric identity sin(θ+π/) = cos(θ).]

Now, that should be more than enough in terms of an introduction to the units used in electromagnetic theory. Hence, let’s move on.

The electric constant ε0

Let’s now look at  that energy density formula once again. When looking at that u = ε0E2/2 formula, you may think that its unit should be the square of the unit in which we measure field strength. How do we measure field strength? It’s defined as the force on a unit charge (E = F/q), so it should be newton per coulomb (N/C). Because the coulomb can also be expressed in newton·meter/volt (1 V = 1 J/C = N·m/C and, hence, 1 C = 1 N·m/V), we can express field strength not only in newton/coulomb but also in volt per meter: 1 N/C = 1 N·V/N·m = 1 V/m. How do we get from N2/C2 and/or V2/mto J/m3?

Well… Let me first note there’s no issue in terms of units with that ρΦ formula in the first integral for U: [ρ]·[Φ] = (C/m3)·V = [(N·m/V)/m3)·V = (N·m)/m3 = J/m3. No problem whatsoever. It’s only that second expression for U, with the u = ε0E2/2 in the integrand, that triggers the question. Here, we just need to accept that we need that εfactor to make the units come out alright. Indeed, just like other physical constants (such as c, G, or h, for example), it has a dimension: its unit is either C2/N·m2 or, what amounts to the same, C/V·m. So the units come out alright indeed if, and only if, we multiply the N2/C2 and/or V2/m2 units with the dimension of ε0:

  1. (N2/C2)·(C2/N·m2) = (N2·m)·(1/m3) = J/m3
  2. (V2/m2)·(C/V·m) = V·C/m3 = (V·N·m/V)/m= N·m/m3 = J/m3


But so that’s the units only. The electric constant also has a numerical value:

ε0 = 8.854187817…×10−12 C/V·m ≈ 8.8542×10−12 C/V·m

This numerical value of εis as important as its unit to ensure both expressions for U yield the same result. Indeed, as you may or may not remember from the second of my two posts on vector calculus, if we have a curl-free field C (that means ×= 0 everywhere, which is the case when talking electrostatics only, as we are doing here), then we can always find some scalar field ψ such that C = ψ. But so here we have E = –ε0Φ, and so it’s not the minus sign that distinguishes the expression from the C = ψ expression, but the εfactor in front.

It’s just like the vector equation for heat flow: h = –κT. Indeed, we also have a constant of proportionality here, which is referred to as the thermal conductivity. Likewise, the electric constant εis also referred to as the permittivity of the vacuum (or of free space), for similar reasons obviously!

Natural units

You may wonder whether we can’t find some better units, so we don’t need the rather horrendous 8.8542×10−12 C/V·m factor (I am rounding to four digits after the decimal point). The answer is: yes, it’s possible. In fact, there are several systems in which the electric constant (and the magnetic constant, which we’ll introduce later) reduce to 1. The best-known are the so-called Gaussian and Lorentz-Heaviside units respectively.

Gauss defined the unit of charge in what is now referred to as the statcoulomb (statC), which is also referred to as the franklin (Fr) and/or the electrostatic unit of charge (esu), but I’ll refer you to the Wikipedia article on it in case you’d want to find out more about it. You should just note the definition of this unit is problematic in other ways. Indeed, it’s not so easy to try to define ‘natural units’ in physics, because there are quite a few ‘fundamental’ relations and/or laws in physics and, hence, equating this or that constant to one usually has implications on other constants. In addition, one should note that many choices that made sense as ‘natural’ units in the 19th century seem to be arbitrary now. For example:

  1. Why would we select the charge of the electron or the proton as the unit charge (+1 or –1) if we now assume that protons (and neutrons) consists of quarks, which have +2/3 or –1/3?
  2. What unit would we choose as the unit for mass, knowing that, despite all of the simplification that took place as a result of the generalized acceptance of the quark model, we’re still stuck with quite a few elementary particles whose mass would be a ‘candidate’ for the unit mass? Do we chose the electron, the u quark, or the d quark?

Therefore, the approach to ‘natural units’ has not been to redefine mass or charge or temperature, but the physical constants themselves. Obvious candidates are, of course, c and ħ, i.e. the speed of light and Planck’s constant. [You may wonder why physicists would select ħ, rather than h, as a ‘natural’ unit, but I’ll let you think about that. The answer is not so difficult.] That can be done without too much difficulty indeed, and so one can equate some more physical constants with one. The next candidate is the so-called Boltzmann constant (kB). While this constant is not so well known, it does pop up in a great many equations, including those that led Planck to propose his quantum of action, i.e.(see my post on Planck’s constant). When we do that – so when we equate c, ħ and kB with one (ħ = kB = 1), we still have a great many choices, so we need to impose further constraints. The next is to equate the gravitational constant with one, so then we have ħ = kB = G = 1.

Now, it turns out that the ‘solution’ of this ‘set’ of four equations (ħ = kB = G = 1) does, effectively, lead to ‘new’ values for most of our SI base units, most notably length, time, mass and temperature. These ‘new’ units are referred to as Planck units. You can look up their values yourself, and I’ll let you appreciate the ‘naturalness’ of the new units yourself. They are rather weird. The Planck length and time are usually referred to as the smallest possible measurable units of length and time and, hence, they are related to the so-called limits of quantum theory. Likewise, the Planck temperature is a related limit in quantum theory: it’s the largest possible measurable unit of temperature. To be frank, it’s hard to imagine what the scale of the Planck length, time and temperature really means. In contrast, the scale of the Planck mass is something we actually can imagine – it is said to correspond to the mass of an eyebrow hair, or a flea egg – but, again, its physical significance is not so obvious: Nature’s maximum allowed mass for point-like particles, or the mass capable of holding a single elementary charge. That triggers the question: do point-like charges really exist? I’ll come back to that question. But first I’ll conclude this little digression on units by introducing the so-called fine-structure constant, of which you’ve surely heard before.

The fine-structure constant

I wrote that the ‘set’ of equations ħ = kB = G = 1 gave us Planck units for most of our SI base units. It turns out that these four equations do not lead to a ‘natural’ unit for electric charge. We need to equate a fifth constant with one to get that. That fifth constant is Coulomb’s constant (often denoted as ke) and, yes, it’s the constant that appears in Coulomb’s Law indeed, as well as in some other pretty fundamental equations in electromagnetics, such as the field caused by a point charge q: E = q/4πε0r2. Hence, ke = 1/4πε0. So if we equate kwith one, then ε0 will, obviously, be equal to ε= 1/4π.

To make a long story short, adding this fifth equation to our set of five also gives us a Planck charge, and I’ll give you its value: it’s about 1.8755×10−18 C. As I mentioned that the elementary charge is 1 e ≈ 1.6022×10−19 C, it’s easy to that the Planck charge corresponds to some 11.7 times the charge of the proton. In fact, let’s be somewhat more precise and round, once again, to four digits after the decimal point: the qP/e ratio is about 11.7062. Conversely, we can also say that the elementary charge as expressed in Planck units, is about 1/11.7062 ≈ 0.08542455. In fact, we’ll use that ratio in a moment in some other calculation, so please jot it down.

0.08542455? That’s a bit of a weird number, isn’t it? You’re right. And trying to write it in terms of the charge of a u or d quark doesn’t make it any better. Also, note that the first four significant digits (8542) correspond to the first four significant digits after the decimal point of our εconstant. So what’s the physical significance here? Some other limit of quantum theory?

Frankly, I did not find anything on that, but the obvious thing to do is to relate is to what is referred to as the fine-structure constant, which is denoted by α. This physical constant is dimensionless, and can be defined in various ways, but all of them are some kind of ratio of a bunch of these physical constants we’ve been talking about:

Fine-structure constant formula

The only constants you have not seen before are μ0Rand, perhaps, ras well as m. However, these can be defined as a function of the constants that you did see before:

  1. The μ0 constant is the so-called magnetic constant. It’s something similar as ε0 and it’s referred to as the magnetic permeability of the vacuum. So it’s just like the (electric) permittivity of the vacuum (i.e. the electric constant ε0) and the only reason why you haven’t heard of this before is because we haven’t discussed magnetic fields so far. In any case, you know that the electric and magnetic force are part and parcel of the same phenomenon (i.e. the electromagnetic interaction between charged particles) and, hence, they are closely related. To be precise, μ= 1/ε0c2. That shows the first and second expression for α are, effectively, fully equivalent.
  2. Now, from the definition of ke = 1/4πε0, it’s easy to see how those two expressions are, in turn, equivalent with the third expression for α.
  3. The Rconstant is the so-called von Klitzing constant, but don’t worry about it: it’s, quite simply, equal to Rh/e2. Hene, substituting (and don’t forget that h = 2πħ) will demonstrate the equivalence of the fourth expression for α.
  4. Finally, the re factor is the classical electron radius, which is usually written as a function of me, i.e. the electron mass: re = e2/4πε0mec2. This very same equation implies that reme = e2/4πε0c2. So… Yes. It’s all the same really.

Let’s calculate its (rounded) value in the old units first, using the third expression:

  • The econstant is (roughly) equal to (1.6022×10–19 C)= 2.5670×10–38 C2. Coulomb’s constant k= 1/4πεis about 8.9876×10N·m2/C2. Hence, the numerator e2k≈ 23.0715×10–29 N·m2.
  • The (rounded) denominator is ħc = (1.05457×10–34 N·m·s)(2.998×108 m/s) = 3.162×10–26 N·m2.
  • Hence, we get α = kee2/ħc ≈ 7.297×10–3 = 0.007297.

Note that this number is, effectively, dimensionless. Now, the interesting thing is that if we calculate α using Planck units, we get an econstant that is (roughly) equal to 0.08542455= … 0.007297! Now, because all of the other constants are equal to 1 in Planck’s system of units, that’s equal to α itself. So… Yes ! The two values for α are one and the same in the two systems of units and, of course, as you might have guessed, the fine-structure constant is effectively dimensionless because it does not depend on our units of measurement. So what does it correspond to?

Now that would take me a very long time to explain, but let me try to summarize what it’s all about. In my post on quantum electrodynamics (QED) – so that’s the theory of light and matter basically and, most importantly, how they interact – I wrote about the three basic events in that theory, and how they are associated with a probability amplitude, so that’s a complex number, or an ‘arrow’, as Feynman puts it: something with (a) a magnitude and (b) a direction. We had to take the absolute square of these amplitudes in order to calculate the probability (i.e. some real number between 0 and 1) of the event actually happening. These three basic events or actions were:

  1. A photon travels from point A to B. To keep things simple and stupid, Feynman denoted this amplitude by P(A to B), and please note that the P stands for photon, not for probability. I should also note that we have an easy formula for P(A to B): it depends on the so-called space-time interval between the two points A and B, i.e. I = Δr– Δt= (x2–x1)2+(y2–y1)2+(z2–z1)– (t2–t1)2. Hence, the space-time interval takes both the distance in space as well as the ‘distance’ in time into account.
  2. An electron travels from point A to B: this was denoted by E(A to B) because… Well… You guessed it: the of electron. The formula for E(A to B) was much more complicated, but the two key elements in the formula was some complex number j (see below), and some other (real) number n.
  3. Finally, an electron could emit or absorb a photon, and the amplitude associated with this event was denoted by j, for junction.

Now, that junction number j is about –0.1. To be somewhat more precise, I should say it’s about –0.08542455.

–0.08542455? That’s a bit of a weird number, isn’t it? Hey ! Didn’t we see this number somewhere else? We did, but before you scroll up, let’s first interpret this number. It looks like an ordinary (real) number, but it’s an amplitude alright, so you should interpret it as an arrow. Hence, it can be ‘combined’ (i.e. ‘added’ or ‘multiplied’) with other arrows. More in particular, when you multiply it with another arrow, it amounts to a shrink to a bit less than one-tenth (because its magnitude is about 0.085 = 8.5%), and half a turn (the minus sign amounts to a rotation of 180°). Now, in that post of mine, I wrote that I wouldn’t entertain you on the difficulties of calculating this number but… Well… We did see this number before indeed. Just scroll up to check it. We’ve got a very remarkable result here:

j ≈ –0.08542455 = –√0.007297 = –√α = –e expressed in Planck units

So we find that our junction number j or – as it’s better known – our coupling constant in quantum electrodynamics (aka as the gauge coupling parameter g) is equal to the (negative) square root of that fine-structure constant which, in turn, is equal to the charge of the electron expressed in the Planck unit for electric charge. Now that is a very deep and fundamental result which no one seems to be able to ‘explain’—in an ‘intuitive’ way, that is.

I should immediately add that, while we can’t explain it, intuitively, it does make sense. A lot of sense actually. Photons carry the electromagnetic force, and the electromagnetic field is caused by stationary and moving electric charges, so one would expect to find some relation between that junction number j, describing the amplitude to emit or absorb a photon, and the electric charge itself, but… An equality? Really?

Well… Yes. That’s what it is, and I look forward to trying to understand all of this better. For now, however, I should proceed with what I set out to do, and that is to tie up a few loose ends. This was one, and so let’s move to the next, which is about the assumption of point charges.

Note: More popular accounts of quantum theory say α itself is ‘the’ coupling constant, rather than its (negative) square –√α = j = –e (expressed in Planck units). That’s correct: g or j are, technically speaking, the (gauge) coupling parameter, not the coupling constant. But that’s a little technical detail which shouldn’t bother you. The result is still what it is: very remarkable! I should also note that it’s often the value of the reciprocal (1/α) that is specified, i.e. 1/0.007297 ≈ 137.036. But so now you know what this number actually stands for. 🙂

Do point charges exist?

Feynman’s Lectures on electrostatics are interesting, among other things, because, besides highlighting the precision and successes of the theory, he also doesn’t hesitate to point out the contradictions. He notes, for example, that “the idea of locating energy in the field is inconsistent with the assumption of the existence of point charges.”


Yes. Let’s explore the point. We do assume point charges in classical physics indeed. The electric field caused by a point charge is, quite simply:

E = q/4πε0r2

Hence, the energy density u is ε0E2/2 = q2/32πε0r4. Now, we have that volume integral U = (ε0/2)∫EEdV = ∫(ε0E2/2)dV integral. As Feynman notes, nothing prevents us from taking a spherical shell for the volume element dV, instead of an infinitesimal cube. This spherical shell would have the charge q at its center, an inner radius equal to r, an infinitesimal thickness dr, and, finally, a surface area 4πr(that’s just the general formula for the surface area of a spherical shell, which I also noted above). Hence, its (infinitesimally small) volume is 4πr2dr, and our integral becomes:


To calculate this integral, we need to take the limit of –q2/8πε0r for (a) r tending to zero (r→0) and for (b) r tending to infinity (r→∞). The limit for r = ∞ is zero. That’s OK and consistent with the choice of our reference point for calculating the potential of a field. However, the limit for r = 0 is zero is infinity! Hence, that U = (ε0/2)∫EEdV basically says there’s an infinite amount of energy in the field of a point charge! How is that possible? It cannot be true, obviously.

So… Where did we do wrong?

Your first reaction may well be that this very particular approach (i.e. replacing our infinitesimal cubes by infinitesimal shells) to calculating our integral is fishy and, hence, not allowed. Maybe you’re right. Maybe not. It’s interesting to note that we run into similar problems when calculating the energy of a charged sphere. Indeed, we mentioned the formula for the capacity of a charged sphere: C = 4πε0r. Now, there’s a similarly easy formula for the energy of a charged sphere. Let’s look at how we charge a condenser:

  • We know that the potential difference between two plates of a condenser represents the work we have to do, per unit charge, to transfer a charge (Q) from one plate to the other. Hence, we can write V = ΔU/ΔQ.
  • We will, of course, want to do a differential analysis. Hence, we’ll transfer charges incrementally, one infinitesimal little charge dQ at the time, and re-write V as V = dU/dQ or, what amounts to the same: dU = V·dQ.
  • Now, we’ve defined the capacitance of a condenser as C = Q/V. [Again, don’t be confused: C stands for capacity here, measured in coulomb per volt, not for the coulomb unit.] Hence, we can re-write dU as dU = Q·dQ/C.
  • Now we have to integrate dU going from zero charge to the final charge Q. Just do a little bit of effort here and try it. You should get the following result: U = Q2/2C. [We could re-write this as U = (C2/V2)/2C =  C·V2/2, which is a form that may be more useful in some other context but not here.]
  • Using that C = 4πε0r formula, we get our grand result. The energy of a charged sphere is:

U = Q2/8πε0r

From that formula, it’s obvious that, if the radius of our sphere goes to zero, its energy should also go to infinity! So it seems we can’t really pack a finite charge Q in one single point. Indeed, to do that, our formula says we need an infinite amount of energy. So what’s going on here?

Nothing much. You should, first of all, remember how we got that integral: see my previous post for the full derivation indeed. It’s not that difficult. We first assumed we had pairs of charges qi and qfor which we calculated the total electrostatic energy U as the sum of the energies of all possible pairs of charges:

U 3

And, then, we looked at a continuous distribution of charge. However, in essence, we still did the same: we counted the energy of interaction between infinitesimal charges situated at two different points (referred to as point 1 and 2 respectively), with a 1/2 factor in front so as to ensure we didn’t double-count (there’s no way to write an integral that keeps track of the pairs so that each pair is counted only once):

U 4

Now, we reduced this double integral by a clever substitution to something that looked a bit better:

U 6

Finally, some more mathematical tricks gave us that U = (ε0/2)∫EEdV integral.

In essence, what’s wrong in that integral above is that it actually includes the energy that’s needed to assemble the finite point charge q itself from an infinite number of infinitesimal parts. Now that energy is infinitely large. We just can’t do it: the energy required to construct a point charge is ∞.

Now that explains the physical significance of that Planck mass ! We said Nature has some kind of maximum allowable mass for point-like particles, or the mass capable of holding a single elementary charge. What’s going on is, as we try to pile more charge on top of the charge that’s already there, we add energy. Now, energy has an equivalent mass. Indeed, the Planck charge (q≈ 1.8755×10−18 C), the Planck length (l= 1.616×10−35 m), the Planck energy (1.956×109 J), and the Planck mass (2.1765×10−8 kg) are all related. Now things start making sense. Indeed, we said that the Planck mass is tiny but, still, it’s something we can imagine, like a flea’s egg or the mass of a hair of a eyebrow. The associated energy (E = mc2, so that’s (2.1765×10−8 kg)·(2.998×108 m/s)2 ≈ 19.56×108 kg·m2/s= 1.956×109 joule indeed.

Now, how much energy is that? Well… That’s about 2 giga-joule, obviously, but so what’s that in daily life? It’s about the energy you would get when burning 40 liter of fuel. It’s also likely to amount, more or less, to your home electricity consumption over a month. So it’s sizable, and so we’re packing all that energy into a Planck volume (lP≈ 4×10−105 m3). If we’d manage that, we’d be able to create tiny black holes, because that’s what that little Planck volume would become if we’d pack so much energy in it. So… Well… Here I just have to refer you to more learned writers than I am. As Wikipedia notes dryly: “The physical significance of the Planck length is a topic of theoretical research. Since the Planck length is so many orders of magnitude smaller than any current instrument could possibly measure, there is no way of examining it directly.”

So… Well… That’s it for now. The point to note is that we would not have any theoretical problems if we’d assume our ‘point charge’ is actually not a point charge but some small distribution of charge itself. You’ll say: Great! Problem solved! 

Well… For now, yes. But Feynman rightly notes that assuming that our elementary charges do take up some space results in other difficulties of explanation. As we know, these difficulties are solved in quantum mechanics, but so we’re not supposed to know that when doing these classical analyses. 🙂

Loose ends…

It looks like I am getting ready for my next plunge into Roger Penrose’s Road to Reality. I still need to learn more about those Hamiltonian operators and all that, but I can sort of ‘see’ what they are supposed to do now. However, before I venture off on another series of posts on math instead of physics, I thought I’d briefly present what Feynman identified as ‘loose ends’ in his 1985 Lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics – a few years before his untimely death – and then see if any of those ‘loose ends’ appears less loose today, i.e. some thirty years later.

The three-forces model and coupling constants

All three forces in the Standard Model (the electromagnetic force, the weak force and the strong force) are mediated by force carrying particles: bosons. [Let me talk about the Higgs field later and – of course – I leave out the gravitational force, for which we do not have a quantum field theory.]

Indeed, the electromagnetic force is mediated by the photon; the strong force is mediated by gluons; and the weak force is mediated by W and/or Z bosons. The mechanism is more or less the same for all. There is a so-called coupling (or a junction) between a matter particle (i.e. a fermion) and a force-carrying particle (i.e. the boson), and the amplitude for this coupling to happen is given by a number that is related to a so-called coupling constant

Let’s give an example straight away – and let’s do it for the electromagnetic force, which is the only force we have been talking about so far. The illustration below shows three possible ways for two electrons moving in spacetime to exchange a photon. This involves two couplings: one emission, and one absorption. The amplitude for an emission or an absorption is the same: it’s –j. So the amplitude here will be (–j)(j) = j2. Note that the two electrons repel each other as they exchange a photon, which reflects the electromagnetic force between them from a quantum-mechanical point of view !

Photon exchangeWe will have a number like this for all three forces. Feynman writes the coupling constant for the electromagnetic force as  j and the coupling constant for the strong force (i.e. the amplitude for a gluon to be emitted or absorbed by a quark) as g. [As for the weak force, he is rather short on that and actually doesn’t bother to introduce a symbol for it. I’ll come back on that later.]

The coupling constant is a dimensionless number and one can interpret it as the unit of ‘charge’ for the electromagnetic and strong force respectively. So the ‘charge’ q of a particle should be read as q times the coupling constant. Of course, we can argue about that unit. The elementary charge for electromagnetism was or is – historically – the charge of the proton (q = +1), but now the proton is no longer elementary: it consists of quarks with charge –1/3 and +2/3 (for the d and u quark) respectively (a proton consists of two u quarks and one d quark, so you can write it as uud). So what’s j then? Feynman doesn’t give its precise value but uses an approximate value of –0.1. It is an amplitude so it should be interpreted as a complex number to be added or multiplied with other complex numbers representing amplitudes – so –0.1 is “a shrink to about one-tenth, and half a turn.” [In these 1985 Lectures on QED, which he wrote for a lay audience, he calls amplitudes ‘arrows’, to be combined with other ‘arrows.’ In complex notation, –0.1 = 0.1eiπ = 0.1(cosπ + isinπ).]

Let me give a precise number. The coupling constant for the electromagnetic force is the so-called fine-structure constant, and it’s usually denoted by the alpha symbol (α). There is a remarkably easy formula for α, which becomes even easier if we fiddle with units to simplify the matter even more. Let me paraphrase Wikipedia on α here, because I have no better way of summarizing it (the summary is also nice as it shows how changing units – replacing the SI units by so-called natural units – can simplify equations):

1. There are three equivalent definitions of α in terms of other fundamental physical constants:

\alpha = \frac{k_\mathrm{e} e^2}{\hbar c} = \frac{1}{(4 \pi \varepsilon_0)} \frac{e^2}{\hbar c} = \frac{e^2 c \mu_0}{2 h}
where e is the elementary charge (so that’s the electric charge of the proton); ħ = h/2π is the reduced Planck constant; c is the speed of light (in vacuum); ε0 is the electric constant (i.e. the so-called permittivity of free space); µ0 is the magnetic constant (i.e. the so-called permeability of free space); and ke is the Coulomb constant.

2. In the old centimeter-gram-second variant of the metric system (cgs), the unit of electric charge is chosen such that the Coulomb constant (or the permittivity factor) equals 1. Then the expression of the fine-structure constant just becomes:

\alpha = \frac{e^2}{\hbar c}

3. When using so-called natural units, we equate ε0 , c and ħ to 1. [That does not mean they are the same, but they just become the unit for measurement for whatever is measured in them. :-)] The value of the fine-structure constant then becomes:

 \alpha = \frac{e^2}{4 \pi}.

Of course, then it just becomes a matter of choosing a value for e. Indeed, we still haven’t answered the question as to what we should choose as ‘elementary’: 1 or 1/3? If we take 1, then α is just a bit smaller than 0.08 (around 0.0795775 to be somewhat more precise). If we take 1/3 (the value for a quark), then we get a much smaller value: about 0.008842 (I won’t bother too much about the rest of the decimals here). Feynman’s (very) rough approximation of –0.1 obviously uses the historic proton charge, so e = +1.

The coupling constant for the strong force is much bigger. In fact, if we use the SI units (i.e. one of the three formulas for α under point 1 above), then we get an alpha equal to some 7.297×10–3. In fact, its value will usually be written as 1/α, and so we get a value of (roughly) 1/137. In this scheme of things, the coupling constant for the strong force is 1, so that’s 137 times bigger.

Coupling constants, interactions, and Feynman diagrams

So how does it work? The Wikipedia article on coupling constants makes an extremely useful distinction between the kinetic part and the proper interaction part of an ‘interaction’. Indeed, before we just blindly associate qubits with particles, it’s probably useful to not only look at how photon absorption and/or emission works, but also at how a process as common as photon scattering works (so we’re talking Compton scattering here – discovered in 1923, and it earned Compton a Nobel Prize !).

The illustration below separates the kinetic and interaction part properly: the photon and the electron are both deflected (i.e. the magnitude and/or direction of their momentum (p) changes) – that’s the kinetic part – but, in addition, the frequency of the photon (and, hence, its energy – cf. E = hν) is also affected – so that’s the interaction part I’d say.

Compton scattering

With an absorption or an emission, the situation is different, but it also involves frequencies (and, hence, energy levels), as show below: an electron absorbing a higher-energy photon will jump two or more levels as it absorbs the energy by moving to a higher energy level (i.e. a so-called excited state), and when it re-emits the energy, the emitted photon will have higher energy and, hence, higher frequency.


This business of frequencies and energy levels may not be so obvious when looking at those Feynman diagrams, but I should add that these Feynman diagrams are not just sketchy drawings: the time and space axis is precisely defined (time and distance are measured in equivalent units) and so the direction of travel of particles (photons, electrons, or whatever particle is depicted) does reflect the direction of travel and, hence, conveys precious information about both the direction as well as the magnitude of the momentum of those particles. That being said, a Feynman diagram does not care about a photon’s frequency and, hence, its energy (its velocity will always be c, and it has no mass, so we can’t get any information from its trajectory).

Let’s look at these Feynman diagrams now, and the underlying force model, which I refer to as the boson exchange model.

The boson exchange model

The quantum field model – for all forces – is a boson exchange model. In this model, electrons, for example, are kept in orbit through the continuous exchange of (virtual) photons between the proton and the electron, as shown below.

Electron-protonNow, I should say a few words about these ‘virtual’ photons. The most important thing is that you should look at them as being ‘real’. They may be derided as being only temporary disturbances of the electromagnetic field but they are very real force carriers in the quantum field theory of electromagnetism. They may carry very low energy as compared to ‘real’ photons, but they do conserve energy and momentum – in quite a strange way obviously: while it is easy to imagine a photon pushing an electron away, it is a bit more difficult to imagine it pulling it closer, which is what it does here. Nevertheless, that’s how forces are being mediated by virtual particles in quantum mechanics: we have matter particles carrying charge but neutral bosons taking care of the exchange between those charges.

In fact, note how Feynman actually cares about the possibility of one of those ‘virtual’ photons briefly disintegrating into an electron-positron pair, which underscores the ‘reality’ of photons mediating the electromagnetic force between a proton and an electron,  thereby keeping them close together. There is probably no better illustration to explain the difference between quantum field theory and the classical view of forces, such as the classical view on gravity: there are no gravitons doing for gravity what photons are doing for electromagnetic attraction (or repulsion).

Pandora’s Box

I cannot resist a small digression here. The ‘Box of Pandora’ to which Feynman refers in the caption of the illustration above is the problem of calculating the coupling constants. Indeed, j is the coupling constant for an ‘ideal’ electron to couple with some kind of ‘ideal’ photon, but how do we calculate that when we actually know that all possible paths in spacetime have to be considered and that we have all of these ‘virtual’ mess going on? Indeed, in experiments, we can only observe probabilities for real electrons to couple with real photons.

In the ‘Chapter 4’ to which the caption makes a reference, he briefly explains the mathematical procedure, which he invented and for which he got a Nobel Prize. He calls it a ‘shell game’. It’s basically an application of ‘perturbation theory’, which I haven’t studied yet. However, he does so with skepticism about its mathematical consistency – skepticism which I mentioned and explored somewhat in previous posts, so I won’t repeat that here. Here, I’ll just note that the issue of ‘mathematical consistency’ is much more of an issue for the strong force, because the coupling constant is so big.

Indeed, terms with j2, j3jetcetera (i.e. the terms involved in adding amplitudes for all possible paths and all possible ways in which an event can happen) quickly become very small as the exponent increases, but terms with g2, g3getcetera do not become negligibly small. In fact, they don’t become irrelevant at all. Indeed, if we wrote α for the electromagnetic force as 7.297×10–3, then the α for the strong force is one, and so none of these terms becomes vanishingly small. I won’t dwell on this, but just quote Wikipedia’s very succinct appraisal of the situation: “If α is much less than 1 [in a quantum field theory with a dimensionless coupling constant α], then the theory is said to be weakly coupled. In this case it is well described by an expansion in powers of α called perturbation theory. [However] If the coupling constant is of order one or larger, the theory is said to be strongly coupled. An example of the latter [the only example as far as I am aware: we don’t have like a dozen different forces out there !] is the hadronic theory of strong interactions, which is why it is called strong in the first place. [Hadrons is just a difficult word for particles composed of quarks – so don’t worry about it: you understand what is being said here.] In such a case non-perturbative methods have to be used to investigate the theory.”

Hmm… If Feynman thought his technique for calculating weak coupling constants was fishy, then his skepticism about whether or not physicists actually know what they are doing when calculating stuff using the strong coupling constant is probably justified. But let’s come back on that later. With all that we know here, we’re ready to present a picture of the ‘first-generation world’.

The first-generation world

The first-generation is our world, excluding all that goes in those particle accelerators, where they discovered so-called second- and third-generation matter – but I’ll come back to that. Our world consists of only four matter particles, collectively referred to as (first-generation) fermions: two quarks (a u and a d type), the electron, and the neutrino. This is what is shown below.

first-generation matter

Indeed, u and d quarks make up protons and neutrons (a proton consists of two u quarks and one d quark, and a neutron must be neutral, so it’s two d quarks and one u quark), and then there’s electrons circling around them and so that’s our atoms. And from atoms, we make molecules and then you know the rest of the story. Genesis ! 

Oh… But why do we need the neutrino? [Damn – you’re smart ! You see everything, don’t you? :-)] Well… There’s something referred to as beta decay: this allows a neutron to become a proton (and vice versa). Beta decay explains why carbon-14 will spontaneously decay into nitrogen-14. Indeed, carbon-12 is the (very) stable isotope, while carbon-14 has a life-time of 5,730 ± 40 years ‘only’ and, hence, measuring how much carbon-14 is left in some organic substance allows us to date it (that’s what (radio)carbon-dating is about). Now, a beta particle can refer to an electron or a positron, so we can have β decay (e.g. the above-mentioned carbon-14 decay) or β+ decay (e.g. magnesium-23 into sodium-23). If we have β decay, then some electron will be flying out in order to make sure the atom as a whole stays electrically neutral. If it’s β+ decay, then emitting a positron will do the job (I forgot to mention that each of the particles above also has a anti-matter counterpart – but don’t think I tried to hide anything else: the fermion picture above is pretty complete). That being said, Wolfgang Pauli, one of those geniuses who invented quantum theory, noted, in 1930 already, that some momentum and energy was missing, and so he predicted the emission of this mysterious neutrinos as well. Guess what? These things are very spooky (relatively high-energy neutrinos produced by stars (our Sun in the first place) are going through your and my my body, right now and right here, at a rate of some hundred trillion per second) but, because they are so hard to detect, the first actual trace of their existence was found in 1956 only. [Neutrino detection is fairly standard business now, however.] But back to quarks now.

Quarks are held together by gluons – as you probably know. Quarks come in flavors (u and d), but gluons come in ‘colors’. It’s a bit of a stupid name but the analogy works great. Quarks exchange gluons all of the time and so that’s what ‘glues’ them so strongly together. Indeed, the so-called ‘mass’ that gets converted into energy when a nuclear bomb explodes is not the mass of quarks (their mass is only 2.4 and 4.8 MeV/c2. Nuclear power is binding energy between quarks that gets converted into heat and radiation and kinetic energy and whatever else a nuclear explosion unleashes. That binding energy is reflected in the difference between the mass of a proton (or a neutron) – around 938 MeV/c2 – and the mass figure you get when you add two u‘s and one d, which is them 9.6 MeV/c2 only. This ratio – a factor of one hundred – illustrates once again the strength of the strong force: 99% of the ‘mass’ of a proton or an electron is due to the strong force.    

But I am digressing too much, and I haven’t even started to talk about the bosons associated with the weak force. Well… I won’t just now. I’ll just move on the second- and third-generation world.

Second- and third-generation matter

When physicists started to look for those quarks in their particle accelerators, Nature had already confused them by producing lots of other particles in these accelerators: in the 1960s, there were more than four hundred of them. Yes. Too much. But they couldn’t get them back in the box. 🙂

Now, all these ‘other particles’ are unstable but they survive long enough – a muon, for example, disintegrates after 2.2 millionths of a second (on average) – to deserve the ‘particle’ title, as opposed to a ‘resonance’, whose lifetime can be as short as a billionth of a trillionth of a second. And so, yes, the physicists had to explain them too. So the guys who devised the quark-gluon model (the model is usually associated with Murray Gell-Mann but – as usual with great ideas – some others worked hard on it as well) had already included heavier versions of their quarks to explain (some of) these other particles. And so we do not only have heavier quarks, but also a heavier version of the electron (that’s the muon I mentioned) as well as a heavier version of the neutrino (the so-called muon neutrino). The two new ‘flavors’ of quarks were called s and c. [Feynman hates these names but let me give them: u stands for up, d for down, s for strange and c for charm. Why? Well… According to Feynman: “For no reason whatsoever.”]

Traces of the second-generation and c quarks were found in experiments in 1968 and 1974 respectively (it took six years to boost the particle accelerators sufficiently), and the third-generation quark (for beauty or bottom – whatever) popped up in Fermilab‘s particle accelerator in 1978. To be fully complete, it then took 17 years to detect the super-heavy t quark – which stands for truth.  [Of all the quarks, this name is probably the nicest: “If beauty, then truth” – as Lederman and Schramm write in their 1989 history of all of this.]

What’s next? Will there be a fourth or even fifth generation? Back in 1985, Feynman didn’t exclude it (and actually seemed to expect it), but current assessments are more prosaic. Indeed, Wikipedia writes that, According to the results of the statistical analysis by researchers from CERN and the Humboldt University of Berlin, the existence of further fermions can be excluded with a probability of 99.99999% (5.3 sigma).” If you want to know why… Well… Read the rest of the Wikipedia article. It’s got to do with the Higgs particle.

So the complete model of reality is the one I already inserted in a previous post and, if you find it complicated, remember that the first generation of matter is the one that matters and, among the bosons, it’s the photons and gluons. If you focus on these only, it’s not complicated at all – and surely a huge improvement over those 400+ particles no one understood in the 1960s.


As for the interactions, quarks stick together – and rather firmly so – by interchanging gluons. They thereby ‘change color’ (which is the same as saying there is some exchange of ‘charge’). I copy Feynman’s original illustration hereunder (not because there’s no better illustration: the stuff you can find on Wikipedia has actual colors !) but just because it’s reflects the other illustrations above (and, perhaps, maybe I also want to make sure – with this black-and-white thing – that you don’t think there’s something like ‘real’ color inside of a nucleus).

quark gluon exchange

So what are the loose ends then? The problem of ‘mathematical consistency’ associated with the techniques used to calculate (or estimate) these coupling constants – which Feynman identifies as a key defect in 1985 – is is a form of skepticism about the Standard Model that is not shared by others. It’s more about the other forces. So let’s now talk about these.

The weak force as the weird force: about symmetry breaking

I included the weak force in the title of one of the sub-sections above (“The three-forces model”) and then talked about the other two forces only. The W, W and Z bosons – usually referred to, as a group, as the W bosons, or the ‘intermediate vector bosons’ – are an odd bunch. First, note that they are the only ones that do not only have a (rest) mass (and not just a little bit: they’re almost 100 times heavier than a the proton or neutron – or a hydrogen atom !) but, on top of that, they also have electric charge (except for the Z boson). They are really the odd ones out.  Feynman does not doubt their existence (a Fermilab team produced them in 1983, and they got a Nobel Prize for it, so little room for doubts here !), but it is obvious he finds the weak force interaction model rather weird.

He’s not the only one: in a wonderful publication designed to make a case for more powerful particle accelerators (probably successful, because the Large Hadron Collider came through – and discovered credible traces of the Higgs field, which is involved in the story that is about to follow), Leon Lederman and David Schramm look at the asymmety involved in having massive W bosons and massless photons and gluons, as just one of the many asymmetries associated with the weak force. Let me develop this point.

We like symmetries. They are aesthetic. But so I am talking something else here: in classical physics, characterized by strict causality and determinism, we can – in theory – reverse the arrow of time. In practice, we can’t – because of entropy – but, in theory, so-called reversible machines are not a problem. However, in quantum mechanics we cannot reverse time for reasons that have nothing to do with thermodynamics. In fact, there are several types of symmetries in physics:

  1. Parity (P) symmetry revolves around the notion that Nature should not distinguish between right- and left-handedness, so everything that works in our world, should also work in the mirror world. Now, the weak force does not respect P symmetry. That was shown by experiments on the decay of pions, muons and radioactive cobalt-60 in 1956 and 1957 already.
  2. Charge conjugation or charge (C) symmetry revolves around the notion that a world in which we reverse all (electric) charge signs (so protons would have minus one as charge, and electrons have plus one) would also just work the same. The same 1957 experiments showed that the weak force does also not respect C symmetry.
  3. Initially, smart theorists noted that the combined operation of CP was respected by these 1957 experiments (hence, the principle of P and C symmetry could be substituted by a combined CP symmetry principle) but, then, in 1964, Val Fitch and James Cronin, proved that the spontaneous decay of neutral kaons (don’t worry if you don’t know what particle this is: you can look it up) into pairs of pions did not respect CP symmetry. In other words, it was – again – the weak force not respecting symmetry. [Fitch and Cronin got a Nobel Prize for this, so you can imagine it did mean something !]
  4. We mentioned time reversal (T) symmetry: how is that being broken? In theory, we can imagine a film being made of those events not respecting P, C or CP symmetry and then just pressing the ‘reverse’ button, can’t we? Well… I must admit I do not master the details of what I am going to write now, but let me just quote Lederman (another Nobel Prize physicist) and Schramm (an astrophysicist): “Years before this, [Wolfgang] Pauli [Remember him from his neutrino prediction?] had pointed out that a sequence of operations like CPT could be imagined and studied; that is, in sequence, change all particles to antiparticles, reflect the system in a mirror, and change the sign of time. Pauli’s theorem was that all nature respected the CPT operation and, in fact, that this was closely connected to the relativistic invariance of Einstein’s equations. There is a consensus that CPT invariance cannot be broken – at least not at energy scales below 1019 GeV [i.e. the Planck scale]. However, if CPT is a valid symmetry, then, when Fitch and Cronin showed that CP is a broken symmetry, they also showed that T symmetry must be similarly broken.” (Lederman and Schramm, 1989, From Quarks to the Cosmos, p. 122-123)

So the weak force doesn’t care about symmetries. Not at all. That being said, there is an obvious difference between the asymmetries mentioned above, and the asymmetry involved in W bosons having mass and other bosons not having mass. That’s true. Especially because now we have that Higgs field to explain why W bosons have mass – and not only W bosons but also the matter particles (i.e. the three generations of leptons and quarks discussed above). The diagram shows what interacts with what.

2000px-Elementary_particle_interactions.svgBut so the Higgs field does not interact with photons and gluons. Why? Well… I am not sure. Let me copy the Wikipedia explanation: “The Higgs field consists of four components, two neutral ones and two charged component fields. Both of the charged components and one of the neutral fields are Goldstone bosons, which act as the longitudinal third-polarization components of the massive W+, W– and Z bosons. The quantum of the remaining neutral component corresponds to (and is theoretically realized as) the massive Higgs boson.”

Huh? […] This ‘answer’ probably doesn’t answer your question. What I understand from the explanation above, is that the Higgs field only interacts with W bosons because its (theoretical) structure is such that it only interacts with W bosons. Now, you’ll remember Feynman’s oft-quoted criticism of string theory: I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation–a fix-up to say.” Is the Higgs theory such cooked-up explanation? No. That kind of criticism would not apply here, in light of the fact that – some 50 years after the theory – there is (some) experimental confirmation at least !

But you’ll admit it does all look ‘somewhat ugly.’ However, while that’s a ‘loose end’ of the Standard Model, it’s not a fundamental defect or so. The argument is more about aesthetics, but then different people have different views on aesthetics – especially when it comes to mathematical attractiveness or unattractiveness.

So… No real loose end here I’d say.


The other ‘loose end’ that Feynman mentions in his 1985 summary is obviously still very relevant today (much more than his worries about the weak force I’d say). It is the lack of a quantum theory of gravity. There is none. Of course, the obvious question is: why would we need one? We’ve got Einstein’s theory, don’t we? What’s wrong with it?

The short answer to the last question is: nothing’s wrong with it – on the contrary ! It’s just that it is – well… – classical physics. No uncertainty. As such, the formalism of quantum field theory cannot be applied to gravity. That’s it. What’s Feynman’s take on this? [Sorry I refer to him all the time, but I made it clear in the introduction of this post that I would be discussing ‘his’ loose ends indeed.] Well… He makes two points – a practical one and a theoretical one:

1. “Because the gravitation force is so much weaker than any of the other interactions, it is impossible at the present time to make any experiment that is sufficiently delicate to measure any effect that requires the precision of a quantum theory to explain it.”

Feynman is surely right about gravity being ‘so much weaker’. Indeed, you should note that, at a scale of 10–13 cm (that’s the picometer scale – so that’s the relevant scale indeed at the sub-atomic level), the coupling constants compare as follows: if the coupling constant of the strong force is 1, the coupling constant of the electromagnetic force is approximately 1/137, so that’s a factor of 10–2 approximately. The strength of the weak force as measured by the coupling constant would be smaller with a factor 10–13 (so that’s 1/10000000000000 smaller). Incredibly small, but so we do have a quantum field theory for the weak force ! However, the coupling constant for the gravitational force involves a factor 10–38. Let’s face it: this is unimaginably small.

However, Feynman wrote this in 1985 (i.e. thirty years ago) and scientists wouldn’t be scientists if they would not at least try to set up some kind of experiment. So there it is: LIGO. Let me quote Wikipedia on it:

LIGO, which stands for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, is a large-scale physics experiment aiming to directly detect gravitation waves. […] At the cost of $365 million (in 2002 USD), it is the largest and most ambitious project ever funded by the NSF. Observations at LIGO began in 2002 and ended in 2010; no unambiguous detections of gravitational waves have been reported. The original detectors were disassembled and are currently being replaced by improved versions known as “Advanced LIGO”.

So, let’s see what comes out of that. I won’t put my money on it just yet. 🙂 Let’s go to the theoretical problem now.

2. “Even though there is no way to test them, there are, nevertheless, quantum theories of gravity that involve ‘gravitons’ (which would appear under a new category of polarizations, called spin “2”) and other fundamental particles (some with spin 3/2). The best of these theories is not able to include the particles that we do find, and invents a lot of particles that we don’t find. [In addition] The quantum theories of gravity also have infinities in the terms with couplings [Feynman does not refer to a coupling constant but to a factor n appearing in the so-called propagator for an electron – don’t worry about it: just note it’s a problem with one of those constants actually being larger than one !], but the “dippy process” that is successful in getting rid of the infinities in quantum electrodynamics doesn’t get rid of them in gravitation. So not only have we no experiments with which to check a quantum theory of gravitation, we also have no reasonable theory.”

Phew ! After reading that, you wouldn’t apply for a job at that LIGO facility, would you? That being said, the fact that there is a LIGO experiment would seem to undermine Feynman’s practical argument. But then is his theoretical criticism still relevant today? I am not an expert, but it would seem to be the case according to Wikipedia’s update on it:

“Although a quantum theory of gravity is needed in order to reconcile general relativity with the principles of quantum mechanics, difficulties arise when one attempts to apply the usual prescriptions of quantum field theory. From a technical point of view, the problem is that the theory one gets in this way is not renormalizable and therefore cannot be used to make meaningful physical predictions. As a result, theorists have taken up more radical approaches to the problem of quantum gravity, the most popular approaches being string theory and loop quantum gravity.”

Hmm… String theory and loop quantum gravity? That’s the stuff that Penrose is exploring. However, I’d suspect that for these (string theory and loop quantum gravity), Feynman’s criticism probably still rings true – to some extent at least: 

I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation–a fix-up to say, “Well, it might be true.” For example, the theory requires ten dimensions. Well, maybe there’s a way of wrapping up six of the dimensions. Yes, that’s all possible mathematically, but why not seven? When they write their equation, the equation should decide how many of these things get wrapped up, not the desire to agree with experiment. In other words, there’s no reason whatsoever in superstring theory that it isn’t eight out of the ten dimensions that get wrapped up and that the result is only two dimensions, which would be completely in disagreement with experience. So the fact that it might disagree with experience is very tenuous, it doesn’t produce anything; it has to be excused most of the time. It doesn’t look right.”

What to say by way of conclusion? Not sure. I think my personal “research agenda” is reasonably simple: I just want to try to understand all of the above somewhat better and then, perhaps, I might be able to understand some of what Roger Penrose is writing. 🙂

Light and matter

In my previous post, I discussed the de Broglie wave of a photon. It’s usually referred to as ‘the’ wave function (or the psi function) but, as I explained, for every psi – i.e. the position-space wave function Ψ(x ,t) – there is also a phi – i.e. the momentum-space wave function Φ(p, t).

In that post, I also compared it – without much formalism – to the de Broglie wave of ‘matter particles’. Indeed, in physics, we look at ‘stuff’ as being made of particles and, while the taxonomy of the particle zoo of the Standard Model of physics is rather complicated, one ‘taxonomic’ principle stands out: particles are either matter particles (known as fermions) or force carriers (known as bosons). It’s a strict separation: either/or. No split personalities.

A quick overview before we start…

Wikipedia’s overview of particles in the Standard Model (including the latest addition: the Higgs boson) illustrates this fundamental dichotomy in nature: we have the matter particles (quarks and leptons) on one side, and the bosons (i.e. the force carriers) on the other side.


Don’t be put off by my remark on the particle zoo: it’s a term coined in the 1960s, when the situation was quite confusing indeed (like more than 400 ‘particles’). However, the picture is quite orderly now. In fact, the Standard Model put an end to the discovery of ‘new’ particles, and it’s been stable since the 1970s, as experiments confirmed the reality of quarks. Indeed, all resistance to Gell-Man’s quarks and his flavor and color concepts – which are just words to describe new types of ‘charge’ – similar to electric charge but with more variety), ended when experiments by Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC) in November 1974 confirmed the existence of the (second-generation and, hence, heavy and unstable) ‘charm’ quark (again, the names suggest some frivolity but it’s serious physical research).

As for the Higgs boson, its existence of the Higgs boson had also been predicted, since 1964 to be precise, but it took fifty years to confirm it experimentally because only something like the Large Hadron Collider could produce the required energy to find it in these particle smashing experiments – a rather crude way of analyzing matter, you may think, but so be it. [In case you harbor doubts on the Higgs particle, please note that, while CERN is the first to admit further confirmation is needed, the Nobel Prize Committee apparently found the evidence ‘evidence enough’ to finally award Higgs and others a Nobel Prize for their ‘discovery’ fifty years ago – and, as you know, the Nobel Prize committee members are usually rather conservative in their judgment. So you would have to come up with a rather complex conspiracy theory to deny its existence.]

Also note that the particle zoo is actually less complicated than it looks at first sight: the (composite) particles that are stable in our world – this world – consist of three quarks only: a proton consists of two up quarks and one down quark and, hence, is written as uud., and a neutron is two down quarks and one up quark: udd. Hence, for all practical purposes (i.e. for our discussion how light interacts with matter), only the so-called first generation of matter-particles – so that’s the first column in the overview above – are relevant.

All the particles in the second and third column are unstable. That being said, they survive long enough – a muon disintegrates after 2.2 millionths of a second (on average) – to deserve the ‘particle’ title, as opposed to a ‘resonance’, whose lifetime can be as short as a billionth of a trillionth of a second – but we’ve gone through these numbers before and so I won’t repeat that here. Why do we need them? Well… We don’t, but they are a by-product of our world view (i.e. the Standard Model) and, for some reason, we find everything what this Standard Model says should exist, even if most of the stuff (all second- and third-generation matter particles, and all these resonances, vanish rather quickly – but so that also seems to be consistent with the model). [As for a possible fourth (or higher) generation, Feynman didn’t exclude it when he wrote his 1985 Lectures on quantum electrodynamics, but, checking on Wikipedia, I find the following: “According to the results of the statistical analysis by researchers from CERN and the Humboldt University of Berlin, the existence of further fermions can be excluded with a probability of 99.99999% (5.3 sigma).” If you want to know why… Well… Read the rest of the Wikipedia article. It’s got to do with the Higgs particle.]

As for the (first-generation) neutrino in the table – the only one which you may not be familiar with – these are very spooky things but – I don’t want to scare you – relatively high-energy neutrinos are going through your and my my body, right now and here, at a rate of some hundred trillion per second. They are produced by stars (stars are huge nuclear fusion reactors, remember?), and also as a by-product of these high-energy collisions in particle accelerators of course. But they are very hard to detect: the first trace of their existence was found in 1956 only – 26 years after their existence had been postulated: the fact that Wolfgang Pauli proposed their existence in 1930 to explain how beta decay could conserve energy, momentum and spin (angular momentum) demonstrates not only the genius but also the confidence of these early theoretical quantum physicists. Most neutrinos passing through Earth are produced by our Sun. Now they are being analyzed more routinely. The largest neutrino detector on Earth is called IceCube. It sits on the South Pole – or under it, as it’s suspended under the Antarctic ice, and it regularly captures high-energy neutrinos in the range of 1 to 10 TeV. 

Let me – to conclude this introduction – just quickly list and explain the bosons (i.e the force carriers) in the table above:

1. Of all of the bosons, the photon (i.e. the topic of this post), is the most straightforward: there is only type of photon, even if it comes in different possible states of polarization.


I should probably do a quick note on polarization here – even if all of the stuff that follows will make abstraction of it. Indeed, the discussion on photons that follows (largely adapted from Feynman’s 1985 Lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics) assumes that there is no such thing as polarization – because it would make everything even more complicated. The concept of polarization (linear, circular or elliptical) has a direct physical interpretation in classical mechanics (i.e. light as an electromagnetic wave). In quantum mechanics, however, polarization becomes a so-called qubit (quantum bit): leaving aside so-called virtual photons (these are short-range disturbances going between a proton and an electron in an atom – effectively mediating the electromagnetic force between them), the property of polarization comes in two basis states (0 and 1, or left and right), but these two basis states can be superposed. In ket notation: if ¦0〉 and ¦1〉 are the basis states, then any linear combination α·¦0〉 + ß·¦1〉 is also a valid state provided│α│2 + │β│= 1, in line with the need to get probabilities that add up to one.

In case you wonder why I am introducing these kets, there is no reason for it, except that I will be introducing some other tools in this post – such as Feynman diagrams – and so that’s all. In order to wrap this up, I need to note that kets are used in conjunction with bras. So we have a bra-ket notation: the ket gives the starting condition, and the bra – denoted as 〈 ¦ – gives the final condition. They are combined in statements such as 〈 particle arrives at x¦particle leaves from s〉 or – in short – 〈 x¦s〉 and, while x and s would have some real-number value, 〈 x¦s〉 would denote the (complex-valued) probability amplitude associated wit the event consisting of these two conditions (i.e the starting and final condition).

But don’t worry about it. This digression is just what it is: a digression. Oh… Just make a mental note that the so-called virtual photons (the mediators that are supposed to keep the electron in touch with the proton) have four possible states of polarization – instead of two. They are related to the four directions of space (x, y and z) and time (t). 🙂

2. Gluons, the exchange particles for the strong force, are more complicated: they come in eight so-called colors. In practice, one should think of these colors as different charges, but so we have more elementary charges in this case than just plus or minus one (±1) – as we have for the electric charge. So it’s just another type of qubit in quantum mechanics.

[Note that the so-called elementary ±1 values for electric charge are not really elementary: it’s –1/3 (for the down quark, and for the second- and third-generation strange and bottom quarks as well) and +2/3 (for the up quark as well as for the second- and third-generation charm and top quarks). That being said, electric charge takes two values only, and the ±1 value is easily found from a linear combination of the –1/3 and +2/3 values.]

3. Z and W bosons carry the so-called weak force, aka as Fermi’s interaction: they explain how one type of quark can change into another, thereby explaining phenomena such as beta decay. Beta decay explains why carbon-14 will, after a very long time (as compared to the ‘unstable’ particles mentioned above), spontaneously decay into nitrogen-14. Indeed, carbon-12 is the (very) stable isotope, while carbon-14 has a life-time of 5,730 ± 40 years ‘only’  (so one can’t call carbon-12 ‘unstable’: perhaps ‘less stable’ will do) and, hence, measuring how much carbon-14 is left in some organic substance allows us to date it (that’s what (radio)carbon-dating is about). As for the name, a beta particle can refer to an electron or a positron, so we can have β decay (e.g. the above-mentioned carbon-14 decay) as well as β+ decay (e.g. magnesium-23 into sodium-23). There’s also alpha and gamma decay but that involves different things. 

As you can see from the table, W± and Zbosons are very heavy (157,000 and 178,000 times heavier than a electron!), and W± carry the (positive or negative) electric charge. So why don’t we see them? Well… They are so short-lived that we can only see a tiny decay width, just a very tiny little trace, so they resemble resonances in experiments. That’s also the reason why we see little or nothing of the weak force in real-life: the force-carrying particles mediating this force don’t get anywhere.

4. Finally, as mentioned above, the Higgs particle – and, hence, of the associated Higgs field – had been predicted since 1964 already but its existence was only (tentatively) experimentally confirmed last year. The Higgs field gives fermions, and also the W and Z bosons, mass (but not photons and gluons), and – as mentioned above – that’s why the weak force has such short range as compared to the electromagnetic and strong forces. Note, however, that the Higgs particle does actually not explain the gravitational force, so it’s not the (theoretical) graviton and there is no quantum field theory for the gravitational force as yet. Just Google it and you’ll quickly find out why: there’s theoretical as well as practical (experimental) reasons for that.

The Higgs field stands out from the other force fields because it’s a scalar field (as opposed to a vector field). However, I have no idea how this so-called Higgs mechanism (i.e. the interaction with matter particles (i.e. with the quarks and leptons, but not directly with neutrinos it would seem from the diagram below), with W and Z bosons, and with itself – but not with the massless photons and gluons) actually works. But then I still have a very long way to go on this Road to Reality.


In any case… The topic of this post is to discuss light and its interaction with matter – not the weak or strong force, nor the Higgs field.

Let’s go for it.

Amplitudes, probabilities and observable properties

Being born a boson or a fermion makes a big difference. That being said, both fermions and bosons are wavicles described by a complex-valued psi function, colloquially known as the wave function. To be precise, there will be several wave functions, and the square of their modulus (sorry for the jargon) will give you the probability of some observable property having a value in some relevant range, usually denoted by Δ. [I also explained (in my post on Bose and Fermi) how the rules for combining amplitudes differ for bosons versus fermions, and how that explains why they are what they are: matter particles occupy space, while photons not only can but also like to crowd together in, for example, a powerful laser beam. I’ll come back on that.]

For all practical purposes, relevant usually means ‘small enough to be meaningful’. For example, we may want to calculate the probability of detecting an electron in some tiny spacetime interval (Δx, Δt). [Again, ‘tiny’ in this context means small enough to be relevant: if we are looking at a hydrogen atom (whose size is a few nanometer), then Δx is likely to be a cube or a sphere with an edge or a radius of a few picometer only (a picometer is a thousandth of a nanometer, so it’s a millionth of a millionth of a meter); and, noting that the electron’s speed is approximately 2200 km per second… Well… I will let you calculate a relevant Δt. :-)]

If we want to do that, then we will need to square the modulus of the corresponding wave function Ψ(x, t). To be precise, we will have to do a summation of all the values │Ψ(x, t)│over the interval and, because x and t are real (and, hence, continuous) numbers, that means doing some integral (because an integral is the continuous version of a sum).

But that’s only one example of an observable property: position. There are others. For example, we may not be interested in the particle’s exact position but only in its momentum or energy. Well, we have another wave function for that: the momentum wave function Φ(x ,t). In fact, if you looked at my previous posts, you’ll remember the two are related because they are conjugate variables: Fourier transforms duals of one another. A less formal way of expressing that is to refer to the uncertainty principle. But this is not the time to repeat things.

The bottom line is that all particles travel through spacetime with a backpack full of complex-valued wave functions. We don’t know who and where these particles are exactly, and so we can’t talk to them – but we can e-mail God and He’ll send us the wave function that we need to calculate some probability we are interested in because we want to check – in all kinds of experiments designed to fool them – if it matches with reality.

As mentioned above, I highlighted the main difference between bosons and fermions in my Bose and Fermi post, so I won’t repeat that here. Just note that, when it comes to working with those probability amplitudes (that’s just another word for these psi and phi functions), it makes a huge difference: fermions and bosons interact very differently. Bosons are party particles: they like to crowd and will always welcome an extra one. Fermions, on the other hand, will exclude each other: that’s why there’s something referred to as the Fermi exclusion principle in quantum mechanics. That’s why fermions make matter (matter needs space) and bosons are force carriers (they’ll just call friends to help when the load gets heavier).

Light versus matter: Quantum Electrodynamics

OK. Let’s get down to business. This post is about light, or about light-matter interaction. Indeed, in my previous post (on Light), I promised to say something about the amplitude of a photon to go from point A to B (because – as I wrote in my previous post – that’s more ‘relevant’, when it comes to explaining stuff, than the amplitude of a photon to actually be at point x at time t), and so that’s what I will do now.

In his 1985 Lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics (which are lectures for the lay audience), Feynman writes the amplitude of a photon to go from point A to B as P(A to B) – and the P stands for photon obviously, not for probability. [I am tired of repeating that you need to square the modulus of an amplitude to get a probability but – here you are – I have said it once more.] That’s in line with the other fundamental wave function in quantum electrodynamics (QED): the amplitude of an electron to go from A to B, which is written as E(A to B). [You got it: E just stands for electron, not for our electric field vector.]

I also talked about the third fundamental amplitude in my previous post: the amplitude of an electron to absorb or emit a photon. So let’s have a look at these three. As Feynman says: ““Out of these three amplitudes, we can make the whole world, aside from what goes on in nuclei, and gravitation, as always!” 

Well… Thank you, Mr Feynman: I’ve always wanted to understand the World (especially if you made it).

The photon-electron coupling constant j

Let’s start with the last of those three amplitudes (or wave functions): the amplitude of an electron to absorb or emit a photon. Indeed, absorbing or emitting makes no difference: we have the same complex number for both. It’s a constant – denoted by j (for junction number) – equal to –0.1 (a bit less actually but it’s good enough as an approximation in the context of this blog).

Huh? Minus 0.1? That’s not a complex number, is it? It is. Real numbers are complex numbers too: –0.1 is 0.1eiπ in polar coordinates. As Feynman puts it: it’s “a shrink to about one-tenth, and half a turn.” The ‘shrink’ is the 0.1 magnitude of this vector (or arrow), and the ‘half-turn’ is the angle of π (i.e. 180 degrees). He obviously refers to multiplying (no adding here) j with other amplitudes, e.g. P(A, C) and E(B, C) if the coupling is to happen at or near C. And, as you’ll remember, multiplying complex numbers amounts to adding their phases, and multiplying their modulus (so that’s adding the angles and multiplying lengths).

Let’s introduce a Feynman diagram at this point – drawn by Feynman himself – which shows three possible ways of two electrons exchanging a photon. We actually have two couplings here, and so the combined amplitude will involve two j‘s. In fact, if we label the starting point of the two lines representing our electrons as 1 and 2 respectively, and their end points as 3 and 4, then the amplitude for these events will be given by:

E(1 to 5)·j·E(5 to 3)·E(2 to 6)·j·E(6 to 3)

 As for how that j factor works, please do read the caption of the illustration below: the same j describes both emission as well as absorption. It’s just that we have both an emission as well as an as absorption here, so we have a j2 factor here, which is less than 0.1·0.1 = 0.01. At this point, it’s worth noting that it’s obvious that the amplitudes we’re talking about here – i.e. for one possible way of an exchange like the one below happening – are very tiny. They only become significant when we add many of these amplitudes, which – as explained below – is what has to happen: one has to consider all possible paths, calculate the amplitudes for them (through multiplication), and then add all these amplitudes, to then – finally – square the modulus of the combined ‘arrow’ (or amplitude) to get some probability of something actually happening. [Again, that’s the best we can do: calculate probabilities that correspond to experimentally measured occurrences. We cannot predict anything in the classical sense of the word.]

Feynman diagram of photon-electron coupling

A Feynman diagram is not just some sketchy drawing. For example, we have to care about scales: the distance and time units are equivalent (so distance would be measured in light-seconds or, else, time would be measured in units equivalent to the time needed for light to travel one meter). Hence, particles traveling through time (and space) – from the bottom of the graph to the top – will usually not  be traveling at an angle of more than 45 degrees (as measured from the time axis) but, from the graph above, it is clear that photons do. [Note that electrons moving through spacetime are represented by plain straight lines, while photons are represented by wavy lines. It’s just a matter of convention.]

More importantly, a Feynman diagram is a pictorial device showing what needs to be calculated and how. Indeed, with all the complexities involved, it is easy to lose track of what should be added and what should be multiplied, especially when it comes to much more complicated situations like the one described above (e.g. making sense of a scattering event). So, while the coupling constant j (aka as the ‘charge’ of a particle – but it’s obviously not the electric charge) is just a number, calculating an actual E(A to B) amplitudes is not easy – not only because there are many different possible routes (paths) but because (almost) anything can happen. Let’s have a closer look at it.

E(A to B)

As Feynman explains in his 1985 QED Lectures: “E(A to B) can be represented as a giant sum of a lot of different ways an electron can go from point A to B in spacetime: the electron can take a ‘one-hop flight’, going directly from point A to B; it could take a ‘two-hop flight’, stopping at an intermediate point C; it could take a ‘three-hop flight’ stopping at points D and E, and so on.”

Fortunately, the calculation re-uses known values: the amplitude for each ‘hop’ – from C to D, for example – is P(F to G) – so that’s the amplitude of a photon (!) to go from F to G – even if we are talking an electron here. But there’s a difference: we also have to multiply the amplitudes for each ‘hop’ with the amplitude for each ‘stop’, and that’s represented by another number – not j but n2. So we have an infinite series of terms for E(A to B): P(A to B) + P(A to C)·n2·P(C to B) + P(A to D)·n2·P(D to E)·n2·P(E to B) + … for all possible intermediate points C, D, E, and so on, as per the illustration below.

E(A to B)

You’ll immediately ask: what’s the value of n? It’s quite important to know it, because we want to know how big these n2netcetera terms are. I’ll be honest: I have not come to terms with that yet. According to Feynman (QED, p. 125), it is the ‘rest mass’ of an ‘ideal’ electron: an ‘ideal’ electron is an electron that doesn’t know Feynman’s amplitude theory and just goes from point to point in spacetime using only the direct path. 🙂 Hence, it’s not a probability amplitude like j: a proper probability amplitude will always have a modulus less than 1, and so when we see exponential terms like j2, j4,… we know we should not be all that worried – because these sort of vanish (go to zero) for sufficiently large exponents. For E(A to B), we do not have such vanishing terms. I will not dwell on this right here, but I promise to discuss it in the Post Scriptum of this post. The frightening possibility is that n might be a number larger than one.

[As we’re freewheeling a bit anyway here, just a quick note on conventions: I should not be writing j in bold-face, because it’s a (complex- or real-valued) number and symbols representing numbers are usually not written in bold-face: vectors are written in bold-face. So, while you can look at a complex number as a vector, well… It’s just one of these inconsistencies I guess. The problem with using bold-face letters to represent complex numbers (like amplitudes) is that they suggest that the ‘dot’ in a product (e.g. j·j) is an actual dot project (aka as a scalar product or an inner product) of two vectors. That’s not the case. We’re multiplying complex numbers here, and so we’re just using the standard definition of a product of complex numbers. This subtlety probably explains why Feynman prefers to write the above product as P(A to B) + P(A to C)*n2*P(C to B) + P(A to D)*n2*P(D to E)*n2*P(E to B) + … But then I find that using that asterisk to represent multiplication is a bit funny (although it’s a pretty common thing in complex math) and so I am not using it. Just be aware that a dot in a product may not always mean the same type of multiplication: multiplying complex numbers and multiplying vectors is not the same. […] And I won’t write j in bold-face anymore.]

P(A to B)

Regardless of the value for n, it’s obvious we need a functional form for P(A to B), because that’s the other thing (other than n) that we need to calculate E(A to B). So what’s the amplitude of a photon to go from point A to B?

Well… The function describing P(A to B) is obviously some wave function – so that’s a complex-valued function of x and t. It’s referred to as a (Feynman) propagator: a propagator function gives the probability amplitude for a particle to travel from one place to another in a given time, or to travel with a certain energy and momentum. [So our function for E(A to B) will be a propagator as well.] You can check out the details on it on Wikipedia. Indeed, I could insert the formula here, but believe me if I say it would only confuse you. The points to note is that:

  1. The propagator is also derived from the wave equation describing the system, so that’s some kind of differential equation which incorporates the relevant rules and constraints that apply to the system. For electrons, that’s the Schrödinger equation I presented in my previous post. For photons… Well… As I mentioned in my previous post, there is ‘something similar’ for photons – there must be – but I have not seen anything that’s equally ‘simple’ as the Schrödinger equation for photons. [I have Googled a bit but it’s obvious we’re talking pretty advanced quantum mechanics here – so it’s not the QM-101 course that I am currently trying to make sense of.] 
  2. The most important thing (in this context at least) is that the key variable in this propagator (i.e. the Feynman propagator for the photon) is I: that spacetime interval which I mentioned in my previous post already:

I = Δr– Δt2 =  (z2– z1)+ (y2– y1)+ (x2– x1)– (t2– t1)2

In this equation, we need to measure the time and spatial distance between two points in spacetime in equivalent units (these ‘points’ are usually referred to as four-vectors), so we’d use light-seconds for the unit of distance or, for the unit of time, the time it takes for light to travel one meter. [If we don’t want to transform time or distance scales, then we have to write I as I = c2Δt2 – Δr2.] Now, there are three types of intervals:

  1. For time-like intervals, we have a negative value for I, so Δt> Δr2. For two events separated by a time-like interval, enough time passes between them so there could be a cause–effect relationship between the two events. In a Feynman diagram, the angle between the time axis and the line between the two events will be less than 45 degrees from the vertical axis. The traveling electrons in the Feynman diagrams above are an example.
  2. For space-like intervals, we have a positive value for I, so Δt< Δr2. Events separated by space-like intervals cannot possibly be causally connected. The photons traveling between point 5 and 6 in the first Feynman diagram are an example, but then photons do have amplitudes to travel faster than light.
  3. Finally, for light-like intervals, I = 0, or Δt2 = Δr2. The points connected by the 45-degree lines in the illustration below (which Feynman uses to introduce his Feynman diagrams) are an example of points connected by light-like intervals.

[Note that we are using the so-called space-like convention (+++–) here for I. There’s also a time-like convention, i.e. with +––– as signs: I = Δt2 – Δrso just check when you would consult other sources on this (which I recommend) and if you’d feel I am not getting the signs right.]

Spacetime intervalsNow, what’s the relevance of this? To calculate P(A to B), we have to add the amplitudes for all possible paths that the photon can take, and not in space, but in spacetime. So we should add all these vectors (or ‘arrows’ as Feynman calls them) – an infinite number of them really. In the meanwhile, you know it amounts to adding complex numbers, and that infinite sums are done by doing integrals, but let’s take a step back: how are vectors added?

Well…That’s easy, you’ll say… It’s the parallelogram rule… Well… Yes. And no. Let me take a step back here to show how adding a whole range of similar amplitudes works.

The illustration below shows a bunch of photons – real or imagined – from a source above a water surface (the sun for example), all taking different paths to arrive at a detector under the water (let’s say some fish looking at the sky from under the water). In this case, we make abstraction of all the photons leaving at different times and so we only look at a bunch that’s leaving at the same point in time. In other words, their stopwatches will be synchronized (i.e. there is no phase shift term in the phase of their wave function) – let’s say at 12 o’clock when they leave the source. [If you think this simplification is not acceptable, well… Think again.]

When these stopwatches hit the retina of our poor fish’s eye (I feel we should put a detector there, instead of a fish), they will stop, and the hand of each stopwatch represents an amplitude: it has a modulus (its length) – which is assumed to be the same because all paths are equally likely (this is one of the first principles of QED) – but their direction is very different. However, by now we are quite familiar with these operations: we add all the ‘arrows’ indeed (or vectors or amplitudes or complex numbers or whatever you want to call them) and get one big final arrow, shown at the bottom – just above the caption. Look at it very carefully.

adding arrows

If you look at the so-called contribution made by each of the individual arrows, you can see that it’s the arrows associated with the path of least time and the paths immediately left and right of it that make the biggest contribution to the final arrow. Why? Because these stopwatches arrive around the same time and, hence, their hands point more or less in the same direction. It doesn’t matter what direction – as long as it’s more or less the same.

[As for the calculation of the path of least time, that has to do with the fact that light is slowed down in water. Feynman shows why in his 1985 Lectures on QED, but I cannot possibly copy the whole book here ! The principle is illustrated below.]  Least time principle

So, where are we? This digressions go on and on, don’t they? Let’s go back to the main story: we want to calculate P(A to B), remember?

As mentioned above, one of the first principles in QED is that all paths – in spacetime – are equally likely. So we need to add amplitudes for every possible path in spacetime using that Feynman propagator function. You can imagine that will be some kind of integral which you’ll never want to solve. Fortunately, Feynman’s disciples have done that for you already. The results is quite predictable: the grand result is that light has a tendency to travel in straight lines and at the speed of light.

WHAT!? Did Feynman get a Nobel prize for trivial stuff like that?

Yes. The math involved in adding amplitudes over all possible paths not only in space but also in time uses the so-called path integral formulation of quantum mechanics and so that’s got Feynman’s signature on it, and that’s the main reason why he got this award – together with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga: both much less well known than Feynman, but so they shared the burden. Don’t complain about it. Just take a look at the ‘mechanics’ of it.

We already mentioned that the propagator has the spacetime interval I in its denominator. Now, the way it works is that, for values of I equal or close to zero, so the paths that are associated with light-like intervals, our propagator function will yield large contributions in the ‘same’ direction (wherever that direction is), but for the spacetime intervals that are very much time- or space-like, the magnitude of our amplitude will be smaller and – worse – our arrow will point in the ‘wrong’ direction. In short, the arrows associated with the time- and space-like intervals don’t add up to much, especially over longer distances. [When distances are short, there are (relatively) few arrows to add, and so the probability distribution will be flatter: in short, the likelihood of having the actual photon travel faster or slower than speed is higher.]

Contribution interval


Does this make sense? I am not sure, but I did what I promised to do. I told you how P(A to B) gets calculated; and from the formula for E(A to B), it is obvious that we can then also calculate E(A to B) provided we have a value for n. However, that value n is determined experimentally, just like the value of j, in order to ensure this amplitude theory yields probabilities that match the probabilities we observe in all kinds of crazy experiments that try to prove or disprove the theory; and then we can use these three amplitude formulas “to make the whole world”, as Feynman calls it, except the stuff that goes on inside of nuclei (because that’s the domain of the weak and strong nuclear force) and gravitation, for which we have a law (Newton’s Law) but no real ‘explanation’. [Now, you may wonder if this QED explanation of light is really all that good, but Mr Feynman thinks it is, and so I have no reason to doubt that – especially because there’s surely not anything more convincing lying around as far as I know.]

So what remains to be told? Lots of things, even within the realm of expertise of quantum electrodynamics. Indeed, Feynman applies the basics as described above to a number of real-life phenomena – quite interesting, all of it ! – but, once again, it’s not my goal to copy all of his Lectures here. [I am only hoping to offer some good summaries of key points in some attempt to convince myself that I am getting some of it at least.] And then there is the strong force, and the weak force, and the Higgs field, and so and so on. But that’s all very strange and new territory which I haven’t even started to explore. I’ll keep you posted as I am making my way towards it.

Post scriptum: On the values of j and n

In this post, I promised I would write something about how we can find j and n because I realize it would just amount to copy three of four pages out of that book I mentioned above, and which inspired most of this post. Let me just say something more about that remarkable book, and then quote a few lines on what the author of that book – the great Mr Feynman ! – thinks of the math behind calculating these two constants (the coupling constant j, and the ‘rest mass’ of an ‘ideal’ electron). Now, before I do that, I should repeat that he actually invented that math (it makes use of a mathematical approximation method called perturbation theory) and that he got a Nobel Prize for it.

First, about the book. Feynman’s 1985 Lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics are not like his 1965 Lectures on Physics. The Lectures on Physics are proper courses for undergraduate and even graduate students in physics. This little 1985 book on QED is just a series of four lectures for a lay audience, conceived in honor of Alix G. Mautner. She was a friend of Mr Feynman’s who died a few years before he gave and wrote these ‘lectures’ on QED. She had a degree in English literature and would ask Mr Feynman regularly to explain quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics in a way she would understand. While they had known each other for about 22 years, he had apparently never taken enough time to do so, as he writes in his Introduction to these Alix G. Mautner Memorial Lectures: “So here are the lectures I really [should have] prepared for Alix, but unfortunately I can’t tell them to her directly, now.”

The great Richard Phillips Feynman himself died only three years later, in February 1988 – not of one but two rare forms of cancer. He was only 69 years old when he died. I don’t know if he was aware of the cancer(s) that would kill him, but I find his fourth and last lecture in the book, Loose Ends, just fascinating. Here we have a brilliant mind deprecating the math that earned him a Nobel Prize and without which the Standard Model would be unintelligible. I won’t try to paraphrase him. Let me just quote him. [If you want to check the quotes, the relevant pages are page 125 to 131):

The math behind calculating these constants] is a “dippy process” and “having to resort to such hocus-pocus has prevented us from proving that the theory of quantum electrodynamics is mathematically self-consistent“. He adds: “It’s surprising that the theory still hasn’t been proved self-consistent one way or the other by now; I suspect that renormalization [“the shell game that we play to find n and j” as he calls it]  is not mathematically legitimate.” […] Now, Mr Feynman writes this about quantum electrodynamics, not about “the rest of physics” (and so that’s quantum chromodynamics (QCD) – the theory of the strong interactions – and quantum flavordynamics (QFD) – the theory of weak interactions) which, he adds, “has not been checked anywhere near as well as electrodynamics.” 

That’s a pretty damning statement, isn’t it? In one of my other posts (see: The End of the Road to Reality?), I explore these comments a bit. However, I have to admit I feel I really need to get back to math in order to appreciate these remarks. I’ve written way too much about physics anyway now (as opposed to the my first dozen of posts – which were much more math-oriented). So I’ll just have a look at some more stuff indeed (such as perturbation theory), and then I’ll get back blogging. Indeed, I’ve written like 20 posts or so in a few months only – so I guess I should shut up for while now !

In the meanwhile, you’re more than welcome to comment of course ! 

End of the Road to Reality?

Or the end of theoretical physics?

In my previous post, I mentioned the Goliath of science and engineering: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) under the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva. I actually started uploading some pictures, but then I realized I should write a separate post about it. So here we go.

The first image (see below) shows the LHC tunnel, while the other shows (a part of) one of the two large general-purpose particle detectors that are part of this Large Hadron Collider. A detector is the thing that’s used to look at those collisions. This is actually the smallest of the two general-purpose detectors: it’s the so-called CMS detector (the other one is the ATLAS detector), and it’s ‘only’ 21.6 meter long and 15 meter in diameter – and it weighs about 12,500 tons. But so it did detect a Higgs particle – just like the ATLAS detector. [That’s actually not 100% sure but it was sure enough for the Nobel Prize committee – so I guess that should be good enough for us common mortals :-)]

LHC tunnelLHC - CMS detector

image of collision

The picture above shows one of these collisions in the CMS detector. It’s not the one with the trace of the Higgs particle though. In fact, I have not found any image that actually shows the Higgs particle: the closest thing to such image are some impressionistic images on the ATLAS site. See

In case you wonder what’s being scattered here… Well… All kinds of things – but so the original collision is usually between protons (so these are hydrogen ions: Hnuclei), although the LHC can produce other nucleon beams as well (collectively referred to as hadrons). These protons have energy levels of 4 TeV (tera-electronVolt: 1 TeV = 1000 GeV = 1 trillion eV = 1×1012 eV).

Now, let’s think about scale once again. Remember (from that same previous post) that we calculated a wavelength of 0.33 nanometer (1 nm = 1×10–9 m, so that’s a billionth of a meter) for an electron. Well, this LHC is actually exploring the sub-femtometer (fm) frontier. One femtometer (fm) is 1×10–15 m so that’s another million times smaller. Yes: so we are talking a millionth of a billionth of a meter. The size of a proton is an estimated 1.7 femtometer indeed and, as you surely know, a proton is a point-like thing occupying a very tiny space, so it’s not like an electron ‘cloud’ swirling around: it’s much smaller. In fact, quarks – three of them make up a proton (or a neutron) – are usually thought of as being just a little bit less than half that size – so that’s about 0.7 fm.

It may also help you to use the value I mentioned for high-energy electrons when I was discussing the LEP (the Large Electron-Positron Collider, which preceded the LHC) – so that was 104.5 GeV – and calculate the associated de Broglie wavelength using E = hf and λ = v/f. The velocity is close to and, hence, if we plug everything in, we get a value close to 1.2×10–15 m indeed, so that’s the femtometer scale indeed. [If you don’t want to calculate anything, then just note we’re going from eV to giga-eV energy levels here, and so our wavelength decreases accordingly: one billion times smaller. Also remember (from the previous posts) that we calculated a wavelength of 0.33×10–6 m and an associated energy level of 70 eV for a slow-moving electron – i.e. one going at 2200 km per second ‘only’, i.e. less than 1% of the speed of light.]  Also note that, at these energy levels, it doesn’t matter whether or not we include the rest mass of the electron: 0.511 MeV is nothing as compared to the GeV realm. In short, we are talking very very tiny stuff here.

But so that’s the LEP scale. I wrote that the LHC is probing things at the sub-femtometer scale. So how much sub-something is that? Well… Quite a lot: the LHC is looking at stuff at a scale that’s more than a thousand times smaller. Indeed, if collision experiments in the giga-electronvolt (GeV) energy range correspond to probing stuff at the femtometer scale, then tera-electronvolt (TeV) energy levels correspond to probing stuff that’s, once again, another thousand times smaller, so we’re looking at distances of less than a thousandth of a millionth of a billionth of a meter. Now, you can try to ‘imagine’ that, but you can’t really.

So what do we actually ‘see’ then? Well… Nothing much one could say: all we can ‘see’ are traces of point-like ‘things’ being scattered, which then disintegrate or just vanish from the scene – as shown in the image above. In fact, as mentioned above, we do not even have such clear-cut ‘trace’ of a Higgs particle: we’ve got a ‘kinda signal’ only. So that’s it? Yes. But then these images are beautiful, aren’t they? If only to remind ourselves that particle physics is about more than just a bunch of formulas. It’s about… Well… The essence of reality: its intrinsic nature so to say. So… Well…

Let me be skeptical. So we know all of that now, don’t we? The so-called Standard Model has been confirmed by experiment. We now know how Nature works, don’t we? We observe light (or, to be precise, radiation: most notably that cosmic background radiation that reaches us from everywhere) that originated nearly 14 billion years ago  (to be precise: 380,000 years after the Big Bang – but what’s 380,000 years  on this scale?) and so we can ‘see’ things that are 14 billion light-years away. In fact, things that were 14 billion light-years away: indeed, because of the expansion of the universe, they are further away now and so that’s why the so-called observable universe is actually larger. So we can ‘see’ everything we need to ‘see’ at the cosmic distance scale and now we can also ‘see’ all of the particles that make up matter, i.e. quarks and electrons mainly (we also have some other so-called leptons, like neutrinos and muons), and also all of the particles that make up anti-matter of course (i.e. antiquarks, positrons etcetera). As importantly – or even more – we can also ‘see’ all of the ‘particles’ carrying the forces governing the interactions between the ‘matter particles’ – which are collectively referred to as fermions, as opposed to the ‘force carrying’ particles, which are collectively referred to as bosons (see my previous post on Bose and Fermi). Let me quickly list them – just to make sure we’re on the same page:

  1. Photons for the electromagnetic force.
  2. Gluons for the so-called strong force, which explains why positively charged protons ‘stick’ together in nuclei – in spite of their electric charge, which should push them away from each other. [You might think it’s the neutrons that ‘glue’ them together but so, no, it’s the gluons.]
  3. W+, W, and Z bosons for the so-called ‘weak’ interactions (aka as Fermi’s interaction), which explain how one type of quark can change into another, thereby explaining phenomena such as beta decay. [For example, carbon-14 will – through beta decay – spontaneously decay into nitrogen-14. Indeed, carbon-12 is the stable isotope, while carbon-14 has a life-time of 5,730 ± 40 years ‘only’ 🙂 and, hence, measuring how much carbon-14 is left in some organic substance allows us to date it (that’s what (radio)carbon-dating is about). As for the name, a beta particle can refer to an electron or a positron, so we can have β decay (e.g. the above-mentioned carbon-14 decay) as well as βdecay (e.g. magnesium-23 into sodium-23). There’s also alpha and gamma decay but that involves different things. In any case… Let me end this digression within the digression.]
  4. Finally, the existence of the Higgs particle – and, hence, of the associated Higgs field – has been predicted since 1964 already, but so it was only experimentally confirmed (i.e. we saw it, in the LHC) last year, so Peter Higgs – and a few others of course – got their well-deserved Nobel prize only 50 years later. The Higgs field gives fermions, and also the W+, W, and Z bosons, mass (but not photons and gluons, and so that’s why the weak force has such short range – as compared to the electromagnetic and strong forces).

So there we are. We know it all. Sort of. Of course, there are many questions left – so it is said. For example, the Higgs particle does actually not explain the gravitational force, so it’s not the (theoretical) graviton, and so we do not have a quantum field theory for the gravitational force. [Just Google it and you’ll see why: there’s theoretical as well as practical (experimental) reasons for that.] Secondly, while we do have a quantum field theory for all of the forces (or ‘interactions’ as physicists prefer to call them), there are a lot of constants in them (much more than just that Planck constant I introduced in my posts!) that seem to be ‘unrelated and arbitrary.’ I am obviously just quoting Wikipedia here – but it’s true.

Just look at it: three ‘generations’ of matter with various strange properties, four force fields (and some ‘gauge theory’ to provide some uniformity), bosons that have mass (the W+, W, and Z bosons, and then the Higgs particle itself) but then photons and gluons don’t… It just doesn’t look good, and then Feynman himself wrote, just a few years before his death (QED, 1985, p. 128), that the math behind calculating some of these constants (the coupling constant j for instance, or the rest mass n of an electron), which he actually invented (it makes use of a mathematical approximation method called perturbation theory) and for which he got a Nobel Prize, is a “dippy process” and that “having to resort to such hocus-pocus has prevented us from proving that the theory of quantum electrodynamics is mathematically self-consistent“. He adds: “It’s surprising that the theory still hasn’t been proved self-consistent one way or the other by now; I suspect that renormalization [“the shell game that we play to find n and j” as he calls it]  is not mathematically legitimate.” And so he writes this about quantum electrodynamics, not about “the rest of physics” (and so that’s quantum chromodynamics (QCD) – the theory of the strong interactions – and quantum flavordynamics (QFD) – the theory of weak interactions) which, he adds, “has not been checked anywhere near as well as electrodynamics.”

Waw ! That’s a pretty damning statement, isn’t it? In short, all of the celebrations around the experimental confirmation of the Higgs particle cannot hide the fact that it all looks a bit messy. There are other questions as well – most of which I don’t understand so I won’t mention them. To make a long story short, physicists and mathematicians alike seem to think there must be some ‘more fundamental’ theory behind. But – Hey! – you can’t have it all, can you? And, of course, all these theoretical physicists and mathematicians out there do need to justify their academic budget, don’t they? And so all that talk about a Grand Unification Theory (GUT) is probably just what is it: talk. Isn’t it? Maybe.

The key question is probably easy to formulate: what’s beyond this scale of a thousandth of a proton diameter (0.001×10–15 m) – a thousandth of a millionth of a billionth of a meter that is. Well… Let’s first note that this so-called ‘beyond’ is a ‘universe’ which mankind (or let’s just say ‘we’) will never see. Never ever. Why? Because there is no way to go substantially beyond the 4 TeV energy levels that were reached last year – at great cost – in the world’s largest particle collider (the LHC). Indeed, the LHC is widely regarded not only as “the most complex and ambitious scientific project ever accomplished by humanity” (I am quoting a CERN scientist here) but – with a cost of more than 7.5 billion Euro – also as one of the most expensive ones. Indeed, taking into account inflation and all that, it was like the Manhattan project indeed (although scientists loathe that comparison). So we should not have any illusions: there will be no new super-duper LHC any time soon, and surely not during our lifetime: the current LHC is the super-duper thing!

Indeed, when I write ‘substantially‘ above, I really mean substantially. Just to put things in perspective: the LHC is currently being upgraded to produce 7 TeV beams (it was shut down for this upgrade, and it should come back on stream in 2015). That sounds like an awful lot (from 4 to 7 is +75%), and it is: it amounts to packing the kinetic energy of seven flying mosquitos (instead of four previously :-)) into each and every particle that makes up the beam. But that’s not substantial, in the sense that it is very much below the so-called GUT energy scale, which is the energy level above which, it is believed (by all those GUT theorists at least), the electromagnetic force, the weak force and the strong force will all be part and parcel of one and the same unified force. Don’t ask me why (I’ll know when I finished reading Penrose, I hope) but that’s what it is (if I should believe what I am reading currently that is). In any case, the thing to remember is that the GUT energy levels are in the 1016 GeV range, so that’s – sorry for all these numbers – a trillion TeV. That amounts to pumping more than 160,000 Joule in each of those tiny point-like particles that make up our beam. So… No. Don’t even try to dream about it. It won’t happen. That’s science fiction – with the emphasis on fiction. [Also don’t dream about a trillion flying mosquitos packed into one proton-sized super-mosquito either. :-)]

So what?

Well… I don’t know. Physicists refer to the zone beyond the above-mentioned scale (so things smaller than 0.001×10–15 m) as the Great Desert. That’s a very appropriate name I think – for more than one reason. And so it’s this ‘desert’ that Roger Penrose is actually trying to explore in his ‘Road to Reality’. As for me, well… I must admit I have great trouble following Penrose on this road. I’ve actually started to doubt that Penrose’s Road leads to Reality. Maybe it takes us away from it. Huh? Well… I mean… Perhaps the road just stops at that 0.001×10–15 m frontier? 

In fact, that’s a view which one of the early physicists specialized in high-energy physics, Raoul Gatto, referred to as the zeroth scenarioI am actually not quoting Gatto here, but another theoretical physicist: Gerard ‘t Hooft, another Nobel prize winner (you may know him better because he’s a rather fervent Mars One supporter, but so here I am referring to his popular 1996 book In Search of the Ultimate Building Blocks). In any case, Gatto, and most other physicists, including ‘T Hooft (despite the fact ‘T Hooft got his Nobel prize for his contribution to gauge theory – which, together with Feynman’s application of perturbation theory to QED, is actually the backbone of the Standard Model) firmly reject this zeroth scenario. ‘T Hooft himself thinks superstring theory (i.e. supersymmetric string theory – which has now been folded into M-theory or – back to the original term – just string theory – the terminology is quite confusing) holds the key to exploring this desert.

But who knows? In fact, we can’t – because of the above-mentioned practical problem of experimental confirmation. So I am likely to stay on this side of the frontier for quite a while – if only because there’s still so much to see here and, of course, also because I am just at the beginning of this road. 🙂 And then I also realize I’ll need to understand gauge theory and all that to continue on this road – which is likely to take me another six months or so (if not more) and then, only then, I might try to look at those little strings, even if we’ll never see them because… Well… Their theoretical diameter is the so-called Planck length. So what? Well… That’s equal to 1.6×10−35 m. So what? Well… Nothing. It’s just that 1.6×10−35 m is 1/10 000 000 000 000 000 of that sub-femtometer scale. I don’t even want to write this in trillionths of trillionths of trillionths etcetera because I feel that’s just not making any sense. And perhaps it doesn’t. One thing is for sure: that ‘desert’ that GUT theorists want us to cross is not just ‘Great’: it’s ENORMOUS!

Richard Feynman – another Nobel Prize scientist whom I obviously respect a lot – surely thought trying to cross a desert like that amounts to certain death. Indeed, he’s supposed to have said the following about string theorists, about a year or two before he died (way too young): I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation–a fix-up to say, “Well, it might be true.” For example, the theory requires ten dimensions. Well, maybe there’s a way of wrapping up six of the dimensions. Yes, that’s all possible mathematically, but why not seven? When they write their equation, the equation should decide how many of these things get wrapped up, not the desire to agree with experiment. In other words, there’s no reason whatsoever in superstring theory that it isn’t eight out of the ten dimensions that get wrapped up and that the result is only two dimensions, which would be completely in disagreement with experience. So the fact that it might disagree with experience is very tenuous, it doesn’t produce anything; it has to be excused most of the time. It doesn’t look right.”

Hmm…  Feynman and ‘T Hooft… Two giants in science. Two Nobel Prize winners – and for stuff that truly revolutionized physics. The amazing thing is that those two giants – who are clearly at loggerheads on this one – actually worked closely together on a number of other topics – most notably on the so-called Feynman-‘T Hooft gauge, which – as far as I understand – is the one that is most widely used in quantum field calculations. But I’ll leave it at that here – and I’ll just make a mental note of the terminology here. The Great Desert… Probably an appropriate term. ‘T Hooft says that most physicists think that desert is full of tiny flowers. I am not so sure – but then I am not half as smart as ‘T Hooft. Much less actually. So I’ll just see where the road I am currently following leads me. With Feynman’s warning in mind, I should probably expect the road condition to deteriorate quickly.

Post scriptum: You will not be surprised to hear that there’s a word for 1×10–18 m: it’s called an attometer (with two t’s, and abbreviated as am). And beyond that we have zeptometer (1 zm = 1×10–21 m) and yoctometer (1 ym = 1×10–23 m). In fact, these measures actually represent something: 20 yoctometer is the estimated radius of a 1 MeV neutrino – or, to be precise, its the radius of the cross section, which is “the effective area that governs the probability of some scattering or absorption event.” But so then there are no words anymore. The next measure is the Planck length: 1.62 × 10−35 m – but so that’s a trillion (1012) times smaller than a yoctometer. Unimaginable, isn’t it? Literally. 

Note: A 1 MeV neutrino? Well… Yes. The estimated rest mass of an (electron) neutrino is tiny: at least 50,000 times smaller than the mass of the electron and, therefore, neutrinos are often assumed to be massless, for all practical purposes that is. However, just like the massless photon, they can carry high energy. High-energy gamma ray photons, for example, are also associated with MeV energy levels. Neutrinos are one of the many particles produced in high-energy particle collisions in particle accelerators, but they are present everywhere: they’re produced by stars (which, as you know, are nuclear fusion reactors). In fact, most neutrinos passing through Earth are produced by our Sun. The largest neutrino detector on Earth is called IceCube. It sits on the South Pole – or under it, as it’s suspended under the Antarctic ice, and it regularly captures high-energy neutrinos in the range of 1 to 10 TeV. Last year (in November 2013), it captured two with energy levels around 1000 TeV – so that’s the peta-electronvolt level (1 PeV = 1×1015 eV). If you think that’s amazing, it is. But also remember that 1 eV is 1.6×10−19 Joule, so it’s ‘only’ a ten-thousandth of a Joule. In other words, you would need at least ten thousand of them to briefly light up an LED. The PeV pair was dubbed Bert and Ernie and the illustration below (from IceCube’s website) conveys how the detectors sort of lit up when they passed. It was obviously a pretty clear ‘signal’ – but so the illustration also makes it clear that we don’t really ‘see’ at such small scale: we just know ‘something’ happened.

Bert and Ernie