Mr. Feynman and boson-fermion theory

I’ve been looking at chapter 4 of Feynman’s Lectures on Quantum Mechanics (the chapter on identical particles) for at least a dozen times now—probably more. This and the following chapters spell out the mathematical framework and foundations of mainstream quantum mechanics: the grand distinction between fermions and bosons, symmetric and asymmetric wavefunctions, Bose-Einstein versus Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics, and whatever else comes out of that—including the weird idea that (force) fields should also come in lumps (think of quantum field theory here). These ‘field lumps’ are then thought of as ‘virtual’ particles that, somehow, ‘mediate’ the force.

The idea that (kinetic and/or potential) energy and (linear and/or angular) momentum are being continually transferred – somehow, and all over space – by these ‘messenger’ particles sounds like medieval philosophy to me. However, to be fair, Feynman does actually not present these more advanced medieval ideas in his Lectures on Quantum Physics. I have always found that somewhat strange: he was about to receive a Nobel Prize for his path integral formulation of quantum mechanics and other contributions to what has now become the mainstream interpretation of quantum mechanics, so why wouldn’t he talk about it to his students, for which he wrote these lectures? In contrast, he does include a preview of Gell-Mann’s quark theory, although he does say – in a footnote – that “the material of this section is longer and harder than is appropriate at this point” and he, therefore, suggests to skip it and move to the next chapter.

[As for the path integral formulation of QM, I would think the mere fact that we have three alternative formulations of QM (matrix, wave-mechanical and path integral) would be sufficient there’s something wrong with these theories: reality is one, so we should have one unique (mathematical) description of it).]

Any case. I am probably doing too much Hineininterpretierung here. Let us return to the basic stuff that Feynman wanted his students to accept as a truthful description of reality: two kinds of statistics. Two different ways of interaction. Two kinds of particles. That’s what post-WW II gurus such as Feynman – all very much inspired by the ‘Club of Copenhagen’—aka known as the ‘Solvay Conference Club‘ – want us to believe: interactions with ‘Bose particles’ – this is the term Feynman uses in this text of 1963  – involve adding amplitudes with a + (plus) sign. In contrast, interactions between ‘Fermi particles’ involve a minus (−) sign when ‘adding’ the amplitudes.

The confusion starts early on: Feynman makes it clear he actually talks about the amplitude for an event to happen or not. Two possibilities are there: two ‘identical’ particles either get ‘swapped’ after the collision or, else, they don’t. However, in the next sections of this chapter – where he ‘proves’ or ‘explains’ the principle of Bose condensation for bosons and then the Pauli exclusion principle for fermions – it is very clear the amplitudes are actually associated with the particles themselves.

So his argument starts rather messily—conceptually, that is. Feynman also conveniently skips the most basic ontological or epistemological question here: how would a particle ‘know‘ how to choose between this or that kind of statistics? In other words, how does it know it should pick the plus or the minus sign when combining its amplitude with the amplitude of the other particle? It makes one think of Feynman’s story of the Martian in his Lecture on symmetries in Nature: what handshake are we going to do here? Left or right? And who sticks out his hand first? The Martian or the Earthian? A diplomat would ask: who has precedence when the two particles meet?

The question also relates to the nature of the wavefunction: if it doesn’t describe anything real, then where is it? In our mind only? But if it’s in our mind only, how comes we get real-life probabilities out of them, and real-life energy levels, or real-life momenta, etcetera? The core question (physical, epistemological, philosophical, esoterical or whatever you’d want to label it) is this: what’s the connection between these concepts and whatever it is that we are trying to describe? The only answer mainstream physicists can provide here is blabber. That’s why the mainstream interpretation of physics may be acceptable to physicists, but not to the general public. That’s why the debate continues to rage: no one believes the Standard Model. Full stop. The intuition of the masses here is very basic and, therefore, probably correct: if you cannot explain something in clear and unambiguous terms, then you probably do not understand it.

Hence, I suspect mainstream academic physicists probably do not understand whatever it is they are talking about. Feynman, by the way, admitted as much when writing – in the very first lines of the introduction to his Lectures on Quantum Mechanics – that “even the experts do not understand it the way they would like to.”

I am actually appalled by all of this. Worse, I am close to even stop talking or writing about it. I only kept going because a handful of readers send me a message of sympathy from time to time. I then feel I am actually not alone in what often feels like a lonely search in what a friend of mine refers to as ‘a basic version of truth.’ I realize I am getting a bit emotional here – or should I say: upset? – so let us get back to Feynman’s argument again.

Feynman starts by introducing the idea of a ‘particle’—a concept he does not define – not at all, really – but, as the story unfolds, we understand this concept somehow combines the idea of a boson and a fermion. He doesn’t motivate why he feels like he should lump photons and electrons together in some more general category, which he labels as ‘particles’. Personally, I really do not see the need to do that: I am fine with thinking of a photon as an electromagnetic oscillation (a traveling field, that is), and of electrons, protons, neutrons and whatever composite particle out there that is some combination of the latter as matter-particles. Matter-particles carry charge: electric charge and – who knows – perhaps some strong charge too. Photons don’t. So they’re different. Full stop. Why do we want to label everything out there as a ‘particle’?

Indeed, when everything is said and done, there is no definition of fermions and bosons beyond this magical spin-1/2 and spin-1 property. That property is something we cannot measure: we can only measure the magnetic moment of a particle: any assumption on their angular momentum assumes you know the mass (or energy) distribution of the particle. To put it more plainly: do you think of a particle as a sphere, a disk, or what? Mainstream physicists will tell you that you shouldn’t think that way: particles are just pointlike. They have no dimension whatsoever – in their mathematical models, that is – because all what experimentalists is measuring scattering or charge radii, and these show the assumption of an electron or a proton being pointlike is plain nonsensical.

Needless to say, besides the perfect scattering angle, Feynman also assumes his ‘particles’ have no spatial dimension whatsoever: he’s just thinking in terms of mathematical lines and points—in terms of mathematical limits, not in terms of the physicality of the situation.

Hence, Feynman just buries us under a bunch of tautologies here: weird words are used interchangeably without explaining what they actually mean. In everyday language and conversation, we’d think of that as ‘babble’. The only difference between physicists and us commoners is that physicists babble using mathematical language.


I am digressing again. Let us get back to Feynman’s argument. So he tells us we should just accept this theoretical ‘particle’, which he doesn’t define: he just thinks about two of these discrete ‘things’ going into some ‘exchange’ or ‘interaction’ and then coming out of it and going into one of the two detectors. The question he seeks to answer is this: can we still distinguish what is what after the ‘interaction’?

The level of abstraction here is mind-boggling. Sadly, it is actually worse than that: it is also completely random. Indeed, the only property of this mystical ‘particle’ in this equally mystical thought experiment of Mr. Feynman is that it scatters elastically with some other particle. However, that ‘other’ particle is ‘of the same kind’—so it also has no other property than that it scatters equally elastically from the first particle. Hence, I would think the question of whether the two particles are identical or not is philosophically empty.

To be rude, I actually wonder what Mr. Feynman is actually talking about here. Every other line in the argument triggers another question. One should also note, for example, that this elastic scattering happens in a perfect angle: the whole argument of adding or subtracting amplitudes effectively depends on the idea of a perfectly measurable angle here. So where is the Uncertainty Principle here, Mr. Feynman? It all makes me think that Mr. Feynman’s seminal lecture may well be the perfect example of what Prof. Dr. John P. Ralston wrote about his own profession:

“Quantum mechanics is the only subject in physics where teachers traditionally present haywire axioms they don’t really believe, and regularly violate in research.” (1)

Let us continue exposing Mr. Feynman’s argument. After this introduction of this ‘particle’ and the set-up with the detectors and other preconditions, we then get two or three paragraphs of weird abstract reasoning. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not saying the reasoning is difficult (it is not, actually): it is just weird and abstract because it uses complex number logic. Hence, Feynman implicitly requests the reader to believe that complex numbers adequately describes whatever it is that he is thinking of (I hope – but I am not so sure – he was trying to describe reality). In fact, this is the one point I’d agree with him: I do believe Euler’s function adequately describes the reality of both photons and electrons (see our photon and electron models), but then I also think +i and −i are two very different things. Feynman doesn’t, clearly.

It is, in fact, very hard to challenge Feynman’s weird abstract reasoning here because it all appears to be mathematically consistent—and it is, up to the point of the tricky physical meaning of the imaginary unit: Feynman conveniently forgets the imaginary unit represents a rotation of 180 degrees and that we, therefore, need to distinguish between these two directions so as to include the idea of spin. However, that is my interpretation of the wavefunction, of course, and I cannot use it against Mr. Feynman’s interpretation because his and mine are equally subjective. One can, therefore, only credibly challenge Mr. Feynman’s argument by pointing out what I am trying to point out here: the basic concepts don’t make any sense—none at all!

Indeed, if I were a student of Mr. Feynman, I would have asked him questions like this:

“Mr. Feynman, I understand your thought experiment applies to electrons as well as to photons. In fact, the argument is all about the difference between these two very different ‘types’ of ‘particles’. Can you please tell us how you’d imagine two photons scattering off each other elastically? Photons just pile on top of each other, don’t they? In fact, that’s what you prove next. So they don’t scatter off each other, do they? Your thought experiment, therefore, seems to apply to fermions only. Hence, it would seem we should not use it to derive properties for bosons, isn’t it?”

“Mr. Feynman, how should an electron (a fermion – so you say we should ‘add’ amplitudes using a minus sign) ‘think’ about what sign to use for interaction when a photon is going to hit it? A photon is a boson – so its sign for exchange is positive – so should we have an ‘exchange’ or ‘interaction’ with the plus or the minus sign then? More generally, who takes the ‘decisions’ here? Do we expect God – or Maxwell’s demon – to be involved in every single quantum-mechanical event?”

Of course, Mr. Feynman might have had trouble answering the first question, but he’d probably would not hesitate to produce some kind of rubbish answer to the second: “Mr. Van Belle, we are thinking of identical particles here. Particles of the same kind, if you understand what I mean.”

Of course, I obviously don’t understand what he  means but so I can’t tell him that. So I’d just ask the next logical question to try to corner him:

“Of course, Mr. Feynman. Identical particles. Yes. So, when thinking of fermion-on-fermion scattering, what mechanism do you have in mind? At the very least, we should be mindful of the difference between Compton versus Thomson scattering, shouldn’t we? How does your ‘elastic’ scattering relate to these two very different types of scattering? What is your theoretical interaction mechanism here?”

I can actually think of some more questions, but I’ll leave it at this. Well… No… Let me add another one:

“Mr. Feynman, this theory of interaction between ‘identical’ or ‘like’ particles (fermions and bosons) looks great but, in reality, we will also have non-identical particles interacting with each other—or, more generally speaking, particles that are not ‘of the same kind’. To be very specific, reality sees many electrons and many photons interacting with each other—not just once, at the occasion of some elastic collision, but all of the time, really. So could we, perhaps, generalize this to some kind of ‘three- or n-particle problem’?”

This sounds like a very weird question, which even Mr. Feynman might not immediately understand. So, if he didn’t shut me up already, he may have asked me to elaborate: “What do you mean, Mr. Van Belle? What kind of three- or n-particle problem are you talking about?” I guess I’d say something like this:

“Well… Already in classical physics, we do not have an analytical solution for the ‘three-body problem’, but at least we have the equations. So we have the underlying mechanism. What are the equations here? I don’t see any. Let us suppose we have three particles colliding or scattering or interacting or whatever it is we are trying to think of. How does any of the three particles know what the other two particles are going to be: a boson or a fermion? And what sign should they then use for the interaction? In fact, I understand you are talking amplitudes of events here. If three particles collide, how many events do you count: one, two, three, or six?”

One, two, three or six? Yes. Do we think of the interaction between three particles as one event, or do we split it up as a triangular thing? Or is it one particle interacting, somehow, with the two other, in which case we’re having two events, taking into account this weird plus or minus sign rule for interaction.

Crazy? Yes. Of course. But the questions are logical, aren’t they? I can think of some more. Here is one that, in my not-so-humble view, shows how empty these discussions on the theoretical properties of theoretical bosons and theoretical fermions actually are:

“Mr. Feynman, you say a photon is a boson—a spin-one particle, so its spin state is either 1, 0 or −1. How comes photons – the only boson that we actually know to exist from real-life experiments – do not have a spin-zero state? Their spin is always up or down. It’s never zero. So why are we actually even talking about spin-one particles, if the only boson we know – the photon – does not behave like it should behave according to your boson-fermion theory?” (2)

Am I joking? I am not. I like to think I am just asking very reasonable questions here—even if all of this may sound like a bit of a rant. In fact, it probably is, but so that’s why I am writing this up in a blog rather than in a paper. Let’s continue.

The subsequent chapters are about the magical spin-1/2 and spin-1 properties of fermions and bosons respectively. I call them magical, because – as mentioned above – all we can measure is the magnetic moment. Any assumption that the angular momentum of a particle – a ‘boson’ or a ‘fermion’, whatever it is – is ±1 or ±1/2, assumes we have knowledge of some form factor, which is determined by the shape of that particle and which tells us how the mass (or the energy) of a particle is distributed in space.

Again, that may sound sacrilegious: according to mainstream physicists, particles are supposed to be pointlike—which they interpret as having no spatial dimension whatsoever. However, as I mentioned above, that sounds like a very obvious oxymoron to me.

Of course, I know I would never have gotten my degree. When I did the online MIT course, the assistants of Prof. Dr. Zwieback also told me I asked too many questions: I should just “shut up and calculate.” You may think I’m joking again but, no: that’s the feedback I got. Needless to say, I went through the course and did all of the stupid exercises, but I didn’t bother doing the exams. I don’t mind calculating. I do a lot of calculations as a finance consultant. However, I do mind mindless calculations. Things need to make sense to me. So, yes, I will always be an ‘amateur physicist’ and a ‘blogger’—read: someone whom you shouldn’t take very seriously. I just hope my jokes are better than Feynman’s.

I’ve actually been thinking that getting a proper advanced degree in physics might impede understanding, so it’s good I don’t have one. I feel these mainstream courses do try to ‘brainwash’ you. They do not encourage you to challenge received wisdom. On the contrary, it all very much resembles rote learning: memorization based on repetition. Indeed, more modern textbooks – I looked at the one of my son, for example – immediately dive into the hocus-pocus—totally shamelessly. They literally start by saying you should not try to understand and that you just get through the math and accept the quantum-mechanical dogmas and axioms! Despite the appalling logic in the introductory chapters, Mr. Feynman, in contrast, at least has the decency to try to come up with some classical arguments here and there (although he also constantly adds that the student should just accept the hocus-pocus approach and the quantum-mechanical dogmas and not think too much about what it might or might not represent).

My son got high marks on his quantum mechanics exam: a 19/20, to be precise, and so I am really proud of him—and I also feel our short discussions on this or that may have helped him to get through it. Fortunately, he was doing it as part of getting a civil engineering degree (Bachelor’s level), and he was (also) relieved he would never have to study the subject-matter again. Indeed, we had a few discussions and, while he (also) thinks I am a bit of a crackpot theorist, he does agree “the math must describe something real” and that “therefore, something doesn’t feel right in all of that math.” I told him that I’ve got this funny feeling that, 10 or 20 years from now, 75% (more?) of post-WW II research in quantum physics – most of the theoretical research, at least (3) – may be dismissed as some kind of collective psychosis or, worse, as ‘a bright shining lie’ (title of a book I warmly recommend – albeit on an entirely different topic). Frankly, I think many academics completely forgot Boltzmann’s motto for the physicist:

“Bring forward what is true. Write it so that it is clear. Defend it to your last breath.”


OK, you’ll say: get real! So what is the difference between bosons and fermions, then? I told you already: I think it’s a useless distinction. Worse, I think it’s not only useless but it’s also untruthful. It has, therefore, hampered rather than promoted creative thinking. I distinguish matter-particles – electrons, protons, neutrons – from photons (and neutrinos). Matter-particles carry charge. Photons (and neutrinos) do not. (4) Needless to say, I obviously don’t believe in ‘messenger particles’ and/or ‘Higgs’ or other ‘mechanisms’ (such as the ‘weak force’ mechanism). That sounds too much like believing in God or some other non-scientific concept. [I don’t mind you believing in God or some other non-scientific concept – I actually do myself – but we should not confuse it with doing physics.]

And as for the question on what would be my theory of interaction? It’s just the classical theory: charges attract or repel, and one can add electromagnetic fields—all in respect of the Planck-Einstein law, of course. Charges have some dimension (and some mass), so they can’t take up the same space. And electrons, protons and neutrons have some structure, and physicists should focus on modeling those structures, so as to explain the so-called intrinsic properties of these matter-particles. As for photons, I think of them as an oscillating electromagnetic field (respecting the Planck-Einstein law, of course), and so we can simply add them. What causes them to lump together? Not sure: the Planck-Einstein law (being in some joint excited state, in other words) or gravity, perhaps. In any case: I am confident it is something real—i.e. not Feynman’s weird addition or subtraction rules for amplitudes.

However, this is not the place to re-summarize all of my papers. I’d just sum them up by saying this: not many physicists seem to understand Planck’s constant or, what amounts to the same, the concept of an elementary cycle. And their unwillingness to even think about the possible structure of photons, electrons and protons is… Well… I’d call it criminal. :-/


I will now conclude my rant with another down-to-earth question: would I recommend reading Feynman’s Lectures? Or recommend youngsters to take up physics as a study subject?

My answer in regard to the first question is ambiguous: yes, and no. When you’d push me on this, I’d say: more yes than no. I do believe Feynman’s Lectures are much better than the modern-day textbook that was imposed on my son during his engineering studies and so, yes, I do recommend the older textbooks. But please be critical as you go through them: do ask yourself the same kind of questions that I’ve been asking myself while building up this blog: think for yourself. Don’t go by ‘authority’. Why not? Because the possibility that a lot of what labels itself as science may be nonsensical. As nonsensical as… Well… All what goes on in national and international politics for the moment, I guess. 🙂

In regard to the second question – should youngsters be encouraged to study physics? – I’d say what my father told me when I was hesitating to pick a subject for study: “Do what earns respect and feeds your family. You can do philosophy and other theoretical things on the side.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I can say he was right. I’ve done the stuff I wanted to do—on the side, indeed. So I told my son to go for engineering – rather than pure math or pure physics. 🙂 And he’s doing great, fortunately !

Jean Louis Van Belle


(1) Dr. Ralston’s How To Understand Quantum Mechanics is fun for the first 10 pages or so, but I would not recommend it. We exchanged some messages, but then concluded that our respective interpretations of quantum mechanics are very different (I feel he replaces hocus-pocus by other hocus-pocus) and, hence, that we should not “waste any electrons” (his expression) on trying to convince each other.

(2) It is really one of the most ridiculous things ever. Feynman spends several chapters on explaining spin-one particles to, then, in some obscure footnote, suddenly write this: “The photon is a spin-one particle which has, however, no “zero” state.” From all of his jokes, I think this is his worst. It just shows how ‘rotten’ or ‘random’ the whole conceptual framework of mainstream QM really is. There is, in fact, another glaring inconsistency in Feynman’s Lectures: in the first three chapters of Volume III, he talks about adding wavefunctions and the basic rules of quantum mechanics, and it all happens with a plus sign. In this chapter, he suddenly says the amplitudes of fermions combine with a minus sign. If you happen to know a physicist who can babble his way of out this inconsistency, please let me know.

(3) There are exceptions, of course. I mentioned very exciting research in various posts, but most of it is non-mainstream. The group around Herman Batalaan at the University of Nebraska and various ‘electron modellers’ are just one of the many examples. I contacted a number of these ‘particle modellers’. They’re all happy I show interest, but puzzled themselves as to why their research doesn’t get all that much attention. If it’s a ‘historical accident’ in mankind’s progress towards truth, then it’s a sad one.

(4) We believe a neutron is neutral because it has both positive and negative charge in it (see our paper on protons and neutrons). as for neutrinos, we have no idea what they are, but our wild guess is that they may be the ‘photons’ of the strong force: if a photon is nothing but an oscillating electromagnetic field traveling in space, then a neutrino might be an oscillating strong field traveling in space, right? To me, it sounds like a reasonable hypothesis, but who am I, right? 🙂 If I’d have to define myself, it would be as one of Feynman’s ideal students: someone who thinks for himself. In fact, perhaps I would have been able to entertain him as much as he entertained me— and so, who knows, I like to think he might actually have given me some kind of degree for joking too ! 🙂

(5) There is no (5) in the text of my blog post, but I just thought I would add one extra note here. 🙂 Herman Batelaan and some other physicists wrote a Letter to the Physical Review Journal back in 1997. I like Batelaan’s research group because – unlike what you might think – most of Feynman’s thought experiments have actually never been done. So Batelaan – and some others – actually did the double-slit experiment with electrons, and they are doing very interesting follow-on research on it.

However, let me come to the point I want to mention here. When I read these lines in that very serious Letter, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry:

“Bohr’s assertion (on the impossibility of doing a Stern-Gerlach experiment on electrons or charged particles in general) is thus based on taking the classical limit for ħ going to 0. For this limit not only the blurring, but also the Stern-Gerlach splitting vanishes. However, Dehmelt argues that ħ is a nonzero constant of nature.”

I mean… What do you make of this? Of course, ħ is a nonzero constant, right? If it was zero, the Planck-Einstein relation wouldn’t make any sense, would it? What world were Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli and others living in? A different one than ours, I guess. But that’s OK. What is not OK, is that these guys were ignoring some very basic physical laws and just dreamt up – I am paraphrasing Ralston here – “haywire axioms they did not really believe in, and regularly violated themselves.” And they didn’t know how to physically interpret the Planck-Einstein relation and/or the mass-energy equivalence relation. Sabine Hossenfelder would say they were completely lost in math. 🙂


I started the two previous posts attempting to justify why we need all these mathematical formulas to understand stuff: because otherwise we just keep on repeating very simplistic but nonsensical things such as ‘matter behaves (sometimes) like light’, ‘light behaves (sometimes) like matter’ or, combining both, ‘light and matter behave like wavicles’. Indeed: what does ‘like‘ mean? Like the same but different? 🙂 However, I have not said much about light so far.

Light and matter are two very different things. For matter, we have quantum mechanics. For light, we have quantum electrodynamics (QED). However, QED is not only a quantum theory about light: as Feynman pointed out in his little but exquisite 1985 book on quantum electrodynamics (QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter), it is first and foremost a theory about how light interacts with matter. However, let’s limit ourselves here to light.

In classical physics, light is an electromagnetic wave: it just travels on and on and on because of that wonderful interaction between electric and magnetic fields. A changing electric field induces a magnetic field, the changing magnetic field then induces an electric field, and then the changing electric field induces a magnetic field, and… Well, you got the idea: it goes on and on and on. This wonderful machinery is summarized in Maxwell’s equations – and most beautifully so in the so-called Heaviside form of these equations, which assume a charge-free vacuum space (so there are no other charges lying around exerting a force on the electromagnetic wave or the (charged) particle whom’s behavior we want to study) and they also make abstraction of other complications such as electric currents (so there are no moving charges going around either).

I reproduced Heaviside’s Maxwell equations below as well as an animated gif which is supposed to illustrate the dynamics explained above. [In case you wonder who’s Heaviside? Well… Check it out: he was quite a character.] The animation is not all that great but OK enough. And don’t worry if you don’t understand the equations – just note the following:

  1. The electric and magnetic field E and B are represented by perpendicular oscillating vectors.
  2. The first and third equation (∇·E = 0 and ∇·B = 0) state that there are no static or moving charges around and, hence, they do not have any impact on (the flux of) E and B.
  3. The second and fourth equation are the ones that are essential. Note the time derivatives (∂/∂t): E and B oscillate and perpetuate each other by inducing new circulation of B and E.

Heaviside form of Maxwell's equations

The constants μ and ε in the fourth equation are the so-called permeability (μ) and permittivity (ε) of the medium, and μ0 and ε0 are the values for these constants in a vacuum space. Now, it is interesting to note that με equals 1/c2, so a changing electric field only produces a tiny change in the circulation of the magnetic field. That’s got something to do with magnetism being a ‘relativistic’ effect but I won’t explore that here – except for noting that the final Lorentz force on a (charged) particle F = q(E + v×B) will be the same regardless of the reference frame (moving or inertial): the reference frame will determine the mixture of E and B fields, but there is only one combined force on a charged particle in the end, regardless of the reference frame (inertial or moving at whatever speed – relativistic (i.e. close to c) or not). [The forces F, E and B on a moving (charged) particle are shown below the animation of the electromagnetic wave.] In other words, Maxwell’s equations are compatible with both special as well as general relativity. In fact, Einstein observed that these equations ensure that electromagnetic waves always travel at speed c (to use his own words: “Light is always propagated in empty space with a definite velocity c which is independent of the state of motion of the emitting body.”) and it’s this observation that led him to develop his special relativity theory.



The other interesting thing to note is that there is energy in these oscillating fields and, hence, in the electromagnetic wave. Hence, if the wave hits an impenetrable barrier, such as a paper sheet, it exerts pressure on it – known as radiation pressure. [By the way, did you ever wonder why a light beam can travel through glass but not through paper? Check it out!] A very oft-quoted example is the following: if the effects of the sun’s radiation pressure on the Viking spacecraft had been ignored, the spacecraft would have missed its Mars orbit by about 15,000 kilometers. Another common example is more science fiction-oriented: the (theoretical) possibility of space ships using huge sails driven by sunlight (paper sails obviously – one should not use transparent plastic for that). 

I am mentioning radiation pressure because, although it is not that difficult to explain radiation pressure using classical electromagnetism (i.e. light as waves), the explanation provided by the ‘particle model’ of light is much more straightforward and, hence, a good starting point to discuss the particle nature of light:

  1. Electromagnetic radiation is quantized in particles called photons. We know that because of Max Planck’s work on black body radiation, which led to Planck’s relation: E = hν. Photons are bona fide particles in the so-called Standard Model of physics: they are defined as bosons with spin 1, but zero rest mass and no electric charge (as opposed to W bosons). They are denoted by the letter or symbol γ (gamma), so that’s the same symbol that’s used to denote gamma rays. [Gamma rays are high-energy electromagnetic radiation (i.e. ‘light’) that have a very definite particle character. Indeed, because of their very short wavelength – less than 10 picometer (10×10–12 m) and high energy (hundreds of KeV – as opposed to visible light, which has a wavelength between 380 and 750 nanometer (380-750×10–9 m) and typical energy of 2 to 3 eV only (so a few hundred thousand times less), they are capable of penetrating through thick layers of concrete, and the human body – where they might damage intracellular bodies and create cancer (lead is a more efficient barrier obviously: a shield of a few centimeter of lead will stop most of them. In case you are not sure about the relation between energy and penetration depth, see the Post Scriptum.]
  2. Although photons are considered to have zero rest mass, they have energy and, hence, an equivalent relativistic mass (m = E/c2) and, therefore, also momentum. Indeed, energy and momentum are related through the following (relativistic) formula: E = (p2c+ m02c4)1/2 (the non-relativistic version is simply E = p2/2m0 but – quite obviously – an approximation that cannot be used in this case – if only because the denominator would be zero). This simplifies to E = pc or p = E/c in this case. This basically says that the energy (E) and the momentum (p) of a photon are proportional, with c – the velocity of the wave – as the factor of proportionality.
  3. The generation of radiation pressure can then be directly related to the momentum property of photons, as shown in the diagram below – which shows how radiation force could – perhaps – propel a space sailing ship. [Nice idea, but I’d rather bet on nuclear-thermal rocket technology.]


I said in my introduction to this post that light and matter are two very different things. They are, and the logic connecting matter waves and electromagnetic radiation is not straightforward – if there is any. Let’s look at the two equations that are supposed to relate the two – the de Broglie relation and the Planck relation:

  1. The de Broglie relation E = hassigns a de Broglie frequency (i.e. the frequency of a complex-valued probability amplitude function) to a particle with mass m through the mass-energy equivalence relation E = mc2. However, the concept of a matter wave is rather complicated (if you don’t think so: read the two previous posts): matter waves have little – if anything – in common with electromagnetic waves. Feynman calls electromagnetic waves ‘real’ waves (just like water waves, or sound waves, or whatever other wave) as opposed to… Well – he does stop short of calling matter waves unreal but it’s obvious they look ‘less real’ than ‘real waves’. Indeed, these complex-valued psi functions (Ψ) – for which we have to square the modulus to get the probability of something happening in space and time, or to measure the likely value of some observable property of the system – are obviously ‘something else’! [I tried to convey their ‘reality’ as well as I could in my previous post, but I am not sure I did a good job – not all really.]
  2. The Planck relation E = hν relates the energy of a photon – the so-called quantum of light (das Lichtquant as Einstein called it in 1905 – the term ‘photon’ was coined some 20 years later it is said) – to the frequency of the electromagnetic wave of which it is part. [That Greek symbol (ν) – it’s the letter nu (the ‘v’ in Greek is amalgamated with the ‘b’) – is quite confusing: it’s not the v for velocity.]

So, while the Planck relation (which goes back to 1905) obviously inspired Louis de Broglie (who introduced his theory on electron waves some 20 years later – in his PhD thesis of 1924 to be precise), their equations look the same but are different – and that’s probably the main reason why we keep two different symbols – f and ν – for the two frequencies.

Photons and electrons are obviously very different particles as well. Just to state the obvious:

  1. Photons have zero rest mass, travel at the speed of light, have no electric charge, are bosons, and so on and so on, and so they behave differently (see, for example, my post on Bose and Fermi, which explains why one cannot make proton beam lasers). [As for the boson qualification, bosons are force carriers: photons in particular mediate (or carry) the electromagnetic force.]
  2. Electrons do not weigh much and, hence, can attain speeds close to light (but it requires tremendous amounts of energy to accelerate them very near c) but so they do have some mass, they have electric charge (photons are electrically neutral), and they are fermions – which means they’re an entirely different ‘beast’ so to say when it comes to combining their probability amplitudes (so that’s why they’ll never get together in some kind of electron laser beam either – just like protons or neutrons – as I explain in my post on Bose and Fermi indeed).

That being said, there’s some connection of course (and that’s what’s being explored in QED):

  1. Accelerating electric charges cause electromagnetic radiation (so moving charges (the negatively charged electrons) cause the electromagnetic field oscillations, but it’s the (neutral) photons that carry it).
  2. Electrons absorb and emit photons as they gain/lose energy when going from one energy level to the other.
  3. Most important of all, individual photons – just like electrons – also have a probability amplitude function – so that’s a de Broglie or matter wave function if you prefer that term.

That means photons can also be described in terms of some kind of complex wave packet, just like that electron I kept analyzing in my previous posts – until I (and surely you) got tired of it. That means we’re presented with the same type of mathematics. For starters, we cannot be happy with assigning a unique frequency to our (complex-valued) de Broglie wave, because that would – once again – mean that we have no clue whatsoever where our photon actually is. So, while the shape of the wave function below might well describe the E and B of a bona fide electromagnetic wave, it cannot describe the (real or imaginary) part of the probability amplitude of the photons we would associate with that wave.

constant frequency waveSo that doesn’t work. We’re back at analyzing wave packets – and, by now, you know how complicated that can be: I am sure you don’t want me to mention Fourier transforms again! So let’s turn to Feynman once again – the greatest of all (physics) teachers – to get his take on it. Now, the surprising thing is that, in his 1985 Lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), he doesn’t really care about the amplitude of a photon to be at point x at time t. What he needs to know is:

  1. The amplitude of a photon to go from point A to B, and
  2. The amplitude of a photon to be absorbed/emitted by an electron (a photon-electron coupling as it’s called).

And then he needs only one more thing: the amplitude of an electron to go from point A to B. That’s all he needs to explain EVERYTHING – in quantum electrodynamics that is. So that’s partial reflection, diffraction, interference… Whatever! In Feynman’s own words: “Out of these three amplitudes, we can make the whole world, aside from what goes on in nuclei, and gravitation, as always!” So let’s have a look at it.

I’ve shown some of his illustrations already in the Bose and Fermi post I mentioned above. In Feynman’s analysis, photons get emitted by some source and, as soon as they do, they travel with some stopwatch, as illustrated below. The speed with which the hand of the stopwatch turns is the angular frequency of the phase of the probability amplitude, and it’s length is the modulus -which, you’ll remember, we need to square to get a probability of something, so for the illustration below we have a probability of 0.2×0.2 = 4%. Probability of what? Relax. Let’s go step by step.


Let’s first relate this probability amplitude stopwatch to a theoretical wave packet, such as the one below – which is a nice Gaussian wave packet:

example of wave packet

This thing really fits the bill: it’s associated with a nice Gaussian probability distribution (aka as a normal distribution, because – despite its ideal shape (from a math point of view), it actually does describe many real-life phenomena), and we can easily relate the stopwatch’s angular frequency to the angular frequency of the phase of the wave. The only thing you’ll need to remember is that its amplitude is not constant in space and time: indeed, this photon is somewhere sometime, and that means it’s no longer there when it’s gone, and also that it’s not there when it hasn’t arrived yet. 🙂 So, as you long as you remember that, Feynman’s stopwatch is a great way to represent a photon (or any particle really). [Just think of a stopwatch in your hand with no hand, but then suddenly that hand grows from zero to 0.2 (or some other random value between 0 and 1) and then shrinks back from that random value to 0 as the photon whizzes by. […] Or find some other creative interpretation if you don’t like this one. :-)]

Now, of course we do not know at what time the photon leaves the source and so the hand of the stopwatch could be at 2 o’clock, 9 o’clock or whatever: so the phase could be shifted by any value really. However, the thing to note is that the stopwatch’s hand goes around and around at a steady (angular) speed.

That’s OK. We can’t know where the photon is because we’re obviously assuming a nice standardized light source emitting polarized light with a very specific color, i.e. all photons have the same frequency (so we don’t have to worry about spin and all that). Indeed, because we’re going to add and multiply amplitudes, we have to keep it simple (the complicated things should be left to clever people – or academics). More importantly, it’s OK because we don’t need to know the exact position of the hand of the stopwatch as the photon leaves the source in order to explain phenomena like the partial reflection of light on glass. What matters there is only how much the stopwatch hand turns in the short time it takes to go from the front surface of the glass to its back surface. That difference in phase is independent from the position of the stopwatch hand as it reaches the glass: it only depends on the angular frequency (i.e. the energy of the photon, or the frequency of the light beam) and the thickness of the glass sheet. The two cases below present two possibilities: a 5% chance of reflection and a 16% chance of reflection (16% is actually a maximum, as Feynman shows in that little book, but that doesn’t matter here).

partial reflection

But – Hey! – I am suddenly talking amplitudes for reflection here, and the probabilities that I am calculating (by adding amplitudes, not probabilities) are also (partial) reflection probabilities. Damn ! YOU ARE SMART! It’s true. But you get the idea, and I told you already that Feynman is not interested in the probability of a photon just being here or there or wherever. He’s interested in (1) the amplitude of it going from the source (i.e. some point A) to the glass surface (i.e. some other point B), and then (2) the amplitude of photon-electron couplings – which determine the above amplitudes for being reflected (i.e. being (back)scattered by an electron actually).

So what? Well… Nothing. That’s it. I just wanted you to give some sense of de Broglie waves for photons. The thing to note is that they’re like de Broglie waves for electrons. So they are as real or unreal as these electron waves, and they have close to nothing to do with the electromagnetic wave of which they are part. The only thing that relates them with that real wave so to say, is their energy level, and so that determines their de Broglie wavelength. So, it’s strange to say, but we have two frequencies for a photon: E= hν and E = hf. The first one is the Planck relation (E= hν): it associates the energy of a photon with the frequency of the real-life electromagnetic wave. The second is the de Broglie relation (E = hf): once we’ve calculated the energy of a photon using E= hν, we associate a de Broglie wavelength with the photon. So we imagine it as a traveling stopwatch with angular frequency ω = 2πf.

So that’s it (for now). End of story.


Now, you may want to know something more about these other amplitudes (that’s what I would want), i.e. the amplitude of a photon to go from A to B and this coupling amplitude and whatever else that may or may not be relevant. Right you are: it’s fascinating stuff. For example, you may or may not be surprised that photons have an amplitude to travel faster or slower than light from A to B, and that they actually have many amplitudes to go from A to B: one for each possible path. [Does that mean that the path does not have to be straight? Yep. Light can take strange paths – and it’s the interplay (i.e. the interference) between all these amplitudes that determines the most probable path – which, fortunately (otherwise our amplitude theory would be worthless), turns out to be the straight line.] We can summarize this in a really short and nice formula for the P(A to B) amplitude [note that the ‘P’ stands for photon, not for probability – Feynman uses an E for the related amplitude for an electron, so he writes E(A to B)].

However, I won’t make this any more complicated right now and so I’ll just reveal that P(A to B) depends on the so-called spacetime interval. This spacetime interval (I) is equal to I = (z2– z1)+ (y2– y1)+ (x2– x1)– (t2– t1)2, with the time and spatial distance being measured in equivalent units (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). I am sure you’ve heard about this interval. It’s used to explain the famous light cone – which determines what’s past and future in respect to the here and now in spacetime (or the past and present of some event in spacetime) in terms of

  1. What could possibly have impacted the here and now (taking into account nothing can travel faster than light – even if we’ve mentioned some exceptions to this already, such as the phase velocity of a matter wave – but so that’s not a ‘signal’ and, hence, not in contradiction with relativity)?
  2. What could possible be impacted by the here and now (again taking into account that nothing can travel faster than c)?

In short, the light cone defines the past, the here, and the future in spacetime in terms of (potential) causal relations. However, as this post has – once again – become too long already, I’ll need to write another post to discuss these other types of amplitudes – and how they are used in quantum electrodynamics. So my next post should probably say something about light-matter interaction, or on photons as the carriers of the electromagnetic force (both in light as well as in an atom – as it’s the electromagnetic force that keeps an electron in orbit around the (positively charged) nucleus). In case you wonder, yes, that’s Feynman diagrams – among other things.

Post scriptum: On frequency, wavelength and energy – and the particle- versus wave-like nature of electromagnetic waves

I wrote that gamma waves have a very definite particle character because of their very short wavelength. Indeed, most discussions of the electromagnetic spectrum will start by pointing out that higher frequencies or shorter wavelengths – higher frequency (f) implies shorter wavelength (λ) because the wavelength is the speed of the wave (c in this case) over the frequency: λ = c/f – will make the (electromagnetic) wave more particle-like. For example, I copied two illustrations from Feynman’s very first Lectures (Volume I, Lectures 2 and 5) in which he makes the point by showing

  1. The familiar table of the electromagnetic spectrum (we could easily add a column for the wavelength (just calculate λ = c/f) and the energy (E = hf) besides the frequency), and
  2. An illustration that shows how matter (a block of carbon of 1 cm thick in this case) looks like for an electromagnetic wave racing towards it. It does not look like Gruyère cheese, because Gruyère cheese is cheese with holes: matter is huge holes with just a tiny little bit of cheese ! Indeed, at the micro-level, matter looks like a lot of nothing with only a few tiny specks of matter sprinkled about!

And so then he goes on to describe how ‘hard’ rays (i.e. rays with short wavelengths) just plow right through and so on and so on.

  electromagnetic spectrumcarbon close-up view

Now it will probably sound very stupid to non-autodidacts but, for a very long time, I was vaguely intrigued that the amplitude of a wave doesn’t seem to matter when looking at the particle- versus wave-like character of electromagnetic waves. Electromagnetic waves are transverse waves so they oscillate up and down, perpendicular to the direction of travel (as opposed to longitudinal waves, such as sound waves or pressure waves for example: these oscillate back and forth – in the same direction of travel). And photon paths are represented by wiggly lines, so… Well, you may not believe it but that’s why I stupidly thought it’s the amplitude that should matter, not the wavelength.

Indeed, the illustration below – which could be an example of how E or B oscillates in space and time – would suggest that lower amplitudes (smaller A’s) are the key to ‘avoiding’ those specks of matter. And if one can’t do anything about amplitude, then one may be forgiven to think that longer wavelengths – not shorter ones – are the key to avoiding those little ‘obstacles’ presented by atoms or nuclei in some crystal or non-crystalline structure. [Just jot it down: more wiggly lines increase the chance of hitting something.] But… Both lower amplitudes as well as longer wavelengths imply less energy. Indeed, the energy of a wave is, in general, proportional to the square of its amplitude and electromagnetic waves are no exception in this regard. As for wavelength, we have Planck’s relation. So what’s wrong in my very childish reasoning?

Cosine wave concepts

As usual, the answer is easy for those who already know it: neither wavelength nor amplitude have anything to do with how much space this wave actually takes as it propagates. But of course! You didn’t know that? Well… Sorry. Now I do. The vertical y axis might measure E and B indeed, but the graph and the nice animation above should not make you think that these field vectors actually occupy some space. So you can think of electromagnetic waves as particle waves indeed: we’ve got ‘something’ that’s traveling in a straight line, and it’s traveling at the speed of light. That ‘something’ is a photon, and it can have high or low energy. If it’s low-energy, it’s like a speck of dust: even if it travels at the speed of light, it is easy to deflect (i.e. scatter), and the ’empty space’ in matter (which is, of course, not empty but full of all kinds of electromagnetic disturbances) may well feel like jelly to it: it will get stuck (read: it will be absorbed somewhere or not even get through the first layer of atoms at all). If it’s high-energy, then it’s a different story: then the photon is like a tiny but very powerful bullet – same size as the speck of dust, and same speed, but much and much heavier. Such ‘bullet’ (e.g. a gamma ray photon) will indeed have a tendency to plow through matter like it’s air: it won’t care about all these low-energy fields in it.

It is, most probably, a very trivial point to make, but I thought it’s worth doing so.

[When thinking about the above, also remember the trivial relationship between energy and momentum for photons: p = E/c, so more energy means more momentum: a heavy truck crashing into your house will create more damage than a Mini at the same speed because the truck has much more momentum. So just use the mass-energy equivalence (E = mc2) and think about high-energy photons as armored vehicles and low-energy photons as mom-and-pop cars.]