On (special) relativity: the Lorentz transformations

Pre-scriptum (dated 26 June 2020): These posts on elementary math and physics have not suffered much the attack by the dark force‚ÄĒwhich is good because I still like them. While my views on the true nature of light, matter and the force or forces that act on them have evolved significantly as part of my explorations of a more realist (classical) explanation of quantum mechanics, I think most (if not all) of the analysis in this post remains valid and fun to read. In fact, I find the simplest stuff is often the best. ūüôā

Original post:

I just skyped to my kids (unfortunately, we’re separated by circumstances) and they did not quite get the two previous posts (on energy and (special) relativity). The main obstacle is that they don’t know much – nothing at all actually – about integrals. So I should avoid integrals. That’s hard but I’ll try to do so in this post, in which I want to introduce special relativity as it’s usually done, and so that’s not by talking about Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence relation first.

Galilean/Newtonian relativity

A lot of people think they understand relativity theory but they often confuse it with Galilean¬†(aka Newtonian) relativity and, hence, they actually do not¬†understand it at all. Indeed, Galilean or Newtonian relativity is as old as Galileo and Newton (so that’s like 400 years old), who stated the principle of relativity as a corollary to the laws of motion: “The motions of bodies included in a given space are the same amongst themselves, whether that space is at rest or moves uniformly forward in a straight line.”

The Galilean or Newtonian principle of relativity is about adding and subtracting speeds: if I am driving at 120 km/h on some highway, but you overtake me at 140 km/h, then I will see you go past me at the rather modest speed of 20 km/h. That’s all what there is to it.

Now, that’s¬†not¬†what Einstein‘s relativity theory is about. Indeed, the relationship between your and my reference frame (yours is moving with respect to mine, and mine is moving with respect to yours but with opposite velocity) is very simple in this example. It involves a so-called Galilean¬†transformation only: if my coordinate system is (x, y, z, t), and yours is (x‘, y, z‘, t‘), then we can write:

(1) x’ = x ‚Äď ut¬†(or x = x’ + ut), ¬†(2) y’ = y, (3) z’ = z and (4) t’ = t

To continue the example above: if we start counting at t = t’ = 0 when you are overtaking me, and if we both consider ourselves to be at the center of our reference frame (i.e. x = 0 where I am and x’ = 0 where you are), then you will be at x = 10 km after 30 minutes from my point of view, and I¬†will be at¬†x’¬†= ‚Äď10 km (so that’s 10 km behind)¬†from your point of view. So x’ = x ‚Äď ut indeed, with u = 20 km/h.

Again, that’s not¬†what Einstein’s principle of relativity is about.¬†They knew that¬†very¬†well in the 17th century already. In fact, they actually knew that much earlier but Descartes formalized his Cartesian coordinate system only in the first half of the 17th century and, hence, it’s only from that time onwards that scientists such as Newton and Huygens started using it to transform the laws of physics from one frame of reference to another. What they found is that those laws remained¬†invariant.

For example, the conservation law for momentum remains valid even if, as illustrated below, an inertial observer will see an elastic collision, such as the one illustrated, differently¬†than a observer who’s moving along: for the observer who’s moving along, the (horizontal) speed of the blue ball will be zero, and the (horizontal) speed of the red ball will be twice the speed as observed by the inertial observer. That being said, both observers will find that momentum (i.e. the product of mass and velocity: p = mv) is being conserved in such collisions.

RelcollisionBut, again, that’s Galilean relativity only: the laws of Newton are of the same form in a moving system as in a stationary system and, therefore, it is impossible to tell, by making experiments, whether our system is moving or not. In other words: there is no such thing as ‘absolute speed’. But, so ‚Äď let me repeat it again ‚Äď that is not¬†what Einstein’s relativity theory is about.

Let me give a more interesting example of Galilean relativity, and then we can see what’s wrong with it. The speed of a sound wave is not¬†dependent on the motion of the source: the sound of a siren of an ambulance or a noisy car engine will¬†always¬†travel at a speed of 343 meter per second, regardless of the motion of the ambulance. So, while we’ll experience a so-called Doppler effect when the ambulance is moving ‚Äď i.e. a higher pitch when it’s approaching than when it’s receding¬†‚Äď this Doppler effect does not have any impact on the¬†speed¬†of the sound wave. It only affects the frequency as we hear it. The speed¬†of the wave depends on the medium only, i.e. air in this case.

Indeed, the speed of sound will be different in another gas, or in a fluid, or in a solid, and there’s a surprisingly simple function for that ‚Äď the so-called Newton-Laplace equation:¬†vsound¬†= (k/ŌĀ)2. In this equation, k is a coefficient of ‘stiffness’ of the medium (even if ‘stiffness’ sounds somewhat strange as a concept to apply to gases), and¬†ŌĀ is the density of the medium (so lower or higher air density will increase/decrease the speed of sound).


This has nothing to do with speed being absolute. No. The Galilean relativity principle does come into play, as one would expect: it is actually possible to catch up with a sound wave (or with any wave traveling through some medium). In fact, that’s what supersonic planes do: they catch up with their own sound waves. However, in essence, planes are not any different from cars in terms of their relationship with the sound that they produce. It’s just that they are faster: the sound wave they produce also travels at a speed of 1,235 km/h, and so cars can’t match that, but supersonic planes can!

[As for the shock wave that is being produced as these planes accelerate and actually ‘break’ the ‘sound barrier’, that has to do with the pressure waves the plane creates in front of itself (just like a traveling compresses the air in front of it). These pressure waves also travel at the speed of sound. Now,¬†as the speed of the object increases, the waves are forced together, or compressed, because they cannot get out of the way of each other. Eventually they merge into one single shock wave, and so that’s what happens and creates the ‘sonic boom’, which also travels at the speed of sound. However, that should not concern us here. For more information on this, I’d refer to Wikipedia, as I got these illustrations from that source, and I quite like the way they present the topic.]¬†


The Doppler effect looks somewhat different (it’s illustrated above) but so, once again, this phenomenon has nothing to do with Einstein’s relativity theory. Why not? Because we are still talking Galilean relativity here. Indeed, let’s suppose our plane travels at¬†twice¬†the speed of sound (i.e. Mach 2 or almost 2,500 km/h). For us, as inertial observers, the speed of the sound wave originating at point 0 in the illustration above (i.e. the reference frame of the inertial observer) will be equal to dx/dt = 1235 km/h. However, for the pilot, the speed of that wave will be equal to

dx’/dt = d(x ‚Äď ut)/dt¬†= dx/dt ‚Äď d(ut)/dt =¬†dx/dt¬†‚Äď d(ut)/dt¬†= 1235 km/h ‚Äď u

= 1235 km/h ‚Ästu¬†= 1235 km/h ‚Äst2470 km/h =¬†‚Äď 1235 km/h

In short, from the point of view of the pilot, he sees the wave front of the wave created at point 0 traveling away from him¬†(cf. the negative value) at 1235 km/h, i.e. the speed of sound. That makes sense obviously, because he travels¬†twice¬†as fast. However ‚Äď I cannot repeat it enough ‚Äď this phenomenon has nothing to do with Einstein’s theory of relativity: if they could have imagined supersonic travel, Galileo, Newton and Huygens would have predicted that too.

So what’s Einstein’s theory of (special) relativity about?

Einstein’s principle of relativity

In 1865, the Scottish mathematical physicist James Clerk Maxwell ‚Äď ¬†I guess it’s important to note he’s Scottish with that referendum coming ūüôā ‚Ästfinally discovered that light was nothing but electromagnetic radiation ‚Äď so radio waves, (visible) light, X-rays, gamma rays,… It’s all the same: electromagnetic radiation, also known as light¬†tout court.

Now, the equations that describe how electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light) travels through space are beautiful but involve operators which you may not recognize and, hence, I will not write them down. The point to note is that Maxwell’s equations were very elegant but… There were two major difficulties with them:

  1. They did not¬†respect Galilean relativity: if we transform¬†them using the above-mentioned Galilean transformation¬†(x’ = x ‚Äď ut,¬†y’ = y, z’ = z and t’ = t) then we do not get some¬†relative¬†speed of light. On the contrary, according to Maxwell’s equations, from whatever reference frame you look at light, it should always¬†travel at the¬†same (absolute)¬†speed of light c = 299,792 km/h. So c is a constant, and the¬†same¬†constant, ALWAYS.
  2. Scientists did not have any clue about the medium in which light was supposed to travel. The second half of the 19th century saw lots of experiments trying to discover evidence of a hypothetical ‘luminiferous aether’ in which light was supposed to travel, and which should also have some ‘stiffness’ and ‘density’, but so they could not find any trace of it. No one ever did, and so now we’ve finally accepted that light can actually travel in a vacuum, i.e. in plain¬†nothing.

So what? Well… Let’s first look at the first point. Just like a sound wave, the motion of the source does not have any impact on the speed of light: it goes out in all directions at the same speed c, whether it is emitted from a fast-moving car or from some beacon near the sea. However, unlike sound waves, Maxwell’s equations imply that we cannot¬†catch up with them. That’s troublesome, very¬†troublesome,¬†because, according to the above-mentioned Galilean transformation rules,

i.e.¬†v’ = dx’/dt¬†= dx/dt¬†‚Äď u = v ‚Ästu,¬†¬†¬†

some light beam that is traveling at speed v =¬†c¬†past a spaceship that itself is traveling at speed u ‚Äď let’s say u = 0.2c¬†for example ‚Äď should have a speed of c‘ =¬†c – 0.2c¬†= 0.8c¬†= = 239,834 km/h only with respect to the spaceship. However, that’s not what Maxwell’s equations say when you substitute x, y, z and t for x‘, y‘, z‘ and t‘ using those four simple equations¬†x’¬†=¬†x ‚Äď ut,¬†y’ = y,¬†z’ = z¬†and¬†t’¬†=¬†t. After you do the substitution, the transformed Maxwell equations will once again yield that c’ = c¬†= 299,792 km/h, and¬†not c’¬†= 0.8√ó299,792 km/h = 239,834 km/h.

That’s weird !¬†Why? Well… If you don’t think that this is weird, then you’re actually not thinking at all ! Just compare it with the example of our sound wave. There is just no logic to it !

The discovery startled all scientists because there could only be possible solutions to the paradox:

  1. Either Maxwell’s equations were wrong (because they did not observe the principle of (Galilean relativity) or, else,
  2. Newton’s equations (and the Galilean transformation rules ‚Äď i.e. the Galilean relativity principle) are wrong.

Obviously, scientists and experimenters first tried to prove that Maxwell had it all wrong¬†‚Äď if only because no experiment had ever shown Newton’s Laws to be wrong, and so it was probably hard ‚Äď if not impossible ‚Ästto try to come up with one that would ! So, instead, experimenters invented all kinds of wonderful apparatuses trying to show that the speed of the light was actually not absolute.

Basically, these experiments assumed that the speed of the Earth, as it rotates around the Sun at a speed of 108,000 km¬†per hour, would result in measurable differences of c¬†that would depend on the direction of the apparatus. More specifically, the speed of the light beam, as measured, would be different if the light beam would be traveling parallel to the motion of the Earth, as opposed to the light beam traveling at right angle to the motion of the Earth. Why? Well… It’s the same idea as the car chasing its own light beams, but I’ll refer to you to other descriptions of the experiment, because explaining these set-ups would take too much time and space. ūüôā I’ll just say that, because 108,000 km/h (on average) is only about 30 km per second (i.e. 0.0001 times c), these experiments relied on (expected) interference effects. The technical aspect of these experiments is really quite interesting. However, as mentioned above, I’ll refer you to Wikipedia or other sources if you’d want more detail.

Just note the most famous of those experiments: the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment, also known as ‘the most famous failed experiment in history’ because, indeed, it failed to find any interference effects: the speed of light always was the speed of light, regardless of the direction of the beam with respect to the direction of motion of the Earth.

The Lorentz transformations

Once the scientists had recovered from this startling news (Michelson himself suffered from a nervous breakdown for a while, because he really wanted to find that interference effect in order to disprove Maxwell’s Laws), they suggested solutions.

The math was solved first. Indeed, just before the turn of the century, the Dutch physicist Hendrik Antoon Lorentz suggested that, if material bodies would¬†contract¬†in the direction of their motion with a factor (1 ‚Ästu2/c2)1/2¬†and, in addition, if time would also be dilated¬†with a factor (1 ‚Ästu2/c2)‚Äď1/2, then the Michelson-Morley results could be explained. Of course, scientists objected to this ‘explanation’ as being very much ‘ad hoc’.

So then came Einstein. He just took the math for granted, so Einstein basically accepted the so-called Lorentz transformations that resulted from it, and corrected Newton’s Law in order to set physics right again.

And so that was it. As it turned out, all that was needed in fact, was to do away with the assumption that the inertia (or mass) of an object is a constant and, hence, that it does not vary with its velocity. For us, today, it seems obvious: mass also varies, and the factor involved is the very same Lorentz¬†factor that we mentioned above:¬†ő≥ =¬†(1 ‚Ästu2/c2)‚Äď1/2. Hence, the m in Newton’s Second Law (F = d(mv)/dt) is not a constant but equal to m =¬†ő≥m0. For all speeds that we, human beings, can imagine (including the astronomical speed of the Earth in orbit around the Sun), the ‘correction’ is too small to be noticeable, or negligible, but so it’s there, as evidenced by the Michelson-Morley experiment, and, some hundred years later, we can actually verify it in particle accelerators.

As said, for us, today, it’s obvious (in my previous post, I mention a few examples: I explain how the mass of electrons in an electron beam is impacted by their speed, and how the lifetime of muon increases because of their speed) but one hundred years ago, it was¬†not. Not at all ‚Äď and so that’s why Einstein was a genius: he dared to explore and accept the non-obvious.

Now, what then are the correct transformations from one reference frame to another? They are referred to as the Lorentz transformations, and they can be written down (in a simplified form, assuming relative motion in the x direction only) as follows:


Now, I could point out many interesting implications, or come up with examples, but I will resist the temptation. I will only note two things about them:

1. These Lorentz transformations actually re-establish the principle of relativity: the Laws of Nature ‚Äď including the Laws of Newton as corrected by Einstein’s relativistic mass formula¬†‚Äď are of the same form in a moving system as in a stationary system, and therefore it is impossible to tell, by making experiments, whether the system is moving or not.

2. The second thing I should note is that the equations above imply that the idea of¬†absolute¬†time is no longer valid: there is no such thing as ‘absolute’ or ‘universal’ time. Indeed, Lorentz’ concept of ‘local time’ is a most profound departure from Newtonian mechanics that is implicit in these equations.

Indeed, space and time are entangled in these equations as you can see from the ‚Äďut and¬†‚Äďux/c2¬†terms in the equation for x’ and t’ respectively and, hence, the idea of simultaneity has to be abandoned: what happens simultaneously in two separated places according to one observer, does not happen at the same time as viewed by an observer moving with respect to the first. Let me quickly show how.

Suppose that in¬†my¬†world I see two events happening at the same time t0 but so they happen at two different places¬†x1¬†and x2. Now, if you¬†are movingaway from me at a (uniform) speed¬†u, then equation (4) tells us that you will see these two events happen at two different times t1‘ and t2‘, with the time difference t1‘ ‚Ästt2‘ equal to t1‘¬†‚Ästt2‘ = ő≥[u(x1¬†‚Ästx2)/c2], with ő≥ the above-mentioned Lorentz factor. [Just do the calculation for yourself using equation 4.]

Of course, the effect is negligible for most speeds that we, as human beings,¬†can imagine, but it’s there. So we do not have three¬†separate¬†space coordinates and¬†one time coordinates, but four space-time coordinates that transform¬†together,¬†fully entangled, when applying those four equations above.¬†

That observation led the German mathematician Hermann Minkowski, who helped Einstein to develop his theory of four-dimensional space-time, to famously state that “Space of itself, and time of itself, will sink into mere shadows, and only a kind of union between them shall survive.”

Post scriptum: I did not elaborate on the second difficulty¬†when I mentioned Maxwell’s equations: the lack of a need for a medium for light to travel through. I will let that rest for the moment (or, else, you can just Google some stuff on it). Just note that (1) it is kinda convenient that electromagnetic radiation does not need any medium (I can’t see how one would incorporate that in relativity theory) and (2) that light does seem to slow down in a medium. However, the explanation for that (i.e. for light to have an apparently lower¬†speed in a medium)¬†is to be found in quantum mechanics and so we won’t touch upon that complex matter here (for now that is). The point to note is that this slowing down is caused by light interacting with the matter it encounters as it travels through the medium. It does not¬†actually¬†go slower. However, I need to stop here as this is, yet again, a post which has become way too long. On the other hand, I¬†am¬†hopeful my kids will actually understand this one, because it does¬†not¬†involve integrals. ūüôā


Pre-scriptum (dated 26 June 2020): This post does not seem to have suffered from the attack by the dark force. However, my views on the nature of light and matter have evolved as part of my explorations of a more realist (classical) explanation of quantum mechanics. If you are reading this, then you are probably looking for not-to-difficult reading. In that case, I would suggest you read my re-write of Feynman’s introductory lecture to QM. If you want something shorter, you can also read my paper on what I believe to be the true Principles of Physics.

Original post:

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 ‚Äėmatter behaves (sometimes) like light‚Äô, ‚Äėlight behaves (sometimes) like matter‚Äô or, combining both, ‚Äėlight and matter behave like wavicles‚Äô. Indeed: what does ‚Äėlike‚Äė mean? Like the same but different? ūüôā¬†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 (‚ąá¬∑E¬†= 0 and ‚ąá¬∑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 (‚ąā/‚ąāt):¬†E¬†and¬†B¬†oscillate¬†and¬†perpetuate¬†each other by inducing new¬†circulation¬†of¬†B¬†and¬†E.

Heaviside form of Maxwell's equations

The constants őľ and őĶ in the fourth equation are the so-called permeability (őľ) and permittivity (őĶ) of the¬†medium, and őľ0¬†and őĶ0¬†are the values for these constants in a vacuum space. Now, it is interesting to note that őľőĶ 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 ‚Äėrelativistic‚Äô effect but I won’t explore that here – except for noting that¬†the final¬†Lorentz¬†force on a (charged) particle¬†F¬†= q(E¬†+¬†v√óB) 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 ‚Äď 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 = hőĹ. 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 ő≥ (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√ó10‚Äď12 m) and high energy (hundreds of KeV – as opposed to visible light, which has a wavelength between 380 and 750 nanometer (380-750√ó10‚Äď9 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 = (p2c2 + m02c4)1/2 (the non-relativistic version is simply E = p2/2m0 but Рquite obviously Рan approximation that cannot be used in this case Рif 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 Рthe velocity of the wave Рas 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 = hf¬†assigns 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 (ő®) – 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 = hőĹ 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 (őĹ) – 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 őĹ – 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√ó0.2 = 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. ūüôā 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= hőĹ and E = hf. The first one is the Planck relation (E= hőĹ): 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= hőĹ, we associate a de Broglie¬†wavelength with the photon. So we imagine it as a traveling stopwatch with angular frequency¬†ŌČ = 2ŌÄf.

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)2¬†+¬†(y2– y1)2¬†+¬†(x2– x1)2¬†‚Äst(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 (őĽ) because the wavelength is the speed of the wave (c in this case) over the frequency: őĽ = 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¬†őĽ = 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.]

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