Quantum Theory

quantum theory, modern physical theory concerned with the emission and absorption of energy by matter and with the motion of material particles; the quantum theory and the theory of relativity together form the theoretical basis of modern physics. Just as the theory of relativity assumes importance in the special situation where very large speeds are involved, so the quantum theory is necessary for the special situation where very small quantities are involved, i.e., on the scale of molecules, atoms, and elementary particles. Aspects of the quantum theory have provoked vigorous philosophical debates concerning, for example, the uncertainty principle and the statistical nature of all the predictions of the theory.

Relationship of Energy and Matter

According to the older theories of classical physics, energy is treated solely as a continuous phenomenon, while matter is assumed to occupy a very specific region of space and to move in a continuous manner. According to the quantum theory, energy is held to be emitted and absorbed in tiny, discrete amounts. An individual bundle or packet of energy, called a quantum (pl. quanta), thus behaves in some situations much like particles of matter; particles are found to exhibit certain wavelike properties when in motion and are no longer viewed as localized in a given region but rather as spread out to some degree.

For example, the light or other radiation given off or absorbed by an atom has only certain frequencies (or wavelengths), as can be seen from the line spectrum associated with the chemical element represented by that atom. The quantum theory shows that those frequencies correspond to definite energies of the light quanta, or photons, and result from the fact that the electrons of the atom can have only certain allowed energy values, or levels; when an electron changes from one allowed level to another, a quantum of energy is emitted or absorbed whose frequency is directly proportional to the energy difference between the two levels.

Dual Nature of Waves and Particles

The restriction of the energy levels of the electrons is explained in terms of the wavelike properties of their motions: electrons occupy only those orbits for which their associated wave is a standing wave (i.e., the circumference of the orbit is exactly equal to a whole number of wavelengths) and thus can have only those energies that correspond to such orbits. Moreover, the electrons are no longer thought of as being at a particular point in the orbit but rather as being spread out over the entire orbit. Just as the results of relativity approximate those of Newtonian physics when ordinary speeds are involved, the results of the quantum theory agree with those of classical physics when very large "quantum numbers" are involved, i.e., on the ordinary large scale of events; this agreement in the classical limit is required by the correspondence principle of Niels Bohr. The quantum theory thus proposes a dual nature for both waves and particles, one aspect predominating in some situations, the other predominating in other situations.

Evolution of Quantum Theory

Early Developments

While the theory of relativity was largely the work of one man, Albert Einstein, the quantum theory was developed principally over a period of thirty years through the efforts of many scientists. The first contribution was the explanation of blackbody radiation in 1900 by Max Planck, who proposed that the energies of any harmonic oscillator (see harmonic motion), such as the atoms of a blackbody radiator, are restricted to certain values, each of which is an integral (whole number) multiple of a basic, minimum value. The energy E of this basic quantum is directly proportional to the frequency ν of the oscillator, or E=hν, where h is a constant, now called Planck's constant, having the value 6.63×10-34 joule-second. In 1905, Einstein proposed that the radiation itself is also quantized according to this same formula, and he used the new theory to explain the photoelectric effect. Following the discovery of the nuclear atom by Rutherford (1911), Bohr used the quantum theory in 1913 to explain both atomic structure and atomic spectra, showing the connection between the electrons' energy levels and the frequencies of light given off and absorbed.

Quantum Mechanics and Later Developments

Quantum mechanics, the final mathematical formulation of the quantum theory, was developed during the 1920s. In 1924, Louis de Broglie proposed that not only do light waves sometimes exhibit particlelike properties, as in the photoelectric effect and atomic spectra, but particles may also exhibit wavelike properties. This hypothesis was confirmed experimentally in 1927 by C. J. Davisson and L. H. Germer, who observed diffraction of a beam of electrons analogous to the diffraction of a beam of light. Two different formulations of quantum mechanics were presented following de Broglie's suggestion. The wave mechanics of Erwin Schrödinger (1926) involves the use of a mathematical entity, the wave function, which is related to the probability of finding a particle at a given point in space. The matrix mechanics of Werner Heisenberg (1925) makes no mention of wave functions or similar concepts but was shown to be mathematically equivalent to Schrödinger's theory.

Quantum mechanics was combined with the theory of relativity in the formulation of P. A. M. Dirac (1928), which, in addition, predicted the existence of antiparticles. A particularly important discovery of the quantum theory is the uncertainty principle, enunciated by Heisenberg in 1927, which places an absolute theoretical limit on the accuracy of certain measurements; as a result, the assumption by earlier scientists that the physical state of a system could be measured exactly and used to predict future states had to be abandoned. Other developments of the theory include quantum statistics, presented in one form by Einstein and S. N. Bose (the Bose-Einstein statistics) and in another by Dirac and Enrico Fermi (the Fermi-Dirac statistics); quantum electrodynamics, concerned with interactions between charged particles and electromagnetic fields; its generalization, quantum field theory; and quantum electronics.


See W. Heisenberg, The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory (1930) and Physics and Philosophy (1958); G. Gamow, Thirty Years that Shook Physics (1966); J. Gribbin, In Search of Schrödinger's Cat (1984).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction
John Polkinghorne.
Oxford University Press, 2002
Quantum Theory and the Flight from Realism: Philosophical Responses to Quantum Mechanics
Christopher Norris.
Routledge, 2000
The Mind Matters: Consciousness and Choice in a Quantum World
David Hodgson.
Clarendon Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 15 "Quantum Theory and Reality"
The Comprehensibility of the Universe: A New Conception of Science
Nicholas Maxwell.
Clarendon Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Quantum Theory"
Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist
Paul Arthur Schilpp.
Open Court, 1970 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Einstein's Contributions to Quantum Theory"
Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein
Abraham Pais.
Oxford University Press, 1983
Librarian’s tip: Part VI "The Quantum Theory"
Time's Arrow & Archimedes' Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time
Huw Price.
Oxford University Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Einstein's Issue: The Puzzle of Contemporary Quantum Theory"
Quantum Mechanics: An Empiricist View
Bas C. Van Fraassen.
Oxford University Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Part II "How the Phenomena Demand Quantum Theory"
Wholeness and the Implicate Order
David Bohm.
Routledge, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Hidden Variables in the Quantum Theory" and Chap. 5 "Quantum Theory as an Indication of a New Order in Physics"
The Genesis and Evolution of Time: A Critique of Interpretation in Physics
J. T. Fraser.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1982
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Quantum Theory: The Rules of Prototemporal World"
Divine Action and Modern Science
Nicholas Saunders.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Five "Divine Action and Quantum Theory"
Search for more books and articles on quantum theory