What Is Quantum Physics?

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Quantum physics, also known as quantum mechanics or quantum theory is really the culmination of concepts and hypotheses from many scientists over the course of a few decades. That said, the first quantum theory to be presented was that of ‘black-body radiation’ by Max Planck in 1900.

His theory is fascinating. When you heat up a black metal poker, why does the colour change? It goes through a series of changes, from black, to red, to yellow, white, and blue as the temperature (thermal radiation) increases. Planck constructed a mathematical model in which the thermal radiation was connected to a particular vibrational frequency (harmonic oscillator).

He proposed that each oscillator produced a specific number of units of energy – i.e. that each temperature related to an exact (or quantised) amount of energy that gave off a specific light. This is opposed to a random, arbitrary amount of energy emitted as the object warms up.

So to summarise, the increase in temperature led to increased emittance of energy and a larger proportion of the energy is focused on the violet end of the light spectrum. The most important part of this is the fact that the energy was quantised – i.e. it increased in specific, set, tiny, incremental amounts. This was groundbreaking.

Einstein’s Input

Planck did not realise the full implications of his theory, but his paper sparked many further hypotheses. At around the same time Albert Einstein had developed his Theory of Relativity (which described the behaviour of objects in motion at high speed). Planck’s work inspired Einstein to look in closer depth at the behaviour of light. He discovered that light could also be quantised and he described the specific-particles-of-light as individual photons. But why did this matter? Einstein’s theory that light could behave as a particle was controversial.

It was in opposition to the current idea that light behaved as a wave, which had been established thanks to decades of experiments in refractiondiffraction and interference, which showed that light tended to move in waves and crests like ripples on a lake, it could be bent, could bounce around corners and more. You may remember some of these experiments with light from school.

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  1. WOW. Thank you for such a lucid and friendly explanation! I think I’m ready to delve in at the baby level. You certainly whetted my appetite!

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