The concept of the photon Academic Article uri icon


  • The idea of the photon has stirred the imaginations of physicists ever since 1905 when Einstein originally proposed the use of light quanta to explain the photoelectric effect. This concept is formalized in the quantum theory of radiation, which has had unfailing success in explaining the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with matter, seemingly limited only by the ability of physicists to perform the indicated calculations. Nevertheless, it has its conceptual problemsvarious infinities and frequent misinterpretations. Consequently an increasing number of workers are asking, to what extent is the quantized field really necessary and useful? In fact the experimental results of the photoelectric effect were explained by G. Wentzel in 1927 without the quantum theory of radiation. Similarly most electrooptic phenomena such as stimulated emission, reaction of the emitted field on the emitting atom, resonance fluorescence, and so on, do not require the quantization of the field for their explanation. As we will see, these processes can all be quantitatively explained and physically understood in terms of the semiclassical theory of the matterfield interaction in which the electric field is treated classically while the atoms obey the laws of quantum mechanics. The quantized field is fundamentally required for accurate descriptions of certain processes involving fluctuations in the electromagnetic field: for example, spontaneous emission, the Lamb shift, the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron, and certain aspects of blackbody radiation. (The Compton effect also fits here, but see later under references 8b and c.) Here we will outline how the photon concept originated and developed, where it is not required and is often misused, and finally where it plays an essential role in the understanding of physical phenomena. In our discussion we will attempt to give a logically consistent definition of the word photona statement far more necessary than one might think, for so many contradictory uses exist of this elusive beast. In particular consider the original coining of the word by G. N. Lewis: [because it appears to spend] only a minute fraction of its existence as a carrier of radiant energy, while the rest of the time it remains an important structural element within the atom, I therefore take the liberty of proposing for this hypothetical new atom which is not light but plays an essential part in every process of radiation, the name photon! (our exclamation point). Clearly the present usage of the word is very different.

published proceedings

  • Physics Today

altmetric score

  • 3.5

author list (cited authors)

  • Scully, M. O., & Sargent, M.

citation count

  • 65

complete list of authors

  • Scully, Marlan O||Sargent, Murray

publication date

  • March 1972