The screw nature of electromagnetism

If you’ve ever read Maxwell’s On Physical Lines of Force, you may have noticed this: “a motion of translation along an axis cannot produce a rotation about that axis unless it meets with some special mechanism, like that of a screw”. Maxwell was referring to what I can only describe as the screw nature of electromagnetism. If you have a pump-action screwdriver you’ll appreciate that linear force is converted into rotational force. That’s like an electric motor: current flows through the wire, and the motor turns.…

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The hole in the heart of quantum electrodynamics

Pair production is the creation of a particle and its antiparticle. Some say it was first observed in 1929, but it's usually accredited to Carl Anderson in 1932. He used a cloud chamber and an electromagnet to investigate cosmic rays. He effectively split a gamma photon over an atomic nucleus to create an electron and an antielectron. He called the latter the positive electron, which was soon shortened to positron: Image from schoolphysics However whilst he realised that he’d discovered the positron, he didn’t realise that he’d performed pair…

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What is a photon?

OK, so quantum electrodynamics is said to date from 1929 when it was the same thing as quantum field theory. However it immediately suffered from the “problem of infinities”. So much so that some say most workers in the field doubted its correctness, whilst others say physicists believed a conceptual change was needed. As to what, see the conceptual foundations and the philosophical aspects of renormalization theory by Tian Yu Cao and Silvan Schweber dating from 1993. They say QFT embodies a reductionist view, but “serious doubt has often been cast on the…

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Quantum electrodynamics

Quantum electrodynamics arguably goes back to Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli in 1929, when it was the same thing as quantum field theory. But as pointed out by Robert Oppenheimer in 1930, it suffered from the "divergence issue", also known as the “problem of infinities”. So much so that some historians say most workers in the field doubted its correctness, and some say the accepted wisdom was that it was no good. Others say physicists were overwhelmed by the problems and believed that a conceptual change…

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Quantum electrodynamics in the 1930s

Quantum electrodynamics or QED is said to be the quantum field theory or QFT which gives “a complete account of matter and light interaction”. Some say it was developed by Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, Julian Schwinger, and Richard Feynman in the 1940s: Image from Rod Nave’s hyperphysics But some say it started with Pascual Jordan in 1925, some say it started with Dirac in 1927, and some say it started with Heisenberg and Pauli’s “canonical” papers of 1929 and 1930. In the history of QFT Meinard Kuhlmann says…

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Quantum electrodynamics in the 1920s

Quantum electrodynamics is often shortened to QED. As for what it is exactly, I find it difficult to say. Wikipedia says it’s the relativistic quantum field theory of electrodynamics, and gives “a complete account of matter and light interaction”. But that’s not enough. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says it’s a quantum field theory which “describes mathematically not only all interactions of light with matter but also those of charged particles with one another”. That’s not enough either. Particularly since it’s defining QED in terms of other things…

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A detective story

So why isn't the future what it used to be? I think it’s something of a detective story, one where you have to look back at the history. In 1831 Michael Faraday was doing his ground-breaking experiments, showing how electricity and magnetism were interrelated. Then in 1865 James Clerk Maxwell developed the theory, and in 1880 we had light bulbs courtesy of Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison. In 1905 Einstein gave us E=mc², saying there was an awful lot of energy in matter. Then in 1934…

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