Eddington 1927: The Atom of Action



This paper presents Chapter IX (section 2) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


The Atom of Action

Remembering that action has two ingredients, namely, energy and time, we must look about in Nature for a definite quantity of energy with which there is associated some definite period of time. That is the way in which without artificial section a particular lump of action can be separated from the rest of the action which fills the universe. For example, the energy of constitution of an electron is a definite and known quantity; it is an aggregation of energy which occurs naturally in all parts of the universe. But there is no particular duration of time associated with it that we are aware of, and so it does not suggest to us any particular lump of action. We must turn to a form of energy which has a definite and discoverable period of time associated with it, such as a train of light-waves; these carry with them a unit of time, namely, the period of their vibration. The yellow light from sodium consists of aethereal vibrations of period 510 billions to the second. At first sight we seem to be faced with the converse difficulty; we have now our definite period of time; but how are we to cut up into natural units the energy coming from a sodium flame? We should, of course, single out the light proceeding from a single atom, but this will not break up into units unless the atom emits light discontinuously.

A cycle has a definite period; so we may associate action with the energy of a cycle. But such a cycle may be small or large depending on the units of space and time we choose.

It turns out that the atom does emit light discontinuously. It sends out a long train of waves and then stops. It has to be restarted by some kind of stimulation before it emits again. We do not perceive this intermittence in an ordinary beam of light, because there are myriads of atoms engaged in the production.

We see a single wave, or a train of waves, depending on the units of space and time we chose.

The amount of energy coming away from the sodium atom during any one of these discontinuous emissions is found to be 3.4 . 10-12 ergs. This energy is, as we have seen, marked by a distinctive period 1.9 . 10-15 secs. We have thus the two ingredients necessary for a natural lump of action. Multiply them together, and we obtain 6.55 . 10-27 erg-seconds. That is the quantity h.

The remarkable law of Nature is that we are continually getting the same numerical results. We may take another source of light—hydrogen, calcium, or any other atom. The energy will be a different number of ergs; the period will be a different number of seconds; but the product will be the same number of erg-seconds. The same applies to X-rays, to gamma rays and to other forms of radiation. It applies to light absorbed by an atom as well as to light emitted, the absorption being discontinuous also. Evidently h is a kind of atom— something which coheres as one unit in the processes of radiation; it is not an atom of matter but an atom or, as we usually call it, a quantum of the more elusive entity action. Whereas there are 92 different kinds of material atoms there is only one quantum of action— the same whatever the material it is associated with. I say the same without reservation. You might perhaps think that there must be some qualitative difference between the quantum of red light and the quantum of blue light, although both contain the same number of erg-seconds; but the apparent difference is only relative to a frame of space and time and does not concern the absolute lump of action. By approaching the light-source at high speed we change the red light to blue light in accordance with Doppler’s principle; the energy of the waves is also changed by being referred to a new frame of reference. A sodium flame and a hydrogen flame are throwing out at us the same lumps of action, only these lumps are rather differently orientated with respect to the Now lines which we have drawn across the four-dimensional world. If we change our motion so as to alter the direction of the Now lines, we can see the lumps of sodium origin under the same orientation in which we formerly saw the lumps of hydrogen origin and recognise that they are actually the same.

There is one quantum of action only because the units being used are for material-space and material-time. There will be different quanta of action if the energy emitted or absorbed is seen as a single cycle of field-space and field-time.

We noticed in chapter IV that the shuffling of energy can become complete, so that a definite state is reached known as thermodynamical equilibrium; and we remarked that this is only possible if indivisible units are being shuffled. If the cards can be torn into smaller and smaller pieces without limit there is no end to the process of shuffling. The indivisible units in the shuffling of energy are the quanta. By radiation absorption and scattering energy is shuffled among the different receptacles in matter and aether, but only a whole quantum passes at each step. It was in fact this definiteness of thermodynamical equilibrium which first put Prof. Max Planck on the track of the quantum; and the magnitude of h was first calculated by analysis of the observed composition of the radiation in the final state of randomness. Progress of the theory in its adolescent stage was largely due to Einstein so far as concerns the general principles and to Bohr as regards its connection with atomic structure.

The paradoxical nature of the quantum is that although it is indivisible it does not hang together. We examined first a case in which a quantity of energy was obviously cohering together, viz. an electron, but we did not find h; then we turned our attention to a case in which the energy was obviously dissolving away through space, viz. light-waves, and immediately h appeared. The atom of action seems to have no coherence in space; it has a unity which overleaps space. How can such a unity be made to appear in our picture of a world extended through space and time?

The problem is coming from using material-units of space and time as our reference.


Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: