Eddington 1927: The Origin of the Trouble

Old Quantum

This paper presents Chapter IX (section 1) 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 Origin of the Trouble

Nowadays whenever enthusiasts meet together to discuss theoretical physics the talk sooner or later turns in a certain direction. You leave them conversing on their special problems or the latest discoveries; but return after an hour and it is any odds that they will have reached an all-engrossing topic —the desperate state of their ignorance. This is not a pose. It is not even scientific modesty, because the attitude is often one of naive surprise that Nature should have hidden her fundamental secret successfully from such powerful intellects as ours. It is simply that we have turned a corner in the path of progress and our ignorance stands revealed before us, appalling and insistent. There is something radically wrong with the present fundamental conceptions of physics and we do not see how to set it right.

The cause of all this trouble is a little thing called h which crops up continually in a wide range of experiments. In one sense we know just what h is, because there are a variety of ways of measuring it; h is .00000000000000000000000000655 erg-seconds. That will (rightly) suggest to you that h is something very small; but the most important information is contained in the concluding phrase erg-seconds. The erg is the unit of energy and the second is the unit of time; so that we learn that h is of the nature of energy multiplied by time.

Now in practical life it does not often occur to us to multiply energy by time. We often divide energy by time. For example, the motorist divides the output of energy of his engine by time and so obtains the horsepower. Conversely an electric supply company multiplies the horse-power or kilowatts by the number of hours of consumption and sends in its bill accordingly. But to multiply by hours again would seem a very odd sort of thing to do.

But it does not seem quite so strange when we look at it in the absolute four-dimensional world. Quantities such as energy, which we think of as existing at an instant, belong to three-dimensional space, and they need to be multiplied by a duration to give them a thickness before they can be put into the four-dimensional world. Consider a portion of space, say Great Britain; we should describe the amount of humanity in it as 40 million men. But consider a portion of space-time, say Great Britain between 19 15 and 1925; we must describe the amount of humanity in it as 400 million man-years. To describe the human content of the world from a space-time point of view we have to take a unit which is limited not only in space but in time. Similarly if some other kind of content of space is described as so many ergs, the corresponding content of a region of space-time will be described as so many erg-seconds.

Energy multiplied by time may describe the substance.

We call this quantity in the four-dimensional world which is the analogue or adaptation of energy in the three-dimensional world by the technical name action. The name does not seem to have any special appropriateness, but we have to accept it. Erg-seconds or action belongs to Minkowski’s world which is common to all observers, and so it is absolute. It is one of the very few absolute quantities noticed in pre-relativity physics. Except for action and entropy (which belongs to an entirely different class of physical conceptions) all the quantities prominent in pre-relativity physics refer to the three-dimensional sections which are different for different observers.

Entropy describes a tendency toward equilibrium and condensation, which is increase in quantization. Action seems to describe the quantization achieved.

Long before the theory of relativity showed us that action was likely to have a special importance in the scheme of Nature on account of its absoluteness, long before the particular piece of action h began to turn up in experiments, the investigators of theoretical dynamics were making great use of action. It was especially the work of Sir William Hamilton which brought it to the fore; and since then very extensive theoretical developments of dynamics have been made on this basis. I need only refer to the standard treatise on Analytical Dynamics by your own (Edinburgh) Professor (Prof. E. T. Whittaker), which fairly reeks of it. It was not difficult to appreciate the fundamental importance and significance of the main principle; but it must be confessed that to the non-specialist the interest of the more elaborate developments did not seem very obvious—except as an ingenious way of making easy things difficult. In the end the instinct which led to these researches has justified itself emphatically. To follow any of the progress in the quantum theory of the atom since about 19 17, it is necessary to have plunged rather deeply into the Hamiltonian theory of dynamics. It is remarkable that just as Einstein found ready prepared by the mathematicians the Tensor Calculus which he needed for developing his great theory of gravitation, so the quantum physicists found ready for them an extensive action-theory of dynamics without which they could not have made headway.

The essential nature of action (h) is to emphasize discrete-ness. The four-dimensional “spacetime” represents the quantization of substance.

But neither the absolute importance of action in the four-dimensional world, nor its earlier prominence in Hamiltonian dynamics, prepares us for the discovery that a particular lump of it can have a special importance. And yet a lump of standard size 6 . 55 . 10-27 erg-seconds is continually turning up experimentally. It is all very well to say that we must think of action as atomic and regard this lump as the atom of action. We cannot do it. We have been trying hard for the last ten years. Our present picture of the world shows action in a form quite incompatible with this kind of atomic structure, and the picture will have to be redrawn. There must in fact be a radical change in the fundamental conceptions on which our scheme of physics is founded; the problem is to discover the particular change required. Since 1925 new ideas have been brought into the subject which seem to make the deadlock less complete, and give us an inkling of the nature of the revolution that must come; but there has been no general solution of the difficulty. The new ideas will be the subject of the next chapter. Here it seems best to limit ourselves to the standpoint of 1925, except at the very end of the chapter, where we prepare for the transition.

Even though action (h) emphasizes discreteness, its value depends on the choice of the system of units.  We may thus make “h” as large or small as we want similar to the cycles, by choosing different units of space and time. It is more abstract than the reality of an atom, like Faraday’s lines of force.


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