Eddington 1927: Relation of Classical Laws to Quantum Laws


This paper presents Chapter IX (section 5) 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.


Relation of Classical Laws to Quantum Laws

To follow up the verification and successful application of the quantum laws would lead to a detailed survey of the greater part of modern physics—specific heats, magnetism, X-rays, radioactivity, and so on. We must leave this and return to a general consideration of the relation between classical laws and quantum laws. For at least fifteen years we have used classical laws and quantum laws alongside one another notwithstanding the irreconcilability of their conceptions. In the model atom the electrons are supposed to traverse their orbits under the classical laws of electrodynamics; but they jump from one orbit to another in a way entirely inconsistent with those laws. The energies of the orbits in hydrogen are calculated by classical laws; but one of the purposes of the calculation is to verify the association of energy and period in the unit h, which is contrary to classical laws of radiation. The whole procedure is glaringly contradictory but conspicuously successful.

In my observatory there is a telescope which condenses the light of a star on a film of sodium in a photoelectric cell. I rely on the classical theory to conduct the light through the lenses and focus it in the cell; then I switch on to the quantum theory to make the light fetch out electrons from the sodium film to be collected in an electrometer. If I happen to transpose the two theories, the quantum theory convinces me that the light will never get concentrated in the cell and the classical theory shows that it is powerless to extract the electrons if it does get in. I have no logical reason for not using the theories this way round; only experience teaches me that I must not. Sir William Bragg was not overstating the case when he said that we use the classical theory on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, and the quantum theory on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Perhaps that ought to make us feel a little sympathetic towards the man whose philosophy of the universe takes one form on weekdays and another form on Sundays.

In the last century—and I think also in this—there must have been many scientific men who kept their science and religion in watertight compartments. One set of beliefs held good in the laboratory and another set of beliefs in church, and no serious effort was made to harmonise them. The attitude is defensible. To discuss the compatibility of the beliefs would lead the scientist into regions of thought in which he was inexpert; and any answer he might reach would be undeserving of strong confidence. Better admit that there was some truth both in science and religion; and if they must fight, let it be elsewhere than in the brain of a hard-working scientist. If we have ever scorned this attitude, Nemesis has overtaken us. For ten years we have had to divide modern science into two compartments; we have one set of beliefs in the classical compartment and another set of beliefs in the quantum compartment. Unfortunately our compartments are not watertight.

Classical and quantum laws must be consistent with each other. If they are not then we are unaware of some truth.

We must, of course, look forward to an ultimate reconstruction of our conceptions of the physical world which will embrace both the classical laws and the quantum laws in harmonious association. There are still some who think that the reconciliation will be effected by a development of classical conceptions. But the physicists of what I may call “the Copenhagen school” believe that the reconstruction has to start at the other end, and that in the quantum phenomena we are getting down to a more intimate contact with Nature’s way of working than in the coarse-grained experience which has furnished the classical laws. The classical school having become convinced of the existence of these uniform lumps of action, speculates on the manufacture of the chopper necessary to carve off uniform lumps; the Copenhagen school on the other hand sees in these phenomena the insubstantial pageant of space, time and matter crumbling into grains of action. I do not think that the Copenhagen school has been mainly influenced by the immense difficulty of constructing a satisfactory chopper out of classical material; its view arises especially from a study of the meeting point of quantum and classical laws.

The classical laws are the limit to which the quantum laws tend when states of very high quantum number are concerned.

This is the famous Correspondence Principle enunciated by Bohr. It was at first a conjecture based on rather slight hints; but as our knowledge of quantum laws has grown, it has been found that when we apply them to states of very high quantum number they converge to the classical laws, and predict just what the classical laws would predict.

I find the Correspondence Principle as stated above quite logical.

For an example, take a hydrogen atom with its electron in a circular orbit of very high quantum number, that is to say far away from the proton. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday it is governed by classical laws. These say that it must emit a feeble radiation continuously, of strength determined by the acceleration it is undergoing and of period agreeing with its own period of revolution. Owing to the gradual loss of energy it will spiral down towards the proton. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday it is governed by quantum laws and jumps from one orbit to another. There is a quantum law that I have not mentioned which prescribes that (for circular orbits only) the jump must always be to the circular orbit next lower, so that the electron comes steadily down the series of steps without skipping any. Another law prescribes the average time between each jump and therefore the average time between the successive emissions of light. The small lumps of energy cast away at each step form light-waves of period determined by the h rule. “Preposterous! You cannot seriously mean that the electron does different things on different days of the week!”

The higher is the quantum number the lower is the quantization. This is inconsistent with the Correspondence Principle. It is the higher quantization that leads to material-substance and to classical laws.

But did I say that it does different things? I used different words to describe its doings. I run down the stairs on Tuesday and slide down the banisters on Wednesday; but if the staircase consists of innumerable infinitesimal steps, there is no essential difference in my mode of progress on the two days. And so it makes no difference whether the electron steps from one orbit to the next lower or comes down in a spiral when the number of steps is innumerably great. The succession of lumps of energy cast overboard merges into a continuous outflow. If you had the formulae before you, you would find that the period of the light and the strength of radiation are the same whether calculated by the Monday or the Tuesday method—but only when the quantum number is infinitely great. The disagreement is not very serious when the number is moderately large; but for small quantum numbers the atom cannot sit on the fence. It has to decide between Monday (classical) and Tuesday (quantum) rules. It chooses Tuesday rules.

If, as we believe, this example is typical, it indicates one direction which the reconstruction of ideas must take. We must not try to build up from classical conceptions, because the classical laws only become true and the conceptions concerned in them only become defined in the limiting case when the quantum numbers of the system are very large. We must start from new conceptions appropriate to low as well as to high numbered states; out of these the classical conceptions should emerge, first indistinctly, then definitely, as the number of the state increases, and the classical laws become more and more nearly true. I cannot foretell the result of this remodelling, but presumably room must be found for a conception of “states”, the unity of a state replacing the kind of tie expressed by classical forces. For low numbered states the current vocabulary of physics is inappropriate; at the moment we can scarcely avoid using it, but the present contradictoriness of our theories arises from this misuse. For such states space and time do not exist—at least I can see no reason to believe that they do. But it must be supposed that when high numbered states are considered there will be found in the new scheme approximate counterparts of the space and time of current conception—something ready to merge into space and time when the state numbers are infinite. And simultaneously the interactions described by transitions of states will merge into classical forces exerted across space and time. So that in the limit the classical description becomes an available alternative. Now in practical experience we have generally had to deal with systems whose ties are comparatively loose and correspond to very high quantum numbers; consequently our first survey of the world has stumbled across the classical laws and our present conceptions of the world consist of those entities which only take definite shape for high quantum numbers. But in the interior of the atom and molecule, in the phenomena of radiation, and probably also in the constitution of very dense stars such as the Companion of Sirius, the state numbers are not high enough to admit this treatment. These phenomena are now forcing us back to the more fundamental conceptions out of which the classical conceptions (sufficient for the other types of phenomena) ought to emerge as one extreme limit.

Higher quantum states must parallel higher quantization of field-substance. In other words, Quantum numbers should be increasing from periphery toward the center of the atom, but they do not. This is inconsistent with the Correspondence Principle.

For an example I will borrow a quantum conception from the next chapter. It may not be destined to survive in the present rapid evolution of ideas, but at any rate it will illustrate my point. In Bohr’s semi-classical model of the hydrogen atom there is an electron describing a circular or elliptic orbit. This is only a model; the real atom contains nothing of the sort. The real atom contains something which it has not entered into the mind of man to conceive, which has, however, been described symbolically by Schrodinger. This “something” is spread about in a manner by no means comparable to an electron describing an orbit. Now excite the atom into successively higher and higher quantum states. In the Bohr model the electron leaps into higher and higher orbits. In the real atom Schrodinger’s “something” begins to draw itself more and more together until it begins sketchily to outline the Bohr orbit and even imitates a condensation running round. Go on to still higher quantum numbers, and Schrodinger’s symbol now represents a compact body moving round in the same orbit and the same period as the electron in Bohr’s model, and moreover radiating according to the classical laws of an electron. And so when the quantum number reaches infinity, and the atom bursts, a genuine classical electron flies out. The electron, as it leaves the atom, crystallises out of Schrodinger’s mist like a genie emerging from his bottle.


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