Discussions with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics

Discussions with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics | Article
Image Credit: Photo by Niels Bohr & Albert Einstein on Wikimedia Commons

WHEN invited by the Editor of the series, Living Philosophers, to write an article for this volume in which contemporary scientists are honouring the epoch-making contributions of Albert Einstein to the progress of natural philosophy and are acknowledging the indebtedness of our whole generation for the guidance his genius has given us, I thought much of the best way of explaining how much I owe to him for inspiration. In this connection, the many occasions through the years on which I had the privilege to discuss with Einstein epistemological problems raised by the modern development of atomic physics have come back vividly to my mind and I have felt that I could hardly attempt anything better than to give an account of these discussions which, even if no complete concord has so far been obtained, have been of greatest value and stimulus to me. I hope also that the account may convey to wider circles an impression of how essential the open-minded exchange of ideas has been for the progress in a field where new experience has time after time demanded a reconsideration of our views.

From the very beginning the main point under debate has been the attitude to take to the departure from customary principles of natural philosophy characteristic of the novel development of physics which was initiated in the first year of this century by Planck’s discovery of the universal quantum of action. This discovery, which revealed a feature of atomicity in the laws of nature going far beyond the old doctrine of the limited divisibility of matter, has indeed taught us that the classical theories of physics are idealisations which can be unambiguously applied only in the limit where all actions involved are large compared with the quantum. The question at issue has been whether the renunciation of a causal mode of description of atomic processes involved in the endeavours to cope with the situation should be regarded as a temporary departure from ideals to be ultimately revived or whether we are faced with an irrevocable step towards obtaining the proper harmony between analysis and synthesis of physical phenomena. To describe the background of our discussions and to bring out as clearly as possible the arguments for the contrasting viewpoints, I have felt it necessary to go to a certain length in recalling some main features of the development to which Einstein himself has contributed so decisively.

As is well known, it was the intimate relation, elucidated primarily by Boltzmann, between the laws of thermodynamics and the statistical regularities exhibited by mechanical systems with many degrees of freedom, which guided Planck in his ingenious treatment of the problem of thermal radiation, leading him to his fundamental discovery. While, in his work, Planck was principally concerned with considerations of essentially statistical character and with great caution refrained from definite conclusions as to the extent to which the existence of the quantum implied a departure from the foundations of mechanics and electrodynamics, Einstein’s great original contribution to quantum theory (1905) was just the recognition of how physical phenomena like the photo-effect may depend directly on individual quantum effects. In these very same years when, in developing his theory of relativity, Einstein laid a new foundation for physical science, he explored with a most daring spirit the novel features of atomicity which pointed beyond the whole framework of classical physics.

With unfailing intuition Einstein thus was led step by step to the conclusion that any radiation process involves the emission or absorption of individual light quanta or “photons” with energy and momentum

E = hf and P = hs [1]

respectively, where h is Planck’s constant, while f and s are the number of vibrations per unit time and the number of waves per unit length, respectively. Notwithstanding its fertility, the idea of the photon implied a quite unforeseen dilemma, since any simple corpuscular picture of radiation would obviously be irreconcilable with interference effects, which present so essential an aspect of radiative phenomena, and which can be described only in terms of a wave picture. The acuteness of the dilemma is stressed by the fact that the interference effects offer our only means of defining the concepts of frequency and wavelength entering into the very expressions for the energy and momentum of the photon.

In this situation, there could be no question of attempting a causal analysis of radiative phenomena, but only, by a combined use of the contrasting pictures, to estimate probabilities for the occurrence of the individual radiation processes. However, it is most important to realize that the recourse to probability laws under such circumstances is essentially different in aim from the familiar application of statistical considerations as practical means of accounting for the properties of mechanical systems of great structural complexity. In fact, in quantum physics we are presented not with intricacies of this kind, but with the inability of the classical frame of concepts to comprise the peculiar feature of indivisibility, or “individuality,” characterising the elementary processes.

The failure of the theories of classical physics in accounting for atomic phenomena was further accentuated by the progress of our knowledge of the structure of atoms. Above all, Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus (1911) revealed at once the inadequacy of classical mechanical and electromagnetic concepts to explain the inherent stability of the atom. Here again the quantum theory offered a clue for the elucidation of the situation and especially it was found possible to account for the atomic stability, as well as for the empirical laws governing the spectra of the elements, by assuming that any reaction of the atom resulting in a change of its energy involved a complete transition between two so-called stationary quantum states and that, in particular, the spectra were emitted by a step-like process in which each transition is accompanied by the emission of a monochromatic light quantum of an energy just equal to that of an Einstein photon.

These ideas, which were soon confirmed by the experiments of Franck and Hertz (1914) on the excitation of spectra by impact of electrons on atoms, involved a further renunciation of the causal mode of description, since evidently the interpretation of the spectral laws implies that an atom in an excited state in general will have the possibility of transitions with photon emission to one or another of its lower energy states. In fact, the very idea of stationary states is incompatible with any directive for the choice between such transitions and leaves room only for the notion of the relative probabilities of the individual transition processes. The only guide in estimating such probabilities was the so-called correspondence principle which originated in the search for the closest possible connection between the statistical account of atomic processes and the consequences to be expected from classical theory, which should be valid in the limit where the actions involved in all stages of the analysis of the phenomena are large compared with the universal quantum.

At that time, no general self-consistent quantum theory was yet in sight, but the prevailing attitude may perhaps be illustrated by the following passage from a lecture by the writer from 1913:

I hope that I have expressed myself sufficiently clearly so that you may appreciate the extent to which these considerations conflict with the admirably consistent scheme of conceptions which has been rightly termed the classical theory of electrodynamics. On the other hand, I have tried to convey to you the impression that just by emphasising so strongly this conflict it may also be possible in course of time to establish a certain coherence in the new ideas.

Important progress in the development of quantum theory was made by Einstein himself in his famous article on radiative equilibrium in 1917, where he showed that Planck’s law for thermal radiation could be simply deduced from assumptions conforming with the basic ideas of the quantum theory of atomic constitution. To this purpose, Einstein formulated general statistical rules regarding the occurrence of radiative transitions between stationary states, assuming not only that, when the atom is exposed to a radiation field, absorption as well as emission processes will occur with a probability per unit time proportional to the intensity of the irradiation, but that even in the absence of external disturbances spontaneous emission processes will take place with a rate corresponding to a certain a priori probability. Regarding the latter point, Einstein emphasised the fundamental character of the statistical description in a most suggestive way by drawing attention to the analogy between the assumptions regarding the occurrence of the spontaneous radiative transitions and the well-known laws governing transformations of radioactive substances.

In connection with a thorough examination of the exigencies of thermodynamics as regards radiation problems, Einstein stressed the dilemma still further by pointing out that the argumentation implied that any radiation process was “unidirected” in the sense that not only is a momentum corresponding to a photon with the direction of propagation transferred to an atom in the absorption process, but that also the emitting atom will receive an equivalent impulse in the opposite direction, although there can on the wave picture be no question of a preference for a single direction in an emission process. Einstein’s own attitude to such startling conclusions is expressed in a passage at the end of the article, which may be translated as follows:

These features of the elementary processes would seem to make the development of a proper quantum treatment of radiation almost unavoidable. The weakness of the theory lies in the fact that, on the one hand, no closer connection with the wave concepts is obtainable and that, on the other hand, it leaves to chance (Zufall) the time and the direction of the elementary processes; nevertheless, I have full confidence in the reliability of the way entered upon. 

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