Einstein to Heisenberg: What, No Paths? What, No Photons?

Heisenberg tells us that in 1926, Einstein asked him about Einstein’s theory of light quanta (photons). At that time, Einstein’s radical theory was 21 years old, and had been accepted by almost all physicists, because it had explained the Compton effect in 1923 and had disproved the Bohr-Kramers-Slater theory, which denied photons, of 1924.

[Heisenberg described their talk.] On the way, he asked about my studies and previous research. As soon as we were indoors, he opened the conversation with a question that bore on the philosophical background of my recent work.

“What you have told us sounds extremely strange. You assume the existence of electrons inside the atom, and you are probably quite right to do so. But you refuse to consider their orbits, even though we can observe electron tracks in a cloud chamber. I should very much like to hear more about your reasons for making such strange assumptions.”

Heisenberg explains that he substituted the observable frequencies of spectral line emissions – as “representatives” of the unobservable electron orbits. But there is a great difference between not being able to observe electron paths and declaring they do nor exist.

“We cannot observe electron orbits inside the atom,” I must have replied, “but the radiation which an atom emits during discharges enables us to deduce the frequencies and corresponding amplitudes of its electrons. After all, even in the older physics wave numbers and amplitudes could be considered substitutes for electron orbits. Now, since a good theory must be based on directly observable magnitudes, I thought it more fitting to restrict myself to these, treating them, as it were, as representatives of the electron orbits…”

“But what happens during the emission of light? As you know, I suggested that, when an atom drops suddenly from one stationary energy value to the next, it emits the energy difference as an energy packet, a so-called light quantum. In that case, we have a particularly clear example of discontinuity. Do you think that my conception is correct? Or can you describe the transition from one stationary state to another in a more precise way?”

In my reply, I must have said something like this:

[Heisenberg says simply that he and Bohr “Do not know.” He cannot say that he believes in Einstein’s light quanta, although by this time most quantum physicists had come to accept the ides of photons as particles, as well as their having wave properties!]

“Bohr has taught me that one cannot describe this process by means of the traditional concepts, i.e., as a process in time and space. With that, of course, we have said very little, no more, in fact, than that we do not know. Whether or not I should believe in light quanta, I cannot say at this stage. Radiation quite obviously involves the discontinuous elements to which you refer as light quanta.

[Heisenberg could not then see how his quantum mechanics, with its emphasis on the material particle properties of energy and momentum, can explain wave properties, which Bohr sees as described in terms of the complementaryproperties of space and time.]

“On the other hand, there is a continuous element, which appears, for instance, in interference phenomena, and which is much more simply described by the wave theory of light. But you are of course quite right to ask whether quantum mechanics has anything new to say on these terribly difficult problems. I believe that we may at least hope that it will one day.

“I could, for instance, imagine that we should obtain an interesting answer if we considered the energy fluctuations of an atom during reactions with other atoms or with the radiation field. If the energy should change discontinuously, as we expect from your theory of light quanta, then the fluctuation, or, in more precise mathematical terms, the mean square fluctuation, would be greater than if the energy changed continuously. I am inclined to believe that quantum mechanics would lead to the greater value, and so establish the discontinuity. On the other hand, the continuous element, which appears in interference experiments, must also be taken into account. Perhaps one must imagine the transitions from one stationary state to the next as so many fade-outs in a film. The change is not sudden—one picture gradually fades while the next comes into focus so that, for a time, both pictures become confused and one does not know which is which. Similarly, there may well be an intermediate state in which we cannot tell whether an atom is in the upper or the lower state.”

[Einstein is quite correct that Heisenberg is talking about what we subjectively know—epistemology— and not about what is—ontology—what is going on in objective reality.]

“You are moving on very thin ice,” Einstein warned me. “For you are suddenly speaking of what we know about nature and no longer about what nature really does. In science we ought to be concerned solely with what nature does. It might very well be that you and I know quite different things about nature. But who would be interested in that? Perhaps you and I alone. To everyone else it is a matter of complete indifference. In other words, if your theory is right, you will have to tell me sooner or later what the atom does when it passes from one stationary state to the next.”


Albert Einstein

Werner Heisenberg


One thought on “Einstein to Heisenberg: What, No Paths? What, No Photons?

  1. Neil’s Bohr was strongly influenced by logical positivism as carefully explained through analytical language philosophy. Compare and contrast this with the British Empiricists like Hume and Locke, who were skeptics. Skeptics were the byproduct of the Platonic Academy. Read Bob’s Metaphysics and Great Problems book. As an aspiring philosopher, Neil Bohr is pushing for more dualities. 49:32 Bohr and Heisenberg cannot believe in light quanta until the language we speak changes. They couldn’t explain interference or not until the language for such descriptions caught up with their thinking and what their observations. I have a theory that unifies the probabilistic nature of quantum waves with the locality of light quanta (photons). The key is found in the language of mathematics.


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