The Dual Nature of Light as Reflected in the Nobel Archives
The research leading to an understanding of the nature of light and the emission and absorption processes has been of paramount importance. It led from a beginning in 1900 to the development of quantum physics, reaching a high peak in the 1920’s and a fruition towards the mid-century years with the completion of the very successful Quantum Electro Dynamic (QED) theory.
The manner in which these achievements have been treated by the Nobel Committee for Physics is both interesting and in some cases surprising.
The Wave-Particle Duality
A particle on the classical view is a concentration of energy and other properties in space and time, whereas a wave is spread out over a larger region of space and time. The question whether light are streams of particles (corpuscles) or waves is a very old one. This “either – or” formulation was classically natural and alien to the advanced “both – and” even the “neither – nor” solution of today. Early in the nineteenth century experiments were suggested and made to show that light is a wave motion. A key figure in this endeavor was Thomas Young, one of the most intelligent and clever scientists ever to live, who studied diffraction and interference of light already in 1803 with results that gave strong support to the wave theory of Christian Huygens as opposed to the particle or corpuscular theory of Isaac Newton. Further contributions were made by many other researchers, among them Augustin Jean Fresnel, who showed that light is a transverse wave.
Newton’s theory of light had seemed suitable to explain the straight-line casting of sharp shadows of objects placed in a light beam. But wave theory was needed to explain interference where the light intensity can be enhanced in some places and diminished in other places behind a screen with a slit or several slits. The wave theory is also able to account for the fact that the edges of a shadow are not quite sharp.
The mathematical theory of electromagnetism by James Clerk Maxwell, set up in 1864, led to the view that light is of electromagnetic nature, propagating as a wave from the source to the receiver. Heinrich Hertz discovered experimentally the existence of electromagnetic waves at radio-frequencies in the 1880’s. Maxwell died in 1879 and Hertz died only 37 years old in 1894, two years before Alfred Nobel’s death.
At the end of the 19th century, which also is the time when the Nobel Prizes were instituted, the wave nature of light seemed definitely established. Thus the decisive research into the wave nature of light came too early to be considered for Nobel Prizes. However, there is one exception – the case of X-rays.
Discoveries relating to the particle nature of light belong to our century and thus one might expect Nobel Prizes be awarded for such achievements. This is almost true – but the Nobel archive tells a more complicated story as will be uncovered below.
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