The Electric Field is Real: Steven Weinberg

Dirac’s successful treatment of the spontaneous emission of radiation confirmed the universal character of quantum mechanics. However, the world was still conceived to be composed of two very different ingredients, particles and fields, which were both to be described in terms of quantum mechanics, but in very different ways. Material particles like electrons and protons were conceived to be eternal; to describe the physical state of a system, one had to describe the probabilities for finding each particle in any given region of space or range of velocities. On the other hand, photons were supposed to be merely a manifestation of an underlying entity, the quantized electromagnetic field, and could be freely created and destroyed. It was not long before away was found out of this distasteful dualism, toward a truly unified view of nature. The essential steps were taken in a 1928 paper of Jordan and Eugene Wigner, and then in a pair of long papers in 1929 1930 by Heisenberg and Pauli. (A somewhat different approach was also developed in 1929 by Enrico Fermi.) They showed that material particles could be understood as the quanta of various fields, in just the same way that the photon is the quantum of the electromagnetic field. There was supposed to be one field for each type of elementary particle. Thus, the inhabitants of the universe were conceived to be a set of fields, an electron field, a proton field, an electromagnetic field, and particles were reduced in status to mere epiphenomena. In its essentials, this point of view has survived to the present day, and forms the central dogma of quantum field theory: the essential reality is a set of fields, subject to the rules of special relativity and quantum mechanics; all else is derived as a consequence of the quantum dynamics of these fields.

– Weinberg, S. (2012). The Search for Unity: Notes for a History of Quantum Field Theory. Daedalus, 106, 17–35.

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