Minute energy packet of electromagnetic radiation. In 1900 Max Planck found that heat radiation is emitted and absorbed in distinct units, which he called quanta. In 1905 Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect, proposing the existence of discrete energy packets in light. The term photon came into use for these packets in 1926. The energies of photons range from high-energy gamma rays and X rays to low-energy infrared and radio waves, though all travel at the same speed, the speed of light. Photons have no electric charge or rest mass and are the carriers of the electromagnetic field.
Learn more about photon with a free trial on Britannica.com.
A photon is often referred to as a "light quantum." The energy of an electron bound to an atom (at rest) is said to be quantized, which results in the stability of atoms, and of matter in general. But these terms can be a little misleading, because what is quantized is this Planck's constant quantity whose units can be viewed as either energy multiplied by time or momentum multiplied by distance.
Usually referred to as quantum "mechanics," it is regarded by virtually every professional physicist as the most fundamental framework we have for understanding and describing nature at the infinitesimal level, for the very practical reason that it works. It is "in the nature of things", not a more or less arbitrary human preference.
Quantum theory, the branch of physics which is based on quantization, began in 1900 when Max Planck published his theory explaining the emission spectrum of black bodies. In that paper Planck used the Natural system of units he invented the previous year. The consequences of the differences between classical and quantum mechanics quickly became obvious. But it was not until 1926, by the work of Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and others, that quantum mechanics became correctly formulated and understood mathematically. Despite tremendous experimental success, the philosophical interpretations of quantum theory are still widely debated.
Planck was reluctant to accept the new idea of quantization, as were many others. But, with no acceptable alternative, he continued to work with the idea, and found his efforts were well received. Eighteen years later, when he accepted the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions, he called it "a few weeks of the most strenuous work" of his life. During those few weeks, he even had to discard much of his own theoretical work from the preceding years. Quantization turned out to be the only way to describe the new and detailed experiments which were just then being performed. He did this practically overnight, openly reporting his change of mind to his scientific colleagues, in the October, November, and December meetings of the German Physical Society, in Berlin, where the black body work was being intensely discussed. In this way, careful experimentalists (including Friedrich Paschen, O.R. Lummer, Ernst Pringsheim, Heinrich Rubens, and F. Kurlbaum), and a reluctant theorist, ushered in a momentous scientific revolution.
The quantum black-body radiation formula, being the very first piece of quantum mechanics, appeared Sunday evening October 7, 1900, in a so-called back-of-the-envelope calculation by Planck. It was based on a report by Rubens (visiting with his wife) of the very latest experimental findings in the infrared. Later that evening, Planck sent the formula on a postcard, which Rubens received the following morning. A couple of days later, he informed Planck that it worked perfectly. At first, it was just a fit to the data; only later did it turn out to enforce quantization.
This second step was only possible due to a certain amount of luck (or skill, even though Planck himself called it "a fortuitous guess at an interpolation formula"). It was during the course of polishing the mathematics of his formula that Planck stumbled upon the beginnings of Quantum Theory. Briefly stated, he had two mathematical expressions:
Combining these as x(a+x), he still has x, approximately, when x is much smaller than a (the red end of the spectrum); but now also x² (again approximately) when x is much larger than a (in the infrared). The formula for the energy E, in a single mode of radiation at frequency λ, and temperature T, can be written
This is (essentially) what is being compared with the experimental measurements. There are two parameters to determine from the data, written in the present form by the symbols used today: h is the new Planck's constant, and k is Boltzmann's constant. Both have now become fundamental in physics, but that was by no means the case at the time. The "elementary quantum of energy" is hλ. But such a unit does not normally exist, and is not required for quantization.