Monday, January 9, 2012


One of the most intriguing and most important properties of an elementary particle is its spin. At the same time, spin is one of the conceptually most problematic quantities, and has led to an enormous amount of misunderstandings.

The reason for this is that there is something in classical physics, which is very closely related to the concept of spin. But this relation is in spirit, rather than literally, and this has led to a lot of confusion. This analogue is angular momentum.

So, first, what is angular momentum? Angular momentum is connected with any kind of rotation of a particle around some center. Formally, it is a product involving the radius of the rotation and the speed along the path of the object. In classical physics, without friction, it is conserved, and it is what keeps the planets' orbits in their respective plane. It is likely also responsible for the fact that all the orbits are more or less in the same plane, or that the milky way has the over-all form of a discus (neglecting the spiral arms). In essence, it is just a reformulation of the ordinary speed, mixed with the mass of a particle. Essentially a kinematic quantity, despite its importance.

If an object just rotates, e.g. a ball, then each of the elements of the ball rotates. This can be described by giving the ball as such an angular momentum. Since the geometry of the ball is known and fixed, it is possible to defer from this total angular momentum the angular momentum of every piece of the ball.

In the world of particles, this angular momentum is reappearing whenever there is something having some kind of relative motion. E. g. in an atom, it is possible to assign the electrons an angular momentum, which is then often called orbital angular momentum (a somewhat complicated name). However, the electrons are not actually small spheres orbiting around the nucleus, bur rather smeared out over the whole of the atom. What this precisely means, I will discuss later. The important thing is that this smeared out something has a kind of orbital movement (the whole object 'rotates' in a certain sense), and can therefore be assigned such an orbital angular momentum.

It is a remarkable observation in quantum physics that angular momentum cannot take any value it likes. It is quantized. The reason for this quantization is the inherent relation between angular momentum and speed, and then speed and energy. Because energy is quantized this implies that angular momentum is quantized.

As orbital angular momentum depends on the momentum, and thus on the speed, its numerical value changes when we as the observer are changing our movement. This does not change the path of the rotating objects, just our perception of it, of course. Therefore, this change of values is closely tied to our change of our coordinate system, when we move.

Now enter spin: It was very early on recognized in quantum physics that elementary particles have a property which changes in the same way as the angular momentum of the ball when we change our coordinate system. This was an intrinsic property of the particles, unchangeable. However, the elementary particles are point-like, at least to the extent we can resolve them. Thus, they cannot rotate in any way, as they do not have any extension. In fact, if this would be an ordinary angular momentum, and the elementary particles would have a small extension, then within our experimental knowledge about the upper limit of this extension, their surface would need to rotate much faster than the speed of light.

Thus, this property got its own name: Spin. This is still inspired by the similarity to (orbital) angular momentum under a change of coordinate system, but by keeping strictly the difference in name, it can always be distinguished from it. However, from time to time its is useful to refer to them both together, and in this case they are called total angular momentum, which is in principle somewhat a misnomer.

Now spin is also quantized, and there exist both half-integer and integer values for it (when choosing appropriate units). This is different from ordinary angular momentum for two reasons. First, there is no simple explanation for the quantization like for angular momentum. There is indeed a complicated explanation, which shows that for the space-time structure which we have, these are the only two possibilities consistent with this type of change under a change of the coordinate system. Second, angular momentum, when measured in the same units, can have only integer values.

The latter is an intriguing difference. It has a very important consequence: Particles having integer spin behave very different from those having a half-integer spin. Therefore, these two types of particles received different names: The former are called bosons, and the latter are called fermions. This distinction is of fundamental importance to particle physics, and therefore the next two entries will discuss both types of particles in more detail. Also, none of these types behave in the same way as an ordinary small ball. But it turns out that if one takes the classical (long-distance) limit, both behave in the same way, and like small balls: Classically fermions and bosons can not be distinguished, their existence is a pure quantum effect, which is intricately linked to the structure of space and time. That is one of the reasons why some people believe that the quantum effect of spin and gravity may be related at a deeper level, but we are very far from understanding whether this suspicion is correct.