Quantum Physics

What does the "quantum" in quantum physics mean?
Answered by Science Channel
  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. The term "quantum physics" is quite a mouthful. However, even though the words may sound big, they actually refer to something much smaller. In Latin, quantum is the neuter form of quantus, or "how much." The word entered the English language in the 16th century, meaning a discrete amount of something, but it became almost permanently associated with physics when Max Planck, Albert Einstein and their colleagues began developing the field of quantum mechanics. Those visionary scientists even invented the verb, "quantize," which they introduced in 1922 to describe the process of subdividing energy into small, measurable increments.

    When conducting an experiment about light, Planck theorized that light was not actually a continuous wave, but that it might possibly exist with specific amounts of energy, or "quanta" [source: PBS]. In this case, the word "quanta" was used similarly to "quantus," to describe a specific amount of something.

    Today, many people use quantum to mean "small." Although this isn't entirely correct, it's completely logical when you consider quantum physics deals with the world of atoms and their components. A typical atom has a diameter of about 0.3 nanometers (0.0000000003 meters), so we're talking about objects that would make a paper clip seem enormous. If an electron makes a quantum jump, it's moving from one energy level to another within this infinitesimally small space. A quantum jump, then, is a small jump.


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