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quantum electrodynamics

quantum electrodynamics (QED), quantum field theory that describes the properties of electromagnetic radiation and its interaction with electrically charged matter in the framework of quantum theory. QED deals with processes involving the creation of elementary particles from electromagnetic energy, and with the reverse processes in which a particle and its antiparticle annihilate each other and produce energy. The fundamental equations of QED apply to the emission and absorption of light by atoms and the basic interactions of light with electrons and other elementary particles. Charged particles interact by emitting and absorbing photons, the particles of light that transmit electromagnetic forces. For this reason, QED is also known as the quantum theory of light.

QED is based on the elements of quantum mechanics laid down by such physicists as P. A. M. Dirac, W. Heisenberg, and W. Pauli during the 1920s, when photons were first postulated. In 1928 Dirac discovered an equation describing the motion of electrons that incorporated both the requirements of quantum theory and the theory of special relativity. During the 1930s, however, it became clear that QED as it was then postulated gave the wrong answers for some relatively elementary problems. For example, although QED correctly described the magnetic properties of the electron and its antiparticle, the positron, it proved difficult to calculate specific physical quantities such as the mass and charge of the particles. It was not until the late 1940s, when experiments conducted during World War II that had used microwave techniques stimulated further work, that these difficulties were resolved. Proceeding independently, Freeman J. Dyson, Richard P. Feynman and Julian S. Schwinger in the United States and Shinichiro Tomonaga in Japan refined and fully developed QED. They showed that two charged particles can interact in a series of processes of increasing complexity, and that each of these processes can be represented graphically through a diagramming technique developed by Feynman. Not only do these diagrams provide an intuitive picture of the process but they show how to precisely calculate the variables involved. The mathematical structures of QED later were adapted to the study of the strong interactions between quarks, which is called quantum chromodynamics.

See R. P. Feynman, QED (1985); P. W. Milonni, The Quantum Vacuum: An Introduction to Quantum Electrodynamics (1994); S. S. Schweber, QED and the Men Who Made It: Dyson, Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga (1994); G. Scharf, Finite Quantum Electrodynamics: The Causal Approach (1995).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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