The Elemental Unit

In order to set the stage for the rest of chapter 7, we must explore in depth the concept of the elemental unit of energy, h. Preston Harold writes:

In physics, the might, magnificence, and yet exquisite delicacy of the control of one is come upon when man encounters, as he must at every turn, h, an elemental unit of energy: .00000000000000000000000000655 erg-seconds. The erg is the unit of energy, the second is the unit of time, h is of the nature of energy multiplied by time.

Harold then goes on to cite Sir Arthur Eddington. I will quote Eddington at length:

Evidently h is a kind of atom – something which coheres as one unit in the process of radiation; it is not an atom of matter but an atom or, as we usually call it, a quantum of the more elusive entity in action. Whereas there are [103] different kinds of material atoms there is only one quantum of action – the same whatever the material it is associated with…. You might perhaps think that there must be some qualitative difference between the quantum of red light and the quantum of blue light, although both contain the same number of erg-seconds.; but the apparent difference is only relative to a frame of space and time and does not concern the absolute lump of action…


The indivisible units in the shuffling of energy are the quanta. By radiation, absorption and scattering energy is shuffled among the different receptacles in matter and aether, but only a whole quantum passes at each step…

The paradoxical nature of the quantum is that although it is indivisible it does not hang together. We examined first a case in which a quantity of energy was obviously cohering together, viz. an electron, but we did not find h; then we turned our attention to a case in which the energy was obviously dissolving away through space, viz. light-waves, and immediately h appeared. The atom of action seems to have no coherence in space; it has a unity which overlaps space. How can such a unity be made to appear in our picture of a world extended through space ad time?

The pursuit of the quantum leads to many surprises; but probably none is more outrageous to our preconceptions than the regathering of light and other radiant energy into h-units, when all the classical pictures show it to be dispersing more and more.

Consider the light-waves which are the result of a single emission by a single atom on the star Sirius. These bear away a certain amount of energy endowed with a certain period, and the product of the two is h. The period is carried by the waves without change, but the energy spreads out in an ever-widening circle. Eight years and nine months after the emission the wave-front is due to reach the earth. A few minutes before the arrival some person takes it into his head to go out and admire the glories of the heavens and – in short – to stick his eye in the way. The light waves when they started could have had no notion that they were going to hit; for all they knew they were bound on a journey through endless space, as most of their colleagues were. Their energy would seem to be dissipated beyond recovery over a sphere of 50 billion miles’ radius. And yet, if that energy is ever to enter matter again, if it is to work those chemical changes in the retina which give rise to the sensation of light, it must enter as a single quantum of action h….


Just as the emitting atom regardless of all laws of classical physics is determined that whatever goes out of it shall be just h, so the receiving atom is determined that whatever comes into it shall be just h. Not all the light-waves pass by without entering the eye; for somehow we are able to see Sirius. How is it managed?

So how would Jesus express these words of Eddington concerning h over 2000 years ago? We will look at that challenge in our next installment. Until then, peace.

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