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Photons Visualized

  1. Jun 27, 2011 #1
    Hello again,

    After asking for a better way to visualize electrons around a nucleus (and receiving one - thank you alxm), I am now left wondering about photons. How should I go about visualizing them? I have heard that they have a wavefunction, just like electrons do, but I would like to know more about the nature of that wavefunction.

    What does the wavefunction describe?

    What does the frequency describe?

    Does the wave fill a given area, or is it confined?

    Is there a good picture/diagram of how I should picture a photon?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 27, 2011 #2


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    fine .. sure .. thank alxm and not me ... I see how it is with you! :rofl:

    Anyway, photons can NOT in general be described by wavefunctions. In the theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED), photons are represented as excitations of the harmonic modes of the electromagnetic field. The only useful visual representation of photons that I can think of that retains any connection to valid physical concepts is as wavy lines on Feyman diagrams.

    Anyway, have you read the wikipedia on photons? It is pretty good and rather accessible .. as usual with Wiki .. it is a good place to start.
  4. Jun 27, 2011 #3
    Ah, I'm very sorry about that. Thanks to you as well!

    Anyhow, are you saying that it's in some way like vibrations traveling through the field at the speed of light?

    I have in the past always visualized something like an infinite number of guitar strings in every possible direction away from a particle in which a "train" of vibrations or waves can travel. A photon would be analogous to one "train" on one of those strings.
  5. Jun 28, 2011 #4
    Your analogy is a complete throwback to the aether theory of 150 years ago, which is the very thing which Einstein and Quantum Mechanics destroyed.

    A photon is a self contained packet of perpedicular magnetic and electric oscillating fields. It knows which way to go because it has direction in its package of specifications at the moment of creation. Its speed is fixed, because its package also contains the specification 0 mass, and 0-mass things travel at the one universal constant distance/length 'c'. The photon has those properties.

    That may not be the best formal description, but it will be a better starting point for refinement than strings, or air-like media, etc. You will wind up discarding those things eventually, and they are actually more confusing in the long run.
  6. Jun 28, 2011 #5
    Wait, I was visualizing the strings as being the electric field around a charged particle, through which vibrations travel. That is the aether theory? I can't believe how outdated/wrong I am every time I try to imagine things. Ha.

    So is the electric field something else?
  7. Jun 28, 2011 #6
    Don't worry about feeling wrong around here. With every response from a particular mod, I feel wrong, confusing, even morally defective. Every discussion board has it's valence shells to fill, and you will always get at least one.

    Let's not confuse an analogy with a (semi-) real model. If you suggest it's 'like' strings the photons travel on, it sounds too close to the photon requiring 'something' medium-like (or other) for its travel-existence. But to get any further I really need a sketch you can paste in here somewhere. Your description is hard to picture.
  8. Jun 28, 2011 #7
    See video below for animation of my original picture.

    I am now thinking that this model is wrong in the sense that photons do not travel out in all directions simultaneously from the electron, but rather, they fly out in one direction, one at a time.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  9. Jun 28, 2011 #8
    Your model appears to closely resemble a neo-etheral view of light propagation through the sum of all electric and magnetic fields in the universe. The view is that, although fields of proximate opposite charge elementary particles are neutralized distally, their magnetic and electric field components still exist and can act as a 'medium' by means of which light can travel, and that is in fact what light is.

    That may not be what you mean, but as far as I can see, your model does depend on fields external to the photon for it to travel. The modern view has the photon completely self-contained, ready to roll, batteries included.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  10. Jun 28, 2011 #9
    According to this view, the "field" where the electrical force can be exerted on other particles is also made up of self-contained photons....And those photons don't move...Correct?
  11. Jun 28, 2011 #10
    At that point, the discussion gets way over my head. I understand that fields have associated exchange-particles responsible for the 'exertion of force', and for the electro-magnetic field, that is the photon. Real or virtual, I do not know. If it's real, it has real momentum and momentum must be conserved; and being light, according to its manners and morals it moves at c.
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