How Pair Production and Pair Annihilation Define Light Particles

By observing both pair production and pair annihilation, 20th-century physicists were able to prove that light has the characteristics of a particle. This process of discovery began in 1928, when the physicist Paul Dirac posited the existence of a positively charged anti-electron, the positron. He did this by taking the newly evolving field of quantum physics to new territory by combining relativity with quantum mechanics to create relativistic quantum mechanics — and that was the theory that predicted, through a plus/minus–sign interchange — the existence of the positron.

It was a bold prediction — an anti-particle of the electron? But just four years later, physicists actually saw the positron. Today's high-powered elementary particle physics has all kinds of synchrotrons and other particle accelerators to create all the elementary particles they need, but in the early 20th century, this wasn't always so.

In those days, physicists relied on cosmic rays — those particles and high-powered photons (called gamma rays) that strike the Earth from outer space — as their source of high-energy particles. They used cloud-chambers, which were filled with vapor from dry ice, to see the trails such particles left. They put their chambers into magnetic fields to be able to measure the momentum of the particles as they curved in those fields.

In 1932, a physicist noticed a surprising event. A pair of particles, oppositely charged (which could be determined from the way they curved in the magnetic field) appeared from apparently nowhere. No particle trail led to the origin of the two particles that appeared. That was pair-production — the conversion of a high-powered photon into an electron and positron, which can happen when the photon passes near a heavy atomic nucleus.

So experimentally, physicists had now seen a photon turning into a pair of particles. Wow. As if everyone needed more evidence of the particle nature of light. Later on, researchers also saw pair annihilation: the conversion of an electron and positron into pure light.

Pair production and annihilation turned out to be governed by Einstein's newly introduced theory of relativity — in particular, his most famous formula, E = mc2, which gives the pure energy equivalent of mass. At this point, there was an abundance of evidence of the particle-like aspects of light.

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