Dirac Sea and Antiparticles

In here, I mentioned that one of the issues of the Klein-Gordon equation is that it admits solutions yielding negative energies.This issue continues to appear with the Dirac equation which is a relativistic generalization of the Schrödinger equation. (I will discuss the Dirac equation later in a different note.) The possibility that an electron can keep falling down to a higher negative energy level indefinitely seems unphysical and initially the suggestion had to face a huge backlash from physicists including Wolfgang Pauli. P.A.M. Dirac came up with a brilliant idea based on electron hole that each negative energy state is filled by an electron (remember that electrons are fermions so no more than one electron can occupy the same energy state due to Pauli’s exclusion principle). This idea is called Dirac sea of infinite electrons. Since all negative energy states are already occupied by electrons, an electron cannot fall down below zero energy level. This may not, however, definitely be true as David Hilbert has shown in his paradox of the Grand Hotel even after the negative energy states are all occupied by electrons it may accommodate additional electrons. Dirac also suggested that it may be possible that all negative energy levels are filled by electrons except for one. This would leave a hole with a negative energy. This hole was interpreted as a positron, the antiparticle on an electron. While it is a brilliant idea, Dirac sea also appears to be unphysical. Regardless, positron was discovered by Carl Anderson in 1932 and no one raised an issue about it afterwards. Move along, nothing to see here. Still it seems that many physicists are not very comfortable with the notion of Dirac sea and that they don’t believe that it is an actual physical reality. Dirac sea is nowadays introduced more for a pedagogical purpose rather than for the purpose of defining antiparticles. In modern quantum field theory, antiparticles are defined by wave functions traveling backward in time. If I remember correctly, this definition of antiparticles is due to John Archibald Wheeler. Note that those wave functions traveling backward in time do have negative energies.

Here is a thought. Physically an electron would have the minimum energy at rest and the rest energy is given by $E_0=mc^2$. This can be obtained by putting ${\bf p}\cdot{\bf p}=0$ in the relativistic energy-momentum relation. In fact, since ${\bf p}\cdot{\bf p}\geq 0$, we have $$E^2\geq m_0^2c^4$$ which implies that either $E\geq m_0c^2$ or $E\leq -m_0c^2$. So we can say that the energy of an electron cannot be negative and that the negative energy condition could be considered as merely a mathematical fluke. But if that were the case, what about antiparticles? That is a big question which seems to have no apparent answer within conventional quantum theory and for this reason physicists are still sticking to the negative energies.

I am currently working on an unconventional quantum theory and this might shed light on alternative possibility of antiparticles. Those who are curious can read about its brief idea and motivation here. In that quantum theory, antiparticles, while having positive energies, are described by wave functions that have negative probabilities. Of course the notion of negative probabilities sounds unphysical but it actually isn’t in this case. According to the theory, antiparticles do not live in our universe but in its twin parallel universe where the roles of time coordinate and a spatial coordinate are switched from those in our universe. While the wave function of an antiparicle is seen to have a negative probability in our universe, it actually has a positive probability in its own universe. I will write more details about it elsewhere in the very near future.

2 thoughts on “Dirac Sea and Antiparticles

  1. Collin Merenoff

    Negative probability is, in a sense, equivalent to backward time. However, this interpretation is that a state approaching a forbidden configuration goes, so to speak, “back and tries again” until another path is found. Such a backward state is definable only in the Wigner formalism. In the two formalisms of standard QM, Schrodinger and Heisenberg, it’s meaningless.

    Antiparticles, however, are very much a part of the standard formalisms. They are also very common among the actual particles detected in experiments. A backward state, however, is necessarily completely unobservable, because a detection of it would always be wiped out of existence by the forward state that follows.

    1. Sung Lee Post author

      No, in standard quantum theory, wave functions that propagate backward in time still have positive probabilities. The interpretation of antiparticles as wave functions that propagate backward in time is standard in quantum field theory. See, for instance, Anthony Zee’s Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell.


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