Zitterbewegung ("trembling" or "shaking" motion in German) - usually abbreviated as zbw - is a hypothetical rapid oscillatory motion of the electron. Erwin Schrödinger found this motion to be a solution to Dirac’s wave equation for free electrons. Paul Dirac was intrigued by it, as evidenced by his rather prominent mention of it in his 1933 Nobel Prize Lecture (it may be usefully mentioned he shared this Nobel Prize with Schrödinger):
"The variables give rise to some rather unexpected phenomena concerning the motion of the electron. These have been fully worked out by Schrödinger. It is found that an electron which seems to us to be moving slowly, must actually have a very high frequency oscillatory motion of small amplitude superposed on the regular motion which appears to us. As a result of this oscillatory motion, the velocity of the electron at any time equals the velocity of light. This is a prediction which cannot be directly verified by experiment, since the frequency of the oscillatory motion is so high and its amplitude is so small. But one must believe in this consequence of the theory, since other consequences of the theory which are inseparably bound up with this one, such as the law of scattering of light by an electron, are confirmed by experiment.”
In light of Dirac's later comments on modern quantum theory, it is rather puzzling that he did not pursue the idea of trying to understand charged particles in terms of the motion of a pointlike charge, which is what the Zitterbewegung hypothesis seems to offer. Dirac's views on non-leptonic fermions - which were then (1950s and 1960s) being analyzed in an effort to explain the 'particle zoo' in terms of decay reactions conserving newly invented or ad hoc quantum numbers such as strangeness - may be summed up by quoting the last paragraph in the last edition of his Principles of Quantum Mechanics:
"Now there are other kinds of interactions, which are revealed in high-energy physics. [...] These interactions are not at present sufficiently well understood to be incorporated into a system of equations of motion."
Indeed, in light of this stated preference for kinematic models, it is somewhat baffling that Dirac did not follow up on this or any of the other implications of the Zitterbewegung hypothesis. The Zitterbewegung hypothesis also seems to offer interesting shortcuts to key results of mainstream quantum theory. For example, one can show that, for the hydrogen atom, the Zitterbewegung produces the Darwin term which plays the role in the fine structure as a small correction of the energy level of the s-orbitals. This is why authors such as Hestenes refer to it as a possible alternative interpretation of mainstream quantum mechanics, which may be a somewhat exaggerated claim in light of the fact that the zbw hypothesis results from the study of electron behavior only.
Zitterbewegung models have mushroomed and it is, therefore, increasingly difficult to distinguish between them. The key to understanding and distinguishing the various Zitterbewegung models may well be Wheeler's 'mass without mass' idea, which implies a distinction between the idea of (i) a pointlike electric charge (i.e. the idea of a charge only, with zero rest mass) and (ii) the idea of an electron as an elementary particle whose equivalent mass is the energy of the zbw oscillation of the pointlike charge. The 'mass without mass' concept requires a force to act on a charge - and a charge only - to explain why a force changes the state of motion of an object - its momentum p = mγ·v (with γ referring to the Lorentz factor) - in accordance with the (relativistically correct) F = dp/dt force law.
The oscillation has an angular frequency of ω = 2mc2/ħ, or approximately 1.5527×1021 radians per second, but the 1/2 factor vanishes if one uses the effective mass concept (see below). The theory also explains the Compton radius re =ħ/mec and the intrinsic properties of the electron (spin, magnetic moment, etcetera).
The zbw hypothesis goes back to Schrödinger's and Dirac's efforts to try to explain what an electron actually is. Unfortunately, both interpreted the electron as a pointlike particle with no 'internal structure'.David Hestenes is to be credited with reviving the Zitterbewegung hypothesis in the early 1990s. While acknowledging its origin as a (trivial) solution to Dirac's equation for electrons, Hestenes argues the Zitterbewegung should be related to the intrinsic properties of the electron (charge, spin and magnetic moment). He argues that the Zitterbewegung hypothesis amounts to a physical interpretation of the elementary wavefunction or - more boldly - to a possible physical interpretation of all of quantum mechanics: "Spin and phase [of the wavefunction] are inseparably related — spin is not simply an add-on, but an essential feature of quantum mechanics. [...] A standard observable in Dirac theory is the Dirac current, which doubles as a probability current and a charge current. However, this does not account for the magnetic moment of the electron, which many investigators conjecture is due to a circulation of charge. But what is the nature of this circulation? [...] Spin and phase must be kinematical features of electron motion. The charge circulation that generates the magnetic moment can then be identified with the Zitterbewegung of Schrödinger " Hestenes' interpretation amounts to an kinematic model of an electron which can be described in terms of John Wheeler's mass without mass concept. The rest mass of the electron is analyzed as the equivalent energy of an orbital motion of a pointlike charge. This pointlike charge has no rest mass and must, therefore, move at the speed of light (which confirms Dirac's en Schrödinger's remarks on the nature of the Zitterbewegung). Hestenes summarizes his interpretation as follows: “The electron is nature's most fundamental superconducting current loop. Electron spin designates the orientation of the loop in space. The electron loop is a superconducting LC circuit. The mass of the electron is the energy in the electron's electromagnetic field. Half of it is magnetic potential energy and half is kinetic.”
Hestenes' articles and papers on the Zitterbewegung discuss the electron only. The interpretation of an electron as a superconducting ring of current (or as a (two-dimensional) oscillator) also works for the muon electron: its theoretical Compton radius rC = ħ/mμc ≈ 1.87 fm falls within the CODATA confidence interval for the experimentally determined charge radius. Hence, the theory seems to offer a remarkably and intuitive model of leptons. However, the model cannot be generalized to non-leptonic fermions (spin-1/2 particles). Its application to protons or neutrons, for example, is problematic: when inserting the energy of a proton or a neutron into the formula for the Compton radius (the rC = ħ/mc formula follows from the kinematic model), we get a radius of the order of rC = ħ/mpc ≈ 0.21 fm, which is about 1/4 of the measured value (0.84184(67) fm to 0.897(18) fm). A radius of the order of 0.2 fm is also inconsistent with the presumed radius of the pointlike charge itself. Indeed, while the pointlike charge is supposed to be pointlike, pointlike needs to be interpreted as 'having no internal structure': it does not imply the pointlike charge has no (small) radius itself. The classical electron radius is a likely candidate for the radius of the pointlike charge because it emerges from low-energy (Thomson) scattering experiments (elastic scattering of photons, as opposed to inelastic Compton scattering). The assumption of a pointlike charge with radius re = α·ħ/mpc) may also offer a geometric explanation of the anomalous magnetic moment.
However, the proton - or nucleons in general - cannot be explained in terms of the Zitterbewegung of a positron (or a heavier variant of it, such as the muon- or tau-positron). This is why it is generally assumed the large energy (and the small size) of nucleons is to be explained by another force - a strong force which acts on a strong charge instead of an electric charge. One should note that both color and/or flavor in the standard quark-gluon model of the strong force may be thought of as zero-mass charges in 'mass without mass' kinematic models and, hence, the acknowledgment of this problem does not generally lead zbw theorists to abandon the quest for an alternative realist interpretation of quantum mechanics.
While Hestenes' zbw interpretation (and the geometric calculus approach he developed) is elegant and attractive, he did not seem to have managed to convincingly explain an obvious question of critics of the model: what keeps the pointlike charge in the zbw electron in its circular orbit? To put it simply: one may think of the electron as a superconducting ring but there is no material ring to hold and guide the charge. Of course, one may argue that the electromotive force explains the motion but this raises the fine-tuning problem: the slightest deviation of the pointlike charge from its circular orbit would yield disequilibrium and, therefore, non-stability. [One should note the fine-tuning problem is also present in mainstream quantum mechanics. See, for example, the discussion in Feynman's Lectures on Physics.] The lack of a convincing answer to these and other questions (e.g. on the distribution of (magnetic) energy within the superconducting ring) led several theorists working on electron models (e.g. Alexander Burinskii) to move on and explore alternative geometric approaches, including Kerr-Newman geometries. Burinskii summarizes his model as follows: "The electron is a superconducting disk defined by an over-rotating black hole geometry. The charge emerges from the Möbius structure of the Kerr geometry." His advanced modelling of the electron also allows for a conceptual bridge with mainstream quantum mechanics, grand unification theories and string theory: "[...] Compatibility between gravity and quantum theory can be achieved without modifications of Einstein-Maxwell equations, by coupling to a supersymmetric Higgs model of symmetry breaking and forming a nonperturbative super-bag solution, which generates a gravity-free Compton zone necessary for consistent work of quantum theory. Super-bag is naturally upgraded to Wess-Zumino supersymmetric QED model, forming a bridge to perturbative formalism of conventional QED."
The various geometric approaches (Hestenes' geometric calculus, Burinskii's Kerr-Newman model, and simple oscillator models) yield the same results (the intrinsic properties of the electron are derived from what may be referred to as kinematic equations or classical (but relativistically correct) equations) - except for a factor 2 or 1/2 or the inclusion (or not) of variable tuning parameters (Burinskii's model, for example, allows for a variable geometry) - but the equivalence of the various models that may or may not explain the hypothetical Zitterbewegung still needs to be established.
The continued interest in zbw models may be explained because Zitterbewegung models - in particular Hestenes' model and the oscillator model - are intuitive and, therefore, attractive. They are intuitive because they combine the Planck-Einstein relation (E = hf) and Einstein's mass-energy equivalence (E = mc2): each cycle of the Zitterbewegung electron effectively packs (i) the unit of physical action (h) and (ii) the electron’s energy. This allows one to understand Planck’s quantum of action as the product of the electron’s energy and the cycle time: h = E·T = h·f·T = h·f/f = h. In addition, the idea of a centripetal force keeping some zero-mass pointlike charge in a circular orbit also offers a geometric explanation of Einstein's mass-energy equivalence relation: this equation, therefore, is no longer a rather inexplicable consequence of special relativity theory.
The oscillator model
See the mass without mass model.
The Zitterbewegung may remain theoretical because, as Dirac notes, the frequency may be too high to be observable: it is the same frequency as that of a 0.511 MeV gamma-ray. However, some experiments may offer indirect evidence. Dirac's reference to electron scattering experiments is also quite relevant because such experiments yield two radii: a radius for elastic scattering (the classical electron radius) and a radius for inelastic scattering (the Compton radius). Zittebewegung theorists think Compton scattering involves electron-photon interference: the energy of the high-energy photon (X- or gamma-ray photons) is briefly absorbed before the electron comes back to its equilibrium situation by emitting another (lower-energy) photon (the difference in the energy of the incoming and the outgoing photon gives the electron some extra momentum). Because of this presumed interference effect, Compton scattering is referred to as inelastic. In contrast, low-energy photons scatter elastically: they seem to bounce off some hard core inside of the electron (no interference).
The effective mass of the pointlike electric charge
The 2m factor in the formula for the zbw frequency and the interpretation of the Zitterbewegung in terms of a centripetal force acting on a pointlike charge with zero rest mass leads one to re-explore the concept of the effective mass of an electron. Indeed, if we write the effective mass of the pointlike charge as mγ = γm0 then we can derive its value from the angular momentum of the electron (L = ħ/2) using the general angular momentum formula L = r × p and equating r to the Compton radius:
This explains the 1/2 factor in the frequency formula for the Zitterbewegung. Substituting m for mγ in the ω = 2mc2/ħ yields an equivalence with the Planck-Einstein relation ω = mγc2/ħ. The electron can then be described as an oscillator (in two dimensions) whose natural frequency is given by the Planck-Einstein relation.
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