- Planck units
Planck units are
units of measurementnamed after the German physicist Max Planck, who first proposed them in 1899. They are an example of natural units, i.e. units of measurement designed so that certain fundamental physical constantsare normalized to 1. In Planck units, the constants thus normalized are:
gravitational constant, "G";
Dirac's constantor reduced Planck's constant, ;
speed of lightin a vacuum, "c";
*the Coulomb force constant,
Boltzmann's constant, "k"B (or simply "k"). Each of these constants can be associated with at least one fundamental physical theory: "c" with special relativity, "G" with general relativityand Newtonian gravity, with quantum physics, "ε"0 with electrostatics, and "k" with statistical mechanicsand thermodynamics. Planck units have profound significance for theoretical physics since they elegantly simplify several recurring algebraic expressions of physical law. They are particularly relevant in research on unified theories such as quantum gravity.
Base Planck units
All systems of measurement feature "base units". (In the SI system, for example, the base unit of length is the
meter.) In the system of Planck units, the Planck base unit of length is known simply as the Planck length, the base unit of time is the Planck time, etc. These units are derived from the five fundamental physical constants in Table 1, which are arranged in Table 2 so as to cancel out the unwanted dimensions, leaving only the dimension appropriate to each unit. (Like all systems of natural units, Planck units are an instance of dimensional analysis.)
Table 1: Fundamental physical constants
Planck units simplify the key equations of physics
Ordinarily, physical quantities that have different dimensions (such as time and length) cannot be equated even if they are numerically equal (1 second is not the same as 1 metre). However, in theoretical physics this scruple can be set aside in order to simplify calculations. The process by which this is done is called
Nondimensionalization. Table 4 shows how Planck units, by setting the numerical values of the five fundamental constants to unity, simplify many equations of physics and make them nondimensional.
Table 4: Nondimensionalized equations
As already stated in the introduction, Planck units are derived by "normalizing" the numerical values of certain fundamental constants to 1. These normalizations are neither the only ones possible, nor necessarily the best. Moreover, the choice of what constants to normalize is not evident, and the values of the Planck units are sensitive to this choice.
The factor 4π, and multiples of it such as 8π, are ubiquitous in formulas in
theoretical physicsbecause it is the surface area of the unit spherein three dimensions. For example, gravitational and electrostatic fields produced by point charges have spherical symmetry. (Barrow 2002: 214-15) The 4π"r"2 appearing in the denominator of Coulomb's law, for example, reflects the fact that the fluxof electric field distributes uniformly on the surface of the sphere. If space had more dimensions, the factor corresponding to 4π would be different.
In any event, a fundamental choice that has to be made when designing a system of natural units is which, if any, instances of 4"n"π appearing in the equations of physics are to be eliminated via normalization.
*Setting "ε"0 = 1.Planck normalized to 1 the
Coulomb force constant1/(4π"ε"0) (as does the cgssystem of units). This sets the Planck impedance, "Z"P equal to "Z"0/4π, where "Z"0 is the characteristic impedance of free space. Normalizing the permittivity of free space"ε"0 to 1 not only would make "Z"P equal to "Z"0, but would also eliminate 4π from Maxwell's equations. On the other hand, the nondimensionalized form of Coulomb's law would now include a factor of 1/(4π).
*Setting 4"n"π"G" = 1.In 1899,
general relativitylay some years in the future, so that Newton's law of universal gravitationwas still seen as fundamental, rather than as a convenient approximation holding for "small" velocities and distances. Hence Planck normalized to 1 the gravitational constant"G" in Newton's law. In theories emerging after 1899, "G" is nearly always multiplied by 4π or multiples.:* 4π"G" appears in the::** Gauss's law for gravity, Φg = −4π"GM";:** Characteristic impedanceof gravitational radiationin free space, "Z"0 = 4π"G"/"c". [ [http://arxiv.org/abs/0710.1378v4 arXiv:0710.1378v4] ] The "c" in the denominator stems from the general relativityprediction that gravitational radiation propagates at the same speed as electromagnetic radiation; :**Gravitoelectromagnetic (GEM) equations, which hold in weak gravitational fields or reasonably flat space-time. These equations have the same form as Maxwell's equations (and the Lorentz forceequation) of electromagnetism, with mass densityreplacing charge density, and with 1/(4π"G") replacing ε0.:*8π"G" appears in the Einstein field equations, Einstein-Hilbert action, Friedmann equations, and the Poisson equationfor gravitation. Planck units modified so that 8π"G" = 1 are known as "reduced Planck units", because the Planck mass is divided by :*Setting 16π"G" = 1 would eliminate the constant "k" = "c"4/(16π"G") from the Einstein-Hilbert action. The Einstein field equationswith cosmological constantΛ becomes "Rμν" − Λ"gμν" = ("Rgμν" − "Tμν")/2.
Hence a substantial body of physical theory discovered since Planck (1899) suggests normalizing to 1 not "G" but 4"n"π"G", "n" = 1, 2, or 4. However, doing so would introduce a factor of 1/(4"n"π) into the nondimensionalized law of universal gravitation.
*Setting "k" to 2.This would remove the factor of 2 in the nondimensionalized equation for the
thermal energyper particle per degree of freedom, and would not affect the value of any base or derived unit other than the Planck temperature.
Uncertainties in values
Planck units are clearly defined in terms of fundamental constants in Table 2 and yet, relative to other units of measurement such as SI, the values of those units are only known "approximately". This is mostly due to uncertainty in the value of the gravitational constant "G".
Today the value of the speed of light "c" in SI units is not subject to measurement error, because the SI base unit of length, the
metre, is now "defined" as the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of nowrap|1/299 792 458 of a second. Hence the value of "c" is now exact by definition, and contributes no uncertainty to the SI equivalents of the Planck units. The same is true of the value of the vacuum permittivity "ε"0, due to the definition of amperewhich sets the vacuum permeability"μ"0 to nowrap|4π × 10−7 H/m and the fact that "μ"0"ε"0 = 1/"c"2. The numerical value of Dirac's constant "ℏ" has been determined experimentally to 50 parts per billion, while that of "G" has been determined experimentally to no better than 1 part in 10000. "G" appears in the definition of almost every Planck unit in Tables 2 and 3. Hence the uncertainty in the values of the Table 2 and 3 SI equivalents of the Planck units derives almost entirely from uncertainty in the value of "G". (The propagation of the error in "G" is a function of the exponent of "G" in the algebraic expression for a unit. Since that exponent is ±frac|1|2 for every base unit other than Planck charge, the relative uncertainty of each base unit is about one half that of "G". This is indeed the case; according to CODATA, the experimental values of the SI equivalents of the base Planck units are known to about 1 part in 20,000.)
Physicists sometimes humorously refer to Planck units as "God's units", as Planck units are free of arbitrary anthropocentricity. Unlike the
meterand second, which exist as fundamental units in the SIsystem for historical reasons, the Planck lengthand Planck timeare conceptually linked at a fundamental physical level.
Some Planck units are suitable for measuring quantities that are familiar from daily experience. For example:
Planck massis about 22 micrograms;
Planck momentumis about 6.5 kg m/s;
Planck energyis about 500 kWh;
Planck chargeis slightly more than 11 elementary charges;
Planck impedanceis very nearly 30 ohms.
However, most Planck units are many
orders of magnitudetoo large or too small to be of any empirical and practical use, so that Planck units as a system are really only relevant to theoretical physics. In fact, 1 Planck unit is often the largest or smallest value of a physical quantity that makes sense given the current state of physical theory. For example:
*a speed of 1 Planck length per Planck time is the
speed of lightin a vacuum, the maximum possible velocity in special relativity;
*our understanding of the
Big Bangbegins with the Planck Epoch, when the universe grew older and larger than about 1 Planck time and 1 Planck length, at which time it cooled below about 1 Planck temperature and quantum theory as presently understood becomes applicable. Understanding the universe when it was less than 1 Planck time old requires a theory of quantum gravity, incorporating quantum effects into general relativity. Such a theory does not yet exist;
*at a Planck temperature of 1, all symmetries are broken since the early Big Bang would be restored, and the four fundamental forces of contemporary physical theory would become one force.
Relative to the
Planck Epoch, the universe today looks extreme when expressed in Planck units, as in this set of approximations (see for example): [* John D. Barrow, 2002. "The Constants of Nature; From Alpha to Omega - The Numbers that Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe". Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-375-42221-8.] and [ Frank J. Tipler, 1986. "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle". Oxford University Press. Harder.]
Table 5: Today's universe in Planck units
Natural units can help physicists reframe questions. An example of such reframing is the following passage by
Natural unitsbegan in 1881, when George Johnstone Stoneyderived units of length, time, and mass, now named Stoney unitsin his honor, by normalizing "G", "c", and the electron charge "e" to 1. (Stoney was also the first to hypothesize that electric charge is quantized and hence to see the fundamental character of "e".) Max Planckfirst set out the base units ("qP" excepted) later named in his honor, in a paper presented to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in May 1899. [Planck (1899), p. 479.] [*Tomilin, K. A., 1999, " [http://dbserv.ihep.su/~pubs/tconf99/ps/tomil.pdf Natural Systems of Units: To the Centenary Anniversary of the Planck System,] " 287-96.] That paper also includes the first appearance of a constant named "b", and later called "h" and named after him. The paper gave numerical values for the base units, in terms of the metric system of his day, that were remarkably close to those in Table 2. We are not sure just how Planck came to discover these units because his paper gave no algebraic details. But he did explain why he valued these units as follows:
quotation|"...ihre Bedeutung für alle Zeiten und für alle, auch außerirdische und außermenschliche Kulturen notwendig behalten und welche daher als »natürliche Maßeinheiten« bezeichnet werden können..."...These necessarily retain their meaning for all times and for all civilizations, even extraterrestrial and non-human ones, and can therefore be designated as "natural units"...
Planck units and the invariant scaling of nature
Dirac (1937), and others after him, have conjectured that some physical "constants" might actually change over time, a proposition that introduces many difficult questions such as:
*How would such a change make a noticeable operational difference in physical measurement or, more basically, our perception of reality?
*If some physical constant had changed, would we even notice it?
*How would physical reality be different?
*Which changed constants would result in a meaningful and measurable difference?
John Barrow has spoken to these questions as follows:
When measuring a length with a ruler or tape measure, one is actually counting tick marks on a given standard, i.e., measuring the length relative to that given standard; the result is a dimensionless value. It is no different for physical experiments, as all physical quantities are measured relative to some other like-dimensioned values. If all physical quantities (masses and other properties of particles) were expressed in terms of Planck units, those quantities would be dimensionless numbers (mass divided by the Planck mass, length divided by the Planck length, etc.) and the only quantities we would measure when observing nature or conducting experiments would be dimensionless numbers. See Duff (2004) and section III.5 (by Duff alone) of Duff, Okun, and Veneziano (2002).
We can notice a difference if some dimensionless physical quantity such as α or the proton/electron mass ratio changes; either change would alter atomic structures. But if all dimensionless physical quantities remained constant (this includes all possible ratios of identically dimensioned physical quantities), we could not tell if a dimensionful quantity, such as the speed of light, "c", had changed. And, indeed, the Tompkins concept becomes meaningless in our existence if a dimensional quantity such as "c" has changed, even drastically.
If the speed of light "c", were somehow suddenly cut in half and changed to frac|"c"|2, (but with "all" dimensionless physical quantities continuing to remain constant), then the
Planck lengthwould "increase" by a factor of √(8) from the point-of-view of some unaffected "god-like" observer on the outside. But then the size of atoms (approximately the Bohr radius) are related to the Planck length by an unchanging dimensionless constant:
Atoms would then be bigger (in one dimension) by √(8), each of us would be taller by √(8), and so would our meter sticks be taller (and wider and thicker) by a factor of √(8) and we would not know the difference. Our perception of distance and lengths relative to the Planck length is logically an unchanging dimensionless constant.
Moreover, our clocks would tick slower by a factor of √(32) (from the point-of-view of this unaffected "god-like" observer) because the Planck time has increased by √(32) but we would not know the difference. (Our perception of durations of time relative to the Planck time is, axiomatically, an unchanging dimensionless constant.) This hypothetical god-like outside observer might observe that light now travels at half the speed that it used to (as well as all other observed velocities) but it would still travel 299792458 of our "new" meters in the time elapsed by one of our "new" seconds (frac|"c"|2 frac|√(32)|√(8) continues to equal 299792458 m/s). "We" would not notice any difference.
This contradicts what
George Gamowwrote in his book " Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland"; where he suggested that if a dimension-dependent universal constant such as "c" changed, we "would" easily notice the difference. The disagreement stems from the ambiguity in the phrase "changing a physical constant"; what would happen depends on whether we hold constant all other (1) dimensionless constants, or (2) dimension-dependent constants. (2) is a somewhat confusing alternative, since most of our units of measurement are defined in relation to the outcomes of physical experiments, and the experimental results depend on the constants. (The only exception is the kilogram.) Gamow does not address this subtlety; the thought experiments he conducts in his popular works tacitly assume that (2) defines a "changing physical constant."
doubly special relativity(a recent and unconventional development of relativity theory) the Planck length is an invariant, minimum length in the same way that the speed of light is an invariant, maximum velocity.
doubly special relativity
*cite book |title=The Constants of Nature; From Alpha to Omega - The Numbers that Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe |last=Barrow |first=John D. |authorlink=John D. Barrow |coauthors= |year=2002 |publisher=Pantheon Books |location=New York |isbn=0375422218 |pages= Easier.
*cite book |title=The Anthropic Cosmological Principle |author=——— |coauthors=Tipler, Frank J. |year=1986 |publisher=Claredon Press |location=Oxford |isbn= 0198519494 |pages= Harder.
*cite journal |last=Duff |first=Michael |authorlink=Michael Duff |coauthors= |year=2002 |month= |title=Comment on time-variation of fundamental constants |journal=ArΧiv e-prints |volume= |issue= |pages= |id=arXiv|hep-th|0208093 |url= |accessdate= |quote=
*cite journal |author=——— |coauthors=Okun, L. B.; Veneziano, Gabriele |year=2002 |month= |title=Trialogue on the number of fundamental constants |journal=Journal of High Energy Physics |volume=3 |issue= |pages=023 |id=arXiv|physics|0110060 |doi=10.1088/1126-6708/2002/03/023 |url= |accessdate= |quote=
*cite journal |last=Planck |first=Max |authorlink=Max Planck |coauthors= |year=1899 |month= |title=Über irreversible Strahlungsvorgänge |journal=Sitzungsberichte der Königlich Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin |volume=5 |issue= |pages=440–480 |id= |url=http://bibliothek.bbaw.de/bibliothek-digital/digitalequellen/schriften/anzeige/index_html?band=10-sitz/1899-1&seite:int=454 |accessdate= |quote= Pp. 478-80 contain the first appearance of the Planck base units other than the
Planck charge, and of Planck's constant, which Planck denoted by "b". "a" and "f" in this paper correspond to "k" and "G" in this entry.
*cite book |title=
The Road to Reality|last=Penrose |first=Roger |authorlink=Roger Penrose |coauthors= |year=2005 |publisher=Alfred A. Knopf |location=New York |isbn=0679454438 |pages=Section 31.1
*cite paper |last=Tomilin |first=K. A. |author= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Natural Systems of Units: To the Centenary Anniversary of the Planck System |version= |pages=287–296 |publisher= |date=1999 |url=http://dbserv.ihep.su/~pubs/tconf99/ps/tomil.pdf |format= |id= |accessdate=
* [http://physics.nist.gov/cuu/Constants/index.html Value of the fundamental constants,] including the Planck base units, as reported by the
National Institute of Standards and Technology(NIST).
*Sections C-E of [http://www.planck.com/ collection of resources] bear on Planck units. Good discussion of why 8π"G" should be normalized to 1 when doing
general relativityand quantum gravity. Many links.
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