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Origin of Word Photon

June 9, 2011

When do you think was the word “photon” first coined? Your first guess might be somewhere around 1900-1910, when Einstein and Planck introduced the idea of light quantum or das Lichtquantas as Einstein called them. But interestingly, neither Enistein nor Planck coined the word photon. The word photon was introduced by chemist Gilbert Lewis in 1926 when he wrote a letter to Nature magazine titled ” The conservation of Photons”. The letter was published in December 1926 issue of Nature magazine. In the letter he introduced his hypothesis “we are dealing here with a new type of atom, an identifiable entity, uncreatable and indestructible, which acts as the carrier of radiant energy and, after absorption, persists as an essential constituent of the absorbing atom until it is later sent out…… I therefore take the liberty of proposing for this hypothetical new atom, which is not light but plays an essential part in every process of radiation, the name photonYou can read the complete letter here. His theory and explanation about light failed but the word ‘photon’ he introduced, survived.

The word photon can be broken down to Greek word phōs, which means light. Phōs can also be related to Sanskrit word bhā or ābhā which means light. Other words originating from phōs were already in use by that time (photo, photograph, photometer). I plotted frequency of occurrence of words –photon and photograph– in books during the years 1800-2000 using Google ngram which gives us an idea of the evolution of both the words. As you can clearly see, photon became popular after 1926 while the word photography was already in vogue by that time. But it’s interesting to see a hump in photon curve during 1900-1910, same time period during which Planck and Einstein presented their idea of light quantum. I don’t have an explanation for that, whether it’s an artifact from Google ngram data sampling or whether the word photon was used sometime even earlier than 1926, but it would be interesting to investigate.

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1 Comment Leave a Comment

  • 1. Cameron  |  June 12, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Perhaps the occurrences of “photon” before 1926 are due to foreign language texts that were translated after 1926?

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