The **Dirac equation** is a relativistic quantum mechanical wave equation invented by Paul Dirac in 1928. It provides a description of elementary spin-1/2 particles, such as electrons, that is fully consistent with the principles of quantum mechanics and largely consistent with the theory of special relativity. It also accounts in a natural way for the nature of particle spin and the existence of antiparticles.

Table of contents |

2 Derivation of the Dirac equation 3 Electromagnetic interaction 4 Relativistically covariant notation 5 References |

Since the Dirac equation was originally invented to describe the electron, we will generally speak of "electrons" in this article. Actually, the equation applies to other types of elementary spin-1/2 particles, such as neutrinos. A modified Dirac equation can be used to approximately describe protons and neutrons, which are made of smaller particles called quarks and are therefore not elementary particles.

The Dirac equation is

Despite these successes, the theory is flawed by its neglect of the possibility of creating and destroying particles, one of the basic consequences of relativity. This difficulty is resolved by reformulating it as a quantum field theory. Adding a quantized electromagnetic field to this theory leads to the modern theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED). For a more detailed discussion of the field formulation, refer to the article on Dirac field theory.

The Dirac equation is a special case of the Schrödinger equation, which describes the time-evolution of a quantum mechanical system:

We have to specify the Hamiltonian so that it appropriately describes the total energy of the system in question. Let us consider a "free" electron isolated from all external force fields. For a non-relativistic model, we adopt a Hamiltonian analogous to the kinetic energy of classical mechanics (ignoring spin for the moment):

These conditions cannot be satisfied if the α's are ordinary numbers, but they can be satisfied if the α's are matrices. The matrices must be Hermitian, so that the Hamiltonian is Hermitian. The smallest matrices that work are 4×4 matrices, but there is more than one possible choice, or representation, of matrices. Although the choice of representation does not affect the properties of the Dirac equation, it *does* affect the physical meaning of the individual components of the wavefunction.

In the introduction, we presented the representation used by Dirac. This representation can be more compactly written as

It is now straightforward to carry out the square root, which gives the Dirac equation. The Hamiltonian in this equation,

We may explicitly write the wavefunction as a column matrix:

The dual wavefunction can be written as a row matrix:

As in ordinary single-particle quantum mechanics, the "absolute square" of the wavefunction gives the probability density of the particle at each position **x** and time *t*. In this case, the "absolute square" is obtained by matrix multiplication:

The values of the wavefunction components depend on the coordinate system. Dirac showed how *ψ* transforms under general changes of coordinate system, including rotations in three-dimensional space as well as Lorentz transformations between relativistic frames of reference. It turns out that *ψ* does not transform like a vector under rotations and is in fact a type of object known as a spinor.

In the non-relativistic limit, the *ε* spinor component reduces to the kinetic energy of the particle, which is negligible compared to *pc*:

The negative *E* solutions found in the preceding section are problematic, for relativistic mechanics tells us that the energy of a particle at rest (*p = 0*) should be *E = mc²* rather than *E = -mc²*. Mathematically speaking, however, there seems to be no reason for us to reject the negative-energy solutions. Since they exist, we cannot simply ignore them, for once we include the interaction between the electron and the electromagnetic field, any electron placed in a positive-energy eigenstate would decay into negative-energy eigenstates of successively lower energy by emitting excess energy in the form of photons. Real electrons obviously do not behave in this way.

To cope with this problem, Dirac introduced the hypothesis, known as **hole theory**, that the vacuum is the many-body quantum state in which all the negative-energy electron eigenstates are occupied. This description of the vacuum as a "sea" of electrons is called the Dirac sea. Since the Pauli exclusion principle forbids electrons from occupying the same state, any additional electron would be forced to occupy a positive-energy eigenstate, and positive-energy electrons would be forbidden from decaying into negative-energy eigenstates.

Dirac further reasoned that if the negative-energy eigenstates are incompletely filled, each unoccupied eigenstate – called a **hole** – would behave like a positively charged particle. The hole possesses a *positive* energy, since energy is required to create a particle–hole pair from the vacuum. Dirac initially thought that the hole was a proton, but Hermann Weyl pointed out that the hole should behave as if it had the same mass as an electron, whereas the proton is over a thousand times heavier. The hole was eventually identified as the positron, experimentally discovered by Carl Anderson in 1932.

By necessity, hole theory assumes that the negative-energy electrons in the Dirac sea interact neither with each other nor with the positive-energy electrons. Without this assumption, the Dirac sea would produce a huge (in fact infinite) amount of negative electric charge, which must somehow be balanced by a sea of positive charge if the vacuum is to remain electrically neutral. However, it is quite unsatisfactory to postulate that positive-energy electrons should be affected by the electromagnetic field while negative-energy electrons are not. For this reason, physicists have abandoned hole theory in favour of Dirac field theory, which bypasses the problem of negative energy states by treating positrons as true particles. (Caveat: in certain applications of condensed matter physics, the underlying concepts of "hole theory" are certainly valid. The sea of conduction electrons in an electrical conductor, called a Fermi sea, contains electrons with energies up to the chemical potential of the system. An unfilled state in the Fermi sea behaves like a positively-charged electron, though it is referred to as a "hole" rather than a "positron". The negative charge of the Fermi sea is balanced by the positively-charged ionic lattice of the material.)

So far, we have considered an electron that is not in contact with any external fields. Proceeding by analogy with the Hamiltonian of a charged particle in classical electrodynamics, we can modify the Dirac Hamiltonian to include the effect of an electromagnetic field. The revised Hamiltonian is (in SI units):

By setting *φ = 0* and working in the non-relativistic limit, Dirac solved for the top two components in the positive-energy wavefunctions (which, as discussed earlier, are the dominant components in the non-relativistic limit), obtaining

For several years after the discovery of the Dirac equation, most physicists believed that it also described the proton and the neutron, which are both spin-1/2 particles. However, beginning with the experiments of Stern and Frisch in 1933, the magnetic moments of these particles were found to disagree significantly with the predictions of the Dirac equation. The proton has a magnetic moment 2.79 times larger than predicted (with the proton mass inserted for *m* in the above formulas), i.e., a g-factor of 5.58. The neutron, which is electrically neutral, has a g-factor of -3.83. These "anomalous magnetic moments" were the first experimental indication that the proton and neutron are not elementary particles. They are in fact composed of smaller particles called quarks.

It is noteworthy that the Hamiltonian can be written as the sum of two terms:

where

Let us return to the Dirac equation for the free electron. It is often useful to write the equation in a relativistically covariant form, in which the derivatives with time and space are treated on the same footing.

To do this, first recall that the momentum operator **p** acts like a spatial derivative:

The Dirac equation may now be written, using the position-time four-vector *x* = (*ct*,**x**), as

- P.A.M. Dirac, Proc. R. Soc.
**A117**610 (1928) - P.A.M. Dirac, Proc. R. Soc.
**A126**360 (1930) - C.D. Anderson, Phys. Rev.
**43**, 491 (1933) - R. Frisch and O. Stern, Z. Phys.
**85**4 (1933)

- Dirac, P.A.M.,
*Principles of Quantum Mechanics*, 4th edition (Clarendon, 1982) - Shankar, R.,
*Principles of Quantum Mechanics*, 2nd edition (Plenum, 1994)