Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Photon Mass
Name:  Daniel R.
Status: student
Age: 15
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 2000-2001

In your archive question # 24 you state that lasers have a small amount of recoil due to the momentum of the photons leaving it. But if a photon has momentum, doesn't it also have to have mass? If so, then since it is traveling at light speed, wouldn't it's mass would have to be multiplied by infinity? But this couldnt happen, because the universe would collapse every time a photon was generated.

Also, why does magnetic field strength decrease much faster than the inverse square of the distance like gravity? Is it because the force lines have to curve back to the source? Is magnetism also carried by an "imaginary" particle?

This is several questions:

1. It a result of the theory of relativity that a photon has momentum, but have zero mass. One of the worrisome aspects of relativity and quantum mechanics is that we must abandon our graphic notions of Newtonian mechanics, and also some of the notions of classical electromagnetic theory of Maxwell. The problem you are asking about is only one of several notions that has to be abandoned. In addition, there is the "fact" that the photon has angular momentum -- but from the classical picture, "something" has to be spinning. What's spinning? And an electron orbiting a proton in the hydrogen atom should spiral into the proton emitting electromagnetic radiation, but it doesn't. Why not? The "why not" to all the above is that our classical picture just does not correspond to observation, so we are forced to reject our "picture" and adhere to the "observation" and not the other way around. Richard Feynman discusses the momentum of a photon in Vol. I - 34 - 10 of his Lectures on Physics.

2. The force generated by a magnetic field does not obey an inverse square law -- a fact. It obeys the force law associated with a dipole. When you ask for a "Why?" modern physics is at somewhat of a loss because there really isn't an easy answer. It doesn't (at least at our current state of knowledge) and we have to live with that. I don't know that there is any answer to the question "Why?" I believe it is important to always add, "At least at our current state of knowledge." provision, because a few years ago no one would have thought it possible to bring a photon to a dead stop, but it has been done, and done so rather convincingly.

Sorry if this seems not to be very satisfying at a gut level, but we do not have any direct experience with either quantum mechanics or relativity. We see what the theories predict, do the experiment to confirm or deny, and examine the experimental result. That is the only criterion of the validity of the theory.

Vince Calder


You ask two very good questions.

For most average objects, momentum is truly mass x velocity. When motion gets close to the speed of light, we find that the momentum relation p=mv is only an approximation. It is only correct when speed (v) is much smaller than the speed of light (c). The relation that works for all speeds is E^2 = p^2c^2 + m^2c^4. It is much less convenient to use, and doesn't help figure anything out until you reach speeds of perhaps thirty million meters per second. For a particle with no mass, the relation reduces to E=pc. This works for a photon. For very small speeds, the system reduces to E=mc^2 + (1/2)mv^2, and p=mv. This leads to relations with kinetic energy and momentum: much more convenient to work with and just as accurate until you reach speeds close to the speed of light.

As for magnetic field, there is no reason why it should behave like gravity. For one thing, the strength of magnetic FORCE depends on the speed of the particle being pushed or pulled by the field. Also, unlike gravity, magnetic force pushes sideways, perpendicular to the field direction. Gravitational force is just gravitational field multiplied by the mass being pushed or pulled. Electric force is just electric field multiplied by the charge being pushed or pulled. Magnetic force depends on the charge, speed, AND direction of the charge being pushed or pulled, as well as the strength of the field. It is a very different kind of force.

As for "carrying" the field, it is known that photons of light transmit both electric and magnetic force. In fact, light is waves made of oscillating electric and magnetic fields.

Dr. Ken Mellendorf
Illinois Central College

Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory