Published on Aug 23, 2020

Spin Background Images

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In quantum mechanics and particle physics, spin is an intrinsic form of angular momentum carried by elementary particles, composite particles (hadrons), and atomic nuclei.

Spin is one of two types of angular momentum in quantum mechanics, the other being orbital angular momentum. The orbital angular momentum operator is the quantum-mechanical counterpart to the classical angular momentum of orbital revolution and appears when there is periodic structure to its wavefunction as the angle varies. The existence of spin angular momentum is inferred from experiments, such as the Stern–Gerlach experiment, in which silver atoms were observed to possess two possible discrete angular momenta despite having no orbital angular momentum.

Described mathematically as spinors and bispinors, spin behaves similarly to a vector: it has a definite magnitude, but it uses an unconventional “direction”. All elementary particles of a given kind have the same magnitude of spin angular momentum, which is indicated by assigning the particle a spin quantum number.


The SI unit of spin is the (N·m·s) or (kg·m2·s−1), just as with classical angular momentum. In practice, spin is given as a dimensionless spin quantum number by dividing the spin angular momentum by the reduced Planck constant ħ, which has the same dimensions as angular momentum, although this is not the full computation of this value. Very often, the “spin quantum number” is simply called “spin”. The fact that it is a quantum number is implicit.

The Pauli exclusion principle, which underlies the periodic table and much of chemistry, can be derived from the spin–statistics theorem, given the intrinsic spin of electrons.

Wolfgang Pauli in 1924 was the first to propose a doubling of the number of available electron states due to a two-valued non-classical “hidden rotation”. In 1925, George Uhlenbeck and Samuel Goudsmit at Leiden University suggested the simple physical interpretation of a particle spinning around its own axis, in the spirit of the old quantum theory of Bohr and Sommerfeld. Ralph Kronig anticipated the Uhlenbeck-Goudsmit model in discussion with Hendrik Kramers several months earlier in Copenhagen, but did not publish. The mathematical theory was worked out in depth by Pauli in 1927. When Paul Dirac derived his relativistic quantum mechanics in 1928, electron spin was an essential part of it.

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