Natural units

In physics, natural units are physical units of measurement based only on universal physical constants. For example, the elementary charge e is a natural unit of electric charge, and the speed of light c is a natural unit of speed. A purely natural system of units has all of its units defined in this way, and usually such that the numerical values of the selected physical constants in terms of these units are exactly dimensionless 1. These constants are then typically omitted from mathematical expressions of physical laws, and while this has the apparent advantage of simplicity, it may entail a loss of clarity due to the loss of information for dimensional analysis. It precludes the interpretation of an expression in terms of fundamental physical constants, such e and c, unless it is known which units (in dimensionful units) the expression is supposed to have. In this case, the reinsertion of the correct powers of e, c, etc can be uniquely determined.


Natural units are intended to elegantly simplify particular algebraic expressions appearing in the laws of physics or to normalize some chosen physical quantities that are properties of universal elementary particles and are reasonably believed to be constant. However, there is a choice of which quantities to set to unity in a natural system of units, and quantities which are set to unity in one system may take a different value or even be assumed to vary in another natural unit system.

Natural units are "natural" because the origin of their definition comes only from properties of nature and not from any human construct. Planck units are often, without qualification, called "natural units", although they constitute only one of several systems of natural units, albeit the best known such system. Planck units (up to a simple multiplier for each unit) might be considered one of the most "natural" systems in that the set of units is not based on properties of any prototype, object, or particle but are solely derived from the properties of free space.

As with other systems of units, the base units of a set of natural units will include definitions and values for length, mass, time, temperature, and electric charge (in lieu of electric current). Some physicists do not recognize temperature as a fundamental physical quantity, since it expresses the energy per degree of freedom of a particle, which can be expressed in terms of energy (or mass, length, and time). Virtually every system of natural units normalizes Boltzmann's constant kB to 1, which can be thought of as simply a way of defining the unit temperature.

In SI, electric charge is a separate fundamental dimension of physical quantity, but in natural unit systems charge is expressed in terms of the mechanical units of mass, length, and time, similarly to cgs. There are two common ways to relate charge to mass, length, and time: In Lorentz–Heaviside units (also called "rationalized"), Coulomb's law is F = q1q2/r2, and in Gaussian units (also called "non-rationalized"), Coulomb's law is F = q1q2/r2.[1] Both possibilities are incorporated into different natural unit systems.

Notation and use

Natural units are most commonly used by setting the units to one. For example, many natural unit systems include the equation c = 1 in the unit-system definition, where c is the speed of light. If a velocity v is half the speed of light, then as v = c/2 and c = 1, hence v = 1/2. The equation v = 1/2 means "the velocity v has the value one-half when measured in Planck units", or "the velocity v is one-half the Planck unit of velocity".

The equation c = 1 can be plugged in anywhere else. For example, Einstein's equation E = mc2 can be rewritten in Planck units as E = m. This equation means "The energy of a particle, measured in Planck units of energy, equals the mass of the particle, measured in Planck units of mass."

Advantages and disadvantages

Compared to SI or other unit systems, natural units have both advantages and disadvantages:

Choosing constants to normalize

Out of the many physical constants, the designer of a system of natural unit systems must choose a few of these constants to normalize (set equal to 1). It is not possible to normalize just any set of constants. For example, the mass of a proton and the mass of an electron cannot both be normalized: if the mass of an electron is defined to be 1, then the mass of a proton has to be approximately 1836. In a less trivial example, the fine-structure constant, α1/137, cannot be set to 1, at least not independently, because it is a dimensionless number defined in terms of other quantities, some of which one may want to set to unity as well. The fine-structure constant is related to other fundamental constants through α = kee2/ħc, where ke is the Coulomb constant, e is the elementary charge, ħ is the reduced Planck constant, and c is the speed of light.

Electromagnetism units

In SI units, electric charge is expressed in coulombs, a separate unit which is additional to the "mechanical" units (mass, length, time), even though the traditional definition of the ampere refers to some of these other units. In natural unit systems, however, electric charge has units of [mass]12 [length]32 [time]−1.

There are two main natural unit systems for electromagnetism:

Of these, Lorentz–Heaviside is somewhat more common,[2] mainly because Maxwell's equations are simpler in Lorentz-Heaviside units than they are in Gaussian units.

In the two unit systems, the elementary charge e satisfies:

where ħ is the reduced Planck constant, c is the speed of light, and α1/137 is the fine-structure constant.

In a natural unit system where c = 1, Lorentz–Heaviside units can be derived from SI units by setting ε0 = μ0 = 1. Gaussian units can be derived from SI units by a more complicated set of transformations, such as multiplying all electric fields by (4πε0)12, multiplying all magnetic susceptibilities by , and so on.[3]

Systems of natural units

Planck units

Main article: Planck units
Quantity Expression Metric value Name
Length (L) 1.616×10−35 m Planck length
Mass (M) 2.176×10−8 kg Planck mass
Time (T) 5.3912×10−44 s Planck time
Temperature (Θ) 1.417×1032 K Planck temperature
Electric charge (Q) 1.876×10−18 C Planck charge

Planck units are defined by

c = ħ = G = ke = kB = 1,

where c is the speed of light, ħ is the reduced Planck constant, G is the gravitational constant, ke is the Coulomb constant, and kB is the Boltzmann constant.

Planck units are a system of natural units that is not defined in terms of properties of any prototype, physical object, or even elementary particle. They only refer to the basic structure of the laws of physics: c and G are part of the structure of spacetime in general relativity, and ħ captures the relationship between energy and frequency which is at the foundation of quantum mechanics. This makes Planck units particularly useful and common in theories of quantum gravity, including string theory.

Planck units may be considered "more natural" even than other natural unit systems discussed below, as Planck units are not based on any arbitrarily chosen prototype object or particle. For example, some other systems use the mass of an electron as a parameter to be normalized. But the electron is just one of 16 known massive elementary particles, all with different masses, and there is no compelling reason, within fundamental physics, to emphasize the electron mass over some other elementary particle's mass.

Stoney units

Main article: Stoney units
Quantity Expression Metric value
Length (L) 1.381×10−36 m
Mass (M) 1.859×10−9 kg
Time (T) 4.605×10−45 s
Temperature (Θ) 1.210×1031 K
Electric charge (Q) 1.602×10−19 C

Stoney units are defined by:

c = G = ke = e = kB = 1,

where c is the speed of light, G is the gravitational constant, ke is the Coulomb constant, e is the elementary charge, and kB is the Boltzmann constant.

George Johnstone Stoney was the first physicist to introduce the concept of natural units. He presented the idea in a lecture entitled "On the Physical Units of Nature" delivered to the British Association in 1874.[4] Stoney units differ from Planck units by fixing the elementary charge at 1, instead of Planck's constant (only discovered after Stoney's proposal).

Stoney units are rarely used in modern physics for calculations, but they are of historical interest.

Atomic units

Main article: Atomic units
Quantity Expression
(Hartree atomic units)
Metric value
(Hartree atomic units)
Length (L) 5.292×10−11 m
Mass (M) 9.109×10−31 kg
Time (T) 2.419×10−17 s
Electric charge (Q) 1.602×10−19 C
Temperature (Θ) 3.158×105 K

There are two types of atomic units, closely related.

Hartree atomic units:

e = me = ħ = ke = kB = 1
c = 1/α

Rydberg atomic units:[5]

e/2 = 2me = ħ = ke = kB = 1
c = 2/α

Coulomb's constant is generally expressed as

ke = 1/ε0.

These units are designed to simplify atomic and molecular physics and chemistry, especially the hydrogen atom, and are widely used in these fields. The Hartree units were first proposed by Douglas Hartree, and are more common than the Rydberg units.

The units are designed especially to characterize the behavior of an electron in the ground state of a hydrogen atom. For example, using the Hartree convention, in the Bohr model of the hydrogen atom, an electron in the ground state has orbital velocity = 1, orbital radius = 1, angular momentum = 1, ionization energy = 1/2, etc.

The unit of energy is called the Hartree energy in the Hartree system and the Rydberg energy in the Rydberg system. They differ by a factor of 2. The speed of light is relatively large in atomic units (137 in Hartree or 274 in Rydberg), which comes from the fact that an electron in hydrogen tends to move much slower than the speed of light. The gravitational constant is extremely small in atomic units (around 10−45), which comes from the fact that the gravitational force between two electrons is far weaker than the Coulomb force. The unit length, lA, is the Bohr radius, a0.

The values of c and e shown above imply that e = αħc, as in Gaussian units, not Lorentz–Heaviside units.[6] However, hybrids of the Gaussian and Lorentz–Heaviside units are sometimes used, leading to inconsistent conventions for magnetism-related units.[7]

Quantum chromodynamics (QCD) units

Quantity Expression Metric value
Length (L) 2.103×10−16 m
Mass (M) 1.673×10−27 kg
Time (T) 7.015×10−25 s
Temperature (Θ) 1.089×1013 K
Electric charge (Q) (L–H) 5.291×10−19 C
(G) 1.876×10−18 C
c = mp = ħ = kB = 1

The electron mass is replaced with that of the proton. Strong units are "convenient for work in QCD and nuclear physics, where quantum mechanics and relativity are omnipresent and the proton is an object of central interest".[8]

"Natural units" (particle physics and cosmology)

Unit Metric value Derivation
1 eV−1 of length 1.97×10−7 m
1 eV of mass 1.78×10−36 kg
1 eV−1 of time 6.58×10−16 s
1 eV of temperature 1.16×104 K with
1 unit of electric charge
5.29×10−19 C
1 unit of electric charge
1.88×10−18 C

In particle physics and cosmology, the phrase "natural units" generally means:[9][10]

ħ = c = kB = 1.

where ħ is the reduced Planck constant, c is the speed of light, and kB is the Boltzmann constant.

Both Planck units and QCD units are this type of Natural units. Like the other systems, the electromagnetism units can be based on either Lorentz–Heaviside units or Gaussian units. The unit of charge is different in each.

Finally, one more unit is needed to construct a usable system of units that includes energy and mass. Most commonly, electron-volt (eV) is used, despite the fact that this is not a "natural" unit in the sense discussed above – it is defined by a natural property, the elementary charge, and the anthropogenic unit of electric potential, the volt. (The SI prefixed multiples of eV are used as well: keV, MeV, GeV, etc.)

With the addition of eV (or any other auxiliary unit with the proper dimension), any quantity can be expressed. For example, a distance of 1.0 cm can be expressed in terms of eV, in natural units, as:[10]

1.0 cm = 1.0 cm/ħc ≈ 51000 eV−1

Geometrized units

c = G = 1

The geometrized unit system, used in general relativity, is not a completely defined system. In this system, the base physical units are chosen so that the speed of light and the gravitational constant are set equal to unity. Other units may be treated however desired. Planck units and Stoney units are examples of geometrized unit systems.

Summary table

Quantity / Symbol Planck
(with Gauss)
Stoney Hartree Rydberg "Natural"
(with L-H)
(with Gauss)
Speed of light in vacuum
Planck's constant (reduced)
Elementary charge
Josephson constant
von Klitzing constant
Gravitational constant
Boltzmann constant
Electron mass


See also

Notes and references

  1. Kowalski, Ludwik, 1986, "A Short History of the SI Units in Electricity," The Physics Teacher 24(2): 97–99. Alternate web link (subscription required)
  2. Walter Greiner; Ludwig Neise; Horst Stöcker (1995). Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics. Springer-Verlag. p. 385. ISBN 978-0-387-94299-5.
  3. See Gaussian units#General rules to translate a formula and references therein.
  4. Ray, T.P. (1981). "Stoney's Fundamental Units". Irish Astronomical Journal. 15: 152. Bibcode:1981IrAJ...15..152R.
  5. Turek, Ilja (1997). Electronic structure of disordered alloys, surfaces and interfaces (illustrated ed.). Springer. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-7923-9798-4.
  6. Relativistic Quantum Chemistry: The Fundamental Theory of Molecular Science, by Markus Reiher, Alexander Wolf, p7 [ link]
  7. A note on units lecture notes. See the atomic units article for further discussion.
  8. Wilczek, Frank, 2007, "Fundamental Constants," Frank Wilczek web site.
  9. Gauge field theories: an introduction with applications, by Guidry, Appendix A
  10. 1 2 An introduction to cosmology and particle physics, by Domínguez-Tenreiro and Quirós, p422

External links

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