Writing about what is usually termed the Aharonov-Bohm (AB) effect, Peter Sturrock and Timothy Groves argue (Physics Today, April 2010, page 8) that the same physics was discovered a decade earlier 1 and should rightly be called the Ehrenberg-Siday effect. I agree that Werner Ehrenberg and Raymond Siday deserve recognition for their anticipation of AB. Indeed, in recent talks celebrating the 50th anniversary of AB, I began by describing the unfairly neglected paper by Ehrenberg and Siday. Nevertheless, I have come to a different conclusion from Sturrock and Groves: The expression “Aharonov-Bohm effect” is justified, for two reasons.

First, although there is no doubt that the work by Ehrenberg and Siday anticipated how inaccessible magnetic flux can influence electron interference, that was as a curiosity, at the end of a paper whose main emphasis was the Hamiltonian analysis of electron optics. By contrast, Yakir Aharonov and David Bohm emphasized from the start, as an essential and general aspect of quantum mechanics, the physical influence of inaccessible fields that act nonlocally through the vector potential.

Second, Ehrenberg and Siday’s semi-classical approximation—essentially applying the Dirac magnetic phase factor to electrons traveling on either side of the flux—implies a wavefunction that is multivalued and therefore not the correct solution of Schrödinger’s equation. The lack of a single-valued wavefunction leaves their prediction open to doubt. By contrast, Aharonov and Bohm derived the exact single-valued solution for waves scattered by a flux line. Recently, it was shown that the Ehrenberg-Siday approximation corresponds to the first terms in a “many-whirls” representation that treats the exact AB wavefunction as a topological sum over paths circling the flux. 2  

Attribution of credit is a delicate matter. It tends to excite strong feelings, and I write about it reluctantly. But the Ehrenberg-Siday paper does seem to exemplify the unfortunate phenomenon identified by Alfred North White-head in a 1916 address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science: “Everything of importance has been said before, by someone who did not discover it.”

In a companion letter in the April 2010 issue, Alexander Ershkovich correctly points out that the AB effect is present in classical Hamiltonian mechanics, even though remote magnetic fields cannot influence Newtonian trajectories. He advocates a “search for experiments that might prove … a classical analogue of the Aharonov-Bohm effect.” Such an experiment exists already. In the classical physics of waves on a moving medium, the flow velocity acts like the vector potential in quantum mechanics, so the flow vorticity acts like the magnetic field; the analogy is precise. Fine details of the AB wavefunction were observed in ripples on the surface of water swirling irrotationally into a bathtub vortex, 3 whose core is the analogue of inaccessible magnetic flux.

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