Colloquium: momentum of an electromagnetic wave in dielectric media

Robert N. C. Pfeifer, Timo A. Nieminen, Norman R. Heckenberg, Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

338 Citations (Scopus)


Almost 100 years ago, two different expressions were proposed for the energy-momentum tensor of an electromagnetic wave in a dielectric. Minkowski's tensor predicted an increase in the linear momentum of the wave on entering a dielectric medium, whereas Abraham's tensor predicted its decrease. Theoretical arguments were advanced in favor of both sides, and experiments proved incapable of distinguishing between the two. Yet more forms were proposed, each with their advocates who considered the form that they were proposing to be the one true tensor. This paper reviews the debate and its eventual conclusion: that no electromagnetic wave energy-momentum tensor is complete on its own. When the appropriate accompanying energy-momentum tensor for the material medium is also considered, experimental predictions of all various proposed tensors will always be the same, and the preferred form is therefore effectively a matter of personal choice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1197-1216
Number of pages20
JournalReviews of Modern Physics
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2007
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Erratum can be found in Reviews of Modern Physics, Volume 81(1), 443,


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