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In physics, a discrete natural unit, or packet, of energy, charge, angular momentum, or other physical property. Light, for example, which appears in some respects as a continuous electromagnetic wave, on the submicroscopic level is emitted and absorbed in discrete amounts, or quanta; for light of a given wavelength, the magnitude of all the quanta emitted or absorbed is the same in both energy and momentum. These particlelike packets of light are called photons, a term also applicable to quanta of other forms of electromagnetic energy such as X rays and gamma rays. Submicroscopic mechanical vibrations in the layers of atoms comprising crystals also give up or take on energy and momentum in quanta called phonons. See alsoquantum mechanics.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on quantum, visit Britannica.com.