The word quantum is Latin for "how great" or "how much." In quantum mechanics, it refers to a discrete unit that quantum theory assigns to certain physical quantities, such as the energy of an atom at rest (see Figure 1, at right). The discovery that waves have discrete energy packets (called quanta) that behave in a manner similar to particles led to the branch of physics that deals with atomic and subatomic systems which we today call quantum mechanics. It is the underlying mathematical framework of many fields of physics and chemistry, including condensed matter physics, solid-state physics, atomic physics, molecular physics, computational chemistry, quantum chemistry, particle physics, and nuclear physics. The foundations of quantum mechanics were established during the first half of the twentieth century by Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, Louis de Broglie, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Born, John von Neumann, Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli and others. Some fundamental aspects of the theory are still actively studied.
Quantum mechanics is essential to understand the behavior of systems at atomic length scales and smaller. For example, if classical mechanics governed the workings of an atom, electrons would rapidly travel towards and collide with the nucleus, making stable atoms impossible. However, in the natural world the electrons normally remain in an unknown orbital path around the nucleus, defying classical electromagnetism.
Quantum mechanics was initially developed to provide a better explanation of the atom, especially the spectra of light emitted by different atomic species. The quantum theory of the atom was developed as an explanation for the electron's staying in its orbital, which could not be explained by Newton's laws of motion and by Maxwell's laws of classical electromagnetism.
In the formalism of quantum mechanics, the state of a system at a given time is described by a complex wave function (sometimes referred to...