The existence of the antiproton with -1 electric charge, opposite to the +1 electric charge of the proton, was predicted by Paul Dirac in his 1933 Nobel Prize lecture.

Question. How did Paul Dirac predict existence of antiproton?


You'll find Dirac's 1933 Nobel lecture on the Nobelprize.org website. The pdf is quite brief (5 pages long) and speaks on the antiproton at the end (p4). The argument is the following :

In any case I think it is probable that negative protons can exist, since as far as the theory is yet definite, there is a complete and perfect symmetry between positive and negative electric charge, and if this symmetry is really fundamental in nature, it must be possible to reverse the charge on any kind of particle.

In short, the particle-antiparticle symmetry seems to be a law of nature, so the proton should also have an an anti-proton partner.

Edited to expand below

@ANKU's answer above is the answer to the question "How did Dirac predict the existence of antimatter", and this work was done for the electron (or the positron). Once the positron has been predicted and and observed, came the intuition that this symmetry was much more general. However, in 1933, Dirac didn't think that this theory could be directly applied to protons. To quote his Nobel lecture :

The theory of electrons and positrons which I have just outlined is a self- consistent theory which fits the experimental facts so far as is yet known. One would like to have an equally satisfactory theory for protons. One might perhaps think that the same theory could be applied to protons. This would require the possibility of existence of negatively charged protons forming a mirror-image of the usual positively charged ones. There is, however, some recent experimental evidence obtained by Stern about the spin magnetic moment of the proton, which conflicts with this theory for the proton. As the proton is so much heavier than the electron, it is quite likely that it requires some more complicated theory, though one cannot at the present time say what this theory is.

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  • $\begingroup$ @kso83o : is it more complete now ? If you are more interested on what Dirac did, I really think you should read his nobel lecture. $\endgroup$ – Frédéric Grosshans Jul 21 '11 at 9:10

The Dirac equation implies negative energies as well as positive. This is due to energy-momentum relation $E=\pm \sqrt{m^2+p^2 }$. If we replace $E$ and $p$ by operators $E\to i\frac{\partial }{\partial t}$ and $p\to -i\nabla$ we get the Klein-Gordon equation $(\Box+m^2)\phi=0$ for scalar (spinless) fields $\phi$. The problem with this equation is that it gives solutions with negative probability density and negative energy.

In order to overpass the problem with negative probability density, Dirac made the K-G equation linear in time derivative $\frac{\partial }{\partial t}$ (and in space derivative to make it covariant). So he get the following equation (the Dirac equation): $(i\gamma^{\mu}\partial_{\mu}-m)\psi=0$ for particles with 1/2-spin (fermions: electrons, protons etc.).

The Dirac equation gives positive probability densities which is good, but the problem with negative energy quantum states remained. To overpass this problem, Dirac postulated that the universe is filled with infinitely dense "sea" of negative energy particles (electrons), the Dirac sea. Due to Pauli exclusion principle no other electron can fall into the Dirac sea, but sometimes one electron can leave the Dirac sea creating a hole which would act like positive energy electron with opposite charge - the positron, experimentally discovered by Carl Anderson. This holes are called antiparticles.

But the Dirac sea theory has some problems, like the problem of infinite charge of the universe and the fact that the bosons, which have antiparticles too, do not obey the Pauli exclusion principle and the hole theory doesn't work for them. This problems are solved in quantum field theory.

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    $\begingroup$ Regarding the last paragraph I would just add that the theory of Dirac sea is not wrong per se, it just doesn't explain everything. But is still with us and enjoys quite some popularity, e.g. in condensed matter theory where the antiparticles are more commonly called holes. More generally, for any QFT fermionic system one can choose the Dirac sea to be more or less arbitrary subset of the spectrum. $\endgroup$ – Marek Jul 20 '11 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ @ANKU : apparently (by the Noble lecture's text), Dirac did not want to apply this equation directly to the proton. He nevertheless conjectured the existence of the antiproton. $\endgroup$ – Frédéric Grosshans Jul 21 '11 at 9:15
  • $\begingroup$ Argumentative comments removed, and while I was at it several whose value was ephemeral. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 2 '11 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ The Dirac sea argument may have sounded sensible at the time, but is untenable in the context of electron correlation effects. A hole in a sea of electrons is not at all equivalent to a single electron with reversed charge. I wonder why this Dirac sea argument keeps coming back. $\endgroup$ – my2cts Jul 19 '18 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Frederic this may be why Dirac "did not directly apply the equation to the proton" $\endgroup$ – my2cts Jul 20 '18 at 14:43

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