Thinking again…

One of the comments on my other blog made me think I should, perhaps, write something on waves again. The animation below shows the elementary wavefunction ψ = a·eiθ = ψ = a·ei·θ  = a·ei(ω·t−k·x) = a·e(i/ħ)·(E·t−p·x) .AnimationWe know this elementary wavefunction cannot represent a real-life particle. Indeed, the a·ei·θ function implies the probability of finding the particle – an electron, a photon, or whatever – would be equal to P(x, t) = |ψ(x, t)|2 = |a·e(i/ħ)·(E·t−p·x)|2 = |a|2·|e(i/ħ)·(E·t−p·x)|2 = |a|2·12= a2 everywhere. Hence, the particle would be everywhere – and, therefore, nowhere really. We need to localize the wave – or build a wave packet. We can do so by introducing uncertainty: we then add a potentially infinite number of these elementary wavefunctions with slightly different values for E and p, and various amplitudes a. Each of these amplitudes will then reflect the contribution to the composite wave, which – in three-dimensional space – we can write as:

ψ(r, t) = ei·(E/ħ)·t·f(r)

As I explained in previous posts (see, for example, my recent post on reality and perception), the f(r) function basically provides some envelope for the two-dimensional ei·θ = ei·(E/ħ)·t = cosθ + i·sinθ oscillation, with r = (x, y, z), θ = (E/ħ)·t = ω·t and ω = E/ħ.

Note that it looks like the wave propagates from left to right – in the positive direction of an axis which we may refer to as the x-axis. Also note this perception results from the fact that, naturally, we’d associate time with the rotation of that arrow at the center – i.e. with the motion in the illustration, while the spatial dimensions are just what they are: linear spatial dimensions. [This point is, perhaps, somewhat less self-evident than you may think at first.]

Now, the axis which points upwards is usually referred to as the z-axis, and the third and final axis – which points towards us – would then be the y-axis, obviously. Unfortunately, this definition would violate the so-called right-hand rule for defining a proper reference frame: the figures below shows the two possibilities – a left-handed and a right-handed reference frame – and it’s the right-handed reference (i.e. the illustration on the right) which we have to use in order to correctly define all directions, including the direction of rotation of the argument of the wavefunction.400px-Cartesian_coordinate_system_handednessHence, if we don’t change the direction of the y– and z-axes – so we keep defining the z-axis as the axis pointing upwards, and the y-axis as the axis pointing towards us – then the positive direction of the x-axis would actually be the direction from right to left, and we should say that the elementary wavefunction in the animation above seems to propagate in the negative x-direction. [Note that this left- or right-hand rule is quite astonishing: simply swapping the direction of one axis of a left-handed frame makes it right-handed, and vice versa.]

Note my language when I talk about the direction of propagation of our wave. I wrote: it looks like, or it seems to go in this or that direction. And I mean that: there is no real traveling here. At this point, you may want to review a post I wrote for my son, which explains the basic math behind waves, and in which I also explained the animation below.


Note how the peaks and troughs of this pulse seem to move leftwards, but the wave packet (or the group or the envelope of the wave—whatever you want to call it) moves to the right. The point is: the pulse itself doesn’t travel left or right. Think of the horizontal axis in the illustration above as an oscillating guitar string: each point on the string just moves up and down. Likewise, if our repeated pulse would represent a physical wave in water, for example, then the water just stays where it is: it just moves up and down. Likewise, if we shake up some rope, the rope is not going anywhere: we just started some motion that is traveling down the rope. In other words, the phase velocity is just a mathematical concept. The peaks and troughs that seem to be traveling are just mathematical points that are ‘traveling’ left or right. That’s why there’s no limit on the phase velocity: it can – and, according to quantum mechanics, actually will – exceed the speed of light. In contrast, the group velocity – which is the actual speed of the particle that is being represented by the wavefunction – may approach – or, in the case of a massless photon, will actually equal – the speed of light, but will never exceed it, and its direction will, obviously, have a physical significance as it is, effectively, the direction of travel of our particle – be it an electron, a photon (electromagnetic radiation), or whatever.

Hence, you should not think the spin of a particle – integer or half-integer – is somehow related to the direction of rotation of the argument of the elementary wavefunction. It isn’t: Nature doesn’t give a damn about our mathematical conventions, and that’s what the direction of rotation of the argument of that wavefunction is: just some mathematical convention. That’s why we write a·ei(ω·t−k·x) rather than a·ei(ω·t+k·x) or a·ei(ω·t−k·x): it’s just because of the right-hand rule for coordinate frames, and also because Euler defined the counter-clockwise direction as the positive direction of an angle. There’s nothing more to it.

OK. That’s obvious. Let me now return to my interpretation of Einstein’s E = m·c2 formula (see my previous posts on this). I noted that, in the reference frame of the particle itself (see my basics page), the elementary wavefunction a·e(i/ħ)·(E·t−p·x) reduces to a·e(i/ħ)·(E’·t’): the origin of the reference frame then coincides with (the center of) our particle itself, and the wavefunction only varies with the time in the inertial reference frame (i.e. the proper time t’), with the rest energy of the object (E’) as the time scale factor. How should we interpret this?

Well… Energy is force times distance, and force is defined as that what causes some mass to accelerate. To be precise, the newton – as the unit of force – is defined as the magnitude of a force which would cause a mass of one kg to accelerate with one meter per second per second. Per second per second. This is not a typo: 1 N corresponds to 1 kg times 1 m/s per second, i.e. 1 kg·m/s2. So… Because energy is force times distance, the unit of energy may be expressed in units of kg·m/s2·m, or kg·m2/s2, i.e. the unit of mass times the unit of velocity squared. To sum it all up:

1 J = 1 N·m = 1 kg·(m/s)2

This reflects the physical dimensions on both sides of the E = m·c2 formula again but… Well… How should we interpret this? Look at the animation below once more, and imagine the green dot is some tiny mass moving around the origin, in an equally tiny circle. We’ve got two oscillations here: each packing half of the total energy of… Well… Whatever it is that our elementary wavefunction might represent in reality – which we don’t know, of course.


Now, the blue and the red dot – i.e. the horizontal and vertical projection of the green dot – accelerate up and down. If we look carefully, we see these dots accelerate towards the zero point and, once they’ve crossed it, they decelerate, so as to allow for a reversal of direction: the blue dot goes up, and then down. Likewise, the red dot does the same. The interplay between the two oscillations, because of the 90° phase difference, is interesting: if the blue dot is at maximum speed (near or at the origin), the red dot reverses speed (its speed is, therefore, (almost) nil), and vice versa. The metaphor of our frictionless V-2 engine, our perpetuum mobile, comes to mind once more.

The question is: what’s going on, really?

My answer is: I don’t know. I do think that, somehow, energy should be thought of as some two-dimensional oscillation of something – something which we refer to as mass, but we didn’t define mass very clearly either. It also, somehow, combines linear and rotational motion. Each of the two dimensions packs half of the energy of the particle that is being represented by our wavefunction. It is, therefore, only logical that the physical unit of both is to be expressed as a force over some distance – which is, effectively, the physical dimension of energy – or the rotational equivalent of them: torque over some angle. Indeed, the analogy between linear and angular movement is obvious: the kinetic energy of a rotating object is equal to K.E. = (1/2)·I·ω2. In this formula, I is the rotational inertia – i.e. the rotational equivalent of mass – and ω is the angular velocity – i.e. the rotational equivalent of linear velocity. Noting that the (average) kinetic energy in any system must be equal to the (average) potential energy in the system, we can add both, so we get a formula which is structurally similar to the E = m·c2 formula. But is it the same? Is the effective mass of some object the sum of an almost infinite number of quanta that incorporate some kind of rotational motion? And – if we use the right units – is the angular velocity of these infinitesimally small rotations effectively equal to the speed of light?

I am not sure. Not at all, really. But, so far, I can’t think of any explanation of the wavefunction that would make more sense than this one. I just need to keep trying to find better ways to articulate or imagine what might be going on. 🙂 In this regard, I’d like to add a point – which may or may not be relevant. When I talked about that guitar string, or the water wave, and wrote that each point on the string – or each water drop – just moves up and down, we should think of the physicality of the situation: when the string oscillates, its length increases. So it’s only because our string is flexible that it can vibrate between the fixed points at its ends. For a rope that’s not flexible, the end points would need to move in and out with the oscillation. Look at the illustration below, for example: the two kids who are holding rope must come closer to each other, so as to provide the necessary space inside of the oscillation for the other kid. 🙂kid in a ropeThe next illustration – of how water waves actually propagate – is, perhaps, more relevant. Just think of a two-dimensional equivalent – and of the two oscillations as being transverse waves, as opposed to longitudinal. See how string theory starts making sense? 🙂

rayleighwaveThe most fundamental question remains the same: what is it, exactly, that is oscillating here? What is the field? It’s always some force on some charge – but what charge, exactly? Mass? What is it? Well… I don’t have the answer to that. It’s the same as asking: what is electric charge, really? So the question is: what’s the reality of mass, of electric charge, or whatever other charge that causes a force to act on it?

If you know, please let me know. 🙂

Post scriptum: The fact that we’re talking some two-dimensional oscillation here – think of a surface now – explains the probability formula: we need to square the absolute value of the amplitude to get it. And normalize, of course. Also note that, when normalizing, we’d expect to get some factor involving π somewhere, because we’re talking some circular surface – as opposed to a rectangular one. But I’ll let you figure that out. 🙂


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