Electron spin and the geometry of the wavefunction

In our previous posts, we interpreted the elementary wavefunction ψ = a·ei∙θ = a·cosθ − i·a·sinθ as a two-dimensional oscillation in spacetime. In addition to assuming the two directions of the oscillation were perpendicular to each other, we also assumed they were perpendicular to the direction of motion. While the first assumption is essential in our interpretation, the second assumption is solely based on an analogy with a circularly polarized electromagnetic wave. We also assumed the matter wave could be right-handed as well as left-handed (as illustrated below), and that these two physical possibilities corresponded to the angular momentum being equal to plus or minus ħ/2 respectively.

This allowed us to derive the Compton scattering radius of an elementary particle. Indeed, we interpreted the rotating vector as a resultant vector, which we get by adding the sine and cosine motions, which represent the real and imaginary components of our wavefunction. The energy of this two-dimensional oscillation is twice the energy of a one-dimensional oscillator and, therefore, equal to E = m·a2·ω2. Now, the angular frequency is given by ω = E/ħ and E must, obviously, also be equal to E = m·c2. Substitition and re-arranging the terms gives us the Compton scattering radius:

The value given above is the (reduced) Compton scattering radius for an electron. For a proton, we get a value of about 2.1×10−16 m, which is about 1/4 of the radius of a proton as measured in scattering experiments. Hence, for a proton, our formula does not give us the exact (i.e. experimentally verified) value but it does give us the correct order of magnitude—which is fine because we know a proton is not an elementary particle and, hence, the motion of its constituent parts (quarks) is… Well… It complicates the picture hugely.

If we’d presume the electron charge would, effectively, be rotating about the center, then its tangential velocity is given by v = a·ω = [ħ·/(m·c)]·(E/ħ) = c, which is yet another wonderful implication of our hypothesis. Finally, the a·ω formula allowed us to interpret the speed of light as the resonant frequency of the fabric of space itself, as illustrated when re-writing this equality as follows:

This gave us a natural and forceful interpretation of Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence formula: the energy in the E = m·c2· equation is, effectively, a two-dimensional oscillation of mass.

However, while toying with this and other results (for example, we may derive a Poynting vector and show probabilities are, effectively, proportional to energy densities), I realize the plane of our two-dimensional oscillation cannot be perpendicular to the direction of motion of our particle. In fact, the direction of motion must lie in the same plane. This is a direct consequence of the direction of the angular momentum as measured by, for example, the Stern-Gerlach experiment. The basic idea here is illustrated below (credit for this illustration goes to another blogger on physics). As for the Stern-Gerlach experiment itself, let me refer you to a YouTube video from the Quantum Made Simple site.

The point is: the direction of the angular momentum (and the magnetic moment) of an electron—or, to be precise, its component as measured in the direction of the (inhomogenous) magnetic field through which our electron is traveling—cannot be parallel to the direction of motion. On the contrary, it is perpendicular to the direction of motion. In other words, if we imagine our electron as some rotating disk or a flywheel, then it will actually comprise the direction of motion.

What are the implications? I am not sure. I will definitely need to review whatever I wrote about the de Broglie wavelength in previous posts. We will also need to look at those transformations of amplitudes once again. Finally, we will also need to relate this to the quantum-mechanical formulas for the angular momentum and the magnetic moment.

Post scriptum: As in previous posts, I need to mention one particularity of our model. When playing with those formulas, we contemplated two different formulas for the angular mass: one is the formula for a rotating mass (I = m·r2/2), and the other is the one for a rotating mass (I = m·r2). The only difference between the two is a 1/2 factor, but it turns out we need it to get a sensical result. For a rotating mass, the angular momentum is equal to the radius times the momentum, so that’s the radius times the mass times the velocity: L = m·v·r. [See also Feynman, Vol. II-34-2, in this regard)] Hence, for our model, we get L = m·v·r = m·c·a = m·c·ħ/(m·c) = ħ. Now, we know it’s equal to ±ħ/2, so we need that 1/2 factor in the formula.

Can we relate this 1/2 factor to the g-factor for the electron’s magnetic moment, which is (approximately) equal to 2? Maybe. We’d need to look at the formula for a rotating charged disk. That’s for a later post, however. It’s been enough for today, right? 🙂

I would just like to signal another interesting consequence of our model. If we would interpret the radius of our disk (a)—so that’s the Compton radius of our electron, as opposed to the Thomson radius—as the uncertainty in the position of our electron, then our L = m·v·r = m·c·a = p·a = ħ/2 formula as a very particular expression of the Uncertainty Principle: p·Δx= ħ/2. Isn’t that just plain nice? 🙂

Re-visiting the Complementarity Principle: the field versus the flywheel model of the matter-wave

Note: I have published a paper that is very coherent and fully explains what’s going on. There is nothing magical about it these things. Check it out: The Meaning of the Fine-Structure Constant. No ambiguity. No hocus-pocus.

Jean Louis Van Belle, 23 December 2018

Original post:

This post is a continuation of the previous one: it is just going to elaborate the questions I raised in the post scriptum of that post. Let’s first review the basics once more.

The geometry of the elementary wavefunction

In the reference frame of the particle itself, the geometry of the wavefunction simplifies to what is illustrated below: an oscillation in two dimensions which, viewed together, form a plane that would be perpendicular to the direction of motion—but then our particle doesn’t move in its own reference frame, obviously. Hence, we could be looking at our particle from any direction and we should, presumably, see a similar two-dimensional oscillation. That is interesting because… Well… If we rotate this circle around its center (in whatever direction we’d choose), we get a sphere, right? It’s only when it starts moving, that it loses its symmetry. Now, that is very intriguing, but let’s think about that later.

Let’s assume we’re looking at it from some specific direction. Then we presumably have some charge (the green dot) moving about some center, and its movement can be analyzed as the sum of two oscillations (the sine and cosine) which represent the real and imaginary component of the wavefunction respectively—as we observe it, so to speak. [Of course, you’ve been told you can’t observe wavefunctions so… Well… You should probably stop reading this. :-)] We write:

ψ = = a·ei∙θ = a·ei∙E·t/ħ = a·cos(−E∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(−E∙t/ħ) = a·cos(E∙t/ħ) i·a·sin(E∙t/ħ)

So that’s the wavefunction in the reference frame of the particle itself. When we think of it as moving in some direction (so relativity kicks in), we need to add the p·x term to the argument (θ = E·t − px). It is easy to show this term doesn’t change the argument (θ), because we also get a different value for the energy in the new reference frame: E= γ·E0 and so… Well… I’ll refer you to my post on this, in which I show the argument of the wavefunction is invariant under a Lorentz transformation: the way Ev and pv and, importantly, the coordinates and t relativistically transform ensures the invariance.

In fact, I’ve always wanted to read de Broglie‘s original thesis because I strongly suspect he saw that immediately. If you click this link, you’ll find an author who suggests the same. Having said that, I should immediately add this does not imply there is no need for a relativistic wave equation: the wavefunction is a solution for the wave equation and, yes, I am the first to note the Schrödinger equation has some obvious issues, which I briefly touch upon in one of my other posts—and which is why Schrödinger himself and other contemporaries came up with a relativistic wave equation (Oskar Klein and Walter Gordon got the credit but others (including Louis de Broglie) also suggested a relativistic wave equation when Schrödinger published his). In my humble opinion, the key issue is not that Schrödinger’s equation is non-relativistic. It’s that 1/2 factor again but… Well… I won’t dwell on that here. We need to move on. So let’s leave the wave equation for what it is and go back to our wavefunction.

You’ll note the argument (or phase) of our wavefunction moves clockwise—or counterclockwise, depending on whether you’re standing in front of behind the clock. Of course, Nature doesn’t care about where we stand or—to put it differently—whether we measure time clockwise, counterclockwise, in the positive, the negative or whatever direction. Hence, I’ve argued we can have both left- as well as right-handed wavefunctions, as illustrated below (for p ≠ 0). Our hypothesis is that these two physical possibilities correspond to the angular momentum of our electron being either positive or negative: Jz = +ħ/2 or, else, Jz = −ħ/2. [If you’ve read a thing or two about neutrinos, then… Well… They’re kinda special in this regard: they have no charge and neutrinos and antineutrinos are actually defined by their helicity. But… Well… Let’s stick to trying to describing electrons for a while.]

The line of reasoning that we followed allowed us to calculate the amplitude a. We got a result that tentatively confirms we’re on the right track with our interpretation: we found that = ħ/me·c, so that’s the Compton scattering radius of our electron. All good ! But we were still a bit stuck—or ambiguous, I should say—on what the components of our wavefunction actually are. Are we really imagining the tip of that rotating arrow is a pointlike electric charge spinning around the center? [Pointlike or… Well… Perhaps we should think of the Thomson radius of the electron here, i.e. the so-called classical electron radius, which is equal to the Compton radius times the fine-structure constant: rThomson = α·rCompton ≈ 3.86×10−13/137.]

So that would be the flywheel model.

In contrast, we may also think the whole arrow is some rotating field vector—something like the electric field vector, with the same or some other physical dimension, like newton per charge unit, or newton per mass unit? So that’s the field model. Now, these interpretations may or may not be compatible—or complementary, I should say. I sure hope they are but… Well… What can we reasonably say about it?

Let us first note that the flywheel interpretation has a very obvious advantage, because it allows us to explain the interaction between a photon and an electron, as I demonstrated in my previous post: the electromagnetic energy of the photon will drive the circulatory motion of our electron… So… Well… That’s a nice physical explanation for the transfer of energy. However, when we think about interference or diffraction, we’re stuck: flywheels don’t interfere or diffract. Only waves do. So… Well… What to say?

I am not sure, but here I want to think some more by pushing the flywheel metaphor to its logical limits. Let me remind you of what triggered it all: it was the mathematical equivalence of the energy equation for an oscillator (E = m·a2·ω2) and Einstein’s formula (E = m·c2), which tells us energy and mass are equivalent but… Well… They’re not the same. So what are they then? What is energy, and what is mass—in the context of these matter-waves that we’re looking at. To be precise, the E = m·a2·ω2 formula gives us the energy of two oscillators, so we need a two-spring model which—because I love motorbikes—I referred to as my V-twin engine model, but it’s not an engine, really: it’s two frictionless pistons (or springs) whose direction of motion is perpendicular to each other, so they are in a 90° degree angle and, therefore, their motion is, effectively, independent. In other words: they will not interfere with each other. It’s probably worth showing the illustration just one more time. And… Well… Yes. I’ll also briefly review the math one more time.

If the magnitude of the oscillation is equal to a, then the motion of these piston (or the mass on a spring) will be described by x = a·cos(ω·t + Δ). Needless to say, Δ is just a phase factor which defines our t = 0 point, and ω is the natural angular frequency of our oscillator. Because of the 90° angle between the two cylinders, Δ would be 0 for one oscillator, and –π/2 for the other. Hence, the motion of one piston is given by x = a·cos(ω·t), while the motion of the other is given by x = a·cos(ω·t–π/2) = a·sin(ω·t). The kinetic and potential energy of one oscillator – think of one piston or one spring only – can then be calculated as:

1. K.E. = T = m·v2/2 = (1/2)·m·ω2·a2·sin2(ω·t + Δ)
2. P.E. = U = k·x2/2 = (1/2)·k·a2·cos2(ω·t + Δ)

The coefficient k in the potential energy formula characterizes the restoring force: F = −k·x. From the dynamics involved, it is obvious that k must be equal to m·ω2. Hence, the total energy—for one piston, or one spring—is equal to:

E = T + U = (1/2)· m·ω2·a2·[sin2(ω·t + Δ) + cos2(ω·t + Δ)] = m·a2·ω2/2

Hence, adding the energy of the two oscillators, we have a perpetuum mobile storing an energy that is equal to twice this amount: E = m·a2·ω2. It is a great metaphor. Somehow, in this beautiful interplay between linear and circular motion, energy is borrowed from one place and then returns to the other, cycle after cycle. However, we still have to prove this engine is, effectively, a perpetuum mobile: we need to prove the energy that is being borrowed or returned by one piston is the energy that is being returned or borrowed by the other. That is easy to do, but I won’t bother you with that proof here: you can double-check it in the referenced post or – more formally – in an article I posted on viXra.org.

It is all beautiful, and the key question is obvious: if we want to relate the E = m·a2·ω2 and E = m·c2 formulas, we need to explain why we could, potentially, write as a·ω = a·√(k/m). We’ve done that already—to some extent at least. The tangential velocity of a pointlike particle spinning around some axis is given by v = r·ω. Now, the radius is given by = ħ/(m·c), and ω = E/ħ = m·c2/ħ, so is equal to to v = [ħ/(m·c)]·[m·c2/ħ] = c. Another beautiful result, but what does it mean? We need to think about the meaning of the ω = √(k/m) formula here. In the mentioned article, we boldly wrote that the speed of light is to be interpreted as the resonant frequency of spacetime, but so… Well… What do we really mean by that? Think of the following.

Einstein’s E = mc2 equation implies the ratio between the energy and the mass of any particle is always the same:

This effectively reminds us of the ω2 = C1/L or ω2 = k/m formula for harmonic oscillators. The key difference is that the ω2= C1/L and ω2 = k/m formulas introduce two (or more) degrees of freedom. In contrast, c2= E/m for any particle, always. However, that is exactly the point: we can modulate the resistance, inductance and capacitance of electric circuits, and the stiffness of springs and the masses we put on them, but we live in one physical space only: our spacetime. Hence, the speed of light (c) emerges here as the defining property of spacetime: the resonant frequency, so to speak. We have no further degrees of freedom here.

Let’s think about k. [I am not trying to avoid the ω2= 1/LC formula here. It’s basically the same concept: the ω2= 1/LC formula gives us the natural or resonant frequency for a electric circuit consisting of a resistor, an inductor, and a capacitor. Writing the formula as ω2= C−1/L introduces the concept of elastance, which is the equivalent of the mechanical stiffness (k) of a spring, so… Well… You get it, right? The ω2= C1/L and ω2 = k/m sort of describe the same thing: harmonic oscillation. It’s just… Well… Unlike the ω2= C1/L, the ω2 = k/m is directly compatible with our V-twin engine metaphor, because it also involves physical distances, as I’ll show you here.] The in the ω2 = k/m is, effectively, the stiffness of the spring. It is defined by Hooke’s Law, which states that the force that is needed to extend or compress a spring by some distance  is linearly proportional to that distance, so we write: F = k·x.

Now that is interesting, isn’t it? We’re talking exactly the same thing here: spacetime is, presumably, isotropic, so it should oscillate the same in any direction—I am talking those sine and cosine oscillations now, but in physical space—so there is nothing imaginary here: all is real or… Well… As real as we can imagine it to be. 🙂

We can elaborate the point as follows. The F = k·x equation implies k is a force per unit distance: k = F/x. Hence, its physical dimension is newton per meter (N/m). Now, the in this equation may be equated to the maximum extension of our spring, or the amplitude of the oscillation, so that’s the radius in the metaphor we’re analyzing here. Now look at how we can re-write the a·ω = a·√(k/m) equation:

In case you wonder about the E = F·a substitution: just remember that energy is force times distance. [Just do a dimensional analysis: you’ll see it works out.] So we have a spectacular result here, for several reasons. The first, and perhaps most obvious reason, is that we can actually derive Einstein’s E = m·c2 formula from our flywheel model. Now, that is truly glorious, I think. However, even more importantly, this equation suggests we do not necessarily need to think of some actual mass oscillating up and down and sideways at the same time: the energy in the oscillation can be thought of a force acting over some distance, regardless of whether or not it is actually acting on a particle. Now, that energy will have an equivalent mass which is—or should be, I’d say… Well… The mass of our electron or, generalizing, the mass of the particle we’re looking at.

Huh? Yes. In case you wonder what I am trying to get at, I am trying to convey the idea that the two interpretations—the field versus the flywheel model—are actually fully equivalent, or compatible, if you prefer that term. In Asia, they would say: they are the “same-same but different” 🙂 but, using the language that’s used when discussing the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, we should actually say the two models are complementary.

You may shrug your shoulders but… Well… It is a very deep philosophical point, really. 🙂 As far as I am concerned, I’ve never seen a better illustration of the (in)famous Complementarity Principle in quantum physics because… Well… It goes much beyond complementarity. This is about equivalence. 🙂 So it’s just like Einstein’s equation. 🙂

Post scriptum: If you read my posts carefully, you’ll remember I struggle with those 1/2 factors here and there. Textbooks don’t care about them. For example, when deriving the size of an atom, or the Rydberg energy, even Feynman casually writes that “we need not trust our answer [to questions like this] within factors like 2, π, etcetera.” Frankly, that’s disappointing. Factors like 2, 1/2, π or 2π are pretty fundamental numbers, and so they need an explanation. So… Well… I do loose sleep over them. Let me advance some possible explanation here.

As for Feynman’s model, and the derivation of electron orbitals in general, I think it’s got to do with the fact that electrons do want to pair up when thermal motion does not come into play: think of the Cooper pairs we use to explain superconductivity (so that’s the BCS theory). The 1/2 factor in Schrödinger’s equation also has weird consequences (when you plug in the elementary wavefunction and do the derivatives, you get a weird energy concept: E = m·v2, to be precise). This problem may also be solved when assuming we’re actually calculating orbitals for a pair of electrons, rather than orbitals for just one electron only. [We’d get twice the mass (and, presumably, the charge, so… Well… It might work—but I haven’t done it yet. It’s on my agenda—as so many other things, but I’ll get there… One day. :-)]

So… Well… Let’s get back to the lesson here. In this particular context (i.e. in the context of trying to find some reasonable physical interpretation of the wavefunction), you may or may not remember (if not, check my post on it) ‘ll remember I had to use the I = m·r2/2 formula for the angular momentum, as opposed to the I = m·r2 formula. I = m·r2/2 (with the 1/2 factor) gives us the angular momentum of a disk with radius r, as opposed to a point mass going around some circle with radius r. I noted that “the addition of this 1/2 factor may seem arbitrary”—and it totally is, of course—but so it gave us the result we wanted: the exact (Compton scattering) radius of our electron.

Now, the arbitrary 1/2 factor may or may be explained as follows. In the field model of our electron, the force is linearly proportional to the extension or compression. Hence, to calculate the energy involved in stretching it from x = 0 to a, we need to calculate it as the following integral:

So… Well… That will give you some food for thought, I’d guess. 🙂 If it racks your brain too much—or if you’re too exhausted by this point (which is OK, because it racks my brain too!)—just note we’ve also shown that the energy is proportional to the square of the amplitude here, so that’s a nice result as well… 🙂

Talking food for thought, let me make one final point here. The c2 = a2·k/m relation implies a value for k which is equal to k = m·c2/a = E/a. What does this tell us? In one of our previous posts, we wrote that the radius of our electron appeared as a natural distance unit. We wrote that because of another reason: the remark was triggered by the fact that we can write the cratio as c/ω = a·ω/ω = a. This implies the tangential and angular velocity in our flywheel model of an electron would be the same if we’d measure distance in units of a. Now, the E = a·k = a·F/(just re-writing…) implies that the force is proportional to the energy— F = (x/a)·E — and the proportionality coefficient is… Well… x/a. So that’s the distance measured in units of a. So… Well… Isn’t that great? The radius of our atom appearing as a natural distance unit does fit in nicely with our geometric interpretation of the wavefunction, doesn’t it? I mean… Do I need to say more?

I hope not because… Well… I can’t explain any better for the time being. I hope I sort of managed to convey the message. Just to make sure, in case you wonder what I was trying to do here, it’s the following: I told you appears as a resonant frequency of spacetime and, in this post, I tried to explain what that really means. I’d appreciate if you could let me know if you got it. If not, I’ll try again. 🙂 When everything is said and done, one only truly understands stuff when one is able to explain it to someone else, right? 🙂 Please do think of more innovative or creative ways if you can! 🙂

OK. That’s it but… Well… I should, perhaps, talk about one other thing here. It’s what I mentioned in the beginning of this post: this analysis assumes we’re looking at our particle from some specific direction. It could be any direction but… Well… It’s some direction. We have no depth in our line of sight, so to speak. That’s really interesting, and I should do some more thinking about it. Because the direction could be any direction, our analysis is valid for any direction. Hence, if our interpretation would happen to be some true—and that’s a big if, of course—then our particle has to be spherical, right? Why? Well… Because we see this circular thing from any direction, so it has to be a sphere, right?

Well… Yes. But then… Well… While that logic seems to be incontournable, as they say in French, I am somewhat reluctant to accept it at face value. Why? I am not sure. Something inside of me says I should look at the symmetries involved… I mean the transformation formulas for wavefunction when doing rotations and stuff. So… Well… I’ll be busy with that for a while, I guess. 😦

Post scriptum 2: You may wonder whether this line of reasoning would also work for a proton. Well… Let’s try it. Because its mass is so much larger than that of an electron (about 1835 times), the = ħ/(m·c) formula gives a much smaller radius: 1835 times smaller, to be precise, so that’s around 2.1×10−16 m, which is about 1/4 of the so-called charge radius of a proton, as measured by scattering experiments. So… Well… We’re not that far off, but… Well… We clearly need some more theory here. Having said that, a proton is not an elementary particle, so its mass incorporates other factors than what we’re considering here (two-dimensional oscillations).

The flywheel model of an electron

One of my readers sent me the following question on the geometric (or even physical) interpretation of the wavefunction that I’ve been offering in recent posts:

Does this mean that the wave function is merely describing excitations in a matter field; or is this unsupported?

My reply was very short: “Yes. In fact, we can think of a matter-particle as a tiny flywheel that stores energy.”

However, I realize this answer answers the question only partially. Moreover, I now feel I’ve been quite ambiguous in my description. When looking at the geometry of the elementary wavefunction (see the animation below, which shows us a left- and right-handed wave respectively), two obvious but somewhat conflicting interpretations readily come to mind:

(1) One is that the components of the elementary wavefunction represent an oscillation (in two dimensions) of a field. We may call it a matter field (yes, think of the scalar Higgs field here), but we could also think of it as an oscillation of the spacetime fabric itself: a tiny gravitational wave, in effect. All we need to do here is to associate the sine and cosine component with a physical dimension. The analogy here is the electromagnetic field vector, whose dimension is force per unit charge (newton/coulomb). So we may associate the sine and cosine components of the wavefunction with, say, the force per unit mass dimension (newton/kg) which, using Newton’s Law (F = m·a) reduces to the dimension of acceleration (m/s2), which is the dimension of gravitational fields. I’ll refer to this interpretation as the field interpretation of the matter wave (or wavefunction).

(2) The other interpretation is what I refer to as the flywheel interpretation of the electron. If you google this, you won’t find anything. However, you will probably stumble upon the so-called Zitterbewegung interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is a more elaborate theory based on the same basic intuition. The Zitterbewegung (a term which was coined by Erwin Schrödinger himself, and which you’ll see abbreviated as zbw) is, effectively, a local circulatory motion of the electron, which is presumed to be the basis of the electron’s spin and magnetic moment. All that I am doing, is… Well… I think I do push the envelope of this interpretation quite a bit. 🙂

The first interpretation implies our rotating arrow is, effectively, some field vector. In contrast, the second interpretation implies it’s only the tip of the rotating arrow that, literally, matters: we should look at it as a pointlike charge moving around a central axis, which is the direction of propagation. Let’s look at both.

The flywheel interpretation

The flywheel interpretation has an advantage over the field interpretation, because it also gives us a wonderfully simple physical interpretation of the interaction between electrons and photons—or, further speculating, between matter-particles (fermions) and force-carrier particles (bosons) in general. In fact, Feynman shows how this might work—but in a rather theoretical Lecture on symmetries and conservation principles, and he doesn’t elaborate much, so let me do that for him. The argument goes as follows.

A light beam—an electromagnetic wave—consists of a large number of photons. These photons are thought of as being circularly polarized: look at those animations above again. The Planck-Einstein equation tells us the energy of each photon is equal to E = ħ·ω = h·f. [I should, perhaps, quickly note that the frequency is, obviously, the frequency of the electromagnetic wave. It, therefore, is not to be associated with a matter wave: the de Broglie wavelength and the wavelength of light are very different concepts, even if the Planck-Einstein equation looks the same for both.]

Now, if our beam consists of photons, the total energy of our beam will be equal to W = N·E = N·ħ·ω. It is crucially important to note that this energy is to be interpreted as the energy that is carried by the beam in a certain time: we should think of the beam as being finite, somehow, in time and in space. Otherwise, our reasoning doesn’t make sense.

The photons carry angular momentum. Just look at those animations (above) once more. It doesn’t matter much whether or not we think of light as particles or as a wave: you can see there is angular momentum there. Photons are spin-1 particles, so the angular momentum will be equal to ± ħ. Hence, then the total angular momentum Jz (the direction of propagation is supposed to be the z-axis here) will be equal to JzN·ħ. [This, of course, assumes all photons are polarized in the same way, which may or may not be the case. You should just go along with the argument right now.] Combining the W = N·ħ·ω and JzN·ħ equations, we get:

JzN·ħ = W/ω

For a photon, we do accept the field interpretation, as illustrated below. As mentioned above, the z-axis here is the direction of propagation (so that’s the line of sight when looking at the diagram). So we have an electric field vector, which we write as ε (epsilon) so as to not cause any confusion with the Ε we used for the energy. [You may wonder if we shouldn’t also consider the magnetic field vector, but then we know the magnetic field vector is, basically, a relativistic effect which vanishes in the reference frame of the charge itself.] The phase of the electric field vector is φ = ω·t.

Now, a charge (so that’s our electron now) will experience a force which is equal to F = q·ε. We use bold letters here because F and ε are vectors. We now need to look at our electron which, in our interpretation of the elementary wavefunction, we think of as rotating about some axis. So that’s what’s represented below. [Both illustrations are Feynman’s, not mine. As for the animations above, I borrowed them from Wikipedia.]

Now, in previous posts, we calculated the radius based on a similar argument as the one Feynman used to get that JzN·ħ = W/ω equation. I’ll refer you those posts and just mention the result here: r is the Compton scattering radius for an electron, which is equal to:

An equally spectacular implication of our flywheel model of the electron was the following: we found that the angular velocity v was equal to vr·ω = [ħ·/(m·c)]·(E/ħ) = c. Hence, in our flywheel model of an electron, it is effectively spinning around at the speed of light. Note that the angular frequency (ω) in the vr·ω equation is not the angular frequency of our photon: it’s the frequency of our electron. So we use the same Planck-Einstein equation (ω = E/ħ) but the energy E is the (rest) energy of our electron, so that’s about 0.511 MeV (so that’s an order of magnitude which is 100,000 to 300,000 times that of photons in the visible spectrum). Hence, the angular frequencies of our electron and our photon are very different. Feynman casually reflects this difference by noting the phases of our electron and our photon will differ by a phase factor, which he writes as φ0.

Just to be clear here, at this point, our analysis here diverges from Feynman’s. Feynman had no intention whatsoever to talk about Schrödinger’s Zitterbewegung hypothesis when he wrote what he wrote back in the 1960s. In fact, Feynman is very reluctant to venture into physical interpretations of the wavefunction in all his Lectures on quantum mechanics—which is surprising. Because he comes so tantalizing close at many occasions—as he does here: he describes the motion of the electron here as that of a harmonic oscillator which can be driven by an external electric field. Now that is a physical interpretation, and it is totally consistent with the one I’ve advanced in my recent posts. Indeed, Feynman also describes it as an oscillation in two dimensions—perpendicular to each other and to the direction of motion, as we do— in both the flywheel as well as the field interpretation of the wavefunction!

This point is important enough to quote Feynman himself in this regard:

“We have often described the motion of the electron in the atom as a harmonic oscillator which can be driven into oscillation by an external electric field. We’ll suppose that the atom is isotropic, so that it can oscillate equally well in the x– or y- directions. Then in the circularly polarized light, the x displacement and the displacement are the same, but one is 90° behind the other. The net result is that the electron moves in a circle.”

Right on! But so what happens really? As our light beam—the photons, really—are being absorbed by our electron (or our atom), it absorbs angular momentum. In other words, there is a torque about the central axis. Let me remind you of the formulas for the angular momentum and for torque respectively: L = r×p and τr×F. Needless to say, we have two vector cross-products here. Hence, if we use the τr×F formula, we need to find the tangential component of the force (Ft), whose magnitude will be equal to Ft = q·εtNow, energy is force over some distance so… Well… You may need to think about it for a while but, if you’ve understood all of the above, you should also be able to understand the following formula:

dW/dt = q·εt·v

[If you have trouble, remember is equal to ds/dt = Δs/Δt for Δt → 0, and re-write the equation above as dW = q·εt·v·dt = q·εt·ds = Ft·ds. Capito?]

Now, you may or may not remember that the time rate of change of angular momentum must be equal to the torque that is being applied. Now, the torque is equal to τ = Ft·r = q·εt·r, so we get:

dJz/dt = q·εt·v

The ratio of dW/dt and dJz/dt gives us the following interesting equation:

Now, Feynman tries to relate this to the JzN·ħ = W/ω formula but… Well… We should remind ourselves that the angular frequency of these photons is not the angular frequency of our electron. So… Well… What can we say about this equation? Feynman suggests to integrate dJz and dW over some time interval, which makes sense: as mentioned, we interpreted W as the energy that is carried by the beam in a certain time. So if we integrate dW over this time interval, we get W. Likewise, if we integrate dJz over the same time interval, we should get the total angular momentum that our electron is absorbing from the light beam. Now, because dJz = dW/ω, we do concur with Feynman’s conclusion: the total angular momentum which is being absorbed by the electron is proportional to the total energy of the beam, and the constant of proportionality is equal to 1/ω.

It’s just… Well… The ω here is the angular frequency of the electron. It’s not the angular frequency of the beam. Not in our flywheel model of the electron which, admittedly, is not the model which Feynman used in his analysis. Feynman’s analysis is simpler: he assumes an electron at rest, so to speak, and then the beam drives it so it goes around in a circle with a velocity that is, effectively, given by the angular frequency of the beam itself. So… Well… Fine. Makes sense. As said, I just pushed the analysis a bit further along here. Both analyses raise an interesting question: how and where is the absorbed energy being stored? What is the mechanism here?

In Feynman’s analysis, the answer is quite simple: the electron did not have any motion before but does spin around after the beam hit it. So it has more energy now: it wasn’t a tiny flywheel before, but it is now!

In contrast, in my interpretation of the matter wave, the electron was spinning around already, so where does the extra energy go now? As its energy increases, ω = E/ħ must increase, right? Right. At the same time, the velocity v = r·ω must still be equal to vr·ω = [ħ·/(m·c)]·(E/ħ) = c, right? Right. So… If ω increases, but r·ω must equal the speed of light, then must actually decrease somewhat, right?

Right. It’s a weird but inevitable conclusion, it seems. I’ll let you think about it. 🙂

To conclude this post—which, I hope, the reader who triggered it will find interesting—I would like to quote Feynman on an issue on which most textbooks remain silent: the two-state nature of photons. I will just quote him without trying to comment or alter what he writes, because what he writes is clear enough, I think:

“Now let’s ask the following question: If light is linearly polarized in the x-direction, what is its angular momentum? Light polarized in the x-direction can be represented as the superposition of RHC and LHC polarized light. […] The interference of these two amplitudes produces the linear polarization, but it has equal probabilities to appear with plus or minus one unit of angular momentum. [Macroscopic measurements made on a beam of linearly polarized light will show that it carries zero angular momentum, because in a large number of photons there are nearly equal numbers of RHC and LHC photons contributing opposite amounts of angular momentum—the average angular momentum is zero.]

Now, we have said that any spin-one particle can have three values of Jz, namely +101 (the three states we saw in the Stern-Gerlach experiment). But light is screwy; it has only two states. It does not have the zero case. This strange lack is related to the fact that light cannot stand still. For a particle of spin which is standing still, there must be the 2j+1 possible states with values of Jz going in steps of from j to +j. But it turns out that for something of spin j with zero mass only the states with the components +j and j along the direction of motion exist. For example, light does not have three states, but only two—although a photon is still an object of spin one.”

In his typical style and frankness—for which he is revered by some (like me) but disliked by others—he admits this is very puzzling, and not obvious at all! Let me quote him once more:

“How is this consistent with our earlier proofs—based on what happens under rotations in space—that for spin-one particles three states are necessary? For a particle at rest, rotations can be made about any axis without changing the momentum state. Particles with zero rest mass (like photons and neutrinos) cannot be at rest; only rotations about the axis along the direction of motion do not change the momentum state. Arguments about rotations around one axis only are insufficient to prove that three states are required. We have tried to find at least a proof that the component of angular momentum along the direction of motion must for a zero mass particle be an integral multiple of ħ/2—and not something like ħ/3. Even using all sorts of properties of the Lorentz transformation and what not, we failed. Maybe it’s not true. We’ll have to talk about it with Prof. Wigner, who knows all about such things.”

The reference to Eugene Wigner is historically interesting. Feynman probably knew him very well—if only because they had both worked together on the Manhattan Project—and it’s true Wigner was not only a great physicist but a mathematical genius as well. However, Feynman probably quotes him here for the 1963 Nobel Prize he got for… Well… Wigner’s “contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles.” 🙂 I’ll let you figure out how what I write about in this post, and symmetry arguments, might be related. 🙂

That’s it for today, folks! I hope you enjoyed this. 🙂

Post scriptum: The main disadvantage of the flywheel interpretation is that it doesn’t explain interference: waves interfere—some rotating mass doesn’t. Ultimately, the wave and flywheel interpretation must, somehow, be compatible. One way to think about it is that the electron can only move as it does—in a “local circulatory motion”—if there is a force on it that makes it move the way it does. That force must be gravitational because… Well… There is no other candidate, is there? [We’re not talking some electron orbital here—some negative charge orbiting around a positive nucleus. We’re just considering the electron itself.] So we just need to prove that our rotating arrow will also represent a force, whose components will make our electron move the way it does. That should not be difficult. The analogy of the V-twin engine should do the trick. I’ll deal with that in my next post. If we’re able to provide such proof (which, as mentioned, should not be difficult), it will be a wonderful illustration of the complementarity principle. 🙂

However, just thinking about it does raise some questions already. Circular motion like this can be explained in two equivalent ways. The most obvious way to think about it is to assume some central field. It’s the planetary model (illustrated below). However, that doesn’t suit our purposes because it’s hard – if possible at all – to relate it to the wavefunction oscillation.

The second model is our two-spring or V-twin engine model (illustrated below), but then what is the mass here? One hypothesis that comes to mind is that we’re constantly accelerating and decelerating an electric charge (the electron charge)—against all other charges in the Universe, so to speak. So that’s a force over a distance—energy. And energy has an equivalent mass.

The question which remains open, then, is the following: what is the nature of this force? In previous posts, I suggested it might be gravitational, but so here we’re back to the drawing board: we’re talking an electrical force, but applied to some mass which acquires mass because of… Well… Because of the force—because of the oscillation (the moving charge) itself. Hmm…. I need to think about this.

Photons as spin-1 particles

After all of the lengthy and speculative excursions into the nature of the wavefunction for an electron, it is time to get back to Feynman’s Lectures and look at photon-electron interactions. So that’s chapter 17 and 18 of Volume III. Of all of the sections in those chapters – which are quite technical here and there – I find the one on the angular momentum of polarized light the most interesting.

Feynman provides an eminently readable explanation of how the electromagnetic energy of a photon may be absorbed by an electron as kinetic energy. It is entirely compatible with our physical interpretation of the wavefunction of an electron as… Well… We’ve basically been looking at the electron as a little flywheel, right? 🙂 I won’t copy Feynman here, except the illustration, which speaks for itself.

However, I do recommend you explore these two Lectures for yourself. Among other interesting passages, Feynman notes that, while photons are spin-1 particles and, therefore, are supposed to be associated with three possible values for the angular momentum (Jz = +ħ, 0 or −ħ), there are only two states: the zero case doesn’t exist. As Feynman notes: “This strange lack is related to the fact that light cannot stand still.” But I will let you explore this for yourself. 🙂

Feynman as the Great Teacher?

While browsing for something else, I stumbled on an article which derides Feynman’s qualities as a teacher, and the Caltech Feynman Lectures themselves. It is an interesting read. Let me quote (part of) the conclusion:

“Richard Feynman constructed an “introductory” physics course at Caltech suitable primarily for perhaps imaginary extreme physics prodigies like himself or how he pictured himself as an eighteen year old. It is an open question how well the actual eighteen year old Feynman would have done in the forty-three year old Feynman’s “introductory” physics course. Like many adults had Feynman lost touch with what it had been like to be eighteen? In any case, such extreme physics prodigies made up only a small fraction of the highly qualified undergraduate students at Caltech either in the 1960’s or 1980’s. An educational system designed by extreme prodigies for extreme prodigies, often from academic families, extremely wealthy families, or other unusual backgrounds rare even among most top students as conventionally defined, is a prescription for disaster for the vast majority of students and society at large.”

The article actually reacts to a blog post from Bill Gates, who extols Feynman’s virtues as a teacher. So… Was or wasn’t he a great teacher?

It all depends on your definition of a great teacher. I respect the views in the mentioned article mentioned above—if only because the author, John F. McGowan, is not just anyone: he is a B.S. from Caltech itself, and he has a Ph.D. in physics. I don’t, so… Well… He is an authority, obviously. Frankly, I must agree I struggled with Feynman’s Lectures too, and I will probably continue to do so as I read and re-read them time after time. On the other hand, below I copy one of those typical Feynman illustrations you will not find in any other textbook. Feynman tries to give us a physical explanation of the photon-electron interaction here. Most introductory physics textbooks just don’t bother: they’ll give you the mathematical formalism and then some exercises, and that’s it. Worse, those textbooks will repeatedly tell you you can’t really ‘understand’ quantum math. Just go through the math and apply the rules. That’s the general message.

I find that very disappointing. I must admit that Feynman has racked my brain—but in a good way. I still feel I do not quite understand quantum physics “the way we would like to”. It is still “peculiar and mysterious”, but then that’s just how Richard Feynman feels about it too—and he’s humble enough to admit that in the very first paragraph of his very first Lecture on QM.

I have spent a lot of my free time over the past years thinking about a physical or geometric interpretation of the wavefunction—half of my life, in a way—and I think I found it. The article I recently published on it got downloaded for the 100th time today, and this blog – as wordy, nerdy and pedantic as it is – attracted 5,000 visitors last month alone. People like me: people who want to understand physics beyond the equations.

So… Well… Feynman himself admits he was mainly interested in the “one or two dozen students who — very surprisingly — understood almost everything in all of the lectures, and who were quite active in working with the material and worrying about the many points in an excited and interested way.” I think there are many people like those students. People like me: people who want to understand but can’t afford to study physics on a full-time basis.

For those, I think Feynman’s Lectures are truly inspirational. At the very least, they’ve provided me with many wonderful evenings of self-study—some productive, in the classical sense of the word (moving ahead) and… Some… Well… Much of what I read did—and still does—keep me awake at night. 🙂

The speed of light as an angular velocity (2)

My previous post on the speed of light as an angular velocity was rather cryptic. This post will be a bit more elaborate. Not all that much, however: this stuff is and remains quite dense, unfortunately. 😦 But I’ll do my best to try to explain what I am thinking of. Remember the formula (or definition) of the elementary wavefunction:

ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħa·cos(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ)

How should we interpret this? We know an actual particle will be represented by a wave packet: a sum of wavefunctions, each with its own amplitude ak and its own argument θk = (Ek∙t − pkx)/ħ. But… Well… Let’s see how far we get when analyzing the elementary wavefunction itself only.

According to mathematical convention, the imaginary unit (i) is a 90° angle in the counterclockwise direction. However, Nature surely cannot be bothered about our convention of measuring phase angles – or time itself – clockwise or counterclockwise. Therefore, both right- as well as left-handed polarization may be possible, as illustrated below.

The left-handed elementary wavefunction would be written as:

ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħa·cos(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ) − i·a·sin(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ)

In my previous posts, I hypothesized that the two physical possibilities correspond to the angular momentum of our particle – say, an electron – being either positive or negative: J = +ħ/2 or, else, J = −ħ/2. I will come back to this in a moment. Let us first further examine the functional form of the wavefunction.

We should note that both the direction as well as the magnitude of the (linear) momentum (p) are relative: they depend on the orientation and relative velocity of our reference frame – which are, in effect, relative to the reference frame of our object. As such, the wavefunction itself is relative: another observer will obtain a different value for both the momentum (p) as well as for the energy (E). Of course, this makes us think of the relativity of the electric and magnetic field vectors (E and B) but… Well… It’s not quite the same because – as I will explain in a moment – the argument of the wavefunction, considered as a whole, is actually invariant under a Lorentz transformation.

Let me elaborate this point. If we consider the reference frame of the particle itself, then the idea of direction and momentum sort of vanishes, as the momentum vector shrinks to the origin itself: p = 0. Let us now look at how the argument of the wavefunction transforms. The E and p in the argument of the wavefunction (θ = ω∙t – kx = (E/ħ)∙t – (p/ħ)∙x = (E∙t – px)/ħ) are, of course, the energy and momentum as measured in our frame of reference. Hence, we will want to write these quantities as E = Ev and p = pv = pvv. If we then use natural time and distance units (hence, the numerical value of c is equal to 1 and, hence, the (relative) velocity is then measured as a fraction of c, with a value between 0 and 1), we can relate the energy and momentum of a moving object to its energy and momentum when at rest using the following relativistic formulas:

E= γ·E0 and p= γ·m0v = γ·E0v/c2

The argument of the wavefunction can then be re-written as:

θ = [γ·E0/ħ]∙t – [(γ·E0v/c2)/ħ]∙x = (E0/ħ)·(t − v∙x/c2)·γ = (E0/ħ)∙t’

The γ in these formulas is, of course, the Lorentz factor, and t’ is the proper time: t’ = (t − v∙x/c2)/√(1−v2/c2). Two essential points should be noted here:

1. The argument of the wavefunction is invariant. There is a primed time (t’) but there is no primed θ (θ’): θ = (Ev/ħ)·t – (pv/ħ)·x = (E0/ħ)∙t’.

2. The E0/ħ coefficient pops up as an angular frequency: E0/ħ = ω0. We may refer to it as the frequency of the elementary wavefunction.

Now, if you don’t like the concept of angular frequency, we can also write: f0 = ω0/2π = (E0/ħ)/2π = E0/h. Alternatively, and perhaps more elucidating, we get the following formula for the period of the oscillation:

T0 = 1/f0 = h/E0

This is interesting, because we can look at the period as a natural unit of time for our particle. This period is inversely proportional to the (rest) energy of the particle, and the constant of proportionality is h. Substituting Efor m0·c2, we may also say it’s inversely proportional to the (rest) mass of the particle, with the constant of proportionality equal to h/c2. The period of an electron, for example, would be equal to about 8×10−21 s. That’s very small, and it only gets smaller for larger objects ! But what does all of this really tell us? What does it actually mean?

We can look at the sine and cosine components of the wavefunction as an oscillation in two dimensions, as illustrated below.

Look at the little green dot going around. Imagine it is some mass going around and around. Its circular motion is equivalent to the two-dimensional oscillation. Indeed, instead of saying it moves along a circle, we may also say it moves simultaneously (1) left and right and back again (the cosine) while also moving (2) up and down and back again (the sine).

Now, a mass that rotates about a fixed axis has angular momentum, which we can write as the vector cross-product L = r×p or, alternatively, as the product of an angular velocity (ω) and rotational inertia (I), aka as the moment of inertia or the angular massL = I·ω. [Note we write L and ω in boldface here because they are (axial) vectors. If we consider their magnitudes only, we write L = I·ω (no boldface).]

We can now do some calculations. We already know the angular velocity (ω) is equal to E0/ħ. Now, the magnitude of r in the Lr×p vector cross-product should equal the magnitude of ψ = a·ei∙E·t/ħ, so we write: r = a. What’s next? Well… The momentum (p) is the product of a linear velocity (v) – in this case, the tangential velocity – and some mass (m): p = m·v. If we switch to scalar instead of vector quantities, then the (tangential) velocity is given by v = r·ω.

So now we only need to think about what formula we should use for the angular mass. If we’re thinking, as we are doing here, of some point mass going around some center, then the formula to use is I = m·r2. However, we may also want to think that the two-dimensional oscillation of our point mass actually describes the surface of a disk, in which case the formula for I becomes I = m·r2/2. Of course, the addition of this 1/2 factor may seem arbitrary but, as you will see, it will give us a more intuitive result. This is what we get:

L = I·ω = (m·r2/2)·(E/ħ) = (1/2)·a2·(E/c2)·(E/ħ) = a2·E2/(2·ħ·c2)

Note that our frame of reference is that of the particle itself, so we should actually write ω0, m0 and E0 instead of ω, m and E. The value of the rest energy of an electron is about 0.510 MeV, or 8.1871×10−14 N∙m. Now, this momentum should equal J = ±ħ/2. We can, therefore, derive the (Compton scattering) radius of an electron:Substituting the various constants with their numerical values, we find that a is equal 3.8616×10−13 m, which is the (reduced) Compton scattering radius of an electron. The (tangential) velocity (v) can now be calculated as being equal to v = r·ω = a·ω = [ħ·/(m·c)]·(E/ħ) = c. This is an amazing result. Let us think about it.

In our previous posts, we introduced the metaphor of two springs or oscillators, whose energy was equal to E = m·ω2. Is this compatible with Einstein’s E = m·c2 mass-energy equivalence relation? It is. The E = m·c2 implies E/m = c2. We, therefore, can write the following:

ω = E/ħ = m·c2/ħ = m·(E/m)·/ħ ⇔ ω = E/ħ

Hence, we should actually have titled this and the previous post somewhat differently: the speed of light appears as a tangential velocity. Think of the following: the ratio of c and ω is equal to c/ω = a·ω/ω = a. Hence, the tangential and angular velocity would be the same if we’d measure distance in units of a. In other words, the radius of an electron appears as a natural distance unit here: if we’d measure ω in units of per second, rather than in radians (which are expressed in the SI unit of distance, i.e. the meter) per second, the two concepts would coincide.

More fundamentally, we may want to look at the radius of an electron as a natural unit of velocityHuh? Yes. Just re-write the c/ω = a as ω = c/a. What does it say? Exactly what I said, right? As such, the radius of an electron is not only a norm for measuring distance but also for time. 🙂

If you don’t quite get this, think of the following. For an electron, we get an angular frequency that is equal to ω = E/ħ = (8.19×10−14 N·m)/(1.05×10−34 N·m·s) ≈ 7.76×1020 radians per second. That’s an incredible velocity, because radians are expressed in distance units—so that’s in meter. However, our mass is not moving along the unit circle, but along a much tinier orbit. The ratio of the radius of the unit circle and is equal to 1/a ≈ (1 m)/(3.86×10−13 m) ≈ 2.59×1012. Now, if we divide the above-mentioned velocity of 7.76×1020 radians per second by this factor, we get… Right ! The speed of light: 2.998×1082 m/s. 🙂

Post scriptum: I have no clear answer to the question as to why we should use the I = m·r2/2 formula, as opposed to the I = m·r2 formula. It ensures we get the result we want, but this 1/2 factor is actually rather enigmatic. It makes me think of the 1/2 factor in Schrödinger’s equation, which is also quite enigmatic. In my view, the 1/2 factor should not be there in Schrödinger’s equation. Electron orbitals tend to be occupied by two electrons with opposite spin. That’s why their energy levels should be twice as much. And so I’d get rid of the 1/2 factor, solve for the energy levels, and then divide them by two again. Or something like that. 🙂 But then that’s just my personal opinion or… Well… I’ve always been intrigued by the difference between the original printed edition of the Feynman Lectures and the online version, which has been edited on this point. My printed edition is the third printing, which is dated July 1966, and – on this point – it says the following:

“Don’t forget that meff has nothing to do with the real mass of an electron. It may be quite different—although in commonly used metals and semiconductors it often happens to turn out to be the same general order of magnitude, about 2 to 20 times the free-space mass of the electron.”

Two to twenty times. Not 1 or 0.5 to 20 times. No. Two times. As I’ve explained a couple of times, if we’d define a new effective mass which would be twice the old concept – so meffNEW = 2∙meffOLD – then such re-definition would not only solve a number of paradoxes and inconsistencies, but it will also justify my interpretation of energy as a two-dimensional oscillation of mass.

However, the online edition has been edited here to reflect the current knowledge about the behavior of an electron in a medium. Hence, if you click on the link above, you will read that the effective mass can be “about 0.1 to 30 times” the free-space mass of the electron. Well… This is another topic altogether, and so I’ll sign off here and let you think about it all. 🙂

The speed of light as an angular velocity

Over the weekend, I worked on a revised version of my paper on a physical interpretation of the wavefunction. However, I forgot to add the final remarks on the speed of light as an angular velocity. I know… This post is for my faithful followers only. It is dense, but let me add the missing bits here:

Post scriptum (29 October): Einstein’s view on aether theories probably still holds true: “We may say that according to the general theory of relativity space is endowed with physical qualities; in this sense, therefore, there exists an aether. According to the general theory of relativity, space without aether is unthinkable – for in such space there not only would be no propagation of light, but also no possibility of existence for standards of space and time (measuring-rods and clocks), nor therefore any space-time intervals in the physical sense. But this aether may not be thought of as endowed with the quality characteristic of ponderable media, as consisting of parts which may be tracked through time. The idea of motion may not be applied to it.”

The above quote is taken from the Wikipedia article on aether theories. The same article also quotes Robert Laughlin, the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Physics, who said this about aether in 2005: “It is ironic that Einstein’s most creative work, the general theory of relativity, should boil down to conceptualizing space as a medium when his original premise [in special relativity] was that no such medium existed. […] The word ‘aether’ has extremely negative connotations in theoretical physics because of its past association with opposition to relativity. This is unfortunate because, stripped of these connotations, it rather nicely captures the way most physicists actually think about the vacuum. […]The modern concept of the vacuum of space, confirmed every day by experiment, is a relativistic aether. But we do not call it this because it is taboo.”

I really love this: a relativistic aether. My interpretation of the wavefunction is very consistent with that.

A physical explanation for relativistic length contraction?

My last posts were all about a possible physical interpretation of the quantum-mechanical wavefunction. To be precise, we have been interpreting the wavefunction as a gravitational wave. In this interpretation, the real and imaginary component of the wavefunction get a physical dimension: force per unit mass (newton per kg). The inspiration here was the structural similarity between Coulomb’s and Newton’s force laws. They both look alike: it’s just that one gives us a force per unit charge (newton per coulomb), while the other gives us a force per unit mass.

So… Well… Many nice things came out of this – and I wrote about that at length – but last night I was thinking this interpretation may also offer an explanation of relativistic length contraction. Before we get there, let us re-visit our hypothesis.

The geometry of the wavefunction

The elementary wavefunction is written as:

ψ = a·ei(E·t − px)/ħa·cos(px/ħ – E∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(px/ħ – E∙t/ħ)

Nature should not care about our conventions for measuring the phase angle clockwise or counterclockwise and, therefore, the ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħ function may also be permitted. We know that cos(θ) = cos(θ) and sinθ = sin(θ), so we can write:

ψ = a·ei(E·t − p∙x)/ħa·cos(E∙t/ħ – px/ħ) + i·a·sin(E∙t/ħ – px/ħ)

= a·cos(px/ħ – E∙t/ħ) i·a·sin(px/ħ – E∙t/ħ)

The vectors p and x are the the momentum and position vector respectively: p = (px, py, pz) and x = (x, y, z). However, if we assume there is no uncertainty about p – not about the direction nor the magnitude – then we may choose an x-axis which reflects the direction of p. As such, x = (x, y, z) reduces to (x, 0, 0), and px/ħ reduces to p∙x/ħ. This amounts to saying our particle is traveling along the x-axis or, if p = 0, that our particle is located somewhere on the x-axis. Hence, the analysis is one-dimensional only.

The geometry of the elementary wavefunction is illustrated below. The x-axis is the direction of propagation, and the y- and z-axes represent the real and imaginary part of the wavefunction respectively.

Note that, when applying the right-hand rule for the axes, the vertical axis is the y-axis, not the z-axis. Hence, we may associate the vertical axis with the cosine component, and the horizontal axis with the sine component. You can check this as follows: if the origin is the (x, t) = (0, 0) point, then cos(θ) = cos(0) = 1 and sin(θ) = sin(0) = 0. This is reflected in both illustrations, which show a left- and a right-handed wave respectively. We speculated this should correspond to the two possible values for the quantum-mechanical spin of the wave: +ħ/2 or −ħ/2. The cosine and sine components for the left-handed wave are shown below. Needless to say, the cosine and sine function are the same, except for a phase difference of π/2: sin(θ) = cos(θ − π/2).

As for the wave velocity, and its direction of propagation, we know that the (phase) velocity of any wave F(kx – ωt) is given by vp = ω/k = (E/ħ)/(p/ħ) = E/p. Of course, the momentum might also be in the negative x-direction, in which case k would be equal to -p and, therefore, we would get a negative phase velocity: vp = ω/k = E/p.

The de Broglie relations

E/ħ = ω gives the frequency in time (expressed in radians per second), while p/ħ = k gives us the wavenumber, or the frequency in space (expressed in radians per meter). Of course, we may write: f = ω/2π  and λ = 2π/k, which gives us the two de Broglie relations:

1. E = ħ∙ω = h∙f
2. p = ħ∙k = h/λ

The frequency in time is easy to interpret. The wavefunction of a particle with more energy, or more mass, will have a higher density in time than a particle with less energy.

In contrast, the second de Broglie relation is somewhat harder to interpret. According to the p = h/λ relation, the wavelength is inversely proportional to the momentum: λ = h/p. The velocity of a photon, or a (theoretical) particle with zero rest mass (m0 = 0), is c and, therefore, we find that p = mvv = mcc = m∙c (all of the energy is kinetic). Hence, we can write: p∙c = m∙c2 = E, which we may also write as: E/p = c. Hence, for a particle with zero rest mass, the wavelength can be written as:

λ = h/p = hc/E = h/mc

However, this is a limiting situation – applicable to photons only. Real-life matter-particles should have some mass[1] and, therefore, their velocity will never be c.[2]

Hence, if p goes to zero, then the wavelength becomes infinitely long: if p → 0 then λ → ∞. How should we interpret this inverse proportionality between λ and p? To answer this question, let us first see what this wavelength λ actually represents.

If we look at the ψ = a·cos(p∙x/ħ – E∙t/ħ) – i·a·sin(p∙x/ħ – E∙t/ħ) once more, and if we write p∙x/ħ as Δ, then we can look at p∙x/ħ as a phase factor, and so we will be interested to know for what x this phase factor Δ = p∙x/ħ will be equal to 2π. So we write:

Δ =p∙x/ħ = 2π ⇔ x = 2π∙ħ/p = h/p = λ

So now we get a meaningful interpretation for that wavelength. It is the distance between the crests (or the troughs) of the wave, so to speak, as illustrated below. Of course, this two-dimensional wave has no real crests or troughs: we measure crests and troughs against the y-axis here. Hence, our definition depend on the frame of reference.

Now we know what λ actually represents for our one-dimensional elementary wavefunction. Now, the time that is needed for one cycle is equal to T = 1/f = 2π·(ħ/E). Hence, we can now calculate the wave velocity:

v = λ/T = (h/p)/[2π·(ħ/E)] = E/p

Unsurprisingly, we just get the phase velocity that we had calculated already: v = vp = E/p. The question remains: what if p is zero? What if we are looking at some particle at rest? It is an intriguing question: we get an infinitely long wavelength, and an infinite wave velocity.

Now, re-writing the v = E/p as v = m∙c2/m∙vg  = cg, in which βg is the relative classical velocity[3] of our particle βg = vg/c) tells us that the phase velocities will effectively be superluminal (βg  < 1 so 1/ βg > 1), but what if βg approaches zero? The conclusion seems unavoidable: for a particle at rest, we only have a frequency in time, as the wavefunction reduces to:

ψ = a·e−i·E·t/ħ = a·cos(E∙t/ħ) – i·a·sin(E∙t/ħ)

How should we interpret this?

A physical interpretation of relativistic length contraction?

In my previous posts, we argued that the oscillations of the wavefunction pack energy. Because the energy of our particle is finite, the wave train cannot be infinitely long. If we assume some definite number of oscillations, then the string of oscillations will be shorter as λ decreases. Hence, the physical interpretation of the wavefunction that is offered here may explain relativistic length contraction.

🙂

Yep. Think about it. 🙂

[1] Even neutrinos have some (rest) mass. This was first confirmed by the US-Japan Super-Kamiokande collaboration in 1998. Neutrinos oscillate between three so-called flavors: electron neutrinos, muon neutrinos and tau neutrinos. Recent data suggests that the sum of their masses is less than a millionth of the rest mass of an electron. Hence, they propagate at speeds that are very near to the speed of light.

[2] Using the Lorentz factor (γ), we can write the relativistically correct formula for the kinetic energy as KE = E − E0 = mvc2 − m0c2 = m0γc2 − m0c2 = m0c2(γ − 1). As v approaches c, γ approaches infinity and, therefore, the kinetic energy would become infinite as well.

[3] Because our particle will be represented by a wave packet, i.e. a superimposition of elementary waves with different E and p, the classical velocity of the particle becomes the group velocity of the wave, which is why we denote it by vg.

The geometry of the wavefunction (2)

This post further builds on the rather remarkable results we got in our previous posts. Let us start with the basics once again. The elementary wavefunction is written as:

ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħa·cos(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ)

Of course, Nature (or God, as Einstein would put it) does not care about our conventions for measuring an angle (i.e. the phase of our wavefunction) clockwise or counterclockwise and, therefore, the ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħ function is also permitted. We know that cos(θ) = cos(−θ) and sinθ = −sin(θ), so we can write:

ψ = a·ei[E·t − p∙x]/ħa·cos(E∙t/ħ − px/ħ) + i·a·sin(E∙t/ħ − px/ħ)

= a·cos(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ) − i·a·sin(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ)

The vectors p and x are the momentum and position vector respectively: p = (px, py, pz) and x = (x, y, z). However, if we assume there is no uncertainty about p – not about the direction, and not about the magnitude – then the direction of p can be our x-axis. In this reference frame, x = (x, y, z) reduces to (x, 0, 0), and px/ħ reduces to p∙x/ħ. This amounts to saying our particle is traveling along the x-axis or, if p = 0, that our particle is located somewhere on the x-axis. So we have an analysis in one dimension only then, which facilitates our calculations. The geometry of the wavefunction is then as illustrated below. The x-axis is the direction of propagation, and the y- and z-axes represent the real and imaginary part of the wavefunction respectively.

Note that, when applying the right-hand rule for the axes, the vertical axis is the y-axis, not the z-axis. Hence, we may associate the vertical axis with the cosine component, and the horizontal axis with the sine component. [You can check this as follows: if the origin is the (x, t) = (0, 0) point, then cos(θ) = cos(0) = 1 and sin(θ) = sin(0) = 0. This is reflected in both illustrations, which show a left- and a right-handed wave respectively.]

Now, you will remember that we speculated the two polarizations (left- versus right-handed) should correspond to the two possible values for the quantum-mechanical spin of the wave (+ħ/2 or −ħ/2). We will come back to this at the end of this post. Just focus on the essentials first: the cosine and sine components for the left-handed wave are shown below. Look at it carefully and try to understand. Needless to say, the cosine and sine function are the same, except for a phase difference of π/2: sin(θ) = cos(θ − π/2).

As for the wave velocity, and its direction of propagation, we know that the (phase) velocity of any waveform F(kx − ωt) is given by vp = ω/k. In our case, we find that vp = ω/k = (E/ħ)/(p/ħ) = E/p. Of course, the momentum might also be in the negative x-direction, in which case k would be equal to −p and, therefore, we would get a negative phase velocity: vp = ω/k = (E/ħ)/(−p/ħ) = −E/p.

As you know, E/ħ = ω gives the frequency in time (expressed in radians per second), while p/ħ = k gives us the wavenumber, or the frequency in space (expressed in radians per meter). [If in doubt, check my post on essential wave math.] Now, you also know that f = ω/2π  and λ = 2π/k, which gives us the two de Broglie relations:

1. E = ħ∙ω = h∙f
2. p = ħ∙k = h/λ

The frequency in time (oscillations or radians per second) is easy to interpret. A particle will always have some mass and, therefore, some energy, and it is easy to appreciate the fact that the wavefunction of a particle with more energy (or more mass) will have a higher density in time than a particle with less energy.

However, the second de Broglie relation is somewhat harder to interpret. Note that the wavelength is inversely proportional to the momentum: λ = h/p. Hence, if p goes to zero, then the wavelength becomes infinitely long, so we write:

If p → 0 then λ → ∞.

For the limit situation, a particle with zero rest mass (m0 = 0), the velocity may be c and, therefore, we find that p = mvv = mcc = m∙c (all of the energy is kinetic) and, therefore, p∙c = m∙c2 = E, which we may also write as: E/p = c. Hence, for a particle with zero rest mass (m0 = 0), the wavelength can be written as:

λ = h/p = hc/E = h/mc

Of course, we are talking a photon here. We get the zero rest mass for a photon. In contrast, all matter-particles should have some mass[1] and, therefore, their velocity will never equal c.[2] The question remains: how should we interpret the inverse proportionality between λ and p?

Let us first see what this wavelength λ actually represents. If we look at the ψ = a·cos(p∙x/ħ − E∙t/ħ) − i·a·sin(p∙x/ħ – E∙t/ħ) once more, and if we write p∙x/ħ as Δ, then we can look at p∙x/ħ as a phase factor, and so we will be interested to know for what x this phase factor Δ = p∙x/ħ will be equal to 2π. So we write:

Δ =p∙x/ħ = 2π ⇔ x = 2π∙ħ/p = h/p = λ

So now we get a meaningful interpretation for that wavelength. It is the distance between the crests (or the troughs) of the wave, so to speak, as illustrated below. Of course, this two-dimensional wave has no real crests or troughs: they depend on your frame of reference.

So now we know what λ actually represent for our one-dimensional elementary wavefunction. Now, the time that is needed for one cycle is equal to T = 1/f = 2π·(ħ/E). Hence, we can now calculate the wave velocity:

v = λ/T = (h/p)/[2π·(ħ/E)] = E/p

Unsurprisingly, we just get the phase velocity that we had calculated already: v = vp = E/p. It does not answer the question: what if p is zero? What if we are looking at some particle at rest? It is an intriguing question: we get an infinitely long wavelength, and an infinite phase velocity. Now, we know phase velocities can be superluminal, but they should not be infinite. So what does the mathematical inconsistency tell us? Do these infinitely long wavelengths and infinite wave velocities tell us that our particle has to move? Do they tell us our notion of a particle at rest is mathematically inconsistent?

Maybe. But maybe not. Perhaps the inconsistency just tells us our elementary wavefunction – or the concept of a precise energy, and a precise momentum – does not make sense. This is where the Uncertainty Principle comes in: stating that p = 0, implies zero uncertainty. Hence, the σp factor in the σp∙σx ≤ ħ/2 would be zero and, therefore, σp∙σx would be zero which, according to the Uncertainty Principle, it cannot be: it can be very small, but it cannot be zero.

It is interesting to note here that σp refers to the standard deviation from the mean, as illustrated below. Of course, the distribution may be or may not be normal – we don’t know – but a normal distribution makes intuitive sense, of course. Also, if we assume the mean is zero, then the uncertainty is basically about the direction in which our particle is moving, as the momentum might then be positive or negative.

The question of natural units may pop up. The Uncertainty Principle suggests a numerical value of the natural unit for momentum and distance that is equal to the square root of ħ/2, so that’s about 0.726×10−17 m for the distance unit and 0.726×10−17 N∙s for the momentum unit, as the product of both gives us ħ/2. To make this somewhat more real, we may note that 0.726×10−17 m is the attometer scale (1 am = 1×10−18 m), so that is very small but not unreasonably small.[3]

Hence, we need to superimpose a potentially infinite number of waves with energies and momenta centered on some mean value. It is only then that we get meaningful results. For example, the idea of a group velocity – which should correspond to the classical idea of the velocity of our particle – only makes sense in the context of wave packet. Indeed, the group velocity of a wave packet (vg) is calculated as follows:

vg = ∂ωi/∂ki = ∂(Ei/ħ)/∂(pi/ħ) = ∂(Ei)/∂(pi)

This assumes the existence of a dispersion relation which gives us ωi as a function of ki – what amounts to the same – Ei as a function of pi. How do we get that? Well… There are a few ways to go about it but one interesting way of doing it is to re-write Schrödinger’s equation as the following pair of equations[4]:

1. Re(∂ψ/∂t) = −[ħ/(2meff)]·Im(∇2ψ) ⇔ ω·cos(kx − ωt) = k2·[ħ/(2meff)]·cos(kx − ωt)
2. Im(∂ψ/∂t) = [ħ/(2meff)]·Re(∇2ψ) ⇔ ω·sin(kx − ωt) = k2·[ħ/(2meff)]·sin(kx − ωt)

These equations imply the following dispersion relation:

ω = ħ·k2/(2m)

Of course, we need to think about the subscripts now: we have ωi, ki, but… What about meff or, dropping the subscript, about m? Do we write it as mi? If so, what is it? Well… It is the equivalent mass of Ei obviously, and so we get it from the mass-energy equivalence relation: mi = Ei/c2. It is a fine point, but one most people forget about: they usually just write m. However, if there is uncertainty in the energy, then Einstein’s mass-energy relation tells us we must have some uncertainty in the (equivalent) mass too, and the two will, obviously, be related as follows: σm = σE/c2. We are tempted to do a few substitutions here. Let’s first check what we get when doing the mi = Ei/c2 substitution:

ωi = ħ·ki2/(2mi) = (1/2)∙ħ·ki2c2/Ei = (1/2)∙ħ·ki2c2/(ωi∙ħ) = (1/2)∙ħ·ki2c2i

⇔ ωi2/ki2 = c2/2 ⇔ ωi/ki = vp = c/2 !?

We get a very interesting but nonsensical condition for the dispersion relation here. I wonder what mistake I made. 😦

Let us try another substitution. The group velocity is what it is, right? It is the velocity of the group, so we can write: ki = p/ħ = mi ·vg. This gives us the following result:

ωi = ħ·(mi ·vg)2/(2mi) = ħ·mi·vg2/2

It is yet another interesting condition for the dispersion relation. Does it make any more sense? I am not so sure. That factor 1/2 troubles us. It only makes sense when we drop it. Now you will object that Schrödinger’s equation gives us the electron orbitals – and many other correct descriptions of quantum-mechanical stuff – so, surely, Schrödinger’s equation cannot be wrong. You’re right. It’s just that… Well… When we are splitting in up in two equations, as we are doing here, then we are looking at one of the two dimensions of the oscillation only and, therefore, it’s only half of the mass that counts. Complicated explanation but… Well… It should make sense, because the results that come out make sense. Think of it. So we write this:

• Re(∂ψ/∂t) = −(ħ/meffIm(∇2ψ) ⇔ ω·cos(kx − ωt) = k2·(ħ/meff)·cos(kx − ωt)
• Im(∂ψ/∂t) = (ħ/meffRe(∇2ψ) ⇔ ω·sin(kx − ωt) = k2·(ħ/meff)·sin(kx − ωt)

We then get the dispersion relation without that 1/2 factor:

ωi = ħ·ki2/mi

The mi = Ei/c2 substitution then gives us the result we sort of expected to see:

ωi = ħ·ki2/mi = ħ·ki2c2/Ei = ħ·ki2c2/(ωi∙ħ) ⇔ ωi/ki = vp = c

Likewise, the other calculation also looks more meaningful now:

ωi = ħ·(mi ·vg)2/mi = ħ·mi·vg2

Sweet ! 🙂

Let us put this aside for the moment and focus on something else. If you look at the illustrations above, you see we can sort of distinguish (1) a linear velocity – the speed with which those wave crests (or troughs) move – and (2) some kind of circular or tangential velocity – the velocity along the red contour line above. We’ll need the formula for a tangential velocity: vt = a∙ω.

Now, if λ is zero, then vt = a∙ω = a∙E/ħ is just all there is. We may double-check this as follows: the distance traveled in one period will be equal to 2πa, and the period of the oscillation is T = 2π·(ħ/E). Therefore, vt will, effectively, be equal to vt = 2πa/(2πħ/E) = a∙E/ħ. However, if λ is non-zero, then the distance traveled in one period will be equal to 2πa + λ. The period remains the same: T = 2π·(ħ/E). Hence, we can write:

For an electron, we did this weird calculation. We had an angular momentum formula (for an electron) which we equated with the real-life +ħ/2 or −ħ/2 values of its spin, and we got a numerical value for a. It was the Compton radius: the scattering radius for an electron. Let us write it out:

Using the right numbers, you’ll find the numerical value for a: 3.8616×10−13 m. But let us just substitute the formula itself here:

This is fascinating ! And we just calculated that vp is equal to c. For the elementary wavefunction, that is. Hence, we get this amazing result:

vt = 2c

This tangential velocity is twice the linear velocity !

Of course, the question is: what is the physical significance of this? I need to further look at this. Wave velocities are, essentially, mathematical concepts only: the wave propagates through space, but nothing else is really moving. However, the geometric implications are obviously quite interesting and, hence, need further exploration.

One conclusion stands out: all these results reinforce our interpretation of the speed of light as a property of the vacuum – or of the fabric of spacetime itself. 🙂

[1] Even neutrinos should have some (rest) mass. In fact, the mass of the known neutrino flavors was estimated to be smaller than 0.12 eV/c2. This mass combines the three known neutrino flavors.

[2] Using the Lorentz factor (γ), we can write the relativistically correct formula for the kinetic energy as KE = E − E0 = mvc2 − m0c2 = m0γc2 − m0c2 = m0c2(γ − 1). As v approaches c, γ approaches infinity and, therefore, the kinetic energy would become infinite as well.

[3] It is, of course, extremely small, but 1 am is the current sensitivity of the LIGO detector for gravitational waves. It is also thought of as the upper limit for the length of an electron, for quarks, and for fundamental strings in string theory. It is, in any case, 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 times larger than the order of magnitude of the Planck length (1.616229(38)×10−35 m).

[4] The meff is the effective mass of the particle, which depends on the medium. For example, an electron traveling in a solid (a transistor, for example) will have a different effective mass than in an atom. In free space, we can drop the subscript and just write meff = m. As for the equations, they are easily derived from noting that two complex numbers a + i∙b and c + i∙d are equal if, and only if, their real and imaginary parts are the same. Now, the ∂ψ/∂t = i∙(ħ/meff)∙∇2ψ equation amounts to writing something like this: a + i∙b = i∙(c + i∙d). Now, remembering that i2 = −1, you can easily figure out that i∙(c + i∙d) = i∙c + i2∙d = − d + i∙c.

The geometry of the wavefunction

My posts and article on the wavefunction as a gravitational wave are rather short on the exact geometry of the wavefunction, so let us explore that a bit here. By now, you know the formula for the elementary wavefunction by heart:

ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħa·cos(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ)

If we assume the momentum p is all in the x-direction, then the p and x vectors will have the same direction, and px/ħ reduces to p∙x/ħ. This amounts to saying our particle is traveling along the x-axis. The geometry of the wavefunction is illustrated below. The x-axis is the direction of propagation, and the y- and z-axes represent the real and imaginary part of the wavefunction respectively.

Note that, when applying the right-hand rule for the axes, the vertical axis is the y-axis, not the z-axis. Hence, we may associate the vertical axis with the cosine component, and the horizontal axis with the sine component. If the origin is the (x, t) = (0, 0) point, then cos(θ) = cos(0) = 1 and sin(θ) = sin(0) = 0. This is reflected in both illustrations, which show a left- and a right-handed wave respectively. I am convinced these correspond to the two possible values for the quantum-mechanical spin of the wave: +ħ/2 or −ħ/2. But… Well… Who am I? The cosine and sine components are shown below. Needless to say, the cosine and sine function are the same, except for a phase difference of π/2: sin(θ) = cos(θ − π/2)

Surely, Nature doesn’t care a hoot about our conventions for measuring the phase angle clockwise or counterclockwise and therefore, the ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħ function should, effectively, also be permitted. We know that cos(θ) = cos(θ) and sinθ = sin(θ), so we can write:

ψ = a·ei[E·t − p∙x]/ħa·cos(E∙t/ħ − p∙x/ħ) + i·a·sin(E∙t/ħ − p∙x/ħ)

= a·cos(p∙x/ħ − E∙t/ħ) − i·a·sin(p∙x/ħ − E∙t/ħ)

E/ħ = ω gives the frequency in time (expressed in radians per second), while p/ħ = k gives us the wavenumber, or the frequency in space (expressed in radians per meter). Of course, we may write: f = ω/2π  and λ = 2π/k, which gives us the two de Broglie relations:

1. E = ħ∙ω = h∙f
2. p = ħ∙k = h/λ

The frequency in time is easy to interpret (a particle will always have some mass and, therefore, some energy), but the wavelength is inversely proportional to the momentum: λ = h/p. Hence, if p goes to zero, then the wavelength becomes infinitely long: if p → 0, then λ → ∞. For the limit situation, a particle with zero rest mass (m0 = 0), the velocity may be c and, therefore, we find that p = mvv = m∙c  and, therefore, p∙c = m∙c2 = E, which we may also write as: E/p = c. Hence, for a particle with zero rest mass, the wavelength can be written as:

λ = h/p = hc/E = h/mc

However, we argued that the physical dimension of the components of the wavefunction may be usefully expressed in N/kg units (force per unit mass), while the physical dimension of the electromagnetic wave are expressed in N/C (force per unit charge). This, in fact, explains the dichotomy between bosons (photons) and fermions (spin-1/2 particles). Hence, all matter-particles should have some mass.[1] But how we interpret the inverse proportionality between λ and p?

We should probably first ask ourselves what wavelength we are talking about. The wave only has a phase velocity here, which is equal to vp = ω/k = (E/ħ)/(p/ħ) = E/p. Of course, we know that, classically, the momentum will be equal to the group velocity times the mass: p = m·vg. However, when p is zero, we have a division by zero once more: if p → 0, then vp = E/p → ∞. Infinite wavelengths and infinite phase velocities probably tell us that our particle has to move: our notion of a particle at rest is mathematically inconsistent. If we associate this elementary wavefunction with some particle, and if we then imagine it to move, somehow, then we get an interesting relation between the group and the phase velocity:

vp = ω/k = E/p = E/(m·vg) = (m·c2)/(m·vg) = c2/vg

We can re-write this as vp·vg = c2, which reminds us of the relationship between the electric and magnetic constant (1/ε0)·(1/μ0) = c2. But what is the group velocity of the elementary wavefunction? Is it a meaningful concept?

The phase velocity is just the ratio of ω/k. In contrast, the group velocity is the derivative of ω with respect to k. So we need to write ω as a function of k. Can we do that even if we have only one wave? We do not have a wave packet here, right? Just some hypothetical building block of a real-life wavefunction, right? Right. So we should introduce uncertainty about E and p and build up the wave packet, right? Well… Yes. But let’s wait with that, and see how far we can go in our interpretation of this elementary wavefunction. Let’s first get that ω = ω(k) relation. You’ll remember we can write Schrödinger’s equation – the equation that describes the propagation mechanism for matter-waves – as the following pair of equations:

1. Re(∂ψ/∂t) = −[ħ/(2m)]·Im(∇2ψ) ⇔ ω·cos(kx − ωt) = k2·[ħ/(2m)]·cos(kx − ωt)
2. Im(∂ψ/∂t) = [ħ/(2m)]·Re(∇2ψ) ⇔ ω·sin(kx − ωt) = k2·[ħ/(2m)]·sin(kx − ωt)

This tells us that ω = ħ·k2/(2m). Therefore, we can calculate ∂ω/∂k as:

∂ω/∂k = ħ·k/m = p/m = vg

We learn nothing new. We are going round and round in circles here, and we always end up with a tautology: as soon as we have a non-zero momentum, we have a mathematical formula for the group velocity – but we don’t know what it represents – and a finite wavelength. In fact, using the p = ħ∙k = h/λ relation, we can write one as a function of the other:

λ = h/p = h/mvg ⇔ vg = h/mλ

What does this mean? It resembles the c = h/mλ relation we had for a particle with zero rest mass. Of course, it does: the λ = h/mc relation is, once again, a limit for vg going to c. By the way, it is interesting to note that the vp·vg = c2 relation implies that the phase velocity is always superluminal. That’ easy to see when you re-write the equation in terms of relative velocities: (vp/c)·(vg/c) = βphase·βgroup = 1. Hence, if βgroup < 1, then βphase > 1.

So what is the geometry, really? Let’s look at the ψ = a·cos(p∙x/ħ – E∙t/ħ) i·a·sin(p∙x/ħ – E∙t/ħ) formula once more. If we write p∙x/ħ as Δ, then we will be interested to know for what x this phase factor will be equal to 2π. So we write:

Δ =p∙x/ħ = 2π ⇔ x = 2π∙ħ/p = h/p = λ

So now we get a meaningful interpretation for that wavelength: it’s that distance between the crests of the wave, so to speak, as illustrated below.

Can we now find a meaningful (i.e. geometric) interpretation for the group and phase velocity? If you look at the illustration above, you see we can sort of distinguish (1) a linear velocity (the speed with which those wave crests move) and (2) some kind of circular or tangential velocity (the velocity along the red contour line above). We’ll probably need the formula for the tangential velocity: v = a∙ω. If p = 0 (so we have that weird infinitesimally long wavelength), then we have two velocities:

1. The tangential velocity around the a·ei·E·t  circle, so to speak, and that will just be equal to v = a∙ω = a∙E/ħ.
2. The red contour line sort of gets stretched out, like infinitely long, and the velocity becomes… What does it do? Does it go to ∞ , or to c?

Let’s think about this. For a particle at rest, we had this weird calculation. We had an angular momentum formula (for an electron) which we equated with the real-life +ħ/2 or −ħ/2 values of its spin. And so we got a numerical value for a. It was the Compton radius: the scattering radius for an electron. Let me copy it once again:

Just to bring this story a bit back to Earth, you should note the calculated value: = 3.8616×10−13 m. We did then another weird calculation. We said all of the energy of the electron had to be packed in this cylinder that might of might not be there. The point was: the energy is finite, so that elementary wavefunction cannot have an infinite length in space. Indeed, assuming that the energy was distributed uniformly, we jotted down this formula, which reflects the formula for the volume of a cylinder:

E = π·a2·l ⇔ = E/(π·a2)

Using the value we got for the Compton scattering radius (= 3.8616×10−13 m), we got an astronomical value for l. Let me write it out:

= (8.19×10−14)/(π·14.9×10−26) ≈ 0.175×1012 m

It is, literally, an astronomical value: 0.175×1012 m is 175 million kilometer, so that’s like the distance between the Sun and the Earth. We wrote, jokingly, that such space is too large to look for an electron and, hence, that we should really build a proper packet by making use of the Uncertainty Principle: allowing for uncertainty in the energy should, effectively, reduce the uncertainty in position.

But… Well… What if we use that value as the value for λ? We’d get that linear velocity, right? Let’s try it. The period is equal to T = T = 2π·(ħ/E) = h/E and λ = E/(π·a2), so we write:We can write this as a function of m and the and ħ constants only:

A weird formula but not necessarily nonsensical: we get a finite speed. Now, if the wavelength becomes somewhat less astronomical, we’ll get different values of course. I have a strange feeling that, with these formula, we should, somehow, be able to explain relativistic length contraction. But I will let you think about that as for now. Here I just wanted to show the geometry of the wavefunction a bit more in detail.

[1] The discussions on the mass of neutrinos are interesting in this regard. Scientists all felt the neutrino had to have some (rest) mass, so my instinct on this is theirs. In fact, only recently experimental confirmation came in, and the mass of the known neutrino flavors was estimated to be something like 0.12 eV/c2. This mass combines the three known neutrino flavors. To understand this number, you should note it is the same order of magnitude of the equivalent mass of low-energy photons, like infrared or microwave radiation.

This year’s Nobel Prize for Physics…

One of my beloved brothers just sent me the news on this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics. Of course, it went to the MIT/Caltech LIGO scientists – who confirmed the reality of gravitational waves. That’s exactly the topic that I am exploring when trying to digest all this quantum math and stuff. Brilliant !

I actually sent the physicists a congratulatory message – and my paper ! I can’t believe I actually did that.

In the best case, I just made a fool of myself. In the worst case… Well… I just made a fool of myself. 🙂

Electron and photon strings

Note: I have published a paper that is very coherent and fully explains what the idea of a photon might be. There is nothing stringy. Check it out: The Meaning of the Fine-Structure Constant. No ambiguity. No hocus-pocus.

Jean Louis Van Belle, 23 December 2018

Original post:

In my previous posts, I’ve been playing with… Well… At the very least, a new didactic approach to understanding the quantum-mechanical wavefunction. I just boldly assumed the matter-wave is a gravitational wave. I did so by associating its components with the dimension of gravitational field strength: newton per kg, which is the dimension of acceleration (N/kg = m/s2). Why? When you remember the physical dimension of the electromagnetic field is N/C (force per unit charge), then that’s kinda logical, right? 🙂 The math is beautiful. Key consequences include the following:

1. Schrodinger’s equation becomes an energy diffusion equation.
2. Energy densities give us probabilities.
3. The elementary wavefunction for the electron gives us the electron radius.
4. Spin angular momentum can be interpreted as reflecting the right- or left-handedness of the wavefunction.
5. Finally, the mysterious boson-fermion dichotomy is no longer “deep down in relativistic quantum mechanics”, as Feynman famously put it.

It’s all great. Every day brings something new. 🙂 Today I want to focus on our weird electron model and how we get God’s number (aka the fine-structure constant) out of it. Let’s recall the basics of it. We had the elementary wavefunction:

ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħa·ei[E·t − px]/ħ = a·cos(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ)

In one-dimensional space (think of a particle traveling along some line), the vectors (p and x) become scalars, and so we simply write:

ψ = a·ei[E·t − p∙x]/ħa·ei[E·t − p∙x]/ħ = a·cos(p∙x/ħ − E∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(p∙x/ħ − E∙t/ħ)

This wavefunction comes with constant probabilities |ψ|2  = a2, so we need to define a space outside of which ψ = 0. Think of the particle-in-a-box model. This is obvious oscillations pack energy, and the energy of our particle is finite. Hence, each particle – be it a photon or an electron – will pack a finite number of oscillations. It will, therefore, occupy a finite amount of space. Mathematically, this corresponds to the normalization condition: all probabilities have to add up to one, as illustrated below.Now, all oscillations of the elementary wavefunction have the same amplitude: a. [Terminology is a bit confusing here because we use the term amplitude to refer to two very different things here: we may say a is the amplitude of the (probability) amplitude ψ. So how many oscillations do we have? What is the size of our box? Let us assume our particle is an electron, and we will reduce its motion to a one-dimensional motion only: we’re thinking of it as traveling along the x-axis. We can then use the y- and z-axes as mathematical axes only: they will show us how the magnitude and direction of the real and imaginary component of ψ. The animation below (for which I have to credit Wikipedia) shows how it looks like.Of course, we can have right- as well as left-handed particle waves because, while time physically goes by in one direction only (we can’t reverse time), we can count it in two directions: 1, 2, 3, etcetera or −1, −2, −3, etcetera. In the latter case, think of time ticking away. 🙂 Of course, in our physical interpretation of the wavefunction, this should explain the (spin) angular momentum of the electron, which is – for some mysterious reason that we now understand 🙂 – always equal to = ± ħ/2.

Now, because a is some constant here, we may think of our box as a cylinder along the x-axis. Now, the rest mass of an electron is about 0.510 MeV, so that’s around 8.19×10−14 N∙m, so it will pack some 1.24×1020 oscillations per second. So how long is our cylinder here? To answer that question, we need to calculate the phase velocity of our wave. We’ll come back to that in a moment. Just note how this compares to a photon: the energy of a photon will typically be a few electronvolt only (1 eV ≈ 1.6 ×10−19 N·m) and, therefore, it will pack like 1015 oscillations per second, so that’s a density (in time) that is about 100,000 times less.

Back to the angular momentum. The classical formula for it is L = I·ω, so that’s angular frequency times angular mass. What’s the angular velocity here? That’s easy: ω = E/ħ. What’s the angular mass? If we think of our particle as a tiny cylinder, we may use the formula for its angular mass: I = m·r2/2. We have m: that’s the electron mass, right? Right? So what is r? That should be the magnitude of the rotating vector, right? So that’s a. Of course, the mass-energy equivalence relation tells us that E = mc2, so we can write:

L = I·ω = (m·r2/2)·(E/ħ) = (1/2)·a2·m·(mc2/ħ) = (1/2)·a2·m2·c2

Does it make sense? Maybe. Maybe not. You can check the physical dimensions on both sides of the equation, and that works out: we do get something that is expressed in N·m·s, so that’s action or angular momentum units. Now, we know L must be equal to = ± ħ/2. [As mentioned above, the plus or minus sign depends on the left- or right-handedness of our wavefunction, so don’t worry about that.] How do we know that? Because of the Stern-Gerlach experiment, which has been repeated a zillion times, if not more. Now, if L = J, then we get the following equation for a:  This is the formula for the radius of an electron. To be precise, it is the Compton scattering radius, so that’s the effective radius of an electron as determined by scattering experiments. You can calculate it: it is about 3.8616×10−13 m, so that’s the picometer scale, as we would expect.

This is a rather spectacular result. As far as I am concerned, it is spectacular enough for me to actually believe my interpretation of the wavefunction makes sense.

Let us now try to think about the length of our cylinder once again. The period of our wave is equal to T = 1/f = 1/(ω/2π) = 1/[(E/ħ)·2π] = 1/(E/h) = h/E. Now, the phase velocity (vp) will be given by:

vp = λ·= (2π/k)·(ω/2π) = ω/k = (E/ħ)/(p/ħ) = E/p = E/(m·vg) = (m·c2)/(m·vg) = c2/vg

This is very interesting, because it establishes an inverse proportionality between the group and the phase velocity of our wave, with c2 as the coefficient of inverse proportionality. In fact, this equation looks better if we write as vp·vg = c2. Of course, the group velocity (vg) is the classical velocity of our electron. This equation shows us the idea of an electron at rest doesn’t make sense: if vg = 0, then vp times zero must equal c2, which cannot be the case: electrons must move in space. More generally, speaking, matter-particles must move in space, with the photon as our limiting case: it moves at the speed of light. Hence, for a photon, we find that vp = vg = E/p = c.

How can we calculate the length of a photon or an electron? It is an interesting question. The mentioned orders or magnitude of the frequency (1015 or 1020) gives us the number of oscillations per second. But how many do we have in one photon, or in one electron?

Let’s first think about photons, because we have more clues here. Photons are emitted by atomic oscillators: atoms going from one state (energy level) to another. We know how to calculate to calculate the Q of these atomic oscillators (see, for example, Feynman I-32-3): it is of the order of 108, which means the wave train will last about 10–8 seconds (to be precise, that is the time it takes for the radiation to die out by a factor 1/e). Now, the frequency of sodium light, for example, is 0.5×1015 oscillations per second, and the decay time is about 3.2×10–8 seconds, so that makes for (0.5×1015)·(3.2×10–8) = 16 million oscillations. Now, the wavelength is 600 nanometer (600×10–9) m), so that gives us a wavetrain with a length of (600×10–9)·(16×106) = 9.6 m.

These oscillations may or may not have the same amplitude and, hence, each of these oscillations may pack a different amount of energies. However, if the total energy of our sodium light photon (i.e. about 2 eV ≈ 3.3×10–19 J) are to be packed in those oscillations, then each oscillation would pack about 2×10–26 J, on average, that is. We speculated in other posts on how we might imagine the actual wave pulse that atoms emit when going from one energy state to another, so we don’t do that again here. However, the following illustration of the decay of a transient signal dies out may be useful.

This calculation is interesting. It also gives us an interesting paradox: if a photon is a pointlike particle, how can we say its length is like 10 meter or more? Relativity theory saves us here. We need to distinguish the reference frame of the photon – riding along the wave as it is being emitted, so to speak – and our stationary reference frame, which is that of the emitting atom. Now, because the photon travels at the speed of light, relativistic length contraction will make it look like a pointlike particle.

What about the electron? Can we use similar assumptions? For the photon, we can use the decay time to calculate the effective number of oscillations. What can we use for an electron? We will need to make some assumption about the phase velocity or, what amounts to the same, the group velocity of the particle. What formulas can we use? The p = m·v is the relativistically correct formula for the momentum of an object if m = mv, so that’s the same m we use in the E = mc2 formula. Of course, v here is, obviously, the group velocity (vg), so that’s the classical velocity of our particle. Hence, we can write:

p = m·vg = (E/c2vg ⇔ vg = p/m =  p·c2/E

This is just another way of writing that vg = c2/vp or vp = c2/vg so it doesn’t help, does it? Maybe. Maybe not. Let us substitute in our formula for the wavelength:

λ = vp/f = vp·T = vp⋅(h/E) = (c2/vg)·(h/E) = h/(m·vg) = h/p

This gives us the other de Broglie relation: λ = h/p. This doesn’t help us much, although it is interesting to think about it. The = E/h relation is somewhat intuitive: higher energy, higher frequency. In contrast, what the λ = h/p relation tells us that we get an infinite wavelength if the momentum becomes really small. What does this tell us? I am not sure. Frankly, I’ve look at the second de Broglie relation like a zillion times now, and I think it’s rubbish. It’s meant to be used for the group velocity, I feel. I am saying that because we get a non-sensical energy formula out of it. Look at this:

1. E = h·f and p = h/λ. Therefore, f = E/h and λ = p/h.
2. v = λ = (E/h)∙(p/h) = E/p
3. p = m·v. Therefore, E = v·p = m·v2

E = m·v2? This formula is only correct if c, in which case it becomes the E = mc2 equation. So it then describes a photon, or a massless matter-particle which… Well… That’s a contradictio in terminis. 🙂 In all other cases, we get nonsense.

Let’s try something differently.  If our particle is at rest, then p = 0 and the p·x/ħ term in our wavefunction vanishes, so it’s just:

ψ = a·ei·E·t/ħa·cos(E∙t/ħ) − i·a·sin(E∙t/ħ)

Hence, our wave doesn’t travel. It has the same amplitude at every point in space at any point in time. Both the phase and group velocity become meaningless concepts. The amplitude varies – because of the sine and cosine – but the probability remains the same: |ψ|2  = a2. Hmm… So we need to find another way to define the size of our box. One of the formulas I jotted down in my paper in which I analyze the wavefunction as a gravitational wave was this one:

It was a physical normalization condition: the energy contributions of the waves that make up a wave packet need to add up to the total energy of our wave. Of course, for our elementary wavefunction here, the subscripts vanish and so the formula reduces to E = (E/c2a2·(E22), out of which we get our formula for the scattering radius: = ħ/mc. Now how do we pack that energy in our cylinder? Assuming that energy is distributed uniformly, we’re tempted to write something like E = a2·l or, looking at the geometry of the situation:

E = π·a2·l ⇔ = E/(π·a2)

It’s just the formula for the volume of a cylinder. Using the value we got for the Compton scattering radius (= 3.8616×10−13 m), we find an l that’s equal to (8.19×10−14)/(π·14.9×10−26) =≈ 0.175×1012Meter? Yes. We get the following formula:

0.175×1012 m is 175 million kilometer. That’s – literally – astronomic. It corresponds to 583 light-seconds, or 9.7 light-minutes. So that’s about 1.17 times the (average) distance between the Sun and the Earth. You can see that we do need to build a wave packet: that space is a bit too large to look for an electron, right? 🙂

Could we possibly get some less astronomic proportions? What if we impose that should equal a? We get the following condition:We find that m would have to be equal to m ≈ 1.11×10−36 kg. That’s tiny. In fact, it’s equivalent to an energy of about  equivalent to 0.623 eV (which you’ll see written as 623 milli-eV. This corresponds to light with a wavelength of about 2 micro-meter (μm), so that’s in the infrared spectrum. It’s a funny formula: we find, basically, that the l/ratio is proportional to m4. Hmm… What should we think of this? If you have any ideas, let me know !

Post scriptum (3 October 2017): The paper is going well. Getting lots of downloads, and the views on my blog are picking up too. But I have been vicious. Substituting B for (1/c)∙iE or for −(1/c)∙iE implies a very specific choice of reference frame. The imaginary unit is a two-dimensional concept: it only makes sense when giving it a plane view. Literally. Indeed, my formulas assume the i (or −i) plane is perpendicular to the direction of propagation of the elementary quantum-mechanical wavefunction. So… Yes. The need for rotation matrices is obvious. But my physical interpretation of the wavefunction stands. 🙂

Wavefunctions as gravitational waves

This is the paper I always wanted to write. It is there now, and I think it is good – and that‘s an understatement. 🙂 It is probably best to download it as a pdf-file from the viXra.org site because this was a rather fast ‘copy and paste’ job from the Word version of the paper, so there may be issues with boldface notation (vector notation), italics and, most importantly, with formulas – which I, sadly, have to ‘snip’ into this WordPress blog, as they don’t have an easy copy function for mathematical formulas.

It’s great stuff. If you have been following my blog – and many of you have – you will want to digest this. 🙂

Abstract : This paper explores the implications of associating the components of the wavefunction with a physical dimension: force per unit mass – which is, of course, the dimension of acceleration (m/s2) and gravitational fields. The classical electromagnetic field equations for energy densities, the Poynting vector and spin angular momentum are then re-derived by substituting the electromagnetic N/C unit of field strength (mass per unit charge) by the new N/kg = m/s2 dimension.

The results are elegant and insightful. For example, the energy densities are proportional to the square of the absolute value of the wavefunction and, hence, to the probabilities, which establishes a physical normalization condition. Also, Schrödinger’s wave equation may then, effectively, be interpreted as a diffusion equation for energy, and the wavefunction itself can be interpreted as a propagating gravitational wave. Finally, as an added bonus, concepts such as the Compton scattering radius for a particle, spin angular momentum, and the boson-fermion dichotomy, can also be explained more intuitively.

While the approach offers a physical interpretation of the wavefunction, the author argues that the core of the Copenhagen interpretations revolves around the complementarity principle, which remains unchallenged because the interpretation of amplitude waves as traveling fields does not explain the particle nature of matter.

Introduction

This is not another introduction to quantum mechanics. We assume the reader is already familiar with the key principles and, importantly, with the basic math. We offer an interpretation of wave mechanics. As such, we do not challenge the complementarity principle: the physical interpretation of the wavefunction that is offered here explains the wave nature of matter only. It explains diffraction and interference of amplitudes but it does not explain why a particle will hit the detector not as a wave but as a particle. Hence, the Copenhagen interpretation of the wavefunction remains relevant: we just push its boundaries.

The basic ideas in this paper stem from a simple observation: the geometric similarity between the quantum-mechanical wavefunctions and electromagnetic waves is remarkably similar. The components of both waves are orthogonal to the direction of propagation and to each other. Only the relative phase differs : the electric and magnetic field vectors (E and B) have the same phase. In contrast, the phase of the real and imaginary part of the (elementary) wavefunction (ψ = a·ei∙θ = a∙cosθ – a∙sinθ) differ by 90 degrees (π/2).[1] Pursuing the analogy, we explore the following question: if the oscillating electric and magnetic field vectors of an electromagnetic wave carry the energy that one associates with the wave, can we analyze the real and imaginary part of the wavefunction in a similar way?

We show the answer is positive and remarkably straightforward.  If the physical dimension of the electromagnetic field is expressed in newton per coulomb (force per unit charge), then the physical dimension of the components of the wavefunction may be associated with force per unit mass (newton per kg).[2] Of course, force over some distance is energy. The question then becomes: what is the energy concept here? Kinetic? Potential? Both?

The similarity between the energy of a (one-dimensional) linear oscillator (E = m·a2·ω2/2) and Einstein’s relativistic energy equation E = m∙c2 inspires us to interpret the energy as a two-dimensional oscillation of mass. To assist the reader, we construct a two-piston engine metaphor.[3] We then adapt the formula for the electromagnetic energy density to calculate the energy densities for the wave function. The results are elegant and intuitive: the energy densities are proportional to the square of the absolute value of the wavefunction and, hence, to the probabilities. Schrödinger’s wave equation may then, effectively, be interpreted as a diffusion equation for energy itself.

As an added bonus, concepts such as the Compton scattering radius for a particle and spin angular, as well as the boson-fermion dichotomy can be explained in a fully intuitive way.[4]

Of course, such interpretation is also an interpretation of the wavefunction itself, and the immediate reaction of the reader is predictable: the electric and magnetic field vectors are, somehow, to be looked at as real vectors. In contrast, the real and imaginary components of the wavefunction are not. However, this objection needs to be phrased more carefully. First, it may be noted that, in a classical analysis, the magnetic force is a pseudovector itself.[5] Second, a suitable choice of coordinates may make quantum-mechanical rotation matrices irrelevant.[6]

Therefore, the author is of the opinion that this little paper may provide some fresh perspective on the question, thereby further exploring Einstein’s basic sentiment in regard to quantum mechanics, which may be summarized as follows: there must be some physical explanation for the calculated probabilities.[7]

We will, therefore, start with Einstein’s relativistic energy equation (E = mc2) and wonder what it could possibly tell us.

I. Energy as a two-dimensional oscillation of mass

The structural similarity between the relativistic energy formula, the formula for the total energy of an oscillator, and the kinetic energy of a moving body, is striking:

1. E = mc2
2. E = mω2/2
3. E = mv2/2

In these formulas, ω, v and c all describe some velocity.[8] Of course, there is the 1/2 factor in the E = mω2/2 formula[9], but that is exactly the point we are going to explore here: can we think of an oscillation in two dimensions, so it stores an amount of energy that is equal to E = 2·m·ω2/2 = m·ω2?

That is easy enough. Think, for example, of a V-2 engine with the pistons at a 90-degree angle, as illustrated below. The 90° angle makes it possible to perfectly balance the counterweight and the pistons, thereby ensuring smooth travel at all times. With permanently closed valves, the air inside the cylinder compresses and decompresses as the pistons move up and down and provides, therefore, a restoring force. As such, it will store potential energy, just like a spring, and the motion of the pistons will also reflect that of a mass on a spring. Hence, we can describe it by a sinusoidal function, with the zero point at the center of each cylinder. We can, therefore, think of the moving pistons as harmonic oscillators, just like mechanical springs.

Figure 1: Oscillations in two dimensions

If we assume there is no friction, we have a perpetuum mobile here. The compressed air and the rotating counterweight (which, combined with the crankshaft, acts as a flywheel[10]) store the potential energy. The moving masses of the pistons store the kinetic energy of the system.[11]

At this point, it is probably good to quickly review the relevant math. If the magnitude of the oscillation is equal to a, then the motion of the piston (or the mass on a spring) will be described by x = a·cos(ω·t + Δ).[12] Needless to say, Δ is just a phase factor which defines our t = 0 point, and ω is the natural angular frequency of our oscillator. Because of the 90° angle between the two cylinders, Δ would be 0 for one oscillator, and –π/2 for the other. Hence, the motion of one piston is given by x = a·cos(ω·t), while the motion of the other is given by x = a·cos(ω·t–π/2) = a·sin(ω·t).

The kinetic and potential energy of one oscillator (think of one piston or one spring only) can then be calculated as:

1. K.E. = T = m·v2/2 = (1/2)·m·ω2·a2·sin2(ω·t + Δ)
2. P.E. = U = k·x2/2 = (1/2)·k·a2·cos2(ω·t + Δ)

The coefficient k in the potential energy formula characterizes the restoring force: F = −k·x. From the dynamics involved, it is obvious that k must be equal to m·ω2. Hence, the total energy is equal to:

E = T + U = (1/2)· m·ω2·a2·[sin2(ω·t + Δ) + cos2(ω·t + Δ)] = m·a2·ω2/2

To facilitate the calculations, we will briefly assume k = m·ω2 and a are equal to 1. The motion of our first oscillator is given by the cos(ω·t) = cosθ function (θ = ω·t), and its kinetic energy will be equal to sin2θ. Hence, the (instantaneous) change in kinetic energy at any point in time will be equal to:

d(sin2θ)/dθ = 2∙sinθ∙d(sinθ)/dθ = 2∙sinθ∙cosθ

Let us look at the second oscillator now. Just think of the second piston going up and down in the V-2 engine. Its motion is given by the sinθ function, which is equal to cos(θ−π /2). Hence, its kinetic energy is equal to sin2(θ−π /2), and how it changes – as a function of θ – will be equal to:

2∙sin(θ−π /2)∙cos(θ−π /2) = = −2∙cosθ∙sinθ = −2∙sinθ∙cosθ

We have our perpetuum mobile! While transferring kinetic energy from one piston to the other, the crankshaft will rotate with a constant angular velocity: linear motion becomes circular motion, and vice versa, and the total energy that is stored in the system is T + U = ma2ω2.

We have a great metaphor here. Somehow, in this beautiful interplay between linear and circular motion, energy is borrowed from one place and then returns to the other, cycle after cycle. We know the wavefunction consist of a sine and a cosine: the cosine is the real component, and the sine is the imaginary component. Could they be equally real? Could each represent half of the total energy of our particle? Should we think of the c in our E = mc2 formula as an angular velocity?

These are sensible questions. Let us explore them.

II. The wavefunction as a two-dimensional oscillation

The elementary wavefunction is written as:

ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħa·ei[E·t − px]/ħ = a·cos(px E∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(px E∙t/ħ)

When considering a particle at rest (p = 0) this reduces to:

ψ = a·ei∙E·t/ħ = a·cos(E∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(E∙t/ħ) = a·cos(E∙t/ħ) i·a·sin(E∙t/ħ)

Let us remind ourselves of the geometry involved, which is illustrated below. Note that the argument of the wavefunction rotates clockwise with time, while the mathematical convention for measuring the phase angle (ϕ) is counter-clockwise.

Figure 2: Euler’s formula

If we assume the momentum p is all in the x-direction, then the p and x vectors will have the same direction, and px/ħ reduces to p∙x/ħ. Most illustrations – such as the one below – will either freeze x or, else, t. Alternatively, one can google web animations varying both. The point is: we also have a two-dimensional oscillation here. These two dimensions are perpendicular to the direction of propagation of the wavefunction. For example, if the wavefunction propagates in the x-direction, then the oscillations are along the y– and z-axis, which we may refer to as the real and imaginary axis. Note how the phase difference between the cosine and the sine  – the real and imaginary part of our wavefunction – appear to give some spin to the whole. I will come back to this.

Figure 3: Geometric representation of the wavefunction

Hence, if we would say these oscillations carry half of the total energy of the particle, then we may refer to the real and imaginary energy of the particle respectively, and the interplay between the real and the imaginary part of the wavefunction may then describe how energy propagates through space over time.

Let us consider, once again, a particle at rest. Hence, p = 0 and the (elementary) wavefunction reduces to ψ = a·ei∙E·t/ħ. Hence, the angular velocity of both oscillations, at some point x, is given by ω = -E/ħ. Now, the energy of our particle includes all of the energy – kinetic, potential and rest energy – and is, therefore, equal to E = mc2.

Can we, somehow, relate this to the m·a2·ω2 energy formula for our V-2 perpetuum mobile? Our wavefunction has an amplitude too. Now, if the oscillations of the real and imaginary wavefunction store the energy of our particle, then their amplitude will surely matter. In fact, the energy of an oscillation is, in general, proportional to the square of the amplitude: E µ a2. We may, therefore, think that the a2 factor in the E = m·a2·ω2 energy will surely be relevant as well.

However, here is a complication: an actual particle is localized in space and can, therefore, not be represented by the elementary wavefunction. We must build a wave packet for that: a sum of wavefunctions, each with their own amplitude ak, and their own ωi = -Ei/ħ. Each of these wavefunctions will contribute some energy to the total energy of the wave packet. To calculate the contribution of each wave to the total, both ai as well as Ei will matter.

What is Ei? Ei varies around some average E, which we can associate with some average mass m: m = E/c2. The Uncertainty Principle kicks in here. The analysis becomes more complicated, but a formula such as the one below might make sense:We can re-write this as:What is the meaning of this equation? We may look at it as some sort of physical normalization condition when building up the Fourier sum. Of course, we should relate this to the mathematical normalization condition for the wavefunction. Our intuition tells us that the probabilities must be related to the energy densities, but how exactly? We will come back to this question in a moment. Let us first think some more about the enigma: what is mass?

Before we do so, let us quickly calculate the value of c2ħ2: it is about 1´1051 N2∙m4. Let us also do a dimensional analysis: the physical dimensions of the E = m·a2·ω2 equation make sense if we express m in kg, a in m, and ω in rad/s. We then get: [E] = kg∙m2/s2 = (N∙s2/m)∙m2/s2 = N∙m = J. The dimensions of the left- and right-hand side of the physical normalization condition is N3∙m5.

III. What is mass?

We came up, playfully, with a meaningful interpretation for energy: it is a two-dimensional oscillation of mass. But what is mass? A new aether theory is, of course, not an option, but then what is it that is oscillating? To understand the physics behind equations, it is always good to do an analysis of the physical dimensions in the equation. Let us start with Einstein’s energy equation once again. If we want to look at mass, we should re-write it as m = E/c2:

[m] = [E/c2] = J/(m/s)2 = N·m∙s2/m2 = N·s2/m = kg

This is not very helpful. It only reminds us of Newton’s definition of a mass: mass is that what gets accelerated by a force. At this point, we may want to think of the physical significance of the absolute nature of the speed of light. Einstein’s E = mc2 equation implies we can write the ratio between the energy and the mass of any particle is always the same, so we can write, for example:This reminds us of the ω2= C1/L or ω2 = k/m of harmonic oscillators once again.[13] The key difference is that the ω2= C1/L and ω2 = k/m formulas introduce two or more degrees of freedom.[14] In contrast, c2= E/m for any particle, always. However, that is exactly the point: we can modulate the resistance, inductance and capacitance of electric circuits, and the stiffness of springs and the masses we put on them, but we live in one physical space only: our spacetime. Hence, the speed of light c emerges here as the defining property of spacetime – the resonant frequency, so to speak. We have no further degrees of freedom here.

The Planck-Einstein relation (for photons) and the de Broglie equation (for matter-particles) have an interesting feature: both imply that the energy of the oscillation is proportional to the frequency, with Planck’s constant as the constant of proportionality. Now, for one-dimensional oscillations – think of a guitar string, for example – we know the energy will be proportional to the square of the frequency. It is a remarkable observation: the two-dimensional matter-wave, or the electromagnetic wave, gives us two waves for the price of one, so to speak, each carrying half of the total energy of the oscillation but, as a result, we get a proportionality between E and f instead of between E and f2.

However, such reflections do not answer the fundamental question we started out with: what is mass? At this point, it is hard to go beyond the circular definition that is implied by Einstein’s formula: energy is a two-dimensional oscillation of mass, and mass packs energy, and c emerges us as the property of spacetime that defines how exactly.

When everything is said and done, this does not go beyond stating that mass is some scalar field. Now, a scalar field is, quite simply, some real number that we associate with a position in spacetime. The Higgs field is a scalar field but, of course, the theory behind it goes much beyond stating that we should think of mass as some scalar field. The fundamental question is: why and how does energy, or matter, condense into elementary particles? That is what the Higgs mechanism is about but, as this paper is exploratory only, we cannot even start explaining the basics of it.

What we can do, however, is look at the wave equation again (Schrödinger’s equation), as we can now analyze it as an energy diffusion equation.

IV. Schrödinger’s equation as an energy diffusion equation

The interpretation of Schrödinger’s equation as a diffusion equation is straightforward. Feynman (Lectures, III-16-1) briefly summarizes it as follows:

“We can think of Schrödinger’s equation as describing the diffusion of the probability amplitude from one point to the next. […] But the imaginary coefficient in front of the derivative makes the behavior completely different from the ordinary diffusion such as you would have for a gas spreading out along a thin tube. Ordinary diffusion gives rise to real exponential solutions, whereas the solutions of Schrödinger’s equation are complex waves.”[17]

Let us review the basic math. For a particle moving in free space – with no external force fields acting on it – there is no potential (U = 0) and, therefore, the Uψ term disappears. Therefore, Schrödinger’s equation reduces to:

∂ψ(x, t)/∂t = i·(1/2)·(ħ/meff)·∇2ψ(x, t)

The ubiquitous diffusion equation in physics is:

∂φ(x, t)/∂t = D·∇2φ(x, t)

The structural similarity is obvious. The key difference between both equations is that the wave equation gives us two equations for the price of one. Indeed, because ψ is a complex-valued function, with a real and an imaginary part, we get the following equations[18]:

1. Re(∂ψ/∂t) = −(1/2)·(ħ/meffIm(∇2ψ)
2. Im(∂ψ/∂t) = (1/2)·(ħ/meffRe(∇2ψ)

These equations make us think of the equations for an electromagnetic wave in free space (no stationary charges or currents):

1. B/∂t = –∇×E
2. E/∂t = c2∇×B

The above equations effectively describe a propagation mechanism in spacetime, as illustrated below.

Figure 4: Propagation mechanisms

The Laplacian operator (∇2), when operating on a scalar quantity, gives us a flux density, i.e. something expressed per square meter (1/m2). In this case, it is operating on ψ(x, t), so what is the dimension of our wavefunction ψ(x, t)? To answer that question, we should analyze the diffusion constant in Schrödinger’s equation, i.e. the (1/2)·(ħ/meff) factor:

1. As a mathematical constant of proportionality, it will quantify the relationship between both derivatives (i.e. the time derivative and the Laplacian);
2. As a physical constant, it will ensure the physical dimensions on both sides of the equation are compatible.

Now, the ħ/meff factor is expressed in (N·m·s)/(N· s2/m) = m2/s. Hence, it does ensure the dimensions on both sides of the equation are, effectively, the same: ∂ψ/∂t is a time derivative and, therefore, its dimension is s1 while, as mentioned above, the dimension of ∇2ψ is m2. However, this does not solve our basic question: what is the dimension of the real and imaginary part of our wavefunction?

At this point, mainstream physicists will say: it does not have a physical dimension, and there is no geometric interpretation of Schrödinger’s equation. One may argue, effectively, that its argument, (px – E∙t)/ħ, is just a number and, therefore, that the real and imaginary part of ψ is also just some number.

To this, we may object that ħ may be looked as a mathematical scaling constant only. If we do that, then the argument of ψ will, effectively, be expressed in action units, i.e. in N·m·s. It then does make sense to also associate a physical dimension with the real and imaginary part of ψ. What could it be?

We may have a closer look at Maxwell’s equations for inspiration here. The electric field vector is expressed in newton (the unit of force) per unit of charge (coulomb). Now, there is something interesting here. The physical dimension of the magnetic field is N/C divided by m/s.[19] We may write B as the following vector cross-product: B = (1/c)∙ex×E, with ex the unit vector pointing in the x-direction (i.e. the direction of propagation of the wave). Hence, we may associate the (1/c)∙ex× operator, which amounts to a rotation by 90 degrees, with the s/m dimension. Now, multiplication by i also amounts to a rotation by 90° degrees. Hence, we may boldly write: B = (1/c)∙ex×E = (1/c)∙iE. This allows us to also geometrically interpret Schrödinger’s equation in the way we interpreted it above (see Figure 3).[20]

Still, we have not answered the question as to what the physical dimension of the real and imaginary part of our wavefunction should be. At this point, we may be inspired by the structural similarity between Newton’s and Coulomb’s force laws:Hence, if the electric field vector E is expressed in force per unit charge (N/C), then we may want to think of associating the real part of our wavefunction with a force per unit mass (N/kg). We can, of course, do a substitution here, because the mass unit (1 kg) is equivalent to 1 N·s2/m. Hence, our N/kg dimension becomes:

N/kg = N/(N·s2/m)= m/s2

What is this: m/s2? Is that the dimension of the a·cosθ term in the a·eiθ a·cosθ − i·a·sinθ wavefunction?

My answer is: why not? Think of it: m/s2 is the physical dimension of acceleration: the increase or decrease in velocity (m/s) per second. It ensures the wavefunction for any particle – matter-particles or particles with zero rest mass (photons) – and the associated wave equation (which has to be the same for all, as the spacetime we live in is one) are mutually consistent.

In this regard, we should think of how we would model a gravitational wave. The physical dimension would surely be the same: force per mass unit. It all makes sense: wavefunctions may, perhaps, be interpreted as traveling distortions of spacetime, i.e. as tiny gravitational waves.

V. Energy densities and flows

Pursuing the geometric equivalence between the equations for an electromagnetic wave and Schrödinger’s equation, we can now, perhaps, see if there is an equivalent for the energy density. For an electromagnetic wave, we know that the energy density is given by the following formula:E and B are the electric and magnetic field vector respectively. The Poynting vector will give us the directional energy flux, i.e. the energy flow per unit area per unit time. We write:Needless to say, the ∙ operator is the divergence and, therefore, gives us the magnitude of a (vector) field’s source or sink at a given point. To be precise, the divergence gives us the volume density of the outward flux of a vector field from an infinitesimal volume around a given point. In this case, it gives us the volume density of the flux of S.

We can analyze the dimensions of the equation for the energy density as follows:

1. E is measured in newton per coulomb, so [EE] = [E2] = N2/C2.
2. B is measured in (N/C)/(m/s), so we get [BB] = [B2] = (N2/C2)·(s2/m2). However, the dimension of our c2 factor is (m2/s2) and so we’re also left with N2/C2.
3. The ϵ0 is the electric constant, aka as the vacuum permittivity. As a physical constant, it should ensure the dimensions on both sides of the equation work out, and they do: [ε0] = C2/(N·m2) and, therefore, if we multiply that with N2/C2, we find that is expressed in J/m3.[21]

Replacing the newton per coulomb unit (N/C) by the newton per kg unit (N/kg) in the formulas above should give us the equivalent of the energy density for the wavefunction. We just need to substitute ϵ0 for an equivalent constant. We may to give it a try. If the energy densities can be calculated – which are also mass densities, obviously – then the probabilities should be proportional to them.

Let us first see what we get for a photon, assuming the electromagnetic wave represents its wavefunction. Substituting B for (1/c)∙iE or for −(1/c)∙iE gives us the following result:Zero!? An unexpected result! Or not? We have no stationary charges and no currents: only an electromagnetic wave in free space. Hence, the local energy conservation principle needs to be respected at all points in space and in time. The geometry makes sense of the result: for an electromagnetic wave, the magnitudes of E and B reach their maximum, minimum and zero point simultaneously, as shown below.[22] This is because their phase is the same.

Figure 5: Electromagnetic wave: E and B

Should we expect a similar result for the energy densities that we would associate with the real and imaginary part of the matter-wave? For the matter-wave, we have a phase difference between a·cosθ and a·sinθ, which gives a different picture of the propagation of the wave (see Figure 3).[23] In fact, the geometry of the suggestion suggests some inherent spin, which is interesting. I will come back to this. Let us first guess those densities. Making abstraction of any scaling constants, we may write:We get what we hoped to get: the absolute square of our amplitude is, effectively, an energy density !

|ψ|2  = |a·ei∙E·t/ħ|2 = a2 = u

This is very deep. A photon has no rest mass, so it borrows and returns energy from empty space as it travels through it. In contrast, a matter-wave carries energy and, therefore, has some (rest) mass. It is therefore associated with an energy density, and this energy density gives us the probabilities. Of course, we need to fine-tune the analysis to account for the fact that we have a wave packet rather than a single wave, but that should be feasible.

As mentioned, the phase difference between the real and imaginary part of our wavefunction (a cosine and a sine function) appear to give some spin to our particle. We do not have this particularity for a photon. Of course, photons are bosons, i.e. spin-zero particles, while elementary matter-particles are fermions with spin-1/2. Hence, our geometric interpretation of the wavefunction suggests that, after all, there may be some more intuitive explanation of the fundamental dichotomy between bosons and fermions, which puzzled even Feynman:

“Why is it that particles with half-integral spin are Fermi particles, whereas particles with integral spin are Bose particles? We apologize for the fact that we cannot give you an elementary explanation. An explanation has been worked out by Pauli from complicated arguments of quantum field theory and relativity. He has shown that the two must necessarily go together, but we have not been able to find a way of reproducing his arguments on an elementary level. It appears to be one of the few places in physics where there is a rule which can be stated very simply, but for which no one has found a simple and easy explanation. The explanation is deep down in relativistic quantum mechanics. This probably means that we do not have a complete understanding of the fundamental principle involved.” (Feynman, Lectures, III-4-1)

The physical interpretation of the wavefunction, as presented here, may provide some better understanding of ‘the fundamental principle involved’: the physical dimension of the oscillation is just very different. That is all: it is force per unit charge for photons, and force per unit mass for matter-particles. We will examine the question of spin somewhat more carefully in section VII. Let us first examine the matter-wave some more.

VI. Group and phase velocity of the matter-wave

The geometric representation of the matter-wave (see Figure 3) suggests a traveling wave and, yes, of course: the matter-wave effectively travels through space and time. But what is traveling, exactly? It is the pulse – or the signal – only: the phase velocity of the wave is just a mathematical concept and, even in our physical interpretation of the wavefunction, the same is true for the group velocity of our wave packet. The oscillation is two-dimensional, but perpendicular to the direction of travel of the wave. Hence, nothing actually moves with our particle.

Here, we should also reiterate that we did not answer the question as to what is oscillating up and down and/or sideways: we only associated a physical dimension with the components of the wavefunction – newton per kg (force per unit mass), to be precise. We were inspired to do so because of the physical dimension of the electric and magnetic field vectors (newton per coulomb, i.e. force per unit charge) we associate with electromagnetic waves which, for all practical purposes, we currently treat as the wavefunction for a photon. This made it possible to calculate the associated energy densities and a Poynting vector for energy dissipation. In addition, we showed that Schrödinger’s equation itself then becomes a diffusion equation for energy. However, let us now focus some more on the asymmetry which is introduced by the phase difference between the real and the imaginary part of the wavefunction. Look at the mathematical shape of the elementary wavefunction once again:

ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħa·ei[E·t − px]/ħ = a·cos(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(px/ħ − E∙t/ħ)

The minus sign in the argument of our sine and cosine function defines the direction of travel: an F(x−v∙t) wavefunction will always describe some wave that is traveling in the positive x-direction (with the wave velocity), while an F(x+v∙t) wavefunction will travel in the negative x-direction. For a geometric interpretation of the wavefunction in three dimensions, we need to agree on how to define i or, what amounts to the same, a convention on how to define clockwise and counterclockwise directions: if we look at a clock from the back, then its hand will be moving counterclockwise. So we need to establish the equivalent of the right-hand rule. However, let us not worry about that now. Let us focus on the interpretation. To ease the analysis, we’ll assume we’re looking at a particle at rest. Hence, p = 0, and the wavefunction reduces to:

ψ = a·ei∙E·t/ħ = a·cos(−E∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(−E0∙t/ħ) = a·cos(E0∙t/ħ) − i·a·sin(E0∙t/ħ)

E0 is, of course, the rest mass of our particle and, now that we are here, we should probably wonder whose time we are talking about: is it our time, or is the proper time of our particle? Well… In this situation, we are both at rest so it does not matter: t is, effectively, the proper time so perhaps we should write it as t0. It does not matter. You can see what we expect to see: E0/ħ pops up as the natural frequency of our matter-particle: (E0/ħ)∙t = ω∙t. Remembering the ω = 2π·f = 2π/T and T = 1/formulas, we can associate a period and a frequency with this wave, using the ω = 2π·f = 2π/T. Noting that ħ = h/2π, we find the following:

T = 2π·(ħ/E0) = h/E0 ⇔ = E0/h = m0c2/h

This is interesting, because we can look at the period as a natural unit of time for our particle. What about the wavelength? That is tricky because we need to distinguish between group and phase velocity here. The group velocity (vg) should be zero here, because we assume our particle does not move. In contrast, the phase velocity is given by vp = λ·= (2π/k)·(ω/2π) = ω/k. In fact, we’ve got something funny here: the wavenumber k = p/ħ is zero, because we assume the particle is at rest, so p = 0. So we have a division by zero here, which is rather strange. What do we get assuming the particle is not at rest? We write:

vp = ω/k = (E/ħ)/(p/ħ) = E/p = E/(m·vg) = (m·c2)/(m·vg) = c2/vg

This is interesting: it establishes a reciprocal relation between the phase and the group velocity, with as a simple scaling constant. Indeed, the graph below shows the shape of the function does not change with the value of c, and we may also re-write the relation above as:

vp/= βp = c/vp = 1/βg = 1/(c/vp)

Figure 6: Reciprocal relation between phase and group velocity

We can also write the mentioned relationship as vp·vg = c2, which reminds us of the relationship between the electric and magnetic constant (1/ε0)·(1/μ0) = c2. This is interesting in light of the fact we can re-write this as (c·ε0)·(c·μ0) = 1, which shows electricity and magnetism are just two sides of the same coin, so to speak.[24]

Interesting, but how do we interpret the math? What about the implications of the zero value for wavenumber k = p/ħ. We would probably like to think it implies the elementary wavefunction should always be associated with some momentum, because the concept of zero momentum clearly leads to weird math: something times zero cannot be equal to c2! Such interpretation is also consistent with the Uncertainty Principle: if Δx·Δp ≥ ħ, then neither Δx nor Δp can be zero. In other words, the Uncertainty Principle tells us that the idea of a pointlike particle actually being at some specific point in time and in space does not make sense: it has to move. It tells us that our concept of dimensionless points in time and space are mathematical notions only. Actual particles – including photons – are always a bit spread out, so to speak, and – importantly – they have to move.

For a photon, this is self-evident. It has no rest mass, no rest energy, and, therefore, it is going to move at the speed of light itself. We write: p = m·c = m·c2/= E/c. Using the relationship above, we get:

vp = ω/k = (E/ħ)/(p/ħ) = E/p = c ⇒ vg = c2/vp = c2/c = c

This is good: we started out with some reflections on the matter-wave, but here we get an interpretation of the electromagnetic wave as a wavefunction for the photon. But let us get back to our matter-wave. In regard to our interpretation of a particle having to move, we should remind ourselves, once again, of the fact that an actual particle is always localized in space and that it can, therefore, not be represented by the elementary wavefunction ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħ or, for a particle at rest, the ψ = a·ei∙E·t/ħ function. We must build a wave packet for that: a sum of wavefunctions, each with their own amplitude ai, and their own ωi = −Ei/ħ. Indeed, in section II, we showed that each of these wavefunctions will contribute some energy to the total energy of the wave packet and that, to calculate the contribution of each wave to the total, both ai as well as Ei matter. This may or may not resolve the apparent paradox. Let us look at the group velocity.

To calculate a meaningful group velocity, we must assume the vg = ∂ωi/∂ki = ∂(Ei/ħ)/∂(pi/ħ) = ∂(Ei)/∂(pi) exists. So we must have some dispersion relation. How do we calculate it? We need to calculate ωi as a function of ki here, or Ei as a function of pi. How do we do that? Well… There are a few ways to go about it but one interesting way of doing it is to re-write Schrödinger’s equation as we did, i.e. by distinguishing the real and imaginary parts of the ∂ψ/∂t =i·[ħ/(2m)]·∇2ψ wave equation and, hence, re-write it as the following pair of two equations:

1. Re(∂ψ/∂t) = −[ħ/(2meff)]·Im(∇2ψ) ⇔ ω·cos(kx − ωt) = k2·[ħ/(2meff)]·cos(kx − ωt)
2. Im(∂ψ/∂t) = [ħ/(2meff)]·Re(∇2ψ) ⇔ ω·sin(kx − ωt) = k2·[ħ/(2meff)]·sin(kx − ωt)

Both equations imply the following dispersion relation:

ω = ħ·k2/(2meff)

Of course, we need to think about the subscripts now: we have ωi, ki, but… What about meff or, dropping the subscript, m? Do we write it as mi? If so, what is it? Well… It is the equivalent mass of Ei obviously, and so we get it from the mass-energy equivalence relation: mi = Ei/c2. It is a fine point, but one most people forget about: they usually just write m. However, if there is uncertainty in the energy, then Einstein’s mass-energy relation tells us we must have some uncertainty in the (equivalent) mass too. Here, I should refer back to Section II: Ei varies around some average energy E and, therefore, the Uncertainty Principle kicks in.

VII. Explaining spin

The elementary wavefunction vector – i.e. the vector sum of the real and imaginary component – rotates around the x-axis, which gives us the direction of propagation of the wave (see Figure 3). Its magnitude remains constant. In contrast, the magnitude of the electromagnetic vector – defined as the vector sum of the electric and magnetic field vectors – oscillates between zero and some maximum (see Figure 5).

We already mentioned that the rotation of the wavefunction vector appears to give some spin to the particle. Of course, a circularly polarized wave would also appear to have spin (think of the E and B vectors rotating around the direction of propagation – as opposed to oscillating up and down or sideways only). In fact, a circularly polarized light does carry angular momentum, as the equivalent mass of its energy may be thought of as rotating as well. But so here we are looking at a matter-wave.

The basic idea is the following: if we look at ψ = a·ei∙E·t/ħ as some real vector – as a two-dimensional oscillation of mass, to be precise – then we may associate its rotation around the direction of propagation with some torque. The illustration below reminds of the math here.

Figure 7: Torque and angular momentum vectors

A torque on some mass about a fixed axis gives it angular momentum, which we can write as the vector cross-product L = r×p or, perhaps easier for our purposes here as the product of an angular velocity (ω) and rotational inertia (I), aka as the moment of inertia or the angular mass. We write:

L = I·ω

Note we can write L and ω in boldface here because they are (axial) vectors. If we consider their magnitudes only, we write L = I·ω (no boldface). We can now do some calculations. Let us start with the angular velocity. In our previous posts, we showed that the period of the matter-wave is equal to T = 2π·(ħ/E0). Hence, the angular velocity must be equal to:

ω = 2π/[2π·(ħ/E0)] = E0

We also know the distance r, so that is the magnitude of r in the Lr×p vector cross-product: it is just a, so that is the magnitude of ψ = a·ei∙E·t/ħ. Now, the momentum (p) is the product of a linear velocity (v) – in this case, the tangential velocity – and some mass (m): p = m·v. If we switch to scalar instead of vector quantities, then the (tangential) velocity is given by v = r·ω. So now we only need to think about what we should use for m or, if we want to work with the angular velocity (ω), the angular mass (I). Here we need to make some assumption about the mass (or energy) distribution. Now, it may or may not sense to assume the energy in the oscillation – and, therefore, the mass – is distributed uniformly. In that case, we may use the formula for the angular mass of a solid cylinder: I = m·r2/2. If we keep the analysis non-relativistic, then m = m0. Of course, the energy-mass equivalence tells us that m0 = E0/c2. Hence, this is what we get:

L = I·ω = (m0·r2/2)·(E0/ħ) = (1/2)·a2·(E0/c2)·(E0/ħ) = a2·E02/(2·ħ·c2)

Does it make sense? Maybe. Maybe not. Let us do a dimensional analysis: that won’t check our logic, but it makes sure we made no mistakes when mapping mathematical and physical spaces. We have m2·J2 = m2·N2·m2 in the numerator and N·m·s·m2/s2 in the denominator. Hence, the dimensions work out: we get N·m·s as the dimension for L, which is, effectively, the physical dimension of angular momentum. It is also the action dimension, of course, and that cannot be a coincidence. Also note that the E = mc2 equation allows us to re-write it as:

L = a2·E02/(2·ħ·c2)

Of course, in quantum mechanics, we associate spin with the magnetic moment of a charged particle, not with its mass as such. Is there way to link the formula above to the one we have for the quantum-mechanical angular momentum, which is also measured in N·m·s units, and which can only take on one of two possible values: J = +ħ/2 and −ħ/2? It looks like a long shot, right? How do we go from (1/2)·a2·m02/ħ to ± (1/2)∙ħ? Let us do a numerical example. The energy of an electron is typically 0.510 MeV » 8.1871×10−14 N∙m, and a… What value should we take for a?

We have an obvious trio of candidates here: the Bohr radius, the classical electron radius (aka the Thompon scattering length), and the Compton scattering radius.

Let us start with the Bohr radius, so that is about 0.×10−10 N∙m. We get L = a2·E02/(2·ħ·c2) = 9.9×10−31 N∙m∙s. Now that is about 1.88×104 times ħ/2. That is a huge factor. The Bohr radius cannot be right: we are not looking at an electron in an orbital here. To show it does not make sense, we may want to double-check the analysis by doing the calculation in another way. We said each oscillation will always pack 6.626070040(81)×10−34 joule in energy. So our electron should pack about 1.24×10−20 oscillations. The angular momentum (L) we get when using the Bohr radius for a and the value of 6.626×10−34 joule for E0 and the Bohr radius is equal to 6.49×10−59 N∙m∙s. So that is the angular momentum per oscillation. When we multiply this with the number of oscillations (1.24×10−20), we get about 8.01×10−51 N∙m∙s, so that is a totally different number.

The classical electron radius is about 2.818×10−15 m. We get an L that is equal to about 2.81×10−39 N∙m∙s, so now it is a tiny fraction of ħ/2! Hence, this leads us nowhere. Let us go for our last chance to get a meaningful result! Let us use the Compton scattering length, so that is about 2.42631×10−12 m.

This gives us an L of 2.08×10−33 N∙m∙s, which is only 20 times ħ. This is not so bad, but it is good enough? Let us calculate it the other way around: what value should we take for a so as to ensure L = a2·E02/(2·ħ·c2) = ħ/2? Let us write it out:

In fact, this is the formula for the so-called reduced Compton wavelength. This is perfect. We found what we wanted to find. Substituting this value for a (you can calculate it: it is about 3.8616×10−33 m), we get what we should find:

This is a rather spectacular result, and one that would – a priori – support the interpretation of the wavefunction that is being suggested in this paper.

VIII. The boson-fermion dichotomy

Let us do some more thinking on the boson-fermion dichotomy. Again, we should remind ourselves that an actual particle is localized in space and that it can, therefore, not be represented by the elementary wavefunction ψ = a·ei[E·t − px]/ħ or, for a particle at rest, the ψ = a·ei∙E·t/ħ function. We must build a wave packet for that: a sum of wavefunctions, each with their own amplitude ai, and their own ωi = −Ei/ħ. Each of these wavefunctions will contribute some energy to the total energy of the wave packet. Now, we can have another wild but logical theory about this.

Think of the apparent right-handedness of the elementary wavefunction: surely, Nature can’t be bothered about our convention of measuring phase angles clockwise or counterclockwise. Also, the angular momentum can be positive or negative: J = +ħ/2 or −ħ/2. Hence, we would probably like to think that an actual particle – think of an electron, or whatever other particle you’d think of – may consist of right-handed as well as left-handed elementary waves. To be precise, we may think they either consist of (elementary) right-handed waves or, else, of (elementary) left-handed waves. An elementary right-handed wave would be written as:

ψ(θi= ai·(cosθi + i·sinθi)

In contrast, an elementary left-handed wave would be written as:

ψ(θi= ai·(cosθii·sinθi)

How does that work out with the E0·t argument of our wavefunction? Position is position, and direction is direction, but time? Time has only one direction, but Nature surely does not care how we count time: counting like 1, 2, 3, etcetera or like −1, −2, −3, etcetera is just the same. If we count like 1, 2, 3, etcetera, then we write our wavefunction like:

ψ = a·cos(E0∙t/ħ) − i·a·sin(E0∙t/ħ)

If we count time like −1, −2, −3, etcetera then we write it as:

ψ = a·cos(E0∙t/ħ) − i·a·sin(E0∙t/ħ)= a·cos(E0∙t/ħ) + i·a·sin(E0∙t/ħ)

Hence, it is just like the left- or right-handed circular polarization of an electromagnetic wave: we can have both for the matter-wave too! This, then, should explain why we can have either positive or negative quantum-mechanical spin (+ħ/2 or −ħ/2). It is the usual thing: we have two mathematical possibilities here, and so we must have two physical situations that correspond to it.

It is only natural. If we have left- and right-handed photons – or, generalizing, left- and right-handed bosons – then we should also have left- and right-handed fermions (electrons, protons, etcetera). Back to the dichotomy. The textbook analysis of the dichotomy between bosons and fermions may be epitomized by Richard Feynman’s Lecture on it (Feynman, III-4), which is confusing and – I would dare to say – even inconsistent: how are photons or electrons supposed to know that they need to interfere with a positive or a negative sign? They are not supposed to know anything: knowledge is part of our interpretation of whatever it is that is going on there.

Hence, it is probably best to keep it simple, and think of the dichotomy in terms of the different physical dimensions of the oscillation: newton per kg versus newton per coulomb. And then, of course, we should also note that matter-particles have a rest mass and, therefore, actually carry charge. Photons do not. But both are two-dimensional oscillations, and the point is: the so-called vacuum – and the rest mass of our particle (which is zero for the photon and non-zero for everything else) – give us the natural frequency for both oscillations, which is beautifully summed up in that remarkable equation for the group and phase velocity of the wavefunction, which applies to photons as well as matter-particles:

(vphase·c)·(vgroup·c) = 1 ⇔ vp·vg = c2

The final question then is: why are photons spin-zero particles? Well… We should first remind ourselves of the fact that they do have spin when circularly polarized.[25] Here we may think of the rotation of the equivalent mass of their energy. However, if they are linearly polarized, then there is no spin. Even for circularly polarized waves, the spin angular momentum of photons is a weird concept. If photons have no (rest) mass, then they cannot carry any charge. They should, therefore, not have any magnetic moment. Indeed, what I wrote above shows an explanation of quantum-mechanical spin requires both mass as well as charge.[26]

IX. Concluding remarks

There are, of course, other ways to look at the matter – literally. For example, we can imagine two-dimensional oscillations as circular rather than linear oscillations. Think of a tiny ball, whose center of mass stays where it is, as depicted below. Any rotation – around any axis – will be some combination of a rotation around the two other axes. Hence, we may want to think of a two-dimensional oscillation as an oscillation of a polar and azimuthal angle.

Figure 8: Two-dimensional circular movement

The point of this paper is not to make any definite statements. That would be foolish. Its objective is just to challenge the simplistic mainstream viewpoint on the reality of the wavefunction. Stating that it is a mathematical construct only without physical significance amounts to saying it has no meaning at all. That is, clearly, a non-sustainable proposition.

The interpretation that is offered here looks at amplitude waves as traveling fields. Their physical dimension may be expressed in force per mass unit, as opposed to electromagnetic waves, whose amplitudes are expressed in force per (electric) charge unit. Also, the amplitudes of matter-waves incorporate a phase factor, but this may actually explain the rather enigmatic dichotomy between fermions and bosons and is, therefore, an added bonus.

The interpretation that is offered here has some advantages over other explanations, as it explains the how of diffraction and interference. However, while it offers a great explanation of the wave nature of matter, it does not explain its particle nature: while we think of the energy as being spread out, we will still observe electrons and photons as pointlike particles once they hit the detector. Why is it that a detector can sort of ‘hook’ the whole blob of energy, so to speak?

The interpretation of the wavefunction that is offered here does not explain this. Hence, the complementarity principle of the Copenhagen interpretation of the wavefunction surely remains relevant.

Appendix 1: The de Broglie relations and energy

The 1/2 factor in Schrödinger’s equation is related to the concept of the effective mass (meff). It is easy to make the wrong calculations. For example, when playing with the famous de Broglie relations – aka as the matter-wave equations – one may be tempted to derive the following energy concept:

1. E = h·f and p = h/λ. Therefore, f = E/h and λ = p/h.
2. v = λ = (E/h)∙(p/h) = E/p
3. p = m·v. Therefore, E = v·p = m·v2

E = m·v2? This resembles the E = mc2 equation and, therefore, one may be enthused by the discovery, especially because the m·v2 also pops up when working with the Least Action Principle in classical mechanics, which states that the path that is followed by a particle will minimize the following integral:Now, we can choose any reference point for the potential energy but, to reflect the energy conservation law, we can select a reference point that ensures the sum of the kinetic and the potential energy is zero throughout the time interval. If the force field is uniform, then the integrand will, effectively, be equal to KE − PE = m·v2.[27]

However, that is classical mechanics and, therefore, not so relevant in the context of the de Broglie equations, and the apparent paradox should be solved by distinguishing between the group and the phase velocity of the matter wave.

Appendix 2: The concept of the effective mass

The effective mass – as used in Schrödinger’s equation – is a rather enigmatic concept. To make sure we are making the right analysis here, I should start by noting you will usually see Schrödinger’s equation written as:This formulation includes a term with the potential energy (U). In free space (no potential), this term disappears, and the equation can be re-written as:

∂ψ(x, t)/∂t = i·(1/2)·(ħ/meff)·∇2ψ(x, t)

We just moved the i·ħ coefficient to the other side, noting that 1/i = –i. Now, in one-dimensional space, and assuming ψ is just the elementary wavefunction (so we substitute a·ei∙[E·t − p∙x]/ħ for ψ), this implies the following:

a·i·(E/ħ)·ei∙[E·t − p∙x]/ħ = −i·(ħ/2meffa·(p22 ei∙[E·t − p∙x]/ħ

⇔ E = p2/(2meff) ⇔ meff = m∙(v/c)2/2 = m∙β2/2

It is an ugly formula: it resembles the kinetic energy formula (K.E. = m∙v2/2) but it is, in fact, something completely different. The β2/2 factor ensures the effective mass is always a fraction of the mass itself. To get rid of the ugly 1/2 factor, we may re-define meff as two times the old meff (hence, meffNEW = 2∙meffOLD), as a result of which the formula will look somewhat better:

meff = m∙(v/c)2 = m∙β2

We know β varies between 0 and 1 and, therefore, meff will vary between 0 and m. Feynman drops the subscript, and just writes meff as m in his textbook (see Feynman, III-19). On the other hand, the electron mass as used is also the electron mass that is used to calculate the size of an atom (see Feynman, III-2-4). As such, the two mass concepts are, effectively, mutually compatible. It is confusing because the same mass is often defined as the mass of a stationary electron (see, for example, the article on it in the online Wikipedia encyclopedia[28]).

In the context of the derivation of the electron orbitals, we do have the potential energy term – which is the equivalent of a source term in a diffusion equation – and that may explain why the above-mentioned meff = m∙(v/c)2 = m∙β2 formula does not apply.

References

This paper discusses general principles in physics only. Hence, references can be limited to references to physics textbooks only. For ease of reading, any reference to additional material has been limited to a more popular undergrad textbook that can be consulted online: Feynman’s Lectures on Physics (http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu). References are per volume, per chapter and per section. For example, Feynman III-19-3 refers to Volume III, Chapter 19, Section 3.

Notes

[1] Of course, an actual particle is localized in space and can, therefore, not be represented by the elementary wavefunction ψ = a·ei∙θa·ei[E·t − px]/ħ = a·(cosθ i·a·sinθ). We must build a wave packet for that: a sum of wavefunctions, each with its own amplitude ak and its own argument θk = (Ek∙t – pkx)/ħ. This is dealt with in this paper as part of the discussion on the mathematical and physical interpretation of the normalization condition.

[2] The N/kg dimension immediately, and naturally, reduces to the dimension of acceleration (m/s2), thereby facilitating a direct interpretation in terms of Newton’s force law.

[3] In physics, a two-spring metaphor is more common. Hence, the pistons in the author’s perpetuum mobile may be replaced by springs.

[4] The author re-derives the equation for the Compton scattering radius in section VII of the paper.

[5] The magnetic force can be analyzed as a relativistic effect (see Feynman II-13-6). The dichotomy between the electric force as a polar vector and the magnetic force as an axial vector disappears in the relativistic four-vector representation of electromagnetism.

[6] For example, when using Schrödinger’s equation in a central field (think of the electron around a proton), the use of polar coordinates is recommended, as it ensures the symmetry of the Hamiltonian under all rotations (see Feynman III-19-3)

[7] This sentiment is usually summed up in the apocryphal quote: “God does not play dice.”The actual quote comes out of one of Einstein’s private letters to Cornelius Lanczos, another scientist who had also emigrated to the US. The full quote is as follows: “You are the only person I know who has the same attitude towards physics as I have: belief in the comprehension of reality through something basically simple and unified… It seems hard to sneak a look at God’s cards. But that He plays dice and uses ‘telepathic’ methods… is something that I cannot believe for a single moment.” (Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, Albert Einstein, the Human Side: New Glimpses from His Archives, 1979)

[8] Of course, both are different velocities: ω is an angular velocity, while v is a linear velocity: ω is measured in radians per second, while v is measured in meter per second. However, the definition of a radian implies radians are measured in distance units. Hence, the physical dimensions are, effectively, the same. As for the formula for the total energy of an oscillator, we should actually write: E = m·a2∙ω2/2. The additional factor (a) is the (maximum) amplitude of the oscillator.

[9] We also have a 1/2 factor in the E = mv2/2 formula. Two remarks may be made here. First, it may be noted this is a non-relativistic formula and, more importantly, incorporates kinetic energy only. Using the Lorentz factor (γ), we can write the relativistically correct formula for the kinetic energy as K.E. = E − E0 = mvc2 − m0c2 = m0γc2 − m0c2 = m0c2(γ − 1). As for the exclusion of the potential energy, we may note that we may choose our reference point for the potential energy such that the kinetic and potential energy mirror each other. The energy concept that then emerges is the one that is used in the context of the Principle of Least Action: it equals E = mv2. Appendix 1 provides some notes on that.

[10] Instead of two cylinders with pistons, one may also think of connecting two springs with a crankshaft.

[11] It is interesting to note that we may look at the energy in the rotating flywheel as potential energy because it is energy that is associated with motion, albeit circular motion. In physics, one may associate a rotating object with kinetic energy using the rotational equivalent of mass and linear velocity, i.e. rotational inertia (I) and angular velocity ω. The kinetic energy of a rotating object is then given by K.E. = (1/2)·I·ω2.

[12] Because of the sideways motion of the connecting rods, the sinusoidal function will describe the linear motion only approximately, but you can easily imagine the idealized limit situation.

[13] The ω2= 1/LC formula gives us the natural or resonant frequency for a electric circuit consisting of a resistor (R), an inductor (L), and a capacitor (C). Writing the formula as ω2= C1/L introduces the concept of elastance, which is the equivalent of the mechanical stiffness (k) of a spring.

[14] The resistance in an electric circuit introduces a damping factor. When analyzing a mechanical spring, one may also want to introduce a drag coefficient. Both are usually defined as a fraction of the inertia, which is the mass for a spring and the inductance for an electric circuit. Hence, we would write the resistance for a spring as γm and as R = γL respectively.

[15] Photons are emitted by atomic oscillators: atoms going from one state (energy level) to another. Feynman (Lectures, I-33-3) shows us how to calculate the Q of these atomic oscillators: it is of the order of 108, which means the wave train will last about 10–8 seconds (to be precise, that is the time it takes for the radiation to die out by a factor 1/e). For example, for sodium light, the radiation will last about 3.2×10–8 seconds (this is the so-called decay time τ). Now, because the frequency of sodium light is some 500 THz (500×1012 oscillations per second), this makes for some 16 million oscillations. There is an interesting paradox here: the speed of light tells us that such wave train will have a length of about 9.6 m! How is that to be reconciled with the pointlike nature of a photon? The paradox can only be explained by relativistic length contraction: in an analysis like this, one need to distinguish the reference frame of the photon – riding along the wave as it is being emitted, so to speak – and our stationary reference frame, which is that of the emitting atom.

[16] This is a general result and is reflected in the K.E. = T = (1/2)·m·ω2·a2·sin2(ω·t + Δ) and the P.E. = U = k·x2/2 = (1/2)· m·ω2·a2·cos2(ω·t + Δ) formulas for the linear oscillator.

[17] Feynman further formalizes this in his Lecture on Superconductivity (Feynman, III-21-2), in which he refers to Schrödinger’s equation as the “equation for continuity of probabilities”. The analysis is centered on the local conservation of energy, which confirms the interpretation of Schrödinger’s equation as an energy diffusion equation.

[18] The meff is the effective mass of the particle, which depends on the medium. For example, an electron traveling in a solid (a transistor, for example) will have a different effective mass than in an atom. In free space, we can drop the subscript and just write meff = m. Appendix 2 provides some additional notes on the concept. As for the equations, they are easily derived from noting that two complex numbers a + i∙b and c + i∙d are equal if, and only if, their real and imaginary parts are the same. Now, the ∂ψ/∂t = i∙(ħ/meff)∙∇2ψ equation amounts to writing something like this: a + i∙b = i∙(c + i∙d). Now, remembering that i2 = −1, you can easily figure out that i∙(c + i∙d) = i∙c + i2∙d = − d + i∙c.

[19] The dimension of B is usually written as N/(m∙A), using the SI unit for current, i.e. the ampere (A). However, 1 C = 1 A∙s and, hence, 1 N/(m∙A) = 1 (N/C)/(m/s).

[20] Of course, multiplication with i amounts to a counterclockwise rotation. Hence, multiplication by –i also amounts to a rotation by 90 degrees, but clockwise. Now, to uniquely identify the clockwise and counterclockwise directions, we need to establish the equivalent of the right-hand rule for a proper geometric interpretation of Schrödinger’s equation in three-dimensional space: if we look at a clock from the back, then its hand will be moving counterclockwise. When writing B = (1/c)∙iE, we assume we are looking in the negative x-direction. If we are looking in the positive x-direction, we should write: B = -(1/c)∙iE. Of course, Nature does not care about our conventions. Hence, both should give the same results in calculations. We will show in a moment they do.

[21] In fact, when multiplying C2/(N·m2) with N2/C2, we get N/m2, but we can multiply this with 1 = m/m to get the desired result. It is significant that an energy density (joule per unit volume) can also be measured in newton (force per unit area.

[22] The illustration shows a linearly polarized wave, but the obtained result is general.

[23] The sine and cosine are essentially the same functions, except for the difference in the phase: sinθ = cos(θ−π /2).

[24] I must thank a physics blogger for re-writing the 1/(ε0·μ0) = c2 equation like this. See: http://reciprocal.systems/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?t=236 (retrieved on 29 September 2017).

[25] A circularly polarized electromagnetic wave may be analyzed as consisting of two perpendicular electromagnetic plane waves of equal amplitude and 90° difference in phase.

[26] Of course, the reader will now wonder: what about neutrons? How to explain neutron spin? Neutrons are neutral. That is correct, but neutrons are not elementary: they consist of (charged) quarks. Hence, neutron spin can (or should) be explained by the spin of the underlying quarks.

[27] We detailed the mathematical framework and detailed calculations in the following online article: https://readingfeynman.org/2017/09/15/the-principle-of-least-action-re-visited.

[28] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electron_rest_mass (retrieved on 29 September 2017).

Math, physics and reality

This blog has been nice. It doesn’t get an awful lot of traffic (about a thousand visitors a week) but, from time to time, I do get a response or a question that fires me up, if only because it tells me someone is actually reading what I write.

Looking at the site now, I feel like I need to reorganize it completely. It’s just chaos, right? But then that’s what gets me the positive feedback: my readers are in the same boat. We’re trying to make sense of what physicists tell us is reality. The interference model I presented in my previous post is really nice. It has all the ingredients of quantum mechanics, which I would group under two broad categories: uncertainty and duality. Both are related, obviously. I will not talk about the reality of the wavefunction here, because I am biased: I firmly believe the wavefunction represents something real. Why? Because Einstein’s E = m·c2 formula tells us so: energy is a two-dimensional oscillation of mass. Two-dimensional, because it’s got twice the energy of the classroom oscillator (think of a mass on a spring). More importantly, the real and imaginary dimension of the oscillation are both real: they’re perpendicular to the direction of motion of the wave-particle. Photon or electron. It doesn’t matter. Of course, we have all of the transformation formulas, but… Well… These are not real: they are only there to accommodate our perspective: the state of the observer.

The distinction between the group and phase velocity of a wave packet is probably the best example of the failure of ordinary words to describe reality: particles are not waves, and waves are not particles. They are both… Well… Both at the same time. To calculate the action along some path, we assume there is some path, and we assume there is some particle following some path. The path and the particle are just figments of our mind. Useful figments of the mind, but… Well… There is no such thing as an infinitesimally small particle, and the concept of some one-dimensional line in spacetime does not make sense either. Or… Well… They do. Because they help us to make sense of the world. Of what is, whatever it is. 🙂

The mainstream views on the physical significance of the wavefunction are probably best summed up in the Encyclopædia Britannica, which says the wavefunction has no physical significance. Let me quote the relevant extract here:

“The wave functionin quantum mechanics, is a variable quantity that mathematically describes the wave characteristics of a particle. The value of the wave function of a particle at a given point of space and time is related to the likelihood of the particle’s being there at the time. By analogy with waves such as those of sound, a wave function, designated by the Greek letter psi, Ψ, may be thought of as an expression for the amplitude of the particle wave (or de Broglie wave), although for such waves amplitude has no physical significance. The square of the wave function, Ψ2, however, does have physical significance: the probability of finding the particle described by a specific wave function Ψ at a given point and time is proportional to the value of Ψ2.”

Really? First, this is factually wrong: the probability is given by the square of the absolute value of the wave function. These are two very different things:

1. The square of a complex number is just another complex number: (a + ib)2 = a+ (ib)+ 2iab = ai2b+ 2iab = a– b+ 2iab.
2. In contrast, the square of the absolute value always gives us a real number, to which we assign the mentioned physical interpretation:|a + ib|2 = [√(a+ b2)]2 = a+ b2.

But it’s not only position: using the right operators, we can also get probabilities on momentum, energy and other physical variables. Hence, the wavefunction is so much more than what the Encyclopædia Britannica suggests.

More fundamentally, what is written there is philosophically inconsistent. Squaring something – the number itself or its norm – is a mathematical operation. How can a mathematical operation suddenly yield something that has physical significance, if none of the elements it operates on, has any. One cannot just go from the mathematical to the physical space. The mathematical space describes the physical space. Always. In physics, at least. 🙂

So… Well… There is too much nonsense around. Disgusting. And the Encyclopædia Britannica should not just present the mainstream view. The truth is: the jury is still out, and there are many guys like me. We think the majority view is plain wrong. In this case, at least. 🙂

Playing with amplitudes

Let’s play a bit with the stuff we found in our previous post. This is going to be unconventional, or experimental, if you want. The idea is to give you… Well… Some ideas. So you can play yourself. 🙂 Let’s go.

Let’s first look at Feynman’s (simplified) formula for the amplitude of a photon to go from point a to point b. If we identify point by the position vector r1 and point by the position vector r2, and using Dirac’s fancy bra-ket notation, then it’s written as:

So we have a vector dot product here: pr12 = |p|∙|r12|· cosθ = p∙r12·cosα. The angle here (α) is the angle between the and r12 vector. All good. Well… No. We’ve got a problem. When it comes to calculating probabilities, the α angle doesn’t matter: |ei·θ/r|2 = 1/r2. Hence, for the probability, we get: P = | 〈r2|r1〉 |2 = 1/r122. Always ! Now that’s strange. The θ = pr12/ħ argument gives us a different phase depending on the angle (α) between p and r12. But… Well… Think of it: cosα goes from 1 to 0 when α goes from 0 to ±90° and, of course, is negative when p and r12 have opposite directions but… Well… According to this formula, the probabilities do not depend on the direction of the momentum. That’s just weird, I think. Did Feynman, in his iconic Lectures, give us a meaningless formula?

Maybe. We may also note this function looks like the elementary wavefunction for any particle, which we wrote as:

ψ(x, t) = a·e−i∙θ = a·e−i(E∙t − px)/ħ= a·ei(E∙t)/ħ·ei(px)/ħ

The only difference is that the 〈r2|r1〉 sort of abstracts away from time, so… Well… Let’s get a feel for the quantities. Let’s think of a photon carrying some typical amount of energy. Hence, let’s talk visible light and, therefore, photons of a few eV only – say 5.625 eV = 5.625×1.6×10−19 J = 9×10−19 J. Hence, their momentum is equal to p = E/c = (9×10−19 N·m)/(3×105 m/s) = 3×10−24 N·s. That’s tiny but that’s only because newtons and seconds are enormous units at the (sub-)atomic scale. As for the distance, we may want to use the thickness of a playing card as a starter, as that’s what Young used when establishing the experimental fact of light interfering with itself. Now, playing cards in Young’s time were obviously rougher than those today, but let’s take the smaller distance: modern cards are as thin as 0.3 mm. Still, that distance is associated with a value of θ that is equal to 13.6 million. Hence, the density of our wavefunction is enormous at this scale, and it’s a bit of a miracle that Young could see any interference at all ! As shown in the table below, we only get meaningful values (remember: θ is a phase angle) when we go down to the nanometer scale (10−9 m) or, even better, the angstroms scale ((10−9 m).

So… Well… Again: what can we do with Feynman’s formula? Perhaps he didn’t give us a propagator function but something that is more general (read: more meaningful) at our (limited) level of knowledge. As I’ve been reading Feynman for quite a while now – like three or four years 🙂 – I think… Well… Yes. That’s it. Feynman wants us to think about it. 🙂 Are you joking again, Mr. Feynman? 🙂 So let’s assume the reasonable thing: let’s assume it gives us the amplitude to go from point a to point by the position vector along some path r. So, then, in line with what we wrote in our previous post, let’s say p·r (momentum over a distance) is the action (S) we’d associate with this particular path (r) and then see where we get. So let’s write the formula like this:

ψ = a·ei·θ = (1/rei·S = ei·p∙r/r

We’ll use an index to denote the various paths: r0 is the straight-line path and ri is any (other) path. Now, quantum mechanics tells us we should calculate this amplitude for every possible path. The illustration below shows the straight-line path and two nearby paths. So each of these paths is associated with some amount of action, which we measure in Planck units: θ = S/ħ

The time interval is given by = tr0/c, for all paths. Why is the time interval the same for all paths? Because we think of a photon going from some specific point in space and in time to some other specific point in space and in time. Indeed, when everything is said and done, we do think of light as traveling from point a to point at the speed of light (c). In fact, all of the weird stuff here is all about trying to explain how it does that. 🙂

Now, if we would think of the photon actually traveling along this or that path, then this implies its velocity along any of the nonlinear paths will be larger than c, which is OK. That’s just the weirdness of quantum mechanics, and you should actually not think of the photon actually traveling along one of these paths anyway although we’ll often put it that way. Think of something fuzzier, whatever that may be. 🙂

So the action is energy times time, or momentum times distance. Hence, the difference in action between two paths and j is given by:

δ= p·rj − p·ri = p·(rj − ri) = p·Δr

I’ll explain the δS < ħ/3 thing in a moment. Let’s first pause and think about the uncertainty and how we’re modeling it. We can effectively think of the variation in as some uncertainty in the action: δ= ΔS = p·Δr. However, if S is also equal to energy times time (= E·t), and we insist is the same for all paths, then we must have some uncertainty in the energy, right? Hence, we can write δas ΔS = ΔE·t. But, of course, E = E = m·c2 = p·c, so we will have an uncertainty in the momentum as well. Hence, the variation in should be written as:

δ= ΔS = Δp·Δr

That’s just logical thinking: if we, somehow, entertain the idea of a photon going from some specific point in spacetime to some other specific point in spacetime along various paths, then the variation, or uncertainty, in the action will effectively combine some uncertainty in the momentum and the distance. We can calculate Δp as ΔE/c, so we get the following:

δ= ΔS = Δp·Δr = ΔE·Δr/c = ΔE·Δt with ΔtΔr/c

So we have the two expressions for the Uncertainty Principle here: ΔS = Δp·Δr = ΔE·Δt. Just be careful with the interpretation of Δt: it’s just the equivalent of Δr. We just express the uncertainty in distance in seconds using the (absolute) speed of light. We are not changing our spacetime interval: we’re still looking at a photon going from to in seconds, exactly. Let’s now look at the δS < ħ/3 thing. If we’re adding two amplitudes (two arrows or vectors, so to speak) and we want the magnitude of the result to be larger than the magnitude of the two contributions, then the angle between them should be smaller than 120 degrees, so that’s 2π/3 rad. The illustration below shows how you can figure that out geometrically.Hence, if S0 is the action for r0, then S1 = S0 + ħ and S2 = S0 + 2·ħ are still good, but S3 = S0 + 3·ħ is not good. Why? Because the difference in the phase angles is Δθ = S1/ħ − S0/ħ = (S0 + ħ)/ħ − S0/ħ = 1 and Δθ = S2/ħ − S0/ħ = (S0 + 2·ħ)/ħ − S0/ħ = 2 respectively, so that’s 57.3° and 114.6° respectively and that’s, effectively, less than 120°. In contrast, for the next path, we find that Δθ = S3/ħ − S0/ħ = (S0 + 3·ħ)/ħ − S0/ħ = 3, so that’s 171.9°. So that amplitude gives us a negative contribution.

Let’s do some calculations using a spreadsheet. To simplify things, we will assume we measure everything (time, distance, force, mass, energy, action,…) in Planck units. Hence, we can simply write: Sn = S0 + n. Of course, = 1, 2,… etcetera, right? Well… Maybe not. We are measuring action in units of ħ, but do we actually think action comes in units of ħ? I am not sure. It would make sense, intuitively, but… Well… There’s uncertainty on the energy (E) and the momentum (p) of our photon, right? And how accurately can we measure the distance? So there’s some randomness everywhere. 😦 So let’s leave that question open as for now.

We will also assume that the phase angle for S0 is equal to 0 (or some multiple of 2π, if you want). That’s just a matter of choosing the origin of time. This makes it really easy: ΔSn = Sn − S0 = n, and the associated phase angle θn = Δθn is the same. In short, the amplitude for each path reduces to ψn = ei·n/r0. So we need to add these first and then calculate the magnitude, which we can then square to get a probability. Of course, there is also the issue of normalization (probabilities have to add up to one) but let’s tackle that later. For the calculations, we use Euler’s r·ei·θ = r·(cosθ + i·sinθ) = r·cosθ + i·r·sinθ formula. Needless to say, |r·ei·θ|2 = |r|2·|ei·θ|2 = |r|2·(cos2θ + sin2θ) = r. Finally, when adding complex numbers, we add the real and imaginary parts respectively, and we’ll denote the ψ0 + ψ1 +ψ2 + … sum as Ψ.

Now, we also need to see how our ΔS = Δp·Δr works out. We may want to assume that the uncertainty in p and in r will both be proportional to the overall uncertainty in the action. For example, we could try writing the following: ΔSn = Δpn·Δrn = n·Δp1·Δr1. It also makes sense that you may want Δpn and Δrn to be proportional to Δp1 and Δr1 respectively. Combining both, the assumption would be this:

Δpn = √n·Δpand Δrn = √n·Δr1

So now we just need to decide how we will distribute ΔS1 = ħ = 1 over Δp1 and Δr1 respectively. For example, if we’d assume Δp1 = 1, then Δr1 = ħ/Δp1 = 1/1 = 1. These are the calculations. I will let you analyze them. 🙂Well… We get a weird result. It reminds me of Feynman’s explanation of the partial reflection of light, shown below, but… Well… That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Hmm… Maybe it does. 🙂 Look at the graph more carefully. The peaks sort of oscillate out so… Well… That might make sense… 🙂

Does it? Are we doing something wrong here? These amplitudes should reflect the ones that are reflected in those nice animations (like this one, for example, which is part of that’s part of the Wikipedia article on Feynman’s path integral formulation of quantum mechanics). So what’s wrong, if anything? Well… Our paths differ by some fixed amount of action, which doesn’t quite reflect the geometric approach that’s used in those animations. The graph below shows how the distance varies as a function of n

If we’d use a model in which the distance would increase linearly or, preferably, exponentially, then we’d get the result we want to get, right?

Well… Maybe. Let’s try it. Hmm… We need to think about the geometry here. Look at the triangle below. If is the straight-line path (r0), then ac could be one of the crooked paths (rn). To simplify, we’ll assume isosceles triangles, so equals c and, hence, rn = 2·a = 2·c. We will also assume the successive paths are separated by the same vertical distance (h = h1) right in the middle, so hb = hn = n·h1. It is then easy to show the following:This gives the following graph for rn = 10 and h= 0.01.

Is this the right step increase? Not sure. We can vary the values in our spreadsheet. Let’s first build it. The photon will have to travel faster in order to cover the extra distance in the same time, so its momentum will be higher. Let’s think about the velocity. Let’s start with the first path (= 1). In order to cover the extra distance Δr1, the velocity c1 must be equal to (r0 + Δr1)/= r0/+ Δr1/t = + Δr1/= c0 + Δr1/t. We can write c1 as c1 = c0 + Δc1, so Δc1 = Δr1/t. Now, the ratio of p1  and p0 will be equal to the ratio of c1 and c0 because p1/p= (mc1)/mc0) = c1/c0. Hence, we have the following formula for p1:

p1 = p0·c1/c0 = p0·(c0 + Δc1)/c0 = p0·[1 + Δr1/(c0·t) = p0·(1 + Δr1/r0)

For pn, the logic is the same, so we write:

pn = p0·cn/c0 = p0·(c0 + Δcn)/c0 = p0·[1 + Δrn/(c0·t) = p0·(1 + Δrn/r0)

Let’s do the calculations, and let’s use meaningful values, so the nanometer scale and actual values for Planck’s constant and the photon momentum. The results are shown below.

Pretty interesting. In fact, this looks really good. The probability first swings around wildly, because of these zones of constructive and destructive interference, but then stabilizes. [Of course, I would need to normalize the probabilities, but you get the idea, right?] So… Well… I think we get a very meaningful result with this model. Sweet ! 🙂 I’m lovin’ it ! 🙂 And, here you go, this is (part of) the calculation table, so you can see what I am doing. 🙂

The graphs below look even better: I just changed the h1/r0 ratio from 1/100 to 1/10. The probability stabilizes almost immediately. 🙂 So… Well… It’s not as fancy as the referenced animation, but I think the educational value of this thing here is at least as good ! 🙂

🙂 This is good stuff… 🙂

Post scriptum (19 September 2017): There is an obvious inconsistency in the model above, and in the calculations. We assume there is a path r1 = , r2, r2,etcetera, and then we calculate the action for it, and the amplitude, and then we add the amplitude to the sum. But, surely, we should count these paths twice, in two-dimensional space, that is. Think of the graph: we have positive and negative interference zones that are sort of layered around the straight-line path, as shown below.

In three-dimensional space, these lines become surfaces. Hence, rather than adding one arrow for every δ  having one contribution only, we may want to add… Well… In three-dimensional space, the formula for the surface around the straight-line path would probably look like π·hn·r1, right? Hmm… Interesting idea. I changed my spreadsheet to incorporate that idea, and I got the graph below. It’s a nonsensical result, because the probability does swing around, but it gradually spins out of control: it never stabilizes.That’s because we increase the weight of the paths that are further removed from the center. So… Well… We shouldn’t be doing that, I guess. 🙂 I’ll you look for the right formula, OK? Let me know when you found it. 🙂

The Principle of Least Action re-visited

As I was posting some remarks on the Exercises that come with Feynman’s Lectures, I was thinking I should do another post on the Principle of Least Action, and how it is used in quantum mechanics. It is an interesting matter, because the Principle of Least Action sort of connects classical and quantum mechanics.

Let us first re-visit the Principle in classical mechanics. The illustrations which Feynman uses in his iconic exposé on it are copied below. You know what they depict: some object that goes up in the air, and then comes back down because of… Well… Gravity. Hence, we have a force field and, therefore, some potential which gives our object some potential energy. The illustration is nice because we can apply it any (uniform) force field, so let’s analyze it a bit more in depth.

We know the actual trajectory – which Feynman writes as x(t)x(t) + η(t) so as to distinguish it from some other nearby path x(t) – will minimize the value of the following integral:

In the mentioned post, I try to explain what the formula actually means by breaking it up in two separate integrals: one with the kinetic energy in the integrand and – you guessed it 🙂 – one with the potential energy. We can choose any reference point for our potential energy, of course, but to better reflect the energy conservation principle, we assume PE = 0 at the highest point. This ensures that the sum of the kinetic and the potential energy is zero. For a mass of 5 kg (think of the ubiquitous cannon ball), and a (maximum) height of 50 m, we got the following graph.

Just to make sure, here is how we calculate KE and PE as a function of time:

We can, of course, also calculate the action as a function of time:

Note the integrand: KE − PE = m·v2. Strange, isn’t it? It’s like E = m·c2, right? We get a weird cubic function, which I plotted below (blue). I added the function for the height (but in millimeter) because of the different scales.

So what’s going on? The action concept is interesting. As the product of force, distance and time, it makes intuitive sense: it’s force over distance over time. To cover some distance in some force field, energy will be used or spent but, clearly, the time that is needed should matter as well, right? Yes. But the question is: how, exactly? Let’s analyze what happens from = 0 to = 3.2 seconds, so that’s the trajectory from = 0 to the highest point (= 50 m). The action that is required to bring our 5 kg object there would be equal to F·h·t = m·g·h·t = 5×9.8×50×3.2 = 7828.9 J·s. [I use non-rounded values in my calculations.] However, our action integral tells us it’s only 5219.6 J·s. The difference (2609.3 J·s) is explained by the initial velocity and, hence, the initial kinetic energy, which we got for free, so to speak, and which, over the time interval, is spent as action. So our action integral gives us a net value, so to speak.

To be precise, we can calculate the time rate of change of the kinetic energy as d(KE)/dt = −1533.7 + 480.2·t, so that’s a linear function of time. The graph below shows how it works. The time rate of change is initially negative, as kinetic energy gets spent and increases the potential energy of our object. At the maximum height, the time of rate of change is zero. The object then starts falling, and the time rate of change becomes positive, as the velocity of our object goes from zero to… Well… The velocity is a linear function of time as well: v0 − g·t, remember? Hence, at = v0/g = 31.3/9.8 = 3.2 s, the velocity becomes negative so our cannon ball is, effectively, falling down. Of course, as it falls down and gains speed, it covers more and more distance per second and, therefore, the associated action also goes up exponentially. Just re-define our starting point at = 3.2 s. The m·v0t·(v0 − gt) term is zero at that point, and so then it’s only the m·g2·t3/3 term that counts.

So… Yes. That’s clear enough. But it still doesn’t answer the fundamental question: how does that minimization of S (or the maximization of −S) work, exactly? Well… It’s not like Nature knows it wants to go from point to point b, and then sort of works out some least action algorithm. No. The true path is given by the force law which, at every point in spacetime, will accelerate, or decelerate, our object at a rate that is equal to the ratio of the force and the mass of our object. In this case, we write: = F/= m·g/m = g, so that’s the acceleration of gravity. That’s the only real thing: all of the above is just math, some mental construct, so to speak.

Of course, this acceleration, or deceleration, then gives the velocity and the kinetic energy. Hence, once again, it’s not like we’re choosing some average for our kinetic energy: the force (gravity, in this particular case) just give us that average. Likewise, the potential energy depends on the position of our object, which we get from… Well… Where it starts and where it goes, so it also depends on the velocity and, hence, the acceleration or deceleration from the force field. So there is no optimization. No teleology. Newton’s force law gives us the true path. If we drop something down, it will go down in a straight line, because any deviation from it would add to the distance. A more complicated illustration is Fermat’s Principle of Least Time, which combines distance and time. But we won’t go into any further detail here. Just note that, in classical mechanics, the true path can, effectively, be associated with a minimum value for that action integral: any other path will be associated with a higher S. So we’re done with classical mechanics here. What about the Principle of Least Action in quantum mechanics?

The Principle of Least Action in quantum mechanics

We have the uncertainty in quantum mechanics: there is no unique path. However, we can, effectively, associate each possible path with a definite amount of action, which we will also write as S. However, instead of talking velocities, we’ll usually want to talk momentum. Photons have no rest mass (m0 = 0), but they do have momentum because of their energy: for a photon, the E = m·c2 equation can be rewritten as E = p·c, and the Einstein-Planck relation for photons tells us the photon energy (E) is related to the frequency (f): E = h·f. Now, for a photon, the wavelength is given by = c/λ. Hence, p = E/c = h·f/c= h/λ = ħ·k.

OK. What’s the action integral? What’s the kinetic and potential energy? Let’s just try the energy: E = m·c2. It reflects the KE − PE = m·v2 formula we used above. Of course, the energy of a photon does not vary, so the value of our integral is just the energy times the travel time, right? What is the travel time? Let’s do things properly by using vector notations here, so we will have two position vectors rand r2 for point and b respectively. We can then define a vector pointing from r1 to r2, which we will write as r12. The distance between the two points is then, obviously, equal to|r12| = √r122 = r12. Our photon travels at the speed of light, so the time interval will be equal to = r12/c. So we get a very simple formula for the action: = E·t = p·c·= p·c·r12/c = p·r12. Now, it may or may not make sense to assume that the direction of the momentum of our photon and the direction of r12 are somewhat different, so we’ll want to re-write this as a vector dot product: S = p·r12. [Of course, you know the pr12 dot product equals |p|∙|r12cosθ = p∙r12·cosθ, with θ the angle between p and r12. If the angle is the same, then cosθ is equal to 1. If the angle is ± π/2, then it’s 0.]

So now we minimize the action so as to determine the actual path? No. We have this weird stopwatch stuff in quantum mechanics. We’ll use this S = p·r12 value to calculate a probability amplitude. So we’ll associate trajectories with amplitudes, and we just use the action values to do so. This is how it works (don’t ask me why – not now, at least):

1. We measure action in units of ħ, because… Well… Planck’s constant is a pretty fundamental unit of action, right? 🙂 So we write θ = S/ħ p·r12/ħ.
2. θ usually denotes an angle, right? Right. θ = p·r12/ħ is the so-called phase of… Well… A proper wavefunction:

ψ(pr12) = a·ei·θ = (1/r12ei·pr12

Wow ! I realize you may never have seen this… Well… It’s my derivation of what physicists refer to as the propagator function for a photon. If you google it, you may see it written like this (most probably not, however, as it’s usually couched in more abstract math):This formulation looks slightly better because it uses Diracs bra-ket notation: the initial state of our photon is written as 〈 r1| and its final state is, accordingly, |r2〉. But it’s the same: it’s the amplitude for our photon to go from point to point b. In case you wonder, the 1/r12 coefficient is there to take care of the inverse square law. I’ll let you think about that for yourself. It’s just like any other physical quantity (or intensity, if you want): they get diluted as the distance increases. [Note that we get the inverse square (1/r122) when calculating a probability, which we do by taking the absolute square of our amplitude: |(1/r12ei·pr12|2 = |1/r122)|2·|ei·pr12|2 = 1/r122.]

So… Well… Now we are ready to understand Feynman’s own summary of his path integral formulation of quantum mechanics:  explanation words:

“Here is how it works: Suppose that for all paths, S is very large compared to ħ. One path contributes a certain amplitude. For a nearby path, the phase is quite different, because with an enormous even a small change in means a completely different phase—because ħ is so tiny. So nearby paths will normally cancel their effects out in taking the sum—except for one region, and that is when a path and a nearby path all give the same phase in the first approximation (more precisely, the same action within ħ). Only those paths will be the important ones.”

You are now, finally, ready to understand that wonderful animation that’s part of the Wikipedia article on Feynman’s path integral formulation of quantum mechanics. Check it out, and let the author (not me, but a guy who identifies himself as Juan David) I think it’s great ! 🙂

Explaining diffraction

All of the above is nice, but how does it work? What’s the geometry? Let me be somewhat more adventurous here. So we have our formula for the amplitude of a photon to go from one point to another:The formula is far too simple, if only because it assumes photons always travel at the speed of light. As explained in an older post of mine, a photon also has an amplitude to travel slower or faster than (I know that sounds crazy, but it is what it is) and a more sophisticated propagator function will acknowledge that and, unsurprisingly, ensure the spacetime intervals that are more light-like make greater contributions to the ‘final arrow’, as Feynman (or his student, Ralph Leighton, I should say) put it in his Strange Theory of Light and Matter. However, then we’d need to use four-vector notation and we don’t want to do that here. The simplified formula above serves the purpose. We can re-write it as:

ψ(pr12) = a·ei·θ = (1/r12ei·S = ei·pr12/r12

Again, S = p·r12 is just the amount of action we calculate for the path. Action is energy over some time (1 N·m·s = 1 J·s), or momentum over some distance (1 kg·(m/s)·m = 1 N·(s2/m)·(m/s)·m) = 1 N·m·s). For a photon traveling at the speed of light, we have E = p·c, and r12/c, so we get a very simple formula for the action: = E·t = p·r12. Now, we know that, in quantum mechanics, we have to add the amplitudes for the various paths between r1 and r2 so we get a ‘final arrow’ whose absolute square gives us the probability of… Well… Our photon going from r1 and r2. You also know that we don’t really know what actually happens in-between: we know amplitudes interfere, but that’s what we’re modeling when adding the arrows. Let me copy one of Feynman’s famous drawings so we’re sure we know what we’re talking about.Our simplified approach (the assumption of light traveling at the speed of light) reduces our least action principle to a least time principle: the arrows associated with the path of least time and the paths immediately left and right of it that make the biggest contribution to the final arrow. Why? Think of the stopwatch metaphor: these stopwatches arrive around the same time and, hence, their hands point more or less in the same direction. It doesn’t matter what direction – as long as it’s more or less the same.

Now let me copy the illustrations he uses to explain diffraction. Look at them carefully, and read the explanation below.

When the slit is large, our photon is likely to travel in a straight line. There are many other possible paths – crooked paths – but the amplitudes that are associated with those other paths cancel each other out. In contrast, the straight-line path and, importantly, the nearby paths, are associated with amplitudes that have the same phase, more or less.

However, when the slit is very narrow, there is a problem. As Feynman puts it, “there are not enough arrows to cancel each other out” and, therefore, the crooked paths are also associated with sizable probabilities. Now how does that work, exactly? Not enough arrows? Why? Let’s have a look at it.

The phase (θ) of our amplitudes a·ei·θ = (1/r12ei·S is measured in units of ħ: θ = S/ħ. Hence, we should measure the variation in in units of ħ. Consider two paths, for example: one for which the action is equal to S, and one for which the action is equal to + δ+ π·ħ, so δ= π·ħ. They will cancel each other out:

ei·S/ħ/r12 + e(S + δS)/ħ/r12 = (1/r12)·(ei·S/ħ/r12 + ei·(S+π·ħ)/ħ/r12 )

= (1/r12)·(ei·S/ħ + ei·S/ħ·ei·π) = (1/r12)·(ei·S/ħ − ei·S/ħ) = 0

So nearby paths will interfere constructively, so to speak, by making the final arrow larger. In order for that to happen, δS should be smaller than 2πħ/3 ≈ 2ħ, as shown below.

Why? That’s just the way the addition of angles work. Look at the illustration below: if the red arrow is the amplitude to which we are adding another, any amplitude whose phase angle is smaller than 2πħ/3 ≈ 2ħ will add something to its length. That’s what the geometry of the situation tells us. [If you have time, you can perhaps find some algebraic proof: let me know the result!]
We need to note a few things here. First, unlike what you might think, the amplitudes of the higher and lower path in the drawing do not cancel. On the contrary, the action is the same, so their magnitudes just add up. Second, if this logic is correct, we will have alternating zones with paths that interfere positively and negatively, as shown below.

Interesting geometry. How relevant are these zones as we move out from the center, steadily increasing δS? I am not quite sure. I’d have to get into the math of it all, which I don’t want to do in a blog like this. What I do want to do is re-examine is Feynman’s intuitive explanation of diffraction: when the slit is very narrow, “there are not enough arrows to cancel each other out.”

Huh? What’s that? Can’t we add more paths? It’s a tricky question. We are measuring action in units of ħ, but do we actually think action comes in units of ħ? I am not sure. It would make sense, intuitively, but… Well… There’s uncertainty on the energy (E) and the momentum (p) of our photon, right? And how accurately can we measure the distance? So there’s some randomness everywhere. Having said that, the whole argument does requires us to assume action effectively comes in units of ħħ is, effectively, the scaling factor here.

So how can we have more paths? More arrows? I don’t think so. We measure as energy over some time, or as momentum over some distance, and we express all these quantities in old-fashioned SI units: newton for the force, meter for the distance, and second for the time. If we want smaller arrows, we’ll have to use other units, but then the numerical value for ħ will change too! So… Well… No. I don’t think so. And it’s not because of the normalization rule (all probabilities have to add up to one, so we do some have some re-scaling for that). That doesn’t matter, really. What matters is the physics behind the formula, and the formula tells us the physical reality is ħ. So the geometry of the situation is what it is.

Hmm… I guess that, at this point, we should wrap up our rather intuitive discussion here, and resort to the mathematical formalism of Feynman’s path integral formulation, but you can find that elsewhere.

Post scriptum: I said I would show how the Principle of Least Action is relevant to both classical as well as quantum mechanics. Well… Let me quote the Master once more:

“So in the limiting case in which Planck’s constant ħ goes to zero, the correct quantum-mechanical laws can be summarized by simply saying: ‘Forget about all these probability amplitudes. The particle does go on a special path, namely, that one for which does not vary in the first approximation.’”

So that’s how the Principle of Least Action sort of unifies quantum mechanics as well as classical mechanics. 🙂

Post scriptum 2: In my next post, I’ll be doing some calculations. They will answer the question as to how relevant those zones of positive and negative interference further away from the straight-line path. I’ll give a numerical example which shows the 1/r12 factor does its job. 🙂 Just have a look at it. 🙂

Some thoughts on the nature of reality

Some other comment on an article on my other blog, inspired me to structure some thoughts that are spread over various blog posts. What follows below, is probably the first draft of an article or a paper I plan to write. Or, who knows, I might re-write my two introductory books on quantum physics and publish a new edition soon. 🙂

Physical dimensions and Uncertainty

The physical dimension of the quantum of action (h or ħ = h/2π) is force (expressed in newton) times distance (expressed in meter) times time (expressed in seconds): N·m·s. Now, you may think this N·m·s dimension is kinda hard to imagine. We can imagine its individual components, right? Force, distance and time. We know what they are. But the product of all three? What is it, really?

It shouldn’t be all that hard to imagine what it might be, right? The N·m·s unit is also the unit in which angular momentum is expressed – and you can sort of imagine what that is, right? Think of a spinning top, or a gyroscope. We may also think of the following:

1. [h] = N·m·s = (N·m)·s = [E]·[t]
2. [h] = N·m·s = (N·s)·m = [p]·[x]

Hence, the physical dimension of action is that of energy (E) multiplied by time (t) or, alternatively, that of momentum (p) times distance (x). To be precise, the second dimensional equation should be written as [h] = [p]·[x], because both the momentum and the distance traveled will be associated with some direction. It’s a moot point for the discussion at the moment, though. Let’s think about the first equation first: [h] = [E]·[t]. What does it mean?

Energy… Hmm… In real life, we are usually not interested in the energy of a system as such, but by the energy it can deliver, or absorb, per second. This is referred to as the power of a system, and it’s expressed in J/s, or watt. Power is also defined as the (time) rate at which work is done. Hmm… But so here we’re multiplying energy and time. So what’s that? After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we can sort of imagine the energy of an atomic bomb. We can also sort of imagine the power that’s being released by the Sun in light and other forms of radiation, which is about 385×1024 joule per second. But energy times time? What’s that?

I am not sure. If we think of the Sun as a huge reservoir of energy, then the physical dimension of action is just like having that reservoir of energy guaranteed for some time, regardless of how fast or how slow we use it. So, in short, it’s just like the Sun – or the Earth, or the Moon, or whatever object – just being there, for some definite amount of time. So, yes: some definite amount of mass or energy (E) for some definite amount of time (t).

Let’s bring the mass-energy equivalence formula in here: E = mc2. Hence, the physical dimension of action can also be written as [h] = [E]·[t] = [mc]2·[t] = (kg·m2/s2)·s = kg·m2/s. What does that say? Not all that much – for the time being, at least. We can get this [h] = kg·m2/s through some other substitution as well. A force of one newton will give a mass of 1 kg an acceleration of 1 m/s per second. Therefore, 1 N = 1 kg·m/s2 and, hence, the physical dimension of h, or the unit of angular momentum, may also be written as 1 N·m·s = 1 (kg·m/s2)·m·s = 1 kg·m2/s, i.e. the product of mass, velocity and distance.

Hmm… What can we do with that? Nothing much for the moment: our first reading of it is just that it reminds us of the definition of angular momentum – some mass with some velocity rotating around an axis. What about the distance? Oh… The distance here is just the distance from the axis, right? Right. But… Well… It’s like having some amount of linear momentum available over some distance – or in some space, right? That’s sufficiently significant as an interpretation for the moment, I’d think…

Fundamental units

This makes one think about what units would be fundamental – and what units we’d consider as being derived. Formally, the newton is a derived unit in the metric system, as opposed to the units of mass, length and time (kg, m, s). Nevertheless, I personally like to think of force as being fundamental:  a force is what causes an object to deviate from its straight trajectory in spacetime. Hence, we may want to think of the quantum of action as representing three fundamental physical dimensions: (1) force, (2) time and (3) distance – or space. We may then look at energy and (linear) momentum as physical quantities combining (1) force and distance and (2) force and time respectively.

Let me write this out:

1. Force times length (think of a force that is acting on some object over some distance) is energy: 1 joule (J) = 1 newton·meter (N). Hence, we may think of the concept of energy as a projection of action in space only: we make abstraction of time. The physical dimension of the quantum of action should then be written as [h] = [E]·[t]. [Note the square brackets tell us we are looking at a dimensional equation only, so [t] is just the physical dimension of the time variable. It’s a bit confusing because I also use square brackets as parentheses.]
2. Conversely, the magnitude of linear momentum (p = m·v) is expressed in newton·seconds: 1 kg·m/s = 1 (kg·m/s2)·s = 1 N·s. Hence, we may think of (linear) momentum as a projection of action in time only: we make abstraction of its spatial dimension. Think of a force that is acting on some object during some time. The physical dimension of the quantum of action should then be written as [h] = [p]·[x]

Of course, a force that is acting on some object during some time, will usually also act on the same object over some distance but… Well… Just try, for once, to make abstraction of one of the two dimensions here: time or distance.

It is a difficult thing to do because, when everything is said and done, we don’t live in space or in time alone, but in spacetime and, hence, such abstractions are not easy. [Of course, now you’ll say that it’s easy to think of something that moves in time only: an object that is standing still does just that – but then we know movement is relative, so there is no such thing as an object that is standing still in space in an absolute sense: Hence, objects never stand still in spacetime.] In any case, we should try such abstractions, if only because of the principle of least action is so essential and deep in physics:

1. In classical physics, the path of some object in a force field will minimize the total action (which is usually written as S) along that path.
2. In quantum mechanics, the same action integral will give us various values S – each corresponding to a particular path – and each path (and, therefore, each value of S, really) will be associated with a probability amplitude that will be proportional to some constant times e−i·θ = ei·(S/ħ). Because ħ is so tiny, even a small change in S will give a completely different phase angle θ. Therefore, most amplitudes will cancel each other out as we take the sum of the amplitudes over all possible paths: only the paths that nearly give the same phase matter. In practice, these are the paths that are associated with a variation in S of an order of magnitude that is equal to ħ.

The paragraph above summarizes, in essence, Feynman’s path integral formulation of quantum mechanics. We may, therefore, think of the quantum of action expressing itself (1) in time only, (2) in space only, or – much more likely – (3) expressing itself in both dimensions at the same time. Hence, if the quantum of action gives us the order of magnitude of the uncertainty – think of writing something like S ± ħ, we may re-write our dimensional [ħ] = [E]·[t] and [ħ] = [p]·[x] equations as the uncertainty equations:

• ΔE·Δt = ħ
• Δp·Δx = ħ

You should note here that it is best to think of the uncertainty relations as a pair of equations, if only because you should also think of the concept of energy and momentum as representing different aspects of the same reality, as evidenced by the (relativistic) energy-momentum relation (E2 = p2c2 – m02c4). Also, as illustrated below, the actual path – or, to be more precise, what we might associate with the concept of the actual path – is likely to be some mix of Δx and Δt. If Δt is very small, then Δx will be very large. In order to move over such distance, our particle will require a larger energy, so ΔE will be large. Likewise, if Δt is very large, then Δx will be very small and, therefore, ΔE will be very small. You can also reason in terms of Δx, and talk about momentum rather than energy. You will arrive at the same conclusions: the ΔE·Δt = h and Δp·Δx = relations represent two aspects of the same reality – or, at the very least, what we might think of as reality.

Also think of the following: if ΔE·Δt = and Δp·Δx = h, then ΔE·Δt = Δp·Δx and, therefore, ΔE/Δp must be equal to Δx/Δt. Hence, the ratio of the uncertainty about x (the distance) and the uncertainty about t (the time) equals the ratio of the uncertainty about E (the energy) and the uncertainty about p (the momentum).

Of course, you will note that the actual uncertainty relations have a factor 1/2 in them. This may be explained by thinking of both negative as well as positive variations in space and in time.

We will obviously want to do some more thinking about those physical dimensions. The idea of a force implies the idea of some object – of some mass on which the force is acting. Hence, let’s think about the concept of mass now. But… Well… Mass and energy are supposed to be equivalent, right? So let’s look at the concept of energy too.

Action, energy and mass

What is energy, really? In real life, we are usually not interested in the energy of a system as such, but by the energy it can deliver, or absorb, per second. This is referred to as the power of a system, and it’s expressed in J/s. However, in physics, we always talk energy – not power – so… Well… What is the energy of a system?

According to the de Broglie and Einstein – and so many other eminent physicists, of course – we should not only think of the kinetic energy of its parts, but also of their potential energy, and their rest energy, and – for an atomic system – we may add some internal energy, which may be binding energy, or excitation energy (think of a hydrogen atom in an excited state, for example). A lot of stuff. 🙂 But, obviously, Einstein’s mass-equivalence formula comes to mind here, and summarizes it all:

E = m·c2

The m in this formula refers to mass – not to meter, obviously. Stupid remark, of course… But… Well… What is energy, really? What is mass, really? What’s that equivalence between mass and energy, really?

I don’t have the definite answer to that question (otherwise I’d be famous), but… Well… I do think physicists and mathematicians should invest more in exploring some basic intuitions here. As I explained in several posts, it is very tempting to think of energy as some kind of two-dimensional oscillation of mass. A force over some distance will cause a mass to accelerate. This is reflected in the dimensional analysis:

[E] = [m]·[c2] = 1 kg·m2/s2 = 1 kg·m/s2·m = 1 N·m

The kg and m/sfactors make this abundantly clear: m/s2 is the physical dimension of acceleration: (the change in) velocity per time unit.

Other formulas now come to mind, such as the Planck-Einstein relation: E = h·f = ω·ħ. We could also write: E = h/T. Needless to say, T = 1/f is the period of the oscillation. So we could say, for example, that the energy of some particle times the period of the oscillation gives us Planck’s constant again. What does that mean? Perhaps it’s easier to think of it the other way around: E/f = h = 6.626070040(81)×10−34 J·s. Now, is the number of oscillations per second. Let’s write it as = n/s, so we get:

E/= E/(n/s) = E·s/n = 6.626070040(81)×10−34 J·s ⇔ E/= 6.626070040(81)×10−34 J

What an amazing result! Our wavicle – be it a photon or a matter-particle – will always pack 6.626070040(81)×10−34 joule in one oscillation, so that’s the numerical value of Planck’s constant which, of course, depends on our fundamental units (i.e. kg, meter, second, etcetera in the SI system).

Of course, the obvious question is: what’s one oscillation? If it’s a wave packet, the oscillations may not have the same amplitude, and we may also not be able to define an exact period. In fact, we should expect the amplitude and duration of each oscillation to be slightly different, shouldn’t we? And then…

Well… What’s an oscillation? We’re used to counting them: oscillations per second, so that’s per time unit. How many do we have in total? We wrote about that in our posts on the shape and size of a photon. We know photons are emitted by atomic oscillators – or, to put it simply, just atoms going from one energy level to another. Feynman calculated the Q of these atomic oscillators: it’s of the order of 10(see his Lectures, I-33-3: it’s a wonderfully simple exercise, and one that really shows his greatness as a physics teacher), so… Well… This wave train will last about 10–8 seconds (that’s the time it takes for the radiation to die out by a factor 1/e). To give a somewhat more precise example, for sodium light, which has a frequency of 500 THz (500×1012 oscillations per second) and a wavelength of 600 nm (600×10–9 meter), the radiation will lasts about 3.2×10–8 seconds. [In fact, that’s the time it takes for the radiation’s energy to die out by a factor 1/e, so(i.e. the so-called decay time τ), so the wavetrain will actually last longer, but so the amplitude becomes quite small after that time.] So… Well… That’s a very short time but… Still, taking into account the rather spectacular frequency (500 THz) of sodium light, that makes for some 16 million oscillations and, taking into the account the rather spectacular speed of light (3×10m/s), that makes for a wave train with a length of, roughly, 9.6 meter. Huh? 9.6 meter!? But a photon is supposed to be pointlike, isn’it it? It has no length, does it?

That’s where relativity helps us out: as I wrote in one of my posts, relativistic length contraction may explain the apparent paradox. Using the reference frame of the photon – so if we’d be traveling at speed c,’ riding’ with the photon, so to say, as it’s being emitted – then we’d ‘see’ the electromagnetic transient as it’s being radiated into space.

However, while we can associate some mass with the energy of the photon, none of what I wrote above explains what the (rest) mass of a matter-particle could possibly be. There is no real answer to that, I guess. You’ll think of the Higgs field now but… Then… Well. The Higgs field is a scalar field. Very simple: some number that’s associated with some position in spacetime. That doesn’t explain very much, does it? 😦 When everything is said and done, the scientists who, in 2013 only, got the Nobel Price for their theory on the Higgs mechanism, simply tell us mass is some number. That’s something we knew already, right? 🙂

The reality of the wavefunction

The wavefunction is, obviously, a mathematical construct: a description of reality using a very specific language. What language? Mathematics, of course! Math may not be universal (aliens might not be able to decipher our mathematical models) but it’s pretty good as a global tool of communication, at least.

The real question is: is the description accurate? Does it match reality and, if it does, how good is the match? For example, the wavefunction for an electron in a hydrogen atom looks as follows:

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. So it presumes the duration of each oscillation is some constant. Why? Well… Look at the formula: this thing has a constant frequency in time. It’s only the amplitude that is varying as a function of the r = (x, y, z) coordinates. 🙂 So… Well… If each oscillation is to always pack 6.626070040(81)×10−34 joule, but the amplitude of the oscillation varies from point to point, then… Well… We’ve got a problem. The wavefunction above is likely to be an approximation of reality only. 🙂 The associated energy is the same, but… Well… Reality is probably not the nice geometrical shape we associate with those wavefunctions.

In addition, we should think of the Uncertainty Principle: there must be some uncertainty in the energy of the photons when our hydrogen atom makes a transition from one energy level to another. But then… Well… If our photon packs something like 16 million oscillations, and the order of magnitude of the uncertainty is only of the order of h (or ħ = h/2π) which, as mentioned above, is the (average) energy of one oscillation only, then we don’t have much of a problem here, do we? 🙂

Post scriptum: In previous posts, we offered some analogies – or metaphors – to a two-dimensional oscillation (remember the V-2 engine?). Perhaps it’s all relatively simple. If we have some tiny little ball of mass – and its center of mass has to stay where it is – then any rotation – around any axis – will be some combination of a rotation around our x- and z-axis – as shown below. Two axes only. So we may want to think of a two-dimensional oscillation as an oscillation of the polar and azimuthal angle. 🙂

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) .We 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.Hence, 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. 🙂The 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? 🙂

The 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. 🙂

An introduction to virtual particles (2)

When reading quantum mechanics, it often feels like the more you know, the less you understand. My reading of the Yukawa theory of force, as an exchange of virtual particles (see my previous post), must have left you with many questions. Questions I can’t answer because… Well… I feel as much as a fool as you do when thinking about it all. Yukawa first talks about some potential – which we usually think of as being some scalar function – and then suddenly this potential becomes a wavefunction. Does that make sense? And think of the mass of that ‘virtual’ particle: the rest mass of a neutral pion is about 135 MeV. That’s an awful lot – at the (sub-)atomic scale that is: it’s equivalent to the rest mass of some 265 electrons!

But… Well… Think of it: the use of a static potential when solving Schrödinger’s equation for the electron orbitals around a hydrogen nucleus (a proton, basically) also raises lots of questions: if we think of our electron as a point-like particle being first here and then there, then that’s also not very consistent with a static (scalar) potential either!

One of the weirdest aspects of the Yukawa theory is that these emissions and absorptions of virtual particles violate the energy conservation principle. Look at the animation once again (below): it sort of assumes a rather heavy particle – consisting of a d- or u-quark and its antiparticle – is emitted – out of nothing, it seems – to then vanish as the antiparticle is destroyed when absorbed. What about the energy balance here: are we talking six quarks (the proton and the neutron), or six plus two?Now that we’re talking mass, note a neutral pion (π0) may either be a uū or a dđ combination, and that the mass of a u-quark and a d-quark is only 2.4 and 4.8 MeV – so the binding energy of the constituent parts of this πparticle is enormous: it accounts for most of its mass.

The thing is… While we’ve presented the πparticle as a virtual particle here, you should also note we find πparticles in cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are particle rays, really: beams of highly energetic particles. Quite a bunch of them are just protons that are being ejected by our Sun. [The Sun also ejects electrons – as you might imagine – but let’s think about the protons here first.] When these protons hit an atom or a molecule in our atmosphere, they usually break up in various particles, including our πparticle, as shown below.

So… Well… How can we relate these things? What is going on, really, inside of that nucleus?

Well… I am not sure. Aitchison and Hey do their utmost to try to explain the pion – as a virtual particle, that is – in terms of energy fluctuations that obey the Uncertainty Principle for energy and time: ΔE·Δt ≥ ħ/2. Now, I find such explanations difficult to follow. Such explanations usually assume any measurement instrument – measuring energy, time, momentum of distance – measures those variables on some discrete scale, which implies some uncertainty indeed. But that uncertainty is more like an imprecision, in my view. Not something fundamental. Let me quote Aitchison and Hey:

“Suppose a device is set up capable of checking to see whether energy is, in fact, conserved while the pion crosses over.. The crossing time Δt must be at least r/c, where r is the distance apart of the nucleons. Hence, the device must be capable of operating on a time scale smaller than Δt to be able to detect the pion, but it need not be very much less than this. Thus the energy uncertainty in the reading by the device will be of the order ΔE ∼ ħ/Δt) = ħ·(c/r).”

As said, I find such explanations really difficult, although I can sort of sense some of the implicit assumptions. As I mentioned a couple of times already, the E = m·c2 equation tells us energy is mass in motion, somehow: some weird two-dimensional oscillation in spacetime. So, yes, we can appreciate we need some time unit to count the oscillations – or, equally important, to measure their amplitude.

[…] But… Well… This falls short of a more fundamental explanation of what’s going on. I like to think of Uncertainty in terms of Planck’s constant itself: ħ or h or – as you’ll usually see it – as half of that value: ħ/2. [The Stern-Gerlach experiment implies it’s ħ/2, rather than h/2 or ħ or h itself.] The physical dimension of Planck’s constant is action: newton times distance times time. I also like to think action can express itself in two ways: as (1) some amount of energy (ΔE: some force of some distance) over some time (Δt) or, else, as (2) some momentum (Δp: some force during some time) over some distance (Δs). Now, if we equate ΔE with the energy of the pion (135 MeV), then we may calculate the order of magnitude of Δt from ΔE·Δt ≥ ħ/2 as follows:

Δt = (ħ/2)/(135 MeV) ≈ (3.291×10−16 eV·s)/(134.977×10eV) ≈ 0.02438×10−22 s

Now, that’s an unimaginably small time unit – but much and much larger than the Planck time (the Planck time unit is about 5.39 × 10−44 s). The corresponding distance is equal to = Δt·c = (0.02438×10−22 s)·(2.998×10m/s) ≈ 0.0731×10−14 m = 0.731 fm. So… Well… Yes. We got the answer we wanted… So… Well… We should be happy about that but…

Well… I am not. I don’t like this indeterminacy. This randomness in the approach. For starters, I am very puzzled by the fact that the lifetime of the actual πparticle we see in the debris of proton collisions with other particles as cosmic rays enter the atmosphere is like 8.4×10−17 seconds, so that’s like 35 million times longer than the Δt = 0.02438×10−22 s we calculated above.

Something doesn’t feel right. I just can’t see the logic here. Sorry. I’ll be back.

An introduction to virtual particles

We are going to venture beyond quantum mechanics as it is usually understood – covering electromagnetic interactions only. Indeed, all of my posts so far – a bit less than 200, I think 🙂 – were all centered around electromagnetic interactions – with the model of the hydrogen atom as our most precious gem, so to speak.

In this post, we’ll be talking the strong force – perhaps not for the first time but surely for the first time at this level of detail. It’s an entirely different world – as I mentioned in one of my very first posts in this blog. Let me quote what I wrote there:

“The math describing the ‘reality’ of electrons and photons (i.e. quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics), as complicated as it is, becomes even more complicated – and, important to note, also much less accurate – when it is used to try to describe the behavior of  quarks. Quantum chromodynamics (QCD) is a different world. […] Of course, that should not surprise us, because we’re talking very different order of magnitudes here: femtometers (10–15 m), in the case of electrons, as opposed to attometers (10–18 m) or even zeptometers (10–21 m) when we’re talking quarks.”

In fact, the femtometer scale is used to measure the radius of both protons as well as electrons and, hence, is much smaller than the atomic scale, which is measured in nanometer (1 nm = 10−9 m). The so-called Bohr radius for example, which is a measure for the size of an atom, is measured in nanometer indeed, so that’s a scale that is a million times larger than the femtometer scale. This gap in the scale effectively separates entirely different worlds. In fact, the gap is probably as large a gap as the gap between our macroscopic world and the strange reality of quantum mechanics. What happens at the femtometer scale, really?

The honest answer is: we don’t know, but we do have models to describe what happens. Moreover, for want of better models, physicists sort of believe these models are credible. To be precise, we assume there’s a force down there which we refer to as the strong force. In addition, there’s also a weak force. Now, you probably know these forces are modeled as interactions involving an exchange of virtual particles. This may be related to what Aitchison and Hey refer to as the physicist’s “distaste for action-at-a-distance.” To put it simply: if one particle – through some force – influences some other particle, then something must be going on between the two of them.

Of course, now you’ll say that something is effectively going on: there’s the electromagnetic field, right? Yes. But what’s the field? You’ll say: waves. But then you know electromagnetic waves also have a particle aspect. So we’re stuck with this weird theoretical framework: the conceptual distinction between particles and forces, or between particle and field, are not so clear. So that’s what the more advanced theories we’ll be looking at – like quantum field theory – try to bring together.

Note that we’ve been using a lot of confusing and/or ambiguous terms here: according to at least one leading physicist, for example, virtual particles should not be thought of as particles! But we’re putting the cart before the horse here. Let’s go step by step. To better understand the ‘mechanics’ of how the strong and weak interactions are being modeled in physics, most textbooks – including Aitchison and Hey, which we’ll follow here – start by explaining the original ideas as developed by the Japanese physicist Hideki Yukawa, who received a Nobel Prize for his work in 1949.

So what is it all about? As said, the ideas – or the model as such, so to speak – are more important than Yukawa’s original application, which was to model the force between a proton and a neutron. Indeed, we now explain such force as a force between quarks, and the force carrier is the gluon, which carries the so-called color charge. To be precise, the force between protons and neutrons – i.e. the so-called nuclear force – is now considered to be a rather minor residual force: it’s just what’s left of the actual strong force that binds quarks together. The Wikipedia article on this has some good text and a really nice animation on this. But… Well… Again, note that we are only interested in the model right now. So how does that look like?

First, we’ve got the equivalent of the electric charge: the nucleon is supposed to have some ‘strong’ charge, which we’ll write as gs. Now you know the formulas for the potential energy – because of the gravitational force – between two masses, or the potential energy between two charges – because of the electrostatic force. Let me jot them down once again:

1. U(r) = –G·M·m/r
2. U(r) = (1/4πε0)·q1·q2/r

The two formulas are exactly the same. They both assume U = 0 for → ∞. Therefore, U(r) is always negative. [Just think of q1 and q2 as opposite charges, so the minus sign is not explicit – but it is also there!] We know that U(r) curve will look like the one below: some work (force times distance) is needed to move the two charges some distance away from each other – from point 1 to point 2, for example. [The distance r is x here – but you got that, right?]

Now, physics textbooks – or other articles you might find, like on Wikipedia – will sometimes mention that the strong force is non-linear, but that’s very confusing because… Well… The electromagnetic force – or the gravitational force – aren’t linear either: their strength is inversely proportional to the square of the distance and – as you can see from the formulas for the potential energy – that 1/r factor isn’t linear either. So that isn’t very helpful. In order to further the discussion, I should now write down Yukawa’s hypothetical formula for the potential energy between a neutron and a proton, which we’ll refer to, logically, as the n-p potential:The −gs2 factor is, obviously, the equivalent of the q1·q2 product: think of the proton and the neutron having equal but opposite ‘strong’ charges. The 1/4π factor reminds us of the Coulomb constant: k= 1/4πε0. Note this constant ensures the physical dimensions of both sides of the equation make sense: the dimension of ε0 is N·m2/C2, so U(r) is – as we’d expect – expressed in newton·meter, or joule. We’ll leave the question of the units for gs open – for the time being, that is. [As for the 1/4π factor, I am not sure why Yukawa put it there. My best guess is that he wanted to remind us some constant should be there to ensure the units come out alright.]

So, when everything is said and done, the big new thing is the er/a/factor, which replaces the usual 1/r dependency on distance. Needless to say, e is Euler’s number here – not the electric charge. The two green curves below show what the er/a factor does to the classical 1/r function for = 1 and = 0.1 respectively: smaller values for a ensure the curve approaches zero more rapidly. In fact, for = 1, er/a/is equal to 0.368 for = 1, and remains significant for values that are greater than 1 too. In contrast, for = 0.1, er/a/is equal to 0.004579 (more or less, that is) for = 4 and rapidly goes to zero for all values greater than that.

Aitchison and Hey call a, therefore, a range parameter: it effectively defines the range in which the n-p potential has a significant value: outside of the range, its value is, for all practical purposes, (close to) zero. Experimentally, this range was established as being more or less equal to ≤ 2 fm. Needless to say, while this range factor may do its job, it’s obvious Yukawa’s formula for the n-p potential comes across as being somewhat random: what’s the theory behind? There’s none, really. It makes one think of the logistic function: the logistic function fits many statistical patterns, but it is (usually) not obvious why.

Next in Yukawa’s argument is the establishment of an equivalent, for the nuclear force, of the Poisson equation in electrostatics: using the E = –Φ formula, we can re-write Maxwell’s ∇•E = ρ/ε0 equation (aka Gauss’ Law) as ∇•E = –∇•∇Φ = –2Φ ⇔ 2Φ= –ρ/ε0 indeed. The divergence operator the • operator gives us the volume density of the flux of E out of an infinitesimal volume around a given point. [You may want to check one of my post on this. The formula becomes somewhat more obvious if we re-write it as ∇•E·dV = –(ρ·dV)/ε0: ∇•E·dV is then, quite simply, the flux of E out of the infinitesimally small volume dV, and the right-hand side of the equation says this is given by the product of the charge inside (ρ·dV) and 1/ε0, which accounts for the permittivity of the medium (which is the vacuum in this case).] Of course, you will also remember the Φ notation: is just the gradient (or vector derivative) of the (scalar) potential Φ, i.e. the electric (or electrostatic) potential in a space around that infinitesimally small volume with charge density ρ. So… Well… The Poisson equation is probably not so obvious as it seems at first (again, check my post on it on it for more detail) and, yes, that • operator – the divergence operator – is a pretty impressive mathematical beast. However, I must assume you master this topic and move on. So… Well… I must now give you the equivalent of Poisson’s equation for the nuclear force. It’s written like this:What the heck? Relax. To derive this equation, we’d need to take a pretty complicated détour, which we won’t do. [See Appendix G of Aitchison and Grey if you’d want the details.] Let me just point out the basics:

1. The Laplace operator (∇2) is replaced by one that’s nearly the same: ∇2 − 1/a2. And it operates on the same concept: a potential, which is a (scalar) function of the position r. Hence, U(r) is just the equivalent of Φ.

2. The right-hand side of the equation involves Dirac’s delta function. Now that’s a weird mathematical beast. Its definition seems to defy what I refer to as the ‘continuum assumption’ in math.  I wrote a few things about it in one of my posts on Schrödinger’s equation – and I could give you its formula – but that won’t help you very much. It’s just a weird thing. As Aitchison and Grey write, you should just think of the whole expression as a finite range analogue of Poisson’s equation in electrostatics. So it’s only for extremely small that the whole equation makes sense. Outside of the range defined by our range parameter a, the whole equation just reduces to 0 = 0 – for all practical purposes, at least.

Now, of course, you know that the neutron and the proton are not supposed to just sit there. They’re also in these sort of intricate dance which – for the electron case – is described by some wavefunction, which we derive as a solution from Schrödinger’s equation. So U(r) is going to vary not only in space but also in time and we should, therefore, write it as U(r, t). Now, we will, of course, assume it’s going to vary in space and time as some wave and we may, therefore, suggest some wave equation for it. To appreciate this point, you should review some of the posts I did on waves. More in particular, you may want to review the post I did on traveling fields, in which I showed you the following: if we see an equation like:then the function ψ(x, t) must have the following general functional form:Any function ψ like that will work – so it will be a solution to the differential equation – and we’ll refer to it as a wavefunction. Now, the equation (and the function) is for a wave traveling in one dimension only (x) but the same post shows we can easily generalize to waves traveling in three dimensions. In addition, we may generalize the analyse to include complex-valued functions as well. Now, you will still be shocked by Yukawa’s field equation for U(r, t) but, hopefully, somewhat less so after the above reminder on how wave equations generally look like:As said, you can look up the nitty-gritty in Aitchison and Grey (or in its appendices) but, up to this point, you should be able to sort of appreciate what’s going on without getting lost in it all. Yukawa’s next step – and all that follows – is much more baffling. We’d think U, the nuclear potential, is just some scalar-valued wave, right? It varies in space and in time, but… Well… That’s what classical waves, like water or sound waves, for example do too. So far, so good. However, Yukawa’s next step is to associate a de Broglie-type wavefunction with it. Hence, Yukawa imposes solutions of the type:What? Yes. It’s a big thing to swallow, and it doesn’t help most physicists refer to U as a force field. A force and the potential that results from it are two different things. To put it simply: the force on an object is not the same as the work you need to move it from here to there. Force and potential are related but different concepts. Having said that, it sort of make sense now, doesn’t it? If potential is energy, and if it behaves like some wave, then we must be able to associate it with a de Broglie-type particle. This U-quantum, as it is referred to, comes in two varieties, which are associated with the ongoing absorption-emission process that is supposed to take place inside of the nucleus (depicted below):

p + U → n and n + U+ → p

It’s easy to see that the U and U+ particles are just each other’s anti-particle. When thinking about this, I can’t help remembering Feynman, when he enigmatically wrote – somewhere in his Strange Theory of Light and Matter – that an anti-particle might just be the same particle traveling back in time. In fact, the exchange here is supposed to happen within a time window that is so short it allows for the brief violation of the energy conservation principle.

Let’s be more precise and try to find the properties of that mysterious U-quantum. You’ll need to refresh what you know about operators to understand how substituting Yukawa’s de Broglie wavefunction in the complicated-looking differential equation (the wave equation) gives us the following relation between the energy and the momentum of our new particle:Now, it doesn’t take too many gimmicks to compare this against the relativistically correct energy-momentum relation:Combining both gives us the associated (rest) mass of the U-quantum:For ≈ 2 fm, mU is about 100 MeV. Of course, it’s always to check the dimensions and calculate stuff yourself. Note the physical dimension of ħ/(a·c) is N·s2/m = kg (just think of the F = m·a formula). Also note that N·s2/m = kg = (N·m)·s2/m= J/(m2/s2), so that’s the [E]/[c2] dimension. The calculation – and interpretation – is somewhat tricky though: if you do it, you’ll find that:

ħ/(a·c) ≈ (1.0545718×10−34 N·m·s)/[(2×10−15 m)·(2.997924583×108 m/s)] ≈ 0.176×10−27 kg

Now, most physics handbooks continue that terrible habit of writing particle weights in eV, rather than using the correct eV/c2 unit. So when they write: mU is about 100 MeV, they actually mean to say that it’s 100 MeV/c2. In addition, the eV is not an SI unit. Hence, to get that number, we should first write 0.176×10−27 kg as some value expressed in J/c2, and then convert the joule (J) into electronvolt (eV). Let’s do that. First, note that c2 ≈ 9×1016 m2/s2, so 0.176×10−27 kg ≈ 1.584×10−11 J/c2. Now we do the conversion from joule to electronvolt. We get: (1.584×10−11 J/c2)·(6.24215×1018 eV/J) ≈ 9.9×107 eV/c2 = 99 MeV/c2Bingo! So that was Yukawa’s prediction for the nuclear force quantum.

Of course, Yukawa was wrong but, as mentioned above, his ideas are now generally accepted. First note the mass of the U-quantum is quite considerable: 100 MeV/c2 is a bit more than 10% of the individual proton or neutron mass (about 938-939 MeV/c2). While the binding energy causes the mass of an atom to be less than the mass of their constituent parts (protons, neutrons and electrons), it’s quite remarkably that the deuterium atom – a hydrogen atom with an extra neutron – has an excess mass of about 13.1 MeV/c2, and a binding energy with an equivalent mass of only 2.2 MeV/c2. So… Well… There’s something there.

As said, this post only wanted to introduce some basic ideas. The current model of nuclear physics is represented by the animation below, which I took from the Wikipedia article on it. The U-quantum appears as the pion here – and it does not really turn the proton into a neutron and vice versa. Those particles are assumed to be stable. In contrast, it is the quarks that change color by exchanging gluons between each other. And we know look at the exchange particle – which we refer to as the pion – between the proton and the neutron as consisting of two quarks in its own right: a quark and a anti-quark. So… Yes… All weird. QCD is just a different world. We’ll explore it more in the coming days and/or weeks. 🙂An alternative – and simpler – way of representing this exchange of a virtual particle (a neutral pion in this case) is obtained by drawing a so-called Feynman diagram:OK. That’s it for today. More tomorrow. 🙂