The blackbody radiation problem revisited: quantum statistics

The equipartition theorem – which states that the energy levels of the modes of any (linear) system, in classical as well as in quantum physics, are always equally spaced – is deep and fundamental in physics. In my previous post, I presented this theorem in a very general and non-technical way: I did not use any exponentials, complex numbers or integrals. Just simple arithmetic. Let’s go a little bit beyond now, and use it to analyze that blackbody radiation problem which bothered 19th century physicists, and which led Planck to ‘discover’ quantum physics. [Note that, once again, I won’t use any complex numbers or integrals in this post, so my kids should actually be able to read through it.]

Before we start, let’s quickly introduce the model again. What are we talking about? What’s the black box? The idea is that we add heat to atoms (or molecules) in a gas. The heat results in the atoms acquiring kinetic energy, and the kinetic theory of gases tells us that the mean value of the kinetic energy for each independent direction of motion will be equal to kT/2. The blackbody radiation model analyzes the atoms (or molecules) in a gas as atomic oscillators. Oscillators have both kinetic as well as potential energy and, on average, the kinetic and potential energy is the same. Hence, the energy in the oscillation is twice the kinetic energy, so its average energy is 〈E〉 = 2·kT/2 = kT. However, oscillating atoms implies oscillating electric charges. Now, electric charges going up and down radiate light and, hence, as light is emitted, energy flows away.

How exactly? It doesn’t matter. It is worth noting that 19th century physicists had no idea about the inner structure of an atom. In fact, at that time, the term electron had not yet been invented: the first atomic model involving electrons was the so-called plum pudding model, which J.J. Thompson advanced in 1904, and he called electrons “negative corpuscles“. And the Rutherford-Bohr model, which is the first model one can actually use to explain how and why excited atoms radiate light, came in 1913 only, so that’s long after Planck’s solution for the blackbody radiation problem, which he presented to the scientific community in December 1900. It’s really true: it doesn’t matter. We don’t need to know about the specifics. The general idea is all that matters. As Feynman puts it: it’s how “A hot stove cools on a cold night, by radiating the light into the sky, because the atoms are jiggling their charge and they continually radiate, and slowly, because of this radiation, the jiggling motion slows down.” 🙂

His subsequent description of the black box is equally simple: “If we enclose the whole thing in a box so that the light does not go away to infinity, then we can eventually get thermal equilibrium. We may either put the gas in a box where we can say that there are other radiators in the box walls sending light back or, to take a nicer example, we may suppose the box has mirror walls. It is easier to think about that case. Thus we assume that all the radiation that goes out from the oscillator keeps running around in the box. Then, of course, it is true that the oscillator starts to radiate, but pretty soon it can maintain its kT of energy in spite of the fact that it is radiating, because it is being illuminated, we may say, by its own light reflected from the walls of the box. That is, after a while there is a great deal of light rushing around in the box, and although the oscillator is radiating some, the light comes back and returns some of the energy that was radiated.”

So… That’s the model. Don’t you just love the simplicity of the narrative here? 🙂 Feynman then derives Rayleigh’s Law, which gives us the frequency spectrum of blackbody radiation as predicted by classical theory, i.e. the intensity (I) of the light as a function of (a) its (angular) frequency (ω) and (b) the average energy of the oscillators, which is nothing but the temperature of the gas (Boltzmann’s constant k is just what it is: a proportionality constant which makes the units come out alright). The other stuff in the formula, given hereunder, are just more constants (and, yes, the is the speed of light!). The grand result is:

Rayleigh's law

The formula looks formidable but the function is actually very simple: it’s quadratic in ω and linear in 〈E〉 = kT. The rest is just a bunch of constants which ensure all of the units we use to measures stuff come out alright. As you may suspect, the derivation of the formula is not so simple as the narrative of the black box model, and so I won’t copy it here (you can check yourself). Indeed, let’s focus on the results, not on the technicalities. Let’s have a look at the graph.

Rayleigh's law graph

The I(ω) graphs for T = T0 and T = 2T0 are given by the solid black curves. They tell us how much light we should have at different frequencies. They just go up and up and up, so Rayleigh’s Law implies that, when we open our stove – and, yes, I know, some kids don’t know what a stove is :-/ – and take a look, we should burn our eyes from x-rays. We know that’s not the case, in reality, so our theory must be wrong. An even bigger problem is that the curve implies that the total energy in the box, i.e. the total of all this intensity summed up over all frequencies, is infinite: we’ve got an infinite curve here indeed, and so an infinite area under it. Therefore, as Feynman puts it: “Rayleigh’s Law is fundamentally, powerfully, and absolutely wrong.” The actual graphs, indeed, are the dashed curves. I’ll come back to them.

The blackbody radiation problem is history, of course. So it’s no longer a problem. Let’s see how the equipartition theorem solved it. We assume our oscillators can only take on equally spaced energy levels, with the space between them equal to h·f = ħ·ω. The frequency f (or ω = 2π·f) is the fundamental frequency of our oscillator, and you know and ħ = h/2π, course: Planck’s constant. Hence, the various energy levels are given by the following formula: En = n·ħ·ω = n·h·f. The first five are depicted below.

energy levelsNext to the energy levels, we write the probability of an oscillator occupying that energy level, which is given by Boltzmann’s Law. I wrote about Boltzmann’s Law in another post too, so I won’t repeat myself here, except for noting that Boltzmann’s Law says that the probabilities of different conditions of energy are given by e−energy/kT = 1/eenergy/kT. Different ‘conditions of energy’ can be anything: density, molecular speeds, momenta, whatever. Here we have a probability Pn as a function of the energy En = n·ħ·ω, so we write: Pn = A·e−energy/kT = A·en·ħ·ω/kT. [Note that P0 is equal to A, as a consequence.]

Now, we need to determine how many oscillators we have in each of the various energy states, so that’s N0, N1, N2, etcetera. We’ve done that before: N1/N0 = P1/P0 = (A·e−2ħω/kT)/(A·eħω/kT) = eħω/kT. Hence, N1 = N0·eħω/kT. Likewise, it’s not difficult to see that, N2 = N0·e−2ħω/kT or, more in general, that Nn = N0·e−nħω/kT = N0·[eħω/kT]n. To make the calculations somewhat easier, Feynman temporarily substitutes eħω/kT for x. Hence, we write: N1 = N0·x, N2 = N0·x2,…, Nn = N0·xn, and the total number of oscillators is obviously Ntot = N0+N1+…+Nn+… = N0·(1+x+x2+…+xn+…).

What about their energy? The energy of all oscillators in state 0 is, obviously, zero. The energy of all oscillators in state 1 is N1·ħω = ħω·N0·x. Adding it all up for state 2 yields N2·2·ħω = 2·ħω·N0·x2. More generally, the energy of all oscillators in state n is equal to Nn·n·ħω = n·ħω·N0·xn. So now we can write the total energy of the whole system as Etot = E0+E1+…+En+… = 0+ħω·N0·x+2·ħω·N0·x2+…+n·ħω·N0·xn+… = ħω·N0·(x+2x2+…+nxn+…). The average energy of one oscillator, for the whole system, is therefore:

average energy

Now, Feynman leaves the exercise of simplifying that expression to the reader and just says it’s equal to:


I should try to figure out how he does that. It’s something like Horner’s rule but that’s not easy with infinite polynomials. Or perhaps it’s just some clever way of factoring both polynomials. I didn’t break my head over it but just checked if the result is correct. [I don’t think Feynman would dare to joke here, but one could never be sure with him it seems. :-)] Note he substituted eħω/kT for x, not e+ħω/kT, so there is a minus sign there, which we don’t have in the formula above. Hence, the denominator, eħω/kT–1 = (1/x)–1 = (1–x)/x, and 1/(eħω/kT–1) = x/(1–x). Now, if (x+2x2+…+nxn+…)/(1+x+x2+…+xn+…) = x/(1–x), then (x+2x2+…+nxn+…)·(1–x) must be equal to x·(1+x+x2+…+xn+…). Just write it out: (x+2x2+…+nxn+…)·(1–x) = x+2x2+…+nxn+….−x2−2x3−…−nxn+1+… = x+x2+…+xn+… Likewise, we get x·(1+x+x2+…+xn+…) = x+x2+…+xn+… So, yes, done.

Now comes the Big Trick, the rabbit out of the hat, so to speak. 🙂 We’re going to substitute the classical expression for 〈E〉 (i.e. kT) in Rayleigh’s Law for it’s quantum-mechanical equivalent (i.e. 〈E〉 = ħω/[eħω/kT–1].

What’s the logic behind? Rayleigh’s Law gave the intensity for the various frequencies that are present as a function of (a) the frequency (of course!) and (b) the average energy of the oscillators, which is kT according to classical theory. Now, our assumption that an oscillator cannot take on just any energy value but that the energy levels are equally spaced, combined with Boltzmann’s Law, gives us a very different formula for the average energy: it’s a function of the temperature, but it’s a function of the fundamental frequency too! I copied the graph below from the Wikipedia article on the equipartition theorem. The black line is the classical value for the average energy as a function of the thermal energy. As you can see, it’s one and the same thing, really (look at the scales: they happen to be both logarithmic but that’s just to make them more ‘readable’). Its quantum-mechanical equivalent is the red curve. At higher temperatures, the two agree nearly perfectly, but at low temperatures (with low being defined as the range where kT << ħ·ω, written as h·ν in the graph), the quantum mechanical value decreases much more rapidly. [Note the energy is measured in units equivalent to h·ν: that’s a nice way to sort of ‘normalize’ things so as to compare them.]


So, without further ado, let’s take Rayleigh’s Law again and just substitute kT (i.e. the classical formula for the average energy) for the ‘quantum-mechanical’ formula for 〈E〉, i.e. ħω/[eħω/kT–1]. Adding the dω factor to emphasize we’re talking some continuous distribution here, we get the even grander result (Feynman calls it the first quantum-mechanical formula ever known or discussed):

formula 2So this function is the dashed I(ω) curve (I copied the graph below again): this curve does not ‘blow up’. The math behind the curve is the following: even for large ω, leading that ω3 factor in the numerator to ‘blow up’, we also have Euler’s number being raised to a tremendous power in the denominator. Therefore, the curves come down again, and so we don’t get those incredible amounts of UV light and x-rays.

Rayleigh's law graph

So… That’s how Max Planck solved the problem and how he became the ‘reluctant father of quantum mechanics.’ The formula is not as simple as Rayleigh’s Law (we have a cubic function in the numerator, and an exponential in the denominator), but its advantage is that it’s correct. Indeed, when everything is said and done, indeed, we do want our formulas to describe something real, don’t we? 🙂

Let me conclude by looking at that ‘quantum-mechanical’ formula for the average energy once more:

E〉 = ħω/[eħω/kT–1]

It’s not a distribution function (the formula for I(ω) is the distribution function), but the –1 term in the denominator does tell us already we’re talking Bose-Einstein statistics. In my post on quantum statistics, I compared the three distribution functions. Let ‘s quickly look at them again:

  • Maxwell-Boltzmann (for classical particles): f(E) = 1/[A·eE/kT]
  • Fermi-Dirac (for fermions): f(E) = 1/[AeE/kT + 1]
  • Bose-Einstein (for bosons):  f(E) = 1/[AeE/kT − 1]

So here we simply substitute ħω for E, which makes sense, as the Planck-Einstein relation tells us that the energy of the particles involved is, indeed, equal to E = ħω . Below, you’ll find the graph of these three functions, first as a function of E, so that’s f(E), and then as a function of T, so that’s f(T) (or f(kT) if you want).

graph energy graph temperature

The first graph, for which E is the variable, is the more usual one. As for the interpretation, you can see what’s going on: bosonic particles (or bosons, I should say) will crowd the lower energy levels (the associated probabilities are much higher indeed), while for fermions, it’s the opposite: they don’t want to crowd together and, hence, the associated probabilities are much lower. So fermions will spread themselves over the various energy levels. The distribution for ‘classical’ particles is somewhere in the middle.

In that post of mine, I gave an actual example involving nine particles and the various patterns that are possible, so you can have a look there. Here I just want to note that the math behind is easy to understand when dropping the A (that’s just another normalization constant anyway) and re-writing the formulas as follows:

  • Maxwell-Boltzmann (for classical particles): f(E) = e−E/kT
  • Fermi-Dirac (for fermions): f(E) = e−E/kT/[1+e−E/kT]
  • Bose-Einstein (for bosons):  f(E) = e−E/kT/[1−e−E/kT]

Just use Feynman’s substitution xeħω/kT: the Bose-Einstein distribution then becomes 1/[1/x–1] = 1/[(1–x)/x] = x/(1–x). Now it’s easy to see that the denominator of the formula of both the Fermi-Dirac as well as the Bose-Einstein distribution will approach 1 (i.e. the ‘denominator’ of the Maxwell-Boltzmann formula) if e−E/kT approaches zero, so that’s when E becomes larger and larger. Hence, for higher energy levels, the probability densities of the three functions approach each other indeed, as they should.

Now what’s the second graph about? Here we’re looking at one energy level only, but we let the temperature vary from 0 to infinity. The graph says that, at low temperature, the probabilities will also be more or less the same, and the three distributions only differ at higher temperatures. That makes sense too, of course!

Well… That says it all, I guess. I hope you enjoyed this post. As I’ve sort of concluded Volume I of Feynman’s Lectures with this, I’ll be silent for a while… […] Or so I think. 🙂


Maxwell-Boltzmann, Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac statistics

I’ve discussed statistics, in the context of quantum mechanics, a couple of times already (see, for example, my post on amplitudes and statistics). However, I never took the time to properly explain those distribution functions which are referred to as the Maxwell-Boltzmann, Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac distribution functions respectively. Let me try to do that now—without, hopefully, getting lost in too much math! It should be a nice piece, as it connects quantum mechanics with statistical mechanics, i.e. two topics I had nicely separated so far. 🙂

You know the Boltzmann Law now, which says that the probabilities of different conditions of energy are given by e−energy/kT = 1/eenergy/kT. Different ‘conditions of energy’ can be anything: density, molecular speeds, momenta, whatever. The point is: we have some probability density function f, and it’s a function of the energy E, so we write:

f(E) = C·e−energy/kT = C/eenergy/kT

C is just a normalization constant (all probabilities have to add up to one, so the integral of this function over its domain must be one), and k and T are also usual suspects: T is the (absolute) temperature, and k is the Boltzmann constant, which relates the temperate to the kinetic energy of the particles involved. We also know the shape of this function. For example, when we applied it to the density of the atmosphere at various heights (which are related to the potential energy, as P.E. = m·g·h), assuming constant temperature, we got the following graph. The shape of this graph is that of an exponential decay function (we’ll encounter it again, so just take a mental note of it).


A more interesting application is the quantum-mechanical approach to the theory of gases, which I introduced in my previous post. To explain the behavior of gases under various conditions, we assumed that gas molecules are like oscillators but that they can only take on discrete levels of energy. [That’s what quantum theory is about!] We denoted the various energy levels, i.e. the energies of the various molecular states, by E0, E1, E2,…, Ei,…, and if Boltzmann’s Law applies, then the probability of finding a molecule in the particular state Ei is proportional to e−Ei /kT. We can then calculate the relative probabilities, i.e. the probability of being in state Ei, relative to the probability of being in state E0, is:

Pi/P0 = e−Ei /kT/e−E0 /kT = e−(Ei–E0)/kT = 1/e(Ei–E0)/kT

Now, Pi obviously equals ni/N, so it is the ratio of the number of molecules in state Ei (ni) and the total number of molecules (N). Likewise, P0 = n0/N and, therefore, we can write:

ni/ne−(Ei−E0)/kT = 1/e(Ei–E0)/kT

This formulation is just another Boltzmann Law, but it’s nice in that it introduces the idea of a ground state, i.e. the state with the lowest energy level. We may or may not want to equate E0 with zero. It doesn’t matter really: we can always shift all energies by some arbitrary constant because we get to choose the reference point for the potential energy.

So that’s the so-called Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. Now, in my post on amplitudes and statistics, I had jotted down the formulas for the other distributions, i.e. the distributions when we’re not talking classical particles but fermions and/or bosons. As you know, fermions are particles governed by the Fermi exclusion principle: indistinguishable particles cannot be together in the same state. For bosons, it’s the other way around: having one in some quantum state actually increases the chance of finding another one there, and we can actually have an infinite number of them in the same state.

We also know that fermions and bosons are the real world: fermions are the matter-particles, bosons are the force-carriers, and our ‘Boltzmann particles’ are nothing but a classical approximation of the real world. Hence, even if we can’t see them in the actual world, the Fermi-Dirac and Bose-Einstein distributions are the real-world distributions. 🙂 Let me jot down the equations once again:

Fermi-Dirac (for fermions): f(E) = 1/[Ae(E − EF)/kT + 1]

Bose-Einstein (for bosons):  f(E) = 1/[AeE/kT − 1]

We’ve got some other normalization constant here (A), which we shouldn’t be too worried about—for the time being, that is. Now, to see how these distributions are different from the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution (which we should re-write as f(E) = C·e−E/kT = 1/[A·eE/kT] so as to make all formulas directly comparable), we should just make a graph. Please go online to find a graph tool (I found a new one recently—really easy to use), and just do it. You’ll see they are all like that exponential decay function. However, in order to make a proper comparison, we would actually need to calculate the normalization coefficients and, for the Fermi energy, we would also need the Fermi energy E(note that, for simplicity, we did equate E0 with zero). Now, we could give it a try, but it’s much easier to google and find an example online.

The HyperPhysics website of Georgia State University gives us one: the example assumes 6 particles and 9 energy levels, and the table and graph below compare the Maxwell-Boltzmann and Bose-Einstein distributions for the model.

Graph Table

Now that is an interesting example, isn’t it? In this example (but all depends on its assumptions, of course), the Maxwell-Boltzmann and Bose-Einstein distributions are almost identical. Having said that, we can clearly see that the lower energy states are, indeed, more probable with Bose-Einstein statistics than with the Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics. While the difference is not dramatic at all in this example, the difference does become very dramatic, in reality, with large numbers (i.e. high matter density) and, more importantly, at very low temperatures, at which bosons can condense into the lowest energy state. This phenomenon is referred to as Bose-Einstein condensation: it causes superfluidity and superconductivity, and it’s real indeed: it has been observed with supercooled He-4, which is not an everyday substance, but real nevertheless!

What about the Fermi-Dirac distribution for this example? The Fermi-Dirac distribution is given below: the lowest energy state is now less probable, the mid-range energies much more, and none of the six particles occupy any of the four highest energy levels. Again, while the difference is not dramatic in this example, it can become very dramatic, in reality, with large numbers (read: high matter density) and very low temperatures: at absolute zero, all of the possible energy states up to the Fermi energy level will be occupied, and all the levels above the Fermi energy will be vacant.

graph 2 Table 2

What can we make out of all of this? First, you may wonder why we actually have more than one particle in one state above: doesn’t that contradict the Fermi exclusion principle? No. We need to distinguish micro- and macro-states. In fact, the example assumes we’re talking electrons here, and so we can have two particles in each energy state—with opposite spin, however. At the same time, it’s true we cannot have three, or more, in any state. That results, in the example we’re looking at here, in five possible distributions only, as shown below.

Table 3

The diagram is an interesting one: if the particles were to be classical particles, or bosons, then 26 combinations are possible, including the five Fermi-Dirac combinations, as shown above. Note the little numbers above the 26 possible combinations (e.g. 6, 20, 30,… 180): they are proportional to the likelihood of occurring under the Maxwell-Boltzmann assumption (so if we assume the particles are ‘classical’ particles). Let me introduce you to the math behind the example by using the diagram below, which shows three possible distributions/combinations (I know the terminology is quite confusing—sorry for that!).

table 4

If we could distinguish the particles, then we’d have 2002 micro-states, which is the total of all those little numbers on top of the combinations that are shown (6+60+180+…). However, the assumption is that we cannot distinguish the particles. Therefore, the first combination in the diagram above, with five particles in the zero energy state and one particle in state 9, occurs 6 times into 2002 and, hence, it has a probability of 6/2002 ≈ 0.003 only. In contrast, the second combination is 10 times more likely, and the third one is 30 times more likely! In any case, the point is, in the classical situation (and in the Bose-Einstein hypothesis as well), we have 26 possible macro-states, as opposed to 5 only for fermions, and so that leads to a very different density function. Capito?

No? Well, this blog is not a textbook on physics and, therefore, I should refer you to the mentioned site once again, which references a 1992 textbook on physics (Frank Blatt, Modern Physics, 1992) as the source of this example. However, I won’t do that: you’ll find the details in the Post Scriptum to this post. 🙂

Let’s first focus on the fundamental stuff, however. The most burning question is: if the real world consists of fermions and bosons, why is that that we only see the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution in our actual (non-real?) world? 🙂 The answer is that both the Fermi-Dirac and Bose-Einstein distribution approach the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution if higher temperatures and lower particle densities are involved. In other words, we cannot see the Fermi-Dirac distributions (all matter is fermionic, except for weird stuff like superfluid helium-4 at 1 or 2 degrees Kelvin), but they are there!

Let’s approach it mathematically: the most general formula, encompassing both Fermi-Dirac and Bose-Einstein statistics, is:

Ni(Ei) ∝ 1/[e(Ei − μ)/kT ± 1]

If you’d google, you’d find a formula involving an additional coefficient, gi, which is the so-called degeneracy of the energy level Ei. I included it in the formula I used in the above-mentioned post of mine. However, I don’t want to make it any more complicated than it already is and, therefore, I omitted it this time. What you need to look at are the two terms in the denominator: e(Ei − μ)/kT and ± 1.

From a math point of view, it is obvious that the values of e(Ei − μ)/kT + 1 (Fermi-Dirac) and e(Ei − μ)/kT − 1 (Bose-Einstein) will approach each other if e(Ei − μ)/kT is much larger than ±1, so if e(Ei − μ)/kT >> 1. That’s the case, obviously, if the (Ei − μ)/kT ratio is large, so if (Ei − μ) >> kT. In fact, (Ei − μ) should, obviously, be much larger than kT for the lowest energy levels too! Now, the conditions under which that is the case are associated with the classical situation (such as a cylinder filled with gas, for example). Why?

Well… […] Again, I have to say that this blog can’t substitute for a proper textbook. Hence, I am afraid I have to leave it to you to do the necessary research to see why. 🙂 The non-mathematical approach is to simple note that quantum effects, i.e. the ±1 term, only apply if the concentration of particles is high enough. Indeed, quantum effects appear if the concentration of particles is higher than the so-called quantum concentration. Only when the quantum concentration is reached, particles will start interacting according to what they are, i.e. as bosons or as fermions. At higher temperature, that concentration will not be reached, except in massive objects such as a white dwarf (white dwarfs are stellar remnants with the mass like that of the Sun but a volume like that of the Earth). So, in general, we can say that at higher temperatures and at low concentration we will not have any quantum effects. That should settle the matter—as for now, at least.

You’ll have one last question: we derived Boltzmann’s Law from the kinetic theory of gases, but how do we derive that Ni(Ei) = 1/[Ae(Ei − μ)/kT ± 1] expression? Good question but, again, we’d need more than a few pages to explain that! The answer is: quantum mechanics, of course! Go check it out in Feynman’s third Volume of Lectures! 🙂

Post scriptum: combinations, permutations and multiplicity

The mentioned example from HyperPhysics is really interesting, if only because it shows you also need to master a bit of combinatorics to get into quantum mechanics. Let’s go through the basics. If we have n distinct objects, we can order hem in n! ways, with n! (read: n factorial) equal to n·(n–1)·(n–2)·…·3·2·1. Note that 0! is equal to 1, per definition. We’ll need that definition.

For example, a red, blue and green ball can be ordered in 3·2·1 = 6 ways. Each way is referred to as a permutation.

Besides permutations, we also have the concept of a k-permutation, which we can denote in a number of ways but let’s choose P(n, k). [The P stands for permutation here, not for probability.] P(n, k) is the number of ways to pick k objects out of a set of n objects. Again, the objects are supposed to be distinguishable. The formula is P(n, k) = n·(n–1)·(n–2)·…·(n–k+1) = n!/(n–k)!. That’s easy to understand intuitively: on your first pick you have n choices; on your second, n–1; on your third, n–2, etcetera. When n = k, we obviously get n! again.

There is a third concept: the k-combination (as opposed to the k-permutation), which we’ll denote by C(n, k). That’s when the order within our subset doesn’t matter: an ace, a queen and a jack taken out of some card deck are a queen, a jack, and an ace: we don’t care about the order. If we have k objects, there are k! ways of ordering them and, hence, we just have to divide P(n, k) by k! to get C(n, k). So we write: C(n, k) = P(n, k)/k! = n!/[(n–k)!k!]. You recognize C(n, k): it’s the binomial coeficient.

Now, the HyperPhysics example illustrating the three mentioned distributions (Maxwell-Boltzmann, Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac) is a bit more complicated: we need to associate q energy levels with N particles. Every possible configuration is referred to as a micro-state, and the total number of possible micro-states is referred to as the multiplicity of the system, denoted by Ω(N, q). The formula for Ω(N, q) is another binomial coefficient: Ω(N, q) = (q+N–1)!/[q!(N–1)!]. Ω(N, q) = Ω(6, 9) = (9+6–1)!/[9!(6–1)!] = 2002.

In our example, however, we do not have distinct particles and, therefore, we only have 26 macro-states (as opposed to 2002 micro-states), which are also referred to, confusingly, as distributions or combinations.

Now, the number of micro-states associated with the same macro-state is given by yet another formula: it is equal to N!/[n1!·n2!·n3!·…·nq!], with ni! the number of particles in level i. [See why we need the 0! = 1 definition? It ensures unoccupied states do not affect the calculation.] So that’s how we get those numbers 6, 60 and 180 for those three macro-states.

But how do we calculate those average numbers of particles for each energy level? In other words, how do we calculate the probability densities under the Maxwell-Boltzmann, Fermi-Dirac and Bose-Einstein hypothesis respectively?

For the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, we proceed as follows: for each energy level j (or Ej, I should say), we calculate n= ∑nij·Pi over all macro-states i. In this summation, we have nij, which is the number of particles in energy level j in micro-state i, while Pi is the probability of macro-state i as calculated by the ratio of (i) the number of micro-states associated with macro-state i and (ii) the total number of micro-states. For Pi, we gave the example of 3/2002 ≈ 0.3%. For 60 and 180, we get 60/2002 ≈ 3% and 180/2002 ≈ 9%. Calculating all the nj‘s for j ranging from 1 to 9 should yield the numbers and the graph below indeed.

M-B graphOK. That’s how it works for Maxwell-Boltzmann. Now, it is obvious that the Fermi-Dirac and the Bose-Einstein distribution should not be calculated in the same way because, if they were, they would not be different from the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution! The trick is as follows.

For the Bose-Einstein distribution, we give all macro-states equal weight—so that’s a weight of one, as shown below. Hence, the probability Pi  is, quite simply, 1/26 ≈ 3.85% for all 26 macro-states. So we use the same n= ∑nij·Pformula but with Pi = 1/26.


Finally, I already explained how we get the Fermi-Dirac distribution: we can only have (i) one, (ii) two, or (iii) zero fermions for each energy level—not more than two! Hence, out of the 26 macro-states, only five are actually possible under the Fermi-Dirac hypothesis, as illustrated below once more. So it’s a very different distribution indeed!

Table 3

Now, you’ll probably still have questions. For example, why does the assumption, for the Bose-Einstein analysis, that macro-states have equal probability favor the lower energy states? The answer is that the model also integrates other constraints: first, when associating a particle with an energy level, we do not favor one energy level over another, so all energy levels have equal probability. However, at the same time, the whole system has some fixed energy level, and so we cannot put the particles in the higher energy levels only! At the same time, we know that, if we have q particles, and the probability of a particle having some energy level j is the same for all j, then they are likely not to be all at the same energy level: they’ll be distributed, effectively, as evidenced by the very low chance (0.3% only) of having 5 particles in the ground state and 1 particle at a higher level, as opposed to the 3% and 9% chance of the other two combinations shown in that diagram with three possible Maxwell-Boltzmann (MB) combinations.

So what happens when assigning an equal probability to all 26 possible combinations (with value 1/26) is that the combinations that were previously rather unlikely – because they did have a rather heavy concentration of particles in the ground state only – are now much more likely. So that’s why the Bose-Einstein distribution, in this example at least, is skewed towards the lowest energy level—as compared to the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, that is.

So that’s what’s behind, and that should also answer the other question you surely have when looking at those five acceptable Fermi-Dirac configurations: why don’t we have the same five configurations starting from the top down, rather than from the bottom up? Now you know: such configuration would have much higher energy overall, and so that’s not allowed under this particular model.

There’s also this other question: we said the particles were indistinguishable, but so then we suddenly say there can be two at any energy level, because their spin is opposite. It’s obvious this is rather ad hoc as well. However, if we’d allow only one particle at any energy level, we’d have no allowable combinations and, hence, we’d have no Fermi-Dirac distribution at all in this example.

In short, the example is rather intuitive, which is actually why I like it so much: it shows how bosonic and fermionic behavior appear rather gradually, as a consequence of variables that are defined at the system level, such as density, or temperature. So, yes, you’re right if you think the HyperPhysics example lacks rigor. That’s why I think it’s such wonderful pedagogic device. 🙂

The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (II)

If we limit our attention to the interaction between light and matter (i.e. the behavior of photons and electrons only—so we we’re not talking quarks and gluons here), then the ‘crazy ideas’ of quantum mechanics can be summarized as follows:

  1. At the atomic or sub-atomic scale, we can no longer look at light as an electromagnetic wave. It consists of photons, and photons come in blobs. Hence, to some extent, photons are ‘particle-like’.
  2. At the atomic or sub-atomic scale, electrons don’t behave like particles. For example, if we send them through a slit that’s small enough, we’ll observe a diffraction pattern. Hence, to some extent, electrons are ‘wave-like’.

In short, photons aren’t waves, but they aren’t particles either. Likewise, electrons aren’t particles, but they aren’t waves either. They are neither. The weirdest thing of all, perhaps, is that, while light and matter are two very different things in our daily experience – light and matter are opposite concepts, I’d say, just like particles and waves are opposite concepts) – they look pretty much the same in quantum physics: they are both represented by a wavefunction.

Let me immediately make a little note on terminology here. The term ‘wavefunction’ is a bit ambiguous, in my view, because it makes one think of a real wave, like a water wave, or an electromagnetic wave. Real waves are described by real-valued wave functions describing, for example, the motion of a ball on a spring, or the displacement of a gas (e.g. air) as a sound wave propagates through it, or – in the case of an electromagnetic wave – the strength of the electric and magnetic field.

You may have questions about the ‘reality’ of fields, but electromagnetic waves – i.e. the classical description of light – are quite ‘real’ too, even if:

  1. Light doesn’t travel in a medium (like water or air: there is no aether), and
  2. The magnitude of the electric and magnetic field (they are usually denoted by E and B) depend on your reference frame: if you calculate the fields using a moving coordinate system, you will get a different mixture of E and B. Therefore, E and B may not feel very ‘real’ when you look at them separately, but they are very real when we think of them as representing one physical phenomenon: the electromagnetic interaction between particles. So the E and B mix is, indeed, a dual representation of one reality. I won’t dwell on that, as I’ve done that in another post of mine.

How ‘real’ is the quantum-mechanical wavefunction?

The quantum-mechanical wavefunction is not like any of these real waves. In fact, I’d rather use the term ‘probability wave’ but, apparently, that’s used only by bloggers like me 🙂 and so it’s not very scientific. That’s for a good reason, because it’s not quite accurate either: the wavefunction in quantum mechanics represents probability amplitudes, not probabilities. So we should, perhaps, be consistent and term it a ‘probability amplitude wave’ – but then that’s too cumbersome obviously, so the term ‘probability wave’ may be confusing, but it’s not so bad, I think.

Amplitudes and probabilities are related as follows:

  1. Probabilities are real numbers between 0 and 1: they represent the probability of something happening, e.g. a photon moves from point A to B, or a photon is absorbed (and emitted) by an electron (i.e. a ‘junction’ or ‘coupling’, as you know).
  2. Amplitudes are complex numbers, or ‘arrows’ as Feynman calls them: they have a length (or magnitude) and a direction.
  3. We get the probabilities by taking the (absolute) square of the amplitudes.

So photons aren’t waves, but they aren’t particles either. Likewise, electrons aren’t particles, but they aren’t waves either. They are neither. So what are they? We don’t have words to describe what they are. Some use the term ‘wavicle’ but that doesn’t answer the question, because who knows what a ‘wavicle’ is? So we don’t know what they are. But we do know how they behave. As Feynman puts it, when comparing the behavior of light and then of electrons in the double-slit experiment—struggling to find language to describe what’s going on: “There is one lucky break: electrons behave just like light.”

He says so because of that wave function: the mathematical formalism is the same, for photons and for electrons. Exactly the same? […] But that’s such a weird thing to say, isn’t it? We can’t help thinking of light as waves, and of electrons as particles. They can’t be the same. They’re different, aren’t they? They are.

Scales and senses

To some extent, the weirdness can be explained because the scale of our world is not atomic or sub-atomic. Therefore, we ‘see’ things differently. Let me say a few words about the instrument we use to look at the world: our eye.

Our eye is particular. The retina has two types of receptors: the so-called cones are used in bright light, and distinguish color, but when we are in a dark room, the so-called rods become sensitive, and it is believed that they actually can detect a single photon of light. However, neural filters only allow a signal to pass to the brain when at least five photons arrive within less than a tenth of a second. A tenth of a second is, roughly, the averaging time of our eye. So, as Feynman puts it: “If we were evolved a little further so we could see ten times more sensitively, we wouldn’t have this discussion—we would all have seen very dim light of one color as a series of intermittent little flashes of equal intensity.” In other words, the ‘particle-like’ character of light would have been obvious to us.

Let me make a few more remarks here, which you may or may not find useful. The sense of ‘color’ is not something ‘out there’:  colors, like red or brown, are experiences in our eye and our brain. There are ‘pigments’ in the cones (cones are the receptors that work only if the intensity of the light is high enough) and these pigments absorb the light spectrum somewhat differently, as a result of which we ‘see’ color. Different animals see different things. For example, a bee can distinguish between white paper using zinc white versus lead white, because they reflect light differently in the ultraviolet spectrum, which the bee can see but we don’t. Bees can also tell the direction of the sun without seeing the sun itself, because they are sensitive to polarized light, and the scattered light of the sky (i.e. the blue sky as we see it) is polarized. The bee can also notice flicker up to 200 oscillations per second, while we see it only up to 20, because our averaging time is like a tenth of a second, which is short for us, but so the averaging time of the bee is much shorter. So we cannot see the quick leg movements and/or wing vibrations of bees, but the bee can!

Sometimes we can’t see any color. For example, we see the night sky in ‘black and white’ because the light intensity is very low, and so it’s our rods, not the cones, that process the signal, and so these rods can’t ‘see’ color. So those beautiful color pictures of nebulae are not artificial (although the pictures are often enhanced). It’s just that the camera that is used to take those pictures (film or, nowadays, digital) is much more sensitive than our eye. 

Regardless, color is a quality which we add to our experience of the outside world ourselves. What’s out there are electromagnetic waves with this or that wavelength (or, what amounts to the same, this or that frequency). So when critics of the exact sciences say so much is lost when looking at (visible) light as an electromagnetic wave in the range of 430 to 790 teraherz, they’re wrong. Those critics will say that physics reduces reality. That is not the case.

What’s going on is that our senses process the signal that they are receiving, especially when it comes to vision. As Feynman puts it: “None of the other senses involves such a large amount of calculation, so to speak, before the signal gets into a nerve that one can make measurements on. The calculations for all the rest of the senses usually happen in the brain itself, where it is very difficult to get at specific places to make measurements, because there are so many interconnections. Here, with the visual sense, we have the light, three layers of cells making calculations, and the results of the calculations being transmitted through the optic nerve.”

Hence, things like color and all of the other sensations that we have are the object of study of other sciences, including biochemistry and neurobiology, or physiology. For all we know, what’s ‘out there’ is, effectively, just ‘boring’ stuff, like electromagnetic radiation, energy and ‘elementary particles’—whatever they are. No colors. Just frequencies. 🙂

Light versus matter

If we accept the crazy ideas of quantum mechanics, then the what and the how become one and the same. Hence we can say that photons and electrons are a wavefunction somewhere in space. Photons, of course, are always traveling, because they have energy but no rest mass. Hence, all their energy is in the movement: it’s kinetic, not potential. Electrons, on the other hand, usually stick around some nucleus. And, let’s not forget, they have an electric charge, so their energy is not only kinetic but also potential.

But, otherwise, it’s the same type of ‘thing’ in quantum mechanics: a wavefunction, like those below.


Why diagram A and B? It’s just to emphasize the difference between a real-valued wave function and those ‘probability waves’ we’re looking at here (diagram C to H). A and B represent a mass on a spring, oscillating at more or less the same frequency but a different amplitude. The amplitude here means the displacement of the mass. The function describing the displacement of a mass on a spring (so that’s diagram A and B) is an example of a real-valued wave function: it’s a simple sine or cosine function, as depicted below. [Note that a sine and a cosine are the same function really, except for a phase difference of 90°.]

cos and sine

Let’s now go back to our ‘probability waves’. Photons and electrons, light and matter… The same wavefunction? Really? How can the sunlight that warms us up in the morning and makes trees grow be the same as our body, or the tree? The light-matter duality that we experience must be rooted in very different realities, isn’t it?

Well… Yes and no. If we’re looking at one photon or one electron only, it’s the same type of wavefunction indeed. The same type… OK, you’ll say. So they are the same family or genus perhaps, as they say in biology. Indeed, both of them are, obviously, being referred to as ‘elementary particles’ in the so-called Standard Model of physics. But so what makes an electron and a photon specific as a species? What are the differences?

There’re  quite a few, obviously:

1. First, as mentioned above, a photon is a traveling wave function and, because it has no rest mass, it travels at the ultimate speed, i.e. the speed of light (c). An electron usually sticks around or, if it travels through a wire, it travels at very low speeds. Indeed, you may find it hard to believe, but the drift velocity of the free electrons in a standard copper wire is measured in cm per hour, so that’s very slow indeed—and while the electrons in an electron microscope beam may be accelerated up to 70% of the speed of light, and close to in those huge accelerators, you’re not likely to find an electron microscope or accelerator in Nature. In fact, you may want to remember that a simple thing like electricity going through copper wires in our houses is a relatively modern invention. 🙂

So, yes, those oscillating wave functions in those diagrams above are likely to represent some electron, rather than a photon. To be precise, the wave functions above are examples of standing (or stationary) waves, while a photon is a traveling wave: just extend that sine and cosine function in both directions if you’d want to visualize it or, even better, think of a sine and cosine function in an envelope traveling through space, such as the one depicted below.

Photon wave

Indeed, while the wave function of our photon is traveling through space, it is likely to be limited in space because, when everything is said and done, our photon is not everywhere: it must be somewhere. 

At this point, it’s good to pause and think about what is traveling through space. It’s the oscillation. But what’s the oscillation? There is no medium here, and even if there would be some medium (like water or air or something like aether—which, let me remind you, isn’t there!), the medium itself would not be moving, or – I should be precise here – it would only move up and down as the wave propagates through space, as illustrated below. To be fully complete, I should add we also have longitudinal waves, like sound waves (pressure waves): in that case, the particles oscillate back and forth along the direction of wave propagation. But you get the point: the medium does not travel with the wave.


When talking electromagnetic waves, we have no medium. These E and B vectors oscillate but is very wrong to assume they use ‘some core of nearby space’, as Feynman puts it. They don’t. Those field vectors represent a condition at one specific point (admittedly, a point along the direction of travel) in space but, for all we know, an electromagnetic wave travels in a straight line and, hence, we can’t talk about its diameter or so.

Still, as mentioned above, we can imagine, more or less, what E and B stand for (we can use field line to visualize them, for instance), even if we have to take into account their relativity (calculating their values from a moving reference frame results in different mixtures of E and B). But what are those amplitudes? How should we visualize them?

The honest answer is: we can’t. They are what they are: two mathematical quantities which, taken together, form a two-dimensional vector, which we square to find a value for a real-life probability, which is something that – unlike the amplitude concept – does make sense to us. Still, that representation of a photon above (i.e. the traveling envelope with a sine and cosine inside) may help us to ‘understand’ it somehow. Again, you absolute have to get rid of the idea that these ‘oscillations’ would somehow occupy some physical space. They don’t. The wave itself has some definite length, for sure, but that’s a measurement in the direction of travel, which is often denoted as x when discussing uncertainty in its position, for example—as in the famous Uncertainty Principle (ΔxΔp > h).

You’ll say: Oh!—but then, at the very least, we can talk about the ‘length’ of a photon, can’t we? So then a photon is one-dimensional at least, not zero-dimensional! The answer is yes and no. I’ve talked about this before and so I’ll be short(er) on it now. A photon is emitted by an atom when an electron jumps from one energy level to another. It thereby emits a wave train that lasts about 10–8 seconds. That’s not very long but, taking into account the rather spectacular speed of light (3×10m/s), that still makes for a wave train with a length of not less than 3 meter. […] That’s quite a length, you’ll say. You’re right. But you forget that light travels at the speed of light and, hence, we will see this length as zero because of the relativistic length contraction effect. So… Well… Let me get back to the question: if photons and electrons are both represented by a wavefunction, what makes them different?

2. A more fundamental difference between photons and electrons is how they interact with each other.

From what I’ve written above, you understand that probability amplitudes are complex numbers, or ‘arrows’, or ‘two-dimensional vectors’. [Note that all of these terms have precise mathematical definitions and so they’re actually not the same, but the difference is too subtle to matter here.] Now, there are two ways of combining amplitudes, which are referred to as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ interference respectively. I should immediately note that there’s actually nothing ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ about the interaction: we’re just putting two arrows together, and there are two ways to do that. That’s all.

The diagrams below show you these two ways. You’ll say: there are four! However, remember that we square an arrow to get a probability. Hence, the direction of the final arrow doesn’t matter when we’re taking the square: we get the same probability. It’s the direction of the individual amplitudes that matters when combining them. So the square of A+B is the same as the square of –(A+B) = –A+(–B) = –AB. Likewise, the square of AB is the same as the square of –(AB) = –A+B.

vector addition

These are the only two logical possibilities for combining arrows. I’ve written ad nauseam about this elsewhere: see my post on amplitudes and statistics, and so I won’t go into too much detail here. Or, in case you’d want something less than a full mathematical treatment, I can refer you to my previous post also, where I talked about the ‘stopwatch’ and the ‘phase’: the convention for the stopwatch is to have its hand turn clockwise (obviously!) while, in quantum physics, the phase of a wave function will turn counterclockwise. But so that’s just convention and it doesn’t matter, because it’s the phase difference between two amplitudes that counts. To use plain language: it’s the difference in the angles of the arrows, and so that difference is just the same if we reverse the direction of both arrows (which is equivalent to putting a minus sign in front of the final arrow).

OK. Let me get back to the lesson. The point is: this logical or mathematical dichotomy distinguishes bosons (i.e. force-carrying ‘particles’, like photons, which carry the electromagnetic force) from fermions (i.e. ‘matter-particles’, such as electrons and quarks, which make up protons and neutrons). Indeed, the so-called ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ interference leads to two very different behaviors:

  1. The probability of getting a boson where there are already present, is n+1 times stronger than it would be if there were none before.
  2. In contrast, the probability of getting two electrons into exactly the same state is zero. 

The behavior of photons makes lasers possible: we can pile zillions of photon on top of each other, and then release all of them in one powerful burst. [The ‘flickering’ of a laser beam is due to the quick succession of such light bursts. If you want to know how it works in detail, check my post on lasers.]

The behavior of electrons is referred to as Fermi’s exclusion principle: it is only because real-life electrons can have one of two spin polarizations (i.e. two opposite directions of angular momentum, which are referred to as ‘up’ or ‘down’, but they might as well have been referred to as ‘left’ or ‘right’) that we find two electrons (instead of just one) in any atomic or molecular orbital.

So, yes, while both photons and electrons can be described by a similar-looking wave function, their behavior is fundamentally different indeed. How is that possible? Adding and subtracting ‘arrows’ is a very similar operation, isn’it?

It is and it isn’t. From a mathematical point of view, I’d say: yes. From a physics point of view, it’s obviously not very ‘similar’, as it does lead to these two very different behaviors: the behavior of photons allows for laser shows, while the behavior of electrons explain (almost) all the peculiarities of the material world, including us walking into doors. 🙂 If you want to check it out for yourself, just check Feynman’s Lectures for more details on this or, else, re-read my posts on it indeed.

3. Of course, there are even more differences between photons and electrons than the two key differences I mentioned above. Indeed, I’ve simplified a lot when I wrote what I wrote above. The wavefunctions of electrons in orbit around a nucleus can take very weird shapes, as shown in the illustration below—and please do google a few others if you’re not convinced. As mentioned above, they’re so-called standing waves, because they occupy a well-defined position in space only, but standing waves can look very weird. In contrast, traveling plane waves, or envelope curves like the one above, are much simpler.


In short: yes, the mathematical representation of photons and electrons (i.e. the wavefunction) is very similar, but photons and electrons are very different animals indeed.

Potentiality and interconnectedness

I guess that, by now, you agree that quantum theory is weird but, as you know, quantum theory does explain all of the stuff that couldn’t be explained before: “It works like a charm”, as Feynman puts it. In fact, he’s often quoted as having said the following:

“It is often stated that of all the theories proposed in this century, the silliest is quantum theory. Some say the the only thing that quantum theory has going for it, in fact, is that it is unquestionably correct.”

Silly? Crazy? Uncommon-sensy? Truth be told, you do get used to thinking in terms of amplitudes after a while. And, when you get used to them, those ‘complex’ numbers are no longer complicated. 🙂 Most importantly, when one thinks long and hard enough about it (as I am trying to do), it somehow all starts making sense.

For example, we’ve done away with dualism by adopting a unified mathematical framework, but the distinction between bosons and fermions still stands: an ‘elementary particle’ is either this or that. There are no ‘split personalities’ here. So the dualism just pops up at a different level of description, I’d say. In fact, I’d go one step further and say it pops up at a deeper level of understanding.

But what about the other assumptions in quantum mechanics. Some of them don’t make sense, do they? Well… I struggle for quite a while with the assumption that, in quantum mechanics, anything is possible really. For example, a photon (or an electron) can take any path in space, and it can travel at any speed (including speeds that are lower or higher than light). The probability may be extremely low, but it’s possible.

Now that is a very weird assumption. Why? Well… Think about it. If you enjoy watching soccer, you’ll agree that flying objects (I am talking about the soccer ball here) can have amazing trajectories. Spin, lift, drag, whatever—the result is a weird trajectory, like the one below:


But, frankly, a photon taking the ‘southern’ route in the illustration below? What are the ‘wheels and gears’ there? There’s nothing sensible about that route, is there?


In fact, there’s at least three issues here:

  1. First, you should note that strange curved paths in the real world (such as the trajectories of billiard or soccer balls) are possible only because there’s friction involved—between the felt of the pool table cloth and the ball, or between the balls, or, in the case of soccer, between the ball and the air. There’s no friction in the vacuum. Hence, in empty space, all things should go in a straight line only.
  2. While it’s quite amazing what’s possible, in the real world that is, in terms of ‘weird trajectories’, even the weirdest trajectories of a billiard or soccer ball can be described by a ‘nice’ mathematical function. We obviously can’t say the same of that ‘southern route’ which a photon could follow, in theory that is. Indeed, you’ll agree the function describing that trajectory cannot be ‘nice’. So even we’d allow all kinds of ‘weird’ trajectories, shouldn’t we limit ourselves to ‘nice’ trajectories only? I mean: it doesn’t make sense to allow the photons traveling from your computer screen to your retina take some trajectory to the Sun and back, does it?
  3. Finally, and most fundamentally perhaps, even when we would assume that there’s some mechanism combining (a) internal ‘wheels and gears’ (such as spin or angular momentum) with (b) felt or air or whatever medium to push against, what would be the mechanism determining the choice of the photon in regard to these various paths? In Feynman’s words: How does the photon ‘make up its mind’?

Feynman answers these questions, fully or partially (I’ll let you judge), when discussing the double-slit experiment with photons:

“Saying that a photon goes this or that way is false. I still catch myself saying, “Well, it goes either this way or that way,” but when I say that, I have to keep in mind that I mean in the sense of adding amplitudes: the photon has an amplitude to go one way, and an amplitude to go the other way. If the amplitudes oppose each other, the light won’t get there—even though both holes are open.”

It’s probably worth re-calling the results of that experiment here—if only to help you judge whether or not Feynman fully answer those questions above!

The set-up is shown below. We have a source S, two slits (A and B), and a detector D. The source sends photons out, one by one. In addition, we have two special detectors near the slits, which may or may not detect a photon, depending on whether or not they’re switched on as well as on their accuracy.

set-up photons

First, we close one of the slits, and we find that 1% of the photons goes through the other (so that’s one photon for every 100 photons that leave S). Now, we open both slits to study interference. You know the results already:

  1. If we switch the detectors off (so we have no way of knowing where the photon went), we get interference. The interference pattern depends on the distance between A and B and varies from 0% to 4%, as shown in diagram (a) below. That’s pretty standard. As you know, classical theory can explain that too assuming light is an electromagnetic wave. But so we have blobs of energy – photons – traveling one by one. So it’s really that double-slit experiment with electrons, or whatever other microscopic particles (as you know, they’ve done these interference electrons with large molecules as well—and they get the same result!). We get the interference pattern by using those quantum-mechanical rules to calculate probabilities: we first add the amplitudes, and it’s only when we’re finished adding those amplitudes, that we square the resulting arrow to the final probability.
  2. If we switch those special detectors on, and if they are 100% reliable (i.e. all photons going through are being detected), then our photon suddenly behaves like a particle, instead of as a wave: they will go through one of the slits only, i.e. either through A, or, alternatively, through B. So the two special detectors never go off together. Hence, as Feynman puts it: we shouldn’t think there is “sneaky way that the photon divides in two and then comes back together again.” It’s one or the other way and, and there’s no interference: the detector at D goes off 2% of the time, which is the simple sum of the probabilities for A and B (i.e. 1% + 1%).
  3. When the special detectors near A and B are not 100% reliable (and, hence, do not detect all photons going through), we have three possible final conditions: (i) A and D go off, (ii) B and D go off, and (iii) D goes off alone (none of the special detectors went off). In that case, we have a final curve that’s a mixture, as shown in diagram (c) and (d) below. We get it using the same quantum-mechanical rules: we add amplitudes first, and then we square to get the probabilities.

double-slit photons - results

Now, I think you’ll agree with me that Feynman doesn’t answer my (our) question in regard to the ‘weird paths’. In fact, all of the diagrams he uses assume straight or nearby paths. Let me re-insert two of those diagrams below, to show you what I mean.

 Many arrowsFew arrows

So where are all the strange non-linear paths here? Let me, in order to make sure you get what I am saying here, insert that illustration with the three crazy routes once again. What we’ve got above (Figure 33 and 34) is not like that. Not at all: we’ve got only straight lines there! Why? The answer to that question is easy: the crazy paths don’t matter because their amplitudes cancel each other out, and so that allows Feynman to simplify the whole situation and show all the relevant paths as straight lines only.


Now, I struggled with that for quite a while. Not because I can’t see the math or the geometry involved. No. Feynman does a great job showing why those amplitudes cancel each other out indeed (if you want a summary, see my previous post once again).  My ‘problem’ is something else. It’s hard to phrase it, but let me try: why would we even allow for the logical or mathematical possibility of ‘weird paths’ (and let me again insert that stupid diagram below) if our ‘set of rules’ ensures that the truly ‘weird’ paths (like that photon traveling from your computer screen to your eye doing a detour taking it to the Sun and back) cancel each other out anyway? Does that respect Occam’s Razor? Can’t we devise some theory including ‘sensible’ paths only?

Of course, I am just an autodidact with limited time, and I know hundreds (if not thousands) of the best scientists have thought long and hard about this question and, hence, I readily accept the answer is quite simply: no. There is no better theory. I accept that answer, ungrudgingly, not only because I think I am not so smart as those scientists but also because, as I pointed out above, one can’t explain any path that deviates from a straight line really, as there is no medium, so there are no ‘wheels and gears’. The only path that makes sense is the straight line, and that’s only because…

Well… Thinking about it… We think the straight path makes sense because we have no good theory for any of the other paths. Hmm… So, from a logical point of view, assuming that the straight line is the only reasonable path is actually pretty random too. When push comes to shove, we have no good theory for the straight line either!

You’ll say I’ve just gone crazy. […] Well… Perhaps you’re right. 🙂 But… Somehow, it starts to make sense to me. We allow for everything to, then, indeed weed out the crazy paths using our interference theory, and so we do end up with what we’re ending up with: some kind of vague idea of “light not really traveling in a straight line but ‘smelling’ all of the neighboring paths around it and, hence, using a small core of nearby space“—as Feynman puts it.

Hmm… It brings me back to Richard Feynman’s introduction to his wonderful little book, in which he says we should just be happy to know how Nature works and not aspire to know why it works that way. In fact, he’s basically saying that, when it comes to quantum mechanics, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ are one and the same, so asking ‘why’ doesn’t make sense, because we know ‘how’. He compares quantum theory with the system of calculation used by the Maya priests, which was based on a system of bars and dots, which helped them to do complex multiplications and divisions, for example. He writes the following about it: “The rules were tricky, but they were a much more efficient way of getting an answer to complicated questions (such as when Venus would rise again) than by counting beans.”

When I first read this, I thought the comparison was flawed: if a common Maya Indian did not want to use the ‘tricky’ rules of multiplication and what have you (or, more likely, if he didn’t understand them), he or she could still resort to counting beans. But how do we count beans in quantum mechanics? We have no ‘simpler’ rules than those weird rules about adding amplitudes and taking the (absolute) square of complex numbers so… Well… We actually are counting beans here then:

  1. We allow for any possibility—any path: straight, curved or crooked. Anything is possible.
  2. But all those possibilities are inter-connected. Also note that every path has a mirror image: for every route ‘south’, there is a similar route ‘north’, so to say, except for the straight line, which is a mirror image of itself.
  3. And then we have some clock ticking. Time goes by. It ensures that the paths that are too far removed from the straight line cancel each other. [Of course, you’ll ask: what is too far? But I answered that question –  convincingly, I hope – in my previous post: it’s not about the ‘number of arrows’ (as suggested in the caption under that Figure 34 above), but about the frequency and, hence, the ‘wavelength’ of our photon.]
  4. And so… Finally, what’s left is a limited number of possibilities that interfere with each other, which results in what we ‘see’: light seems to use a small core of space indeed–a limited number of nearby paths.

You’ll say… Well… That still doesn’t ‘explain’ why the interference pattern disappears with those special detectors or – what amounts to the same – why the special detectors at the slits never click simultaneously.

You’re right. How do we make sense of that? I don’t know. You should try to imagine what happens for yourself. Everyone has his or her own way of ‘conceptualizing’ stuff, I’d say, and you may well be content and just accept all of the above without trying to ‘imagine’ what’s happening really when a ‘photon’ goes through one or both of those slits. In fact, that’s the most sensible thing to do. You should not try to imagine what happens and just follow the crazy calculus rules.

However, when I think about it, I do have some image in my head. The image is of one of those ‘touch-me-not’ weeds. I quickly googled one of these images, but I couldn’t quite find what I am looking for: it would be more like something that, when you touch it, curls up in a little ball. Any case… You know what I mean, I hope.


You’ll shake your head now and solemnly confirm that I’ve gone mad. Touch-me-not weeds? What’s that got to do with photons? 

Well… It’s obvious you and I cannot really imagine how a photon looks like. But I think of it as a blob of energy indeed, which is inseparable, and which effectively occupies some space (in three dimensions that is). I also think that, whatever it is, it actually does travel through both slits, because, as it interferes with itself, the interference pattern does depend on the space between the two slits as well as the width of those slits. In short, the whole ‘geometry’ of the situation matters, and so the ‘interaction’ is some kind of ‘spatial’ thing. [Sorry for my awfully imprecise language here.]

Having said that, I think it’s being detected by one detector only because only one of them can sort of ‘hook’ it, somehow. Indeed, because it’s interconnected and inseparable, it’s the whole blob that gets hooked, not just one part of it. [You may or may not imagine that the detectors that’s got the best hold of it gets it, but I think that’s pushing the description too much.] In any case, the point is that a photon is surely not like a lizard dropping its tail while trying to escape. Perhaps it’s some kind of unbreakable ‘string’ indeed – and sorry for summarizing string theory so unscientifically here – but then a string oscillating in dimensions we can’t imagine (or in some dimension we can’t observe, like the Kaluza-Klein theory suggests). It’s something, for sure, and something that stores energy in some kind of oscillation, I think.

What it is, exactly, we can’t imagine, and we’ll probably never find out—unless we accept that the how of quantum mechanics is not only the why, but also the what. 🙂

Does this make sense? Probably not but, if anything, I hope it fired your imagination at least. 🙂

Amplitudes and statistics

When re-reading Feynman’s ‘explanation’ of Bose-Einstein versus Fermi-Dirac statistics (Lectures, Vol. III, Chapter 4), and my own March 2014 post summarizing his argument, I suddenly felt his approach raises as many questions as it answers. So I thought it would be good to re-visit it, which is what I’ll do here. Before you continue reading, however, I should warn you: I am not sure I’ll manage to do a better job now, as compared to a few months ago. But let me give it a try.

Setting up the experiment

The (thought) experiment is simple enough: what’s being analyzed is the (theoretical) behavior of two particles, referred to as particle a and particle b respectively that are being scattered into  two detectors, referred to as 1 and 2. That can happen in two ways, as depicted below: situation (a) and situation (b). [And, yes, it’s a bit confusing to use the same letters a and b here, but just note the brackets and you’ll be fine.] It’s an elastic scattering and it’s seen in the center-of-mass reference frame in order to ensure we can analyze it using just one variable, θ, for the angle of incidence. So there is no interaction between those two particles in a quantum-mechanical sense: there is no exchange of spin (spin flipping) nor is there any exchange of energy–like in Compton scattering, in which a photon gives some of its energy to an electron, resulting in a Compton shift (i.e. the wavelength of the scattered photon is different than that of the incoming photon). No, it’s just what it is: two particles deflecting each other. […] Well… Maybe. Let’s fully develop the argument to see what’s going on.

Identical particles-aIdentical particles-b

First, the analysis is done for two non-identical particles, say an alpha particle (i.e. a helium nucleus) and then some other nucleus (e.g. oxygen, carbon, beryllium,…). Because of the elasticity of the ‘collision’, the possible outcomes of the experiment are binary: if particle a gets into detector 1, it means particle b will be picked up by detector 2, and vice versa. The first situation (particle a gets into detector 1 and particle b goes into detector 2) is depicted in (a), i.e. the illustration on the left above, while the opposite situation, exchanging the role of the particles, is depicted in (b), i.e. the illustration on the right-hand side. So these two ‘ways’ are two different possibilities which are distinguishable not only in principle but also in practice, for non-identical particles that is (just imagine a detector which can distinguish helium from oxygen, or whatever other substance the other particle is). Therefore, strictly following the rules of quantum mechanics, we should add the probabilities of both events to arrive at the total probability of some particle (and with ‘some’, I mean particle a or particle b) ending up in some detector (again, with ‘some’ detector, I mean detector 1 or detector 2).

Now, this is where Feynman’s explanation becomes somewhat tricky. The whole event (i.e. some particle ending up in some detector) is being reduced to two mutually exclusive possibilities that are both being described by the same (complex-valued) wave function f, which has that angle of incidence as its argument. To be precise: the angle of incidence is θ for the first possibility and it’s π–θ for the second possibility. That being said, it is obvious, even if Feynman doesn’t mention it, that both possibilities actually represent a combination of two separate things themselves:

  1. For situation (a), we have particle a going to detector 1 and particle b going to detector 2. Using Dirac’s so-called bra-ket notation, we should write 〈1|a〉〈2|b〉 = f(θ), with f(θ) a probability amplitude, which should yield a probability when taking its absolute square: P(θ) = |f(θ)|2.
  2. For situation (b), we have particle b going to detector 1 and particle a going to 2, so we have 〈1|b〉〈2|a〉, which Feynman equates with f(π–θ), so we write 〈1|b〉〈2|a〉 = 〈2|a〉〈1|b〉 = f(π–θ).

Now, Feynman doesn’t dwell on this–not at all, really–but this casual assumption–i.e. the assumption that situation (b) can be represented by using the same wave function f–merits some more reflection. As said, Feynman is very brief on it: he just says situation (b) is the same situation as (a), but then detector 1 and detector 2 being switched (so we exchange the role of the detectors, I’d say). Hence, the relevant angle is π–θ and, of course, it’s a center-of-mass view again so if a goes to 2, then b has to go to 1. There’s no Third Way here. In short, a priori it would seem to be very obvious indeed to associate only one wave function (i.e. that (complex-valued) f(θ) function) with the two possibilities: that wave function f yields a probability amplitude for θ and, hence, it should also yield some (other) probability amplitude for π–θ, i.e. for the ‘other’ angle. So we have two probability amplitudes but one wave function only.

You’ll say: Of course! What’s the problem? Why are you being fussy? Well… I think these assumptions about f(θ) and f(π–θ) representing the underlying probability amplitudes are all nice and fine (and, yes, they are very reasonable indeed), but I also think we should take them for what they are at this moment: assumptions.

Huh? Yes. At this point, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the only thing we can measure are real-valued possibilities. Indeed, when we do this experiment like a zillion times, it will give us some real number P for the probability that a goes to 1 and b goes to 2 (let me denote this number as P(θ) = Pa→1 and b→2), and then, when we change the angle of incidence by switching detector 1 and 2, it will also give us some (other) real number for the probability that a goes to 2 and b goes to 1 (i.e. a number which we can denote as P(π–θ) = Pa→2 and b→1). Now, while it would seem to be very reasonable that the underlying probability amplitudes are the same, we should be honest with ourselves and admit that the probability amplitudes are something we cannot directly measure.

At this point, let me quickly say something about Dirac’s bra-ket notation, just in case you haven’t heard about it yet. As Feynman notes, we have to get away from thinking too much in terms of wave functions traveling through space because, in quantum mechanics, all sort of stuff can happen (e.g. spin flipping) and not all of it can be analyzed in terms of interfering probability amplitudes. Hence, it’s often more useful to think in terms of a system being in some state and then transitioning to some other state, and that’s why that bra-ket notation is so helpful. We have to read these bra-kets from right to left: the part on the right, e.g. |a〉, is the ket and, in this case, that ket just says that we’re looking at some particle referred to as particle a, while the part on the left, i.e. 〈1|, is the bra, i.e. a shorthand for particle a having arrived at detector 1. If we’d want to be complete, we should write:

〈1|a〉 = 〈particle a arrives at detector 1|particle a leaves its source〉

Note that 〈1|a〉 is some complex-valued number (i.e. a probability amplitude) and so we multiply it here with some other complex number, 〈2|b〉, because it’s two things happening together. As said, don’t worry too much about it. Strictly speaking, we don’t need wave functions and/or probability amplitudes to analyze this situation because there is no interaction in the quantum-mechanical sense: we’ve got a scattering process indeed (implying some randomness in where those particles end up, as opposed to what we’d have in a classical analysis of two billiard balls colliding), but we do not have any interference between wave functions (probability amplitudes) here. We’re just introducing the wave function f because we want to illustrate the difference between this situation (i.e. the scattering of non-identical particles) and what we’d have if we’d be looking at identical particles being scattered.

At this point, I should also note that this bra-ket notation is more in line with Feynman’s own so-called path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, which is actually implicit in his line of argument: rather than thinking about the wave function as representing the (complex) amplitude of some particle to be at point x in space at point t in time, we think about the amplitude as something that’s associated with a path, i.e. one of the possible itineraries from the source (its origin) to the detector (its destination). That explains why this f(θ) function doesn’t mention the position (x) and space (t) variables. What x and t variables would we use anyway? Well… I don’t know. It’s true the position of the detectors is fully determined by θ, so we don’t need to associate any x or t with them. Hence, if we’d be thinking about the space-time variables, then we should be talking the position in space and time of both particle a and particle b. Indeed, it’s easy to see that only a slight change in the horizontal (x) or vertical position (y) of either particle would ensure that both particles do not end up in the detectors. However, as mentioned above, Feynman doesn’t even mention this. Hence, we must assume that any randomness in any x or t variable is captured by that wave function f, which explains why this is actually not a classical analysis: so, in short, we do not have two billiard balls colliding here.

Hmm… You’ll say I am a nitpicker. You’ll say that, of course, any uncertainty is indeed being incorporated in the fact that we represent what’s going on by a wave function f which we cannot observe directly but whose absolute square represents a probability (or, to use precise statistical terminology, a probability density), which we can measure: P = |f(θ)|2 = f(θ)·f*(θ), with f* the complex conjugate of the complex number f. So… […] What? Well… Nothing. You’re right. This thought experiment describes a classical situation (like two billiard balls colliding) and then it doesn’t, because we cannot predict the outcome (i.e. we can’t say where the two billiard balls are going to end up: we can only describe the likely outcome in terms of probabilities Pa→1 and b→2 = |f(θ)|and Pa→2 and b→1 = |f(π–θ)|2. Of course, needless to say, the normalization condition should apply: if we add all probabilities over all angles, then we should get 1, we can write: ∫|f(θ)|2dθ = ∫f(θ)·f*(θ)dθ = 1. So that’s it, then?

No. Let this sink in for a while. I’ll come back to it. Let me first make a bit of a detour to illustrate what this thought experiment is supposed to yield, and that’s a more intuitive explanation of Bose-Einstein statistics and Fermi-Dirac statistics, which we’ll get out of the experiment above if we repeat it using identical particles. So we’ll introduce the terms Bose-Einstein statistics and Fermi-Dirac statistics. Hence, there should also be some term for the reference situation described above, i.e a situation in which we non-identical particles are ‘interacting’, so to say, but then with no interference between their wave functions. So, when everything is said and done, it’s a term we should associate with classical mechanics. It’s called Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics.

Huh? Why would we need ‘statistics’ here? Well… We can imagine many particles engaging like this–just colliding elastically and, thereby, interacting in a classical sense, even if we don’t know where exactly they’re going to end up, because of uncertainties in initial positions and what have you. In fact, you already know what this is about: it’s the behavior of particles as described by the kinetic theory of gases (often referred to as statististical mechanics) which, among other things, yields a very elegant function for the distribution of the velocities of gas molecules, as shown below for various gases (helium, neon, argon and xenon) at one specific temperature (25º C), i.e. the graph on the left-hand side, or for the same gas (oxygen) at different temperatures (–100º C, 20º C and 600º C), i.e. the graph on the right-hand side.

Now, all these density functions and what have you are, indeed, referred to as Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics, by physicists and mathematicians that is (you know they always need some special term in order to make sure other people (i.e. people like you and me, I guess) have trouble understanding them).

700px-MaxwellBoltzmann-en 800px-Maxwell-Boltzmann_distribution_1

In fact, we get the same density function for other properties of the molecules, such as their momentum and their total energy. It’s worth elaborating on this, I think, because I’ll later compare with Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac statistics.

Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics

Kinetic gas theory yields a very simple and beautiful theorem. It’s the following: in a gas that’s in thermal equilibrium (or just in equilibrium, if you want), the probability (P) of finding a molecule with energy E is proportional to e–E/kT, so we have:

P ∝ e–E/kT

Now that’s a simple function, you may think. If we treat E as just a continuous variable, and T as some constant indeed – hence, if we just treat (the probability) P as a function of (the energy) E – then we get a function like the one below (with the blue, red and green using three different values for T).


So how do we relate that to the nice bell-shaped curves above? The very simple graphs above seem to indicate the probability is greatest for E = 0, and then just goes down, instead of going up initially to reach some maximum around some average value and then drop down again. Well… The fallacy here, of course, is that the constant of proportionality is itself dependent on the temperature. To be precise, the probability density function for velocities is given by:

Boltzmann distribution

The function for energy is similar. To be precise, we have the following function:

Boltzmann distribution-energy

This (and the velocity function too) is a so-called chi-squared distribution, and ϵ is the energy per degree of freedom in the system. Now these functions will give you such nice bell-shaped curves, and so all is alright. In any case, don’t worry too much about it. I have to get back to that story of the two particles and the two detectors.

However, before I do so, let me jot down two (or three) more formulas. The first one is the formula for the expected number 〈Ni〉 of particles occupying energy level ε(and the brackets here, 〈Ni〉, have nothing to do with the bra-ket notation mentioned above: it’s just a general notation for some expected value):

Boltzmann distribution-no of particlesThis formula has the same shape as the ones above but we brought the exponential function down, into the denominator, so the minus sign disappears. And then we also simplified it by introducing that gi factor, which I won’t explain here, because the only reason why I wanted to jot this down is to allow you to compare this formula with the equivalent formula when (a) Fermi-Dirac and (b) Bose-Einstein statistics apply:

B-E and F-D distribution-no of particles

Do you see the difference? The only change in the formula is the ±1 term in the denominator: we have a minus one (–1) for Fermi-Dirac statistics and a plus one (+1) for Bose-Einstein statistics indeed. That’s all. That’s the difference with Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics.

Huh? Yes. Think about it, but don’t worry too much. Just make a mental note of it, as it will be handy when you’d be exploring related articles. [And, of course, please don’t think I am bagatellizing the difference between Maxwell-Boltzmann, Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac statistics here: that ±1 term in the denominator is, obviously, a very important difference, as evidenced by the consequences of formulas like the one above: just think about the crowding-in effect in lasers as opposed to the Pauli exclusion principle, for example. :-)]

Setting up the experiment (continued)

Let’s get back to our experiment. As mentioned above, we don’t really need probability amplitudes in the classical world: ordinary probabilities, taking into account uncertainties about initial conditions only, will do. Indeed, there’s a limit to the precision with which we can measure the position in space and time of any particle in the classical world as well and, hence, we’d expect some randomness (as captured in the scattering phenomenon) but, as mentioned above, ordinary probabilities would do to capture that. Nevertheless, we did associate probability amplitudes with the events described above in order to illustrate the difference with the quantum-mechanical world. More specifically, we distinguished:

  1. Situation (a): particle a goes to detector 1 and b goes to 2, versus
  2. Situation (b): particle a goes to 2 and b goes to 1.

In our bra-ket notation:

  1. 〈1|a〉〈2|b〉 = f(θ), and
  2. 〈1|b〉〈2|a〉 = f(π–θ).

The f(θ) function is a quantum-mechanical wave function. As mentioned above, while we’d expect to see some space (x) and time (t) variables in it, these are, apparently, already captured by the θ variable. What about f(π–θ)? Well… As mentioned above also, that’s just the same function as f(θ) but using the angle π–θ as the argument. So, the following remark is probably too trivial to note but let me do it anyway (to make sure you understand what we’re modeling here really): while it’s the same function f, the values f(θ) and f(π–θ) are, of course, not necessarily equal and, hence, the corresponding probabilities are also not necessarily the same. Indeed, some angles of scattering may be more likely than others. However, note that we assume that the function f itself is  exactly the same for the two situations (a) and (b), as evidenced by that normalization condition we assume to be respected: if we add all probabilities over all angles, then we should get 1, so ∫|f(θ)|2dθ = ∫f(θ)·f*(θ)dθ = 1.

So far so good, you’ll say. However, let me ask the same critical question once again: why would we use the same wave function f for the second situation? 

Huh? You’ll say: why wouldn’t we? Well… Think about it. Again, how do we find that f(θ) function? The assumption here is that we just do the experiment a zillion times while varying the angle θ and, hence, that we’ll find some average corresponding to P(θ), i.e. the probability. Now, the next step then is to equate that average value to |f(θ)|obviously, because we have this quantum-mechanical theory saying probabilities are the absolute square of probability amplitudes. And,  so… Well… Yes. We then just take the square root of the P function to find the f(θ) function, isn’t it?

Well… No. That’s where Feynman is not very accurate when it comes to spelling out all of the assumptions underpinning this thought experiment. We should obviously watch out here, as there’s all kinds of complications when you do something like that. To a large extent (perhaps all of it), the complications are mathematical only.

First, note that any number (real or complex, but note that |f(θ)|2 is a real number) has two distinct real square roots: a positive and a negative one: x = ± √x2. Secondly, we should also note that, if f(θ) is a regular complex-valued wave function of x and t and θ (and with ‘regular’, we mean, of course, that’s it’s some solution to a Schrödinger (or Schrödinger-like) equation), then we can multiply it with some random factor shifting its phase Θ (usually written as Θ = kx–ωt+α) and the square of its absolute value (i.e. its squared norm) will still yield the same value. In mathematical terms, such factor is just a complex number with a modulus (or length or norm–whatever terminology you prefer) equal to one, which we can write as a complex exponential: eiα, for example. So we should note that, from a mathematical point of view, any function eiαf(θ) will yield the same probabilities as f(θ). Indeed,

|f(θ)|= |eiαf(θ)|= (|eiα||f(θ)|)= |eiα|2|f(θ)|= 12|f(θ)|2

Likewise, while we assume that this function f(π–θ) is the same function f as that f(θ) function, from a mathematical point of view, the function eiβf(π–θ) would do just as well, because its absolute square yields the very same (real) probability |f(π–θ)|2. So the question as to what wave function we should take for the probability amplitude is not as easy to answer as you may think. Huh? So what function should we take then? Well… We don’t know. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter, for non-identical particles that is. Indeed, when analyzing the scattering of non-identical particles, we’re interested in the probabilities only and we can calculate the total probability of particle a ending up in detector 1 or 2 (and, hence, particle b ending up in detector 2 or 1) as the following sum:

|eiαf(θ)|2 +|eiβf(π–θ)|= |f(θ)|2 +|f(π–θ)|2.

In other words, for non-identical particles, these phase factors (eiα or eiβ) don’t matter and we can just forget about them.

However, and that’s the crux of the matter really, we should mention them, of course, in case we’d have to add the probability amplitudeswhich is exactly what we’ll have to do when we’re looking at identical particles, of course. In fact, in that case (i.e. when these phase factors eiα and eiβ will actually matter), you should note that what matters really is the phase difference, so we could replace α and β with some δ (which is what we’ll do below).

However, let’s not put the cart before the horse and conclude our analysis of what’s going on when we’re considering non-identical parties: in that case, this phase difference doesn’t matter. And the remark about the positive and negative square root doesn’t matter either. In fact, if you want, you can subsume it under the phase difference story by writing eiα as eiα = ± 1. To be more explicit: we could say that –f(θ) is the probability amplitude, as |–f(θ)|is also equal to that very same real number |f(θ)|2. OK. Done.

Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac statistics

As I mentioned above, the story becomes an entirely different one when we’re doing the same experiment with identical particles. At this point, Feynman’s argument becomes rather fuzzy and, in my humble opinion, that’s because he refused to be very explicit about all of those implicit assumptions I mentioned above. What I can make of it, is the following:

1. We know that we’ll have to add probability amplitudes, instead of probabilities, because we’re talking one event that can happen in two indistinguishable ways. Indeed, for non-identical particles, we can, in principle (and in practice) distinguish situation (a) and (b) – and so that’s why we only have to add some real-valued numbers representing probabilities – but so we cannot do do that for identical particles.

2. Situation (a) is still being described by some probability amplitude f(θ). We don’t know what function exactly, but we assume there is some unique wave function f(θ) out there that accurately describes the probability amplitude of particle a going to 1 (and, hence, particle b going to 2), even if we can’t tell which is a and which is b. What about the phase factor? Well… We just assume we’ve chosen our t such that α = 0. In short, the assumption is that situation (a) is represented by some probability amplitude (or wave function, if you prefer that term) f(θ).

3. However, a (or some) particle (i.e. particle a or particle b) ending up in a (some) detector (i.e. detector 1 or detector 2) may come about in two ways that cannot be distinguished one from the other. One is the way described above, by that wave function f(θ). The other way is by exchanging the role of the two particles. Now, it would seem logical to associate the amplitude f(π–θ) with the second way. But we’re in the quantum-mechanical world now. There’s uncertainty, in position, in momentum, in energy, in time, whatever. So we can’t be sure about the phase. That being said, the wave function will still have the same functional form, we must assume, as it should yield the same probability when squaring. To account for that, we will allow for a phase factor, and we know it will be important when adding the amplitudes. So, while the probability for the second way (i.e. the square of its absolute value) should be the same, its probability amplitude does not necessarily have to be the same: we have to allow for positive and negative roots or, more generally, a possible phase shift. Hence, we’ll write the probability amplitude as eiδf(π–θ) for the second way. [Why do I use δ instead of β? Well… Again: note that it’s the phase difference that matters. From a mathematical point of view, it’s the same as inserting an eiβ factor: δ can take on any value.]

4. Now it’s time for the Big Trick. Nature doesn’t matter about our labeling of particles. If we have to multiply the wave function (i.e. f(π–θ), or f(θ)–it’s the same: we’re talking a complex-valued function of some variable (i.e. the angle θ) here) with a phase factor eiδ when exchanging the roles of the particles (or, what amounts to the same, exchanging the role of the detectors), we should get back to our point of departure (i.e. no exchange of particles, or detectors) when doing that two times in a row, isn’t it? So we exchange the role of particle a and b in this analysis (or the role of the detectors), and then we’d exchange their roles once again, then there’s no exchange of roles really and we’re back at the original situation. So we must have eiδeiδf(θ) = f(θ) (and eiδeiδf(π–θ) = f(π–θ) of course, which is exactly the same statement from a mathematical point of view).

5. However, that means (eiδ)= +1, which, in turn, implies that eiδ is plus or minus one: eiδ = ± 1. So that means the phase difference δ must be equal to 0 or π (or –π, which is the same as +π).

In practical terms, that means we have two ways of combining probability amplitudes for identical particles: we either add them or, else, we subtract them. Both cases exist in reality, and lead to the dichotomy between Bose and Fermi particles:

  1. For Bose particles, we find the total probability amplitude for this scattering event by adding the two individual amplitudes: f(θ) + f(π–θ).
  2. For Fermi particles, we find the total probability amplitude for this scattering event by subtracting the two individual amplitudes: f(θ) – f(π–θ).

As compared to the probability for non-identical particles which, you’ll remember, was equal to |f(θ)|2 +|f(π–θ)|2, we have the following Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac statistics:

  1. For Bose particles: the combined probability is equal to |f(θ) + f(π–θ)|2. For example, if θ is 90°, then we have a scattering probability that is exactly twice the probability for non-identical particles. Indeed, if θ is 90°, then f(θ) = f(π–θ), and then we have |f(π/2) + f(π/2)|2 = |2f(π/2)|2 = 4|f(π/2)|2. Now, that’s two times |f(π/2)|2 +|f(π/2)|2 = 2|f(π/2)|2 indeed.
  2. For Fermi particles (e.g. electrons), we have a combined probability equal to |f(θ) – f(π–θ)|2. Again, if θ is 90°, f(θ) = f(π–θ), and so it would mean that we have a combined probability which is equal to zero ! Now, that‘s a strange result, isn’t it? It is. Fortunately, the strange result has to be modified because electrons will also have spin and, hence, in half of the cases, the two electrons will actually not be identical but have opposite spin. That changes the analysis substantially (see Feynman’s Lectures, III-3-12). To be precise, if we take the spin factor into, we’ll find a total probability (for θ = 90°) equal to |f(π/2)|2, so that’s half of the probability for non-identical particles.

Hmm… You’ll say: Now that was a complicated story! I fully agree. Frankly, I must admit I feel like I still don’t quite ‘get‘ the story with that phase shift eiδ, in an intuitive way that is (and so that’s the reason for going through the trouble of writing out this post). While I think it makes somewhat more sense now (I mean, more than when I wrote a post on this in March), I still feel I’ve only brought some of the implicit assumptions to the fore. In essence, what we’ve got here is a mathematical dichotomy (or a mathematical possibility if you want) corresponding to what turns out to be an actual dichotomy in Nature: in quantum-mechanics, particles are either bosons or fermions. There is no Third Way, in quantum-mechanics that is (there is a Third Way in reality, of course: that’s the classical world!).

I guess it will become more obvious as I’ll get somewhat more acquainted with the real arithmetic involved in quantum-mechanical calculations over the coming weeks. In short, I’ve analyzed this thing over and over again, but it’s still not quite clear me. I guess I should just move on and accept that:

  1. This explanation ‘explains’ the experimental evidence, and that’s different probabilities for identical particles as compared to non-identical particles.
  2. This explanation ‘complements’ analyses such as that 1916 analysis of blackbody radiation by Einstein (see my post on that), which approaches interference from an angle that’s somewhat more intuitive.

A numerical example

I’ve learned that, when some theoretical piece feels hard to read, an old-fashioned numerical example often helps. So let’s try one here. We can experiment with many functional forms but let’s keep things simple. From the illustration (which I copy below for your convenience), that angle θ can take any value between −π and +π, so you shouldn’t think detector 1 can only be ‘north’ of the collision spot: it can be anywhere.

Identical particles-a

Now, it may or may not make sense (and please work out other examples than this one here), but let’s assume particle a and b are more likely to go in a line that’s more or less straight. In other words, the assumption is that both particles deflect each other only slightly, or even not at all. After all, we’re talking ‘point-like’ particles here and so, even when we try hard, it’s hard to make them collide really.

That would amount to a typical bell-shaped curve for that probability density curve P(θ): one like the blue curve below. That one shows that the probability of particle a and b just bouncing back (i.e. θ ≈ ±π) is (close to) zero, while it’s highest for θ ≈ 0, and some intermediate value for anything angle in-between. The red curve shows P(π–θ), which can be found by mirroring the P(θ) around the vertical axis, which yields the same function because the function is symmetrical: P(θ) = P(–θ), and then shifting it by adding the vertical distance π. It should: it’s the second possibility, remember? Particle a ending up in detector 2. But detector 2 is positioned at the angle π–θ and, hence, if π–θ is close to ±π (so if θ ≈ 0), that means particle 1 is basically bouncing back also, which we said is unlikely. On the other hand, if detector 2 is positioned at an angle π–θ ≈ 0, then we have the highest probability of particle a going right to it. In short, the red curve makes sense too, I would think. [But do think about yourself: you’re the ultimate judge!]

Example - graph

The harder question, of course, concerns the choice of some wave function f(θ) to match those P curves above. Remember that these probability densities P are real numbers and any real number is the absolute square (aka the squared norm) of an infinite number of complex numbers! So we’ve got l’embarras du choix, as they say in French. So… What do to? Well… Let’s keep things simple and stupid and choose a real-valued wave function f(θ), such as the blue function below. Huh? You’ll wonder if that’s legitimate. Frankly, I am not 100% sure, but why not? The blue f(θ) function will give you the blue P(θ) above, so why not go along with it? It’s based on a cosine function but it’s only half of a full cycle. Why? Not sure. I am just trying to match some sinusoidal function with the probability density function here, so… Well… Let’s take the next step.

Example 2

The red graph above is the associated f(π–θ) function. Could we choose another one? No. There’s no freedom of choice here, I am afraid: if we choose a functional form for f(θ), then our f(π–θ) function is fixed too. So it is what it is: negative between –π and 0, and positive between 0 and +π and 0. Now that is definitely not good, because f(π–θ) for θ = –π is not equal to f(π–θ) for θ = +π: they’re opposite values. That’s nonsensical, isn’t it? Both the f(θ) and the f(π–θ) should be something cyclical… But, again, let’s go along with it as for now: note that the green horizontal line is the sum of the squared (absolute) values of f(θ) and f(π–θ), and note that it’s some constant.

Now, that’s a funny result, because I assumed both particles were more likely to go in some straight line, rather than recoil with some sharp angle θ. It again indicates I must be doing something wrong here. However, the important thing for me here is to compare with the Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac statistics. What’s the total probability there if we take that blue f(θ) function? Well… That’s what’s shown below. The horizontal blue line is the same as the green line in the graph above: a constant probability for some particle (a or b) ending up in some detector (1 or 2). Note that the surface, when added, of the two rectangles above the x-axis (i.e. the θ-axis) should add up to 1. The red graph gives the probability when the experiment is carried out for (identical) bosons (or Bose particles as I like to call them). It’s weird: it makes sense from a mathematical point of view (the surface under the curve adds up to the same surface under the blue line, so it adds up to 1) but, from a physics point of view, what does this mean? A maximum at θ = π/2 and a minimum at θ = –π/2? Likewise, how to interpret the result for fermions?


Is this OK? Well… To some extent, I guess. It surely matches the theoretical results I mentioned above: we have twice the probability for bosons for θ = 90° (red curve), and a probability equal to zero for the same angle when we’re talking fermions (green curve). Still, this numerical example triggers more questions than it answers. Indeed, my starting hypothesis was very symmetrical: both particle a and b are likely to go in a straight line, rather than being deflected in some sharp(er) angle. Now, while that hypothesis gave a somewhat unusual but still understandable probability density function in the classical world (for non-identical particles, we got a constant for P(θ) + P(π–θ)), we get this weird asymmetry in the quantum-mechanical world: we’re much more likely to catch boson in a detector ‘north’ of the line of firing than ‘south’ of it, and vice versa for fermions.

That’s weird, to say the least. So let’s go back to the drawing board and take another function for f(θ) and, hence, for f(π–θ). This time, the two graphs below assume that (i) f(θ) and f(π–θ) have a real as well as an imaginary part and (ii) that they go through a full cycle, instead of a half-cycle only. This is done by equating the real part of the two functions with cos(θ) and cos(π–θ) respectively, and their imaginary part with sin(θ) and sin(π–θ) respectively. [Note that we conveniently forget about the normalization condition here.]


What do we see? Well… The imaginary part of f(θ) and f(π–θ) is the same, because sin(π–θ) = sin(θ). We also see that the real part of f(θ) and f(π–θ) are the same except for a phase difference equal to π: cos(π–θ) = cos[–(θ–π)] = cos(θ–π). More importantly, we see that the absolute square of both f(θ) and f(π–θ) yields the same constant, and so their sum P = |f(θ)|2 +|f(π–θ)|= 2|f(θ)|2 = 2|f(π–θ)|= 2P(θ) = 2P(π–θ). So that’s another constant. That’s actually OK because, this time, I did not favor one angle over the other (so I did not assume both particles were more likely to go in some straight line rather than recoil).

Now, how does this compare to Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac statistics? That’s shown below. For Bose-Einstein (left-hand side), the sum of the real parts of f(θ) and f(π–θ) yields zero (blue line), while the sum of their imaginary parts (i.e. the red graph) yields a sine-like function but it has double the amplitude of sin(θ). That’s logical: sin(θ) + sin(π–θ) = 2sin(θ). The green curve is the more interesting one, because that’s the total probability we’re looking for. It has two maxima now, at +π/2 and at –π/2. That’s good, as it does away with that ‘weird asymmetry’ we got when we used a ‘half-cycle’ f(θ) function.

B-E and F-D

Likewise, the Fermi-Dirac probability density function looks good as well (right-hand side). We have the imaginary parts of f(θ) and f(π–θ) that ‘add’ to zero: sin(θ) – sin(π–θ) = 0 (I put ‘add’ between brackets because, with Fermi-Dirac, we’re subtracting of course), while the real parts ‘add’ up to a double cosine function: cos(θ) – cos(π–θ) = cos(θ) – [–cos(θ)] = 2cos(θ). We now get a minimum at +π/2 and at –π/2, which is also in line with the general result we’d expect. The (final) graph below summarizes our findings. It gives the three ‘types’ of probabilities, i.e. the probability of finding some particle in some detector as a function of the angle –π < θ < +π using:

  1. Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics: that’s the green constant (non-identical particles, and probability does not vary with the angle θ).
  2. Bose-Einstein: that’s the blue graph below. It has two maxima, at +π/2 and at –π/2, and two minima, at 0 and at ±π (+π and –π are the same angle obviously), with the maxima equal to twice the value we get under Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics.
  3. Finally, the red graph gives the Fermi-Dirac probabilities. Also two maxima and minima, but at different places: the maxima are at θ = 0 and  θ = ±π, while the minima are at at +π/2 and at –π/2.


Funny, isn’t it? These probability density functions are all well-behaved, in the sense that they add up to the same total (which should be 1 when applying the normalization condition). Indeed, the surfaces under the green, blue and red lines are obviously the same. But so we get these weird fluctuations for Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac statistics, favoring two specific angles over all others, while there’s no such favoritism when the experiment involves non-identical particles. This, of course, just follows from our assumption concerning f(θ). What if we double the frequency of f(θ), i.e. from one cycle to two cycles between –π and +π? Well… Just try it: take f(θ) = cos(2·θ) + isin(2·θ) and do the calculations. You should get the following probability graphs: we have the same green line for non-identical particles, but interference with four maxima (and four minima) for the Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac probabilities.

summary 2

Again… Funny, isn’t it? So… What to make of this? Frankly, I don’t know. But one last graph makes for an interesting observation: if the angular frequency of f(θ) takes on larger and larger values, the Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac probability density functions also start oscillating wildly. For example, the graphs below are based on a f(θ) function equal to f(θ) = cos(25·θ) + isin(25·θ). The explosion of color hurts the eye, doesn’t it? 🙂 But, apart from that, do you now see why physicists say that, at high frequencies, the interference pattern gets smeared out? Indeed, if we move the detector just a little bit (i.e. we change the angle θ just a little bit) in the example below, we hit a maximum instead of a minimum, and vice versa. In short, the granularity may be such that we can only measure that green line, in which case we’d think we’re dealing with Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics, while the underlying reality may be different.

summary 4

That explains another quote in Feynman’s famous introduction to quantum mechanics (Lectures, Vol. III, Chapter 1): “If the motion of all matter—as well as electrons—must be described in terms of waves, what about the bullets in our first experiment? Why didn’t we see an interference pattern there? It turns out that for the bullets the wavelengths were so tiny that the interference patterns became very fine. So fine, in fact, that with any detector of finite size one could not distinguish the separate maxima and minima. What we saw was only a kind of average, which is the classical curve. In the Figure below, we have tried to indicate schematically what happens with large-scale objects. Part (a) of the figure shows the probability distribution one might predict for bullets, using quantum mechanics. The rapid wiggles are supposed to represent the interference pattern one gets for waves of very short wavelength. Any physical detector, however, straddles several wiggles of the probability curve, so that the measurements show the smooth curve drawn in part (b) of the figure.”

Interference with bullets

But that should really conclude this post. It has become way too long already. One final remark, though: the ‘smearing out’ effect also explains why those three equations for 〈Ni〉 sometimes do amount to more or less the same thing: the Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac formulas may approximate the Maxwell-Boltzmann equation. In that case, the ±1 term in the denominator does not make much of a difference. As we said a couple of times already, it all depends on scale. 🙂

Concluding remarks

1. The best I can do in terms of interpreting the above, is to tell myself that we cannot fully ‘fix’ the functional form of the wave function for the second or ‘other’ way the event can happen if we’re ‘fixing’ the functional form for the first of the two possibilities. We have to allow for a phase shift eiδ indeed, which incorporates all kinds of considerations of uncertainty in regard to both time and position and, hence, in regard to energy and momentum also (using both the ΔEΔt = ħ/2 and ΔxΔp = ħ/2 expressions)–I assume (but that’s just a gut instinct). And then the symmetry of the situation then implies eiδ can only take on one of two possible values: –1 or +1 which, in turn, implies that δ is equal to 0 or π.

2. For those who’d think I am basically doing nothing but re-write a chapter out of Feynman’s Lectures, I’d refute that. One point to note is that Feynman doesn’t seem to accept that we should introduce a phase factor in the analysis for non-identical particles as well. To be specific: just switching the detectors (instead of the particles) also implies that one should allow for the mathematical possibility of the phase of that f function being shifted by some random factor δ. The only difference with the quantum-mechanical analysis (i.e. the analysis for identical particles) is that the phase factor doesn’t make a difference as to the final result, because we’re not adding amplitudes but their absolute squares and, hence, a phase shift doesn’t matter.

3. I think all of the reasoning above makes not only for a very fine but also a very beautiful theoretical argument, even I feel like I don’t fully ‘understand’ it, in an intuitive way that is. I hope this post has made you think. Isn’t it wonderful to see that the theoretical or mathematical possibilities of the model actually correspond to realities, both in the classical as well as in the quantum-mechanical world? In fact, I can imagine that most physicists and mathematicians would shrug this whole reflection off like… Well… Like: “Of course! It’s obvious, isn’t it?” I don’t think it’s obvious. I think it’s deep. I would even qualify it as mysterious, and surely as beautiful. 🙂