Wavefunctions as gravitational waves

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I. Energy as a two-dimensional oscillation of mass

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

  1. E = mc2
  2. E = mω2/2
  3. E = mv2/2

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

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

Figure 1: Oscillations in two dimensionsV-2 engine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are sensible questions. Let us explore them. 

II. The wavefunction as a two-dimensional oscillation

The elementary wavefunction is written as:

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

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

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

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

Figure 2: Euler’s formula760px-eulers_formula

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

Figure 3: Geometric representation of the wavefunction5d_euler_f

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

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

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

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

What is Ei? Ei varies around some average E, which we can associate with some average mass m: m = E/c2. The Uncertainty Principle kicks in here. The analysis becomes more complicated, but a formula such as the one below might make sense:F1We can re-write this as:F2What is the meaning of this equation? We may look at it as some sort of physical normalization condition when building up the Fourier sum. Of course, we should relate this to the mathematical normalization condition for the wavefunction. Our intuition tells us that the probabilities must be related to the energy densities, but how exactly? We will come back to this question in a moment. Let us first think some more about the enigma: what is mass?

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

III. What is mass?

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

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

This is not very helpful. It only reminds us of Newton’s definition of a mass: mass is that what gets accelerated by a force. At this point, we may want to think of the physical significance of the absolute nature of the speed of light. Einstein’s E = mc2 equation implies we can write the ratio between the energy and the mass of any particle is always the same, so we can write, for example:F3This reminds us of the ω2= C1/L or ω2 = k/m of harmonic oscillators once again.[13] The key difference is that the ω2= C1/L and ω2 = k/m formulas introduce two or more degrees of freedom.[14] In contrast, c2= E/m for any particle, always. However, that is exactly the point: we can modulate the resistance, inductance and capacitance of electric circuits, and the stiffness of springs and the masses we put on them, but we live in one physical space only: our spacetime. Hence, the speed of light c emerges here as the defining property of spacetime – the resonant frequency, so to speak. We have no further degrees of freedom here.

 

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

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

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

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

IV. Schrödinger’s equation as an energy diffusion equation

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

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

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

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

The ubiquitous diffusion equation in physics is:

∂φ(x, t)/∂t = D·∇2φ(x, t)

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

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

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

  1. B/∂t = –∇×E
  2. E/∂t = c2∇×B

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

Figure 4: Propagation mechanismspropagation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, we have not answered the question as to what the physical dimension of the real and imaginary part of our wavefunction should be. At this point, we may be inspired by the structural similarity between Newton’s and Coulomb’s force laws:F4Hence, if the electric field vector E is expressed in force per unit charge (N/C), then we may want to think of associating the real part of our wavefunction with a force per unit mass (N/kg). We can, of course, do a substitution here, because the mass unit (1 kg) is equivalent to 1 N·s2/m. Hence, our N/kg dimension becomes:

N/kg = N/(N·s2/m)= m/s2

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

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

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

V. Energy densities and flows

Pursuing the geometric equivalence between the equations for an electromagnetic wave and Schrödinger’s equation, we can now, perhaps, see if there is an equivalent for the energy density. For an electromagnetic wave, we know that the energy density is given by the following formula:F5E and B are the electric and magnetic field vector respectively. The Poynting vector will give us the directional energy flux, i.e. the energy flow per unit area per unit time. We write:F6Needless to say, the ∙ operator is the divergence and, therefore, gives us the magnitude of a (vector) field’s source or sink at a given point. To be precise, the divergence gives us the volume density of the outward flux of a vector field from an infinitesimal volume around a given point. In this case, it gives us the volume density of the flux of S.

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

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

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

Let us first see what we get for a photon, assuming the electromagnetic wave represents its wavefunction. Substituting B for (1/c)∙iE or for −(1/c)∙iE gives us the following result:F7Zero!? An unexpected result! Or not? We have no stationary charges and no currents: only an electromagnetic wave in free space. Hence, the local energy conservation principle needs to be respected at all points in space and in time. The geometry makes sense of the result: for an electromagnetic wave, the magnitudes of E and B reach their maximum, minimum and zero point simultaneously, as shown below.[22] This is because their phase is the same.

Figure 5: Electromagnetic wave: E and BEM field

Should we expect a similar result for the energy densities that we would associate with the real and imaginary part of the matter-wave? For the matter-wave, we have a phase difference between a·cosθ and a·sinθ, which gives a different picture of the propagation of the wave (see Figure 3).[23] In fact, the geometry of the suggestion suggests some inherent spin, which is interesting. I will come back to this. Let us first guess those densities. Making abstraction of any scaling constants, we may write:F8We get what we hoped to get: the absolute square of our amplitude is, effectively, an energy density !

|ψ|2  = |a·ei∙E·t/ħ|2 = a2 = u

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

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

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

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

VI. Group and phase velocity of the matter-wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vp/= βp = c/vp = 1/βg = 1/(c/vp)

Figure 6: Reciprocal relation between phase and group velocitygraph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both equations imply the following dispersion relation:

ω = ħ·k2/(2meff)

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

VII. Explaining spin

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

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

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

Figure 7: Torque and angular momentum vectorsTorque_animation

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

L = I·ω

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

ω = 2π/[2π·(ħ/E0)] = E0

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

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

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

L = a2·E02/(2·ħ·c2)

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

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

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

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

This gives us an L of 2.08×10−33 N∙m∙s, which is only 20 times ħ. This is not so bad, but it is good enough? Let us calculate it the other way around: what value should we take for a so as to ensure L = a2·E02/(2·ħ·c2) = ħ/2? Let us write it out:F9

In fact, this is the formula for the so-called reduced Compton wavelength. This is perfect. We found what we wanted to find. Substituting this value for a (you can calculate it: it is about 3.8616×10−33 m), we get what we should find:F10

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

VIII. The boson-fermion dichotomy

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

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

ψ(θi= ai·(cosθi + i·sinθi)

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

ψ(θi= ai·(cosθii·sinθi)

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

ψ = a·cos(E0∙t/ħ) − i·a·sin(E0∙t/ħ)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IX. Concluding remarks

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

Figure 8: Two-dimensional circular movementoscillation-of-a-ball

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

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

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

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

Appendix 1: The de Broglie relations and energy

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

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

E = m·v2? This resembles the E = mc2 equation and, therefore, one may be enthused by the discovery, especially because the m·v2 also pops up when working with the Least Action Principle in classical mechanics, which states that the path that is followed by a particle will minimize the following integral:F11Now, we can choose any reference point for the potential energy but, to reflect the energy conservation law, we can select a reference point that ensures the sum of the kinetic and the potential energy is zero throughout the time interval. If the force field is uniform, then the integrand will, effectively, be equal to KE − PE = m·v2.[27]

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

Appendix 2: The concept of the effective mass

The effective mass – as used in Schrödinger’s equation – is a rather enigmatic concept. To make sure we are making the right analysis here, I should start by noting you will usually see Schrödinger’s equation written as:F12This formulation includes a term with the potential energy (U). In free space (no potential), this term disappears, and the equation can be re-written as:

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

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

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

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

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

meff = m∙(v/c)2 = m∙β2

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

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

References

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing with amplitudes

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

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

propagator

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

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

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

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

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

ψ = a·ei·θ = (1/rei·S = ei·p∙r/r

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

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

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

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

δ= p·rj − p·ri = p·(rj − ri) = p·Δr

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

δ= ΔS = Δp·Δr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Δpn = √n·Δpand Δrn = √n·Δr1

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

partial reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🙂 This is good stuff… 🙂

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

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

The Complementarity Principle

Unlike what you might think when seeing the title of this post, it is not my intention to enter into philosophical discussions here: many authors have been writing about this ‘principle’, most of which–according to eminent physicists–don’t know what they are talking about. So I have no intention to make a fool of myself here too. However, what I do want to do here is explore, in an intuitive way, how the classical and quantum-mechanical explanations of the phenomenon of the diffraction of light are different from each other–and fundamentally so–while, necessarily, having to yield the same predictions. It is in that sense that the two explanations should be ‘complementary’.

The classical explanation

I’ve done a fairly complete analysis of the classical explanation in my posts on Diffraction and the Uncertainty Principle (20 and 21 September), so I won’t dwell on that here. Let me just repeat the basics. The model is based on the so-called Huygens-Fresnel Principle, according to which each point in the slit becomes a source of a secondary spherical wave. These waves then interfere, constructively or destructively, and, hence, by adding them, we get the form of the wave at each point of time and at each point in space behind the slit. The animation below illustrates the idea. However, note that the mathematical analysis does not assume that the point sources are neatly separated from each other: instead of only six point sources, we have an infinite number of them and, hence, adding up the waves amounts to solving some integral (which, as you know, is an infinite sum).

Huygens_Fresnel_Principle

We know what we are supposed to get: a diffraction pattern. The intensity of the light on the screen at the other side depends on (1) the slit width (d), (2) the frequency of the light (λ), and (3) the angle of incidence (θ), as shown below.

Single_Slit_Diffraction_(english)

One point to note is that we have smaller bumps left and right. We don’t get that if we’d treat the slit as a single point source only, like Feynman does when he discusses the double-slit experiment for (physical) waves. Indeed, look at the image below: each of the slits acts as one point source only and, hence, the intensity curves I1 and I2 do not show a diffraction pattern. They are just nice Gaussian “bell” curves, albeit somewhat adjusted because of the angle of incidence (we have two slits above and below the center, instead of just one on the normal itself). So we have an interference pattern on the screen and, now that we’re here, let me be clear on terminology: I am going along with the widespread definition of diffraction being a pattern created by one slit, and the definition of interference as a pattern created by two or more slits. I am noting this just to make sure there’s no confusion.

Water waves

That should be clear enough. Let’s move on the quantum-mechanical explanation.

The quantum-mechanical explanation

There are several formulations of quantum mechanics: you’ve heard about matrix mechanics and wave mechanics. Roughly speaking, in matrix mechanics “we interpret the physical properties of particles as matrices that evolve in time”, while the wave mechanics approach is primarily based on these complex-valued wave functions–one for each physical property (e.g. position, momentum, energy). Both approaches are mathematically equivalent.

There is also a third approach, which is referred to as the path integral formulation, which  “replaces the classical notion of a single, unique trajectory for a system with a sum, or functional integral, over an infinity of possible trajectories to compute an amplitude” (all definitions here were taken from Wikipedia). This approach is associated with Richard Feynman but can also be traced back to Paul Dirac, like most of the math involved in quantum mechanics, it seems. It’s this approach which I’ll try to explain–again, in an intuitive way only–in order to show the two explanations should effectively lead to the same predictions.

The key to understanding the path integral formulation is the assumption that a particle–and a ‘particle’ may refer to both bosons (e.g. photons) or fermions (e.g. electrons)–can follow any path from point A to B, as illustrated below. Each of these paths is associated with a (complex-valued) probability amplitude, and we have to add all these probability amplitudes to arrive at the probability amplitude for the particle to move from A to B.

615px-Three_paths_from_A_to_B

You can find great animations illustrating what it’s all about in the relevant Wikipedia article but, because I can’t upload video here, I’ll just insert two illustrations from Feynman’s 1985 QED, in which he does what I try to do, and that is to approach the topic intuitively, i.e. without too much mathematical formalism. So probability amplitudes are just ‘arrows’ (with a length and a direction, just like a complex number or a vector), and finding the resultant or final arrow is a matter of just adding all the little arrows to arrive at one big arrow, which is the probability amplitude, which he denotes as P(A, B), as shown below.

feynman-qed-1985

This intuitive approach is great and actually goes a very long way in explaining complicated phenomena, such as iridescence for example (the wonderful patterns of color on an oil film!), or the partial reflection of light by glass (anything between 0 and 16%!). All his tricks make sense. For example, different frequencies are interpreted as slower or faster ‘stopwatches’ and, as such, they determine the final direction of the arrows which, in turn, explains why blue and red light are reflected differently. And so on and son. It all works. […] Up to a point.

Indeed, Feynman does get in trouble when trying to explain diffraction. I’ve reproduced his explanation below. The key to the argument is the following:

  1. If we have a slit that’s very wide, there are a lot of possible paths for the photon to take. However, most of these paths cancel each other out, and so that’s why the photon is likely to travel in a straight line. Let me quote Feynman: “When the gap between the blocks is wide enough to allow many neighboring paths to P and Q, the arrows for the paths to P add up (because all the paths to P take nearly the same time), while the paths to Q cancel out (because those paths have a sizable difference in time). So the photomultiplier at Q doesn’t click.” (QED, p.54)
  2. However, “when the gap is nearly closed and there are only a few neighboring paths, the arrows to Q also add up, because there is hardly any difference in time between them, either (see Fig. 34). Of course, both final arrows are small, so there’s not much light either way through such a small hole, but the detector at Q clicks almost as much as the one at P! So when you try to squeeze light too much to make sure it’s going only in a straight line, it refuses to cooperate and begins to spread out.” (QED, p. 55)

Many arrowsFew arrows

This explanation is as simple and intuitive as Feynman’s ‘explanation’ of diffraction using the Uncertainty Principle in his introductory chapter on quantum mechanics (Lectures, I-38-2), which is illustrated below. I won’t go into the detail (I’ve done that before) but you should note that, just like the explanation above, such explanations do not explain the secondary, tertiary etc bumps in the diffraction pattern.

Diffraction of electrons

So what’s wrong with these explanations? Nothing much. They’re simple and intuitive, but essentially incomplete, because they do not incorporate all of the math involved in interference. Incorporating the math means doing these integrals for

  1. Electromagnetic waves in classical mechanics: here we are talking ‘wave functions’ with some real-valued amplitude representing the strength of the electric and magnetic field; and
  2. Probability waves: these are complex-valued functions, with the complex-valued amplitude representing probability amplitudes.

The two should, obviously, yield the same result, but a detailed comparison between the approaches is quite complicated, it seems. Now, I’ve googled a lot of stuff, and I duly note that diffraction of electromagnetic waves (i.e. light) is conveniently analyzed by summing up complex-valued waves too, and, moreover, they’re of the same familiar type: ψ = Aei(kx–ωt). However, these analyses also duly note that it’s only the real part of the wave that has an actual physical interpretation, and that it’s only because working with natural exponentials (addition, multiplication, integration, derivation, etc) is much easier than working with sine and cosine waves that such complex-valued wave functions are used (also) in classical mechanics. In fact, note the fine print in Feynman’s illustration of interference of physical waves (Fig. 37-2): he calculates the intensities I1 and I2 by taking the square of the absolute amplitudes ĥ1 and ĥ2, and the hat indicates that we’re also talking some complex-valued wave function here.

Hence, we must be talking the same mathematical waves in both explanations, aren’t we? In other words, we should get the same psi functions ψ = Aei(kx–ωt) in both explanations, don’t we? Well… Maybe. But… Probably not. As far as I know–but I must be wrong–we cannot just re-normalize the E and B vectors in these electromagnetic waves in order to establish an equivalence with probability waves. I haven’t seen that being done (but I readily admit I still have a lot of reading to do) and so I must assume it’s not very clear-cut at all.

So what? Well… I don’t know. So far, I did not find a ‘nice’ or ‘intuitive’ explanation of a quantum-mechanical approach to the phenomenon of diffraction yielding the same grand diffraction equation, referred to as the Fresnel-Kirchoff diffraction formula (see below), or one of its more comprehensible (because simplified) representations, such as the Fraunhofer diffraction formula, or the even easier formula which I used in my own post (you can google them: they’re somewhat less monstrous and–importantly–they work with real numbers only, which makes them easier to understand).

Kirchoff formula[…] That looks pretty daunting, isn’t it? You may start to understand it a bit better by noting that (n, r) and (n, s) are angles, so that’s OK in a cosine function. The other variables also have fairly standard interpretations, as shown below, but… Admit it: ‘easy’ is something else, isn’t it?

730px-Kirchhoff_1

So… Where are we here? Well… As said, I trust that both explanations are mathematically equivalent – just like matrix and wave mechanics 🙂 –and, hence, that a quantum-mechanical analysis will indeed yield the same formula. However, I think I’ll only understand physics truly if I’ve gone through all of the motions here.

Well then… I guess that should be some kind of personal benchmark that should guide me on this journey, isn’t it? 🙂 I’ll keep you posted.

Post scriptum: To be fair to Feynman, and demonstrating his talent as a teacher once again, he actually acknowledges that the double-slit thought experiment uses simplified assumptions that do not include diffraction effects when the electrons go through the slit(s). He does so, however, only in one of the first chapters of Vol. III of the Lectures, where he comes back to the experiment to further discuss the first principles of quantum mechanics. I’ll just quote him: “Incidentally, we are going to suppose that the holes 1 and 2 are small enough that when we say an electron goes through the hole, we don’t have to discuss which part of the hole. We could, of course, split each hole into pieces with a certain amplitude that the electron goes to the top of the hole and the bottom of the hole and so on. We will suppose that the hole is small enough so that we don’t have to worry about this detail. That is part of the roughness involved; the matter can be made more precise, but we don’t want to do so at this stage.” So here he acknowledges that he omitted the intricacies of diffraction. I noted this only later. Sorry.

Diffraction and the Uncertainty Principle (I)

In his Lectures, Feynman advances the double-slit experiment with electrons as the textbook example explaining the “mystery” of quantum mechanics. It shows interference–a property of waves–of ‘particles’, electrons: they no longer behave as particles in this experiment. While it obviously illustrates “the basic peculiarities of quantum mechanics” very well, I think the dual behavior of light – as a wave and as a stream of photons – is at least as good as an illustration. And he could also have elaborated the phenomenon of electron diffraction.

Indeed, the phenomenon of diffraction–light, or an electron beam, interfering with itself as it goes through one slit only–is equally fascinating. Frankly, I think it does not get enough attention in textbooks, including Feynman’s, so that’s why I am devoting a rather long post to it here.

To be fair, Feynman does use the phenomenon of diffraction to illustrate the Uncertainty Principle, both in his Lectures as well as in that little marvel, QED: The Strange Theory of Light of Matter–a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the (probability) wave function concept without any reference to complex numbers or what have you. Let’s have a look at it: light going through a slit or circular aperture, illustrated in the left-hand image below, creates a diffraction pattern, which resembles the interference pattern created by an array of oscillators, as shown in the right-hand image.

Diffraction for particle wave Line of oscillators

Let’s start with the right-hand illustration, which illustrates interference, not diffraction. We have eight point sources of electromagnetic radiation here (e.g. radio waves, but it can also be higher-energy light) in an array of length L. λ is the wavelength of the radiation that is being emitted, and α is the so-called intrinsic relative phase–or, to put it simply, the phase difference. We assume α is zero here, so the array produces a maximum in the direction θout = 0, i.e. perpendicular to the array. There are also weaker side lobes. That’s because the distance between the array and the point where we are measuring the intensity of the emitted radiation does result in a phase difference, even if the oscillators themselves have no intrinsic phase difference.

Interference patterns can be complicated. In the set-up below, for example, we have an array of oscillators producing not just one but many maxima. In fact, the array consists of just two sources of radiation, separated by 10 wavelengths.

Interference two dipole radiatorsThe explanation is fairly simple. Once again, the waves emitted by the two point sources will be in phase in the east-west (E-W) direction, and so we get a strong intensity there: four times more, in fact, than what we would get if we’d just have one point source. Indeed, the waves are perfectly in sync and, hence, add up, and the factor four is explained by the fact that the intensity, or the energy of the wave, is proportional to the square of the amplitude: 2= 4. We get the first minimum at a small angle away (the angle from the normal is denoted by ϕ in the illustration), where the arrival times differ by 180°, and so there is destructive interference and the intensity is zero. To be precise, if we draw a line from each oscillator to a distant point and the difference Δ in the two distances is λ/2, half an oscillation, then they will be out of phase. So this first null occurs when that happens. If we move a bit further, to the point where the difference Δ is equal to λ, then the two waves will be a whole cycle out of phase, i.e. 360°, which is the same as being exactly in phase again! And so we get many maxima (and minima) indeed.

But this post should not turn into a lesson on how to construct a radio broadcasting array. The point to note is that diffraction is usually explained using this rather simple theory on interference of waves assuming that the slit itself is an array of point sources, as illustrated below (while the illustrations above were copied from Feynman’s Lectures, the ones below were taken from the Wikipedia article on diffraction). This is referred to as the Huygens-Fresnel Principle, and the math behind is summarized in Kirchhoff’s diffraction formula.

500px-Refraction_on_an_aperture_-_Huygens-Fresnel_principle Huygens_Fresnel_Principle 

Now, that all looks easy enough, but the illustration above triggers an obvious question: what about the spacing between those imaginary point sources? Why do we have six in the illustration above? The relation between the length of the array and the wavelength is obviously important: we get the interference pattern that we get with those two point sources above because the distance between them is 10λ. If that distance would be different, we would get a different interference pattern. But so how does it work exactly? If we’d keep the length of the array the same (L = 10λ) but we would add more point sources, would we get the same pattern?

The easy answer is yes, and Kirchhoff’s formula actually assumes we have an infinite number of point sources between those two slits: every point becomes the source of a spherical wave, and the sum of these secondary waves then yields the interference pattern. The animation below shows the diffraction pattern from a slit with a width equal to five times the wavelength of the incident wave. The diffraction pattern is the same as above: one strong central beam with weaker lobes on the sides.

5wavelength=slitwidthsprectrum

However, the truth is somewhat more complicated. The illustration below shows the interference pattern for an array of length L = 10λ–so that’s like the situation with two point sources above–but with four additional point sources to the two we had already. The intensity in the E–W direction is much higher, as we would expect. Adding six waves in phase yields a field strength that is six times as great and, hence, the intensity (which is proportional to the square of the field) is thirty-six times as great as compared to the intensity of one individual oscillator. Also, when we look at neighboring points, we find a minimum and then some more ‘bumps’, as before, but then, at an angle of 30°, we get a second beam with the same intensity as the central beam. Now, that’s something we do not see in the diffraction patterns above. So what’s going on here?

Six-dipole antenna

Before I answer that question, I’d like to compare with the quantum-mechanical explanation. It turns out that this question in regard to the relevance of the number of point sources also pops up in Feynman’s quantum-mechanical explanation of diffraction.

The quantum-mechanical explanation of diffraction

The illustration below (taken from Feynman’s QED, p. 55-56) presents the quantum-mechanical point of view. It is assumed that light consists of a photons, and these photons can follow any path. Each of these paths is associated with what Feynman simply refers to as an arrow, but so it’s a vector with a magnitude and a direction: in other words, it’s a complex number representing a probability amplitude.

Many arrows Few arrows

In order to get the probability for a photon to travel from the source (S) to a point (P or Q), we have to add up all the ‘arrows’ to arrive at a final ‘arrow’, and then we take its (absolute) square to get the probability. The text under each of the two illustrations above speaks for itself: when we have ‘enough’ arrows (i.e. when we allow for many neighboring paths, as in the illustration on the left), then the arrows for all of the paths from S to P will add up to one big arrow, because there is hardly any difference in time between them, while the arrows associated with the paths to Q will cancel out, because the difference in time between them is fairly large. Hence, the light will not go to Q but travel to P, i.e. in a straight line.

However, when the gap is nearly closed (so we have a slit or a small aperture), then we have only a few neighboring paths, and then the arrows to Q also add up, because there is hardly any difference in time between them too. As I am quoting from Feynman’s QED here, let me quote all of the relevant paragraph: “Of course, both final arrows are small, so there’s not much light either way through such a small hole, but the detector at Q will click almost as much as the one at P ! So when you try to squeeze light too much to make sure it’s going only in a straight line, it refuses to cooperate and begins to spread out. This is an example of the Uncertainty Principle: there is a kind of complementarity between knowledge of where the light goes between the blocks and where it goes afterwards. Precise knowledge of both is impossible.” (Feynman, QED, p. 55-56).

Feynman’s quantum-mechanical explanation is obviously more ‘true’ that the classical explanation, in the sense that it corresponds to what we know is true from all of the 20th century experiments confirming the quantum-mechanical view of reality: photons are weird ‘wavicles’ and, hence, we should indeed analyze diffraction in terms of probability amplitudes, rather than in terms of interference between waves. That being said, Feynman’s presentation is obviously somewhat more difficult to understand and, hence, the classical explanation remains appealing. In addition, Feynman’s explanation triggers a similar question as the one I had on the number of point sources. Not enough arrows !? What do we mean with that? Why can’t we have more of them? What determines their number?

Let’s first look at their direction. Where does that come from? Feynman is a wonderful teacher here. He uses an imaginary stopwatch to determine their direction: the stopwatch starts timing at the source and stops at the destination. But all depends on the speed of the stopwatch hand of course. So how fast does it turn? Feynman is a bit vague about that but notes that “the stopwatch hand turns around faster when it times a blue photon than when it does when timing a red photon.” In other words, the speed of the stopwatch hand depends on the frequency of the light: blue light has a higher frequency (645 THz) and, hence, a shorter wavelength (465 nm) then red light, for which f = 455 THz and λ = 660 nm. Feynman uses this to explain the typical patterns of red, blue, and violet (separated by borders of black), when one shines red and blue light on a film of oil or, more generally,the phenomenon of iridescence in general, as shown below.

Iridescence

As for the size of the arrows, their length is obviously subject to a normalization condition, because all probabilities have to add up to 1. But what about their number? We didn’t answer that question–yet.

The answer, of course, is that the number of arrows and their size are obviously related: we associate a probability amplitude with every way an event can happen, and the (absolute) square of all these probability amplitudes has to add up to 1. Therefore, if we would identify more paths, we would have more arrows, but they would have to be smaller. The end result would be the same though: when the slit is ‘small enough’, the arrows representing the paths to Q would not cancel each other out and, hence, we’d have diffraction.

You’ll say: Hmm… OK. I sort of see the idea, but how do you explain that pattern–the central beam and the smaller side lobes, and perhaps a second beam as well? Well… You’re right to be skeptical. In order to explain the exact pattern, we need to analyze the wave functions, and that requires a mathematical approach rather than the type of intuitive approach which Feynman uses in his little QED booklet. Before we get started on that, however, let me give another example of such intuitive approach.

Diffraction and the Uncertainty Principle

Let’s look at that very first illustration again, which I’ve copied, for your convenience, again below. Feynman uses it (III-2-2) to (a) explain the diffraction pattern which we observe when we send electrons through a slit and (b) to illustrate the Uncertainty Principle. What’s the story?

Well… Before the electrons hit the wall or enter the slit, we have more or less complete information about their momentum, but nothing on their position: we don’t know where they are exactly, and we also don’t know if they are going to hit the wall or go through the slit. So they can be anywhere. However, we do know their energy and momentum. That momentum is horizontal only, as the electron beam is normal to the wall and the slit. Hence, their vertical momentum is zero–before they hit the wall or enter the slit that is. We’ll denote their (horizontal) momentum, i.e. the momentum before they enter the slit, as p0.

Diffraction for particle wave

Now, if an electron happens to go through the slit, and we know because we detected it on the other side, then we know its vertical position (y) at the slit itself with considerable accuracy: that position will be the center of the slit ±B/2. So the uncertainty in position (Δy) is of the order B, so we can write: Δy = B. However, according to the Uncertainty Principle, we cannot have precise knowledge about its position and its momentum. In addition, from the diffraction pattern itself, we know that the electron acquires some vertical momentum. Indeed, some electrons just go straight, but more stray a bit away from the normal. From the interference pattern, we know that the vast majority stays within an angle Δθ, as shown in the plot. Hence, plain trigonometry allows us to write the spread in the vertical momentum py as p0Δθ, with pthe horizontal momentum. So we have Δpy = p0Δθ.

Now, what is Δθ? Well… Feynman refers to the classical analysis of the phenomenon of diffraction (which I’ll reproduce in the next section) and notes, correctly, that the first minimum occurs at an angle such that the waves from one edge of the slit have to travel one wavelength farther than the waves from the other side. The geometric analysis (which, as noted, I’ll reproduce in the next section) shows that that angle is equal to the wavelength divided by the width of the slit, so we have Δθ = λ/B. So now we can write:

Δpy = p0Δθ = p0λ/B

That shows that the uncertainty in regard to the vertical momentum is, indeed, inversely proportional to the uncertainty in regard to its position (Δy), which is the slit width B. But we can go one step further. The de Broglie relation relates wavelength to momentum: λ = h/p. What momentum? Well… Feynman is a bit vague on that: he equates it with the electron’s horizontal momentum, so he writes λ = h/p0. Is this correct? Well… Yes and no. The de Broglie relation associates a wavelength with the total momentum, but then it’s obvious that most of the momentum is still horizontal, so let’s go along with this. What about the wavelength? What wavelength are we talking about here? It’s obviously the wavelength of the complex-valued wave function–the ‘probability wave’ so to say.

OK. So, what’s next? Well… Now we can write that Δpy = p0Δθ = p0λ/B = p0(h/p0)/B. Of course, the pfactor vanishes and, hence, bringing B to the other side and substituting for Δy = B yields the following grand result:

Δy·Δp= h

Wow ! Did Feynman ‘prove’ Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle here?

Well… No. Not really. First, the ‘proof’ above actually assumes there’s fundamental uncertainty as to the position and momentum of a particle (so it actually assumes some uncertainty principle from the start), and then it derives it from another fundamental assumption, i.e. the de Broglie relation, which is obviously related to the Uncertainty Principle. Hence, all of the above is only an illustration of the Uncertainty Principle. It’s no proof. As far as I know, one can’t really ‘prove’ the Uncertainty Principle: it’s a fundamental assumption which, if accepted, makes our observations consistent with the theory that is based on it, i.e. quantum or wave mechanics.

Finally, note that everything that I wrote above also takes the diffraction pattern as a given and, hence, while all of the above indeed illustrates the Uncertainty Principle, it’s not an explanation of the phenomenon of diffraction as such. For such explanation, we need a rigorous mathematical analysis, and that’s a classical analysis. Let’s go for it!

Going from six to n oscillators

The mathematics involved in analyzing diffraction and/or interference are actually quite tricky. If you’re alert, then you should have noticed that I used two illustrations that both have six oscillators but that the interference pattern doesn’t match. I’ve reproduced them below. The illustration on the right-hand side has six oscillators and shows a second beam besides the central one–and, of course, there’s such beam also 30° higher, so we have (at least) three beams with the same intensity here–while the animation on the left-hand side shows only one central beam. So what’s going on here?

Six-dipole antenna Huygens_Fresnel_Principle

The answer is that, in the particular example on the left-hand side, the successive dipole radiators (i.e. the point sources) are separated by a distance of two wavelengths (2λ). In that case, it is actually possible to find an angle where the distance δ between successive dipoles is exactly one wavelength (note the little δ in the illustration, as measured from the second point source), so that the effects from all of them are in phase again. So each one is then delayed relative to the next one by 360 degrees, and so they all come back in phase, and then we have another strong beam in that direction! In this case, the other strong beam has an angle of 30 degrees as compared to the E-W line. If we would put in some more oscillators, to ensure that they are all closer than one wavelength apart, then this cannot happen. And so it’s not happening with light. 🙂 But now that we’re here, I’ll just quickly note that it’s an interesting and useful phenomenon used in diffraction gratings, but I’ll refer you to the literature on that, as I shouldn’t be bothering you with all these digressions. So let’s get back at it.

In fact, let me skip the nitty-gritty of the detailed analysis (I’ll refer you to Feynman’s Lectures for that) and just present the grand result for n oscillators, as depicted below:

n oscillatorsThis, indeed, shows the diffraction pattern we are familiar with: one strong maximum separated from successive smaller ones (note that the dotted curve magnifies the actual curve with a factor 10). The vertical axis shows the intensity, but expressed as a fraction of the maximum intensity, which is n2I(Iis the intensity we would observe if there was only 1 oscillator). As for the horizontal axis, the variable there is ϕ really, although we re-scale the variable in order to get 1, 2, 2 etcetera for the first, second, etcetera minimum. This ϕ is the phase difference. It consists of two parts:

  1. The intrinsic relative phase α, i.e. the difference in phase between one oscillator and the next: this is assumed to be zero in all of the examples of diffraction patterns above but so the mathematical analysis here is somewhat more general.
  2. The phase difference which results from the fact that we are observing the array in a given direction θ from the normal. Now that‘s the interesting bit, and it’s not so difficult to show that this additional phase is equal to 2πdsinθ/λ, with d the distance between two oscillators, λ the wavelength of the radiation, and θ the angle from the normal.

In short, we write:

ϕ α 2πdsinθ/λ

Now, because I’ll have to use the variables below in the analysis that follows, I’ll quickly also reproduce the geometry of the set-up (all illustrations here taken from Feynman’s Lectures): 

geometry

Before I proceed, please note that we assume that d is less than λ, so we only have one great maximum, and that’s the so-called zero-order beam centered at θ 0. In order to get subsidiary great maxima (referred to as first-order, second-order, etcetera beams in the context of diffraction gratings), we must have the spacing d of the array greater than one wavelength, but so that’s not relevant for what we’re doing here, and that is to move from a discrete analysis to a continuous one.

Before we do that, let’s look at that curve again and analyze where the first minimum occurs. If we assume that α = 0 (no intrinsic relative phase), then the first minimum occurs when ϕ 2π/n. Using the ϕ α 2πdsinθ/λ formula, we get 2πdsinθ/λ 2π/n or ndsinθ λ. What does that mean? Well, nd is the total length L of the array, so we have ndsinθ Lsinθ Δ = λWhat that means is that we get the first minimum when Δ is equal to one wavelength.

Now why do we get a minimum when Δ λ? Because the contributions of the various oscillators are then uniformly distributed in phase from 0° to 360°. What we’re doing, once again, is adding arrows in order to get a resultant arrow AR, as shown below for n = 6. At the first minimum, the arrows are going around a whole circle: we are adding equal vectors in all directions, and such a sum is zero. So when we have an angle θ such that Δ λ, we get the first minimum. [Note that simple trigonometry rules imply that θ must be equal to λ/L, a fact which we used in that quantum-mechanical analysis of electron diffraction above.]    

Adding waves

What about the second minimum? Well… That occurs when ϕ = 4π/n. Using the ϕ 2πdsinθ/λ formula again, we get 2πdsinθ/λ = 4π/n or ndsinθ = 2λ. So we get ndsinθ Lsinθ Δ = 2λ. So we get the second minimum at an angle θ such that Δ = 2λFor the third minimum, we have ϕ = 6π/n. So we have 2πdsinθ/λ = 6π/n or ndsinθ = 3λ. So we get the third minimum at an angle θ such that Δ = 3λAnd so on and so on.

The point to note is that the diffraction pattern depends only on the wavelength λ and the total length L of the array, which is the width of the slit of course. Hence, we can actually extend the analysis for n going from some fixed value to infinity, and we’ll find that we will only have one great maximum with a lot of side lobes that are much and much smaller, with the minima occurring at angles such that Δ = λ, 2λ, 3λ, etcetera.

OK. What’s next? Well… Nothing. That’s it. I wanted to do a post on diffraction, and so that’s what I did. However, to wrap it all up, I’ll just include two more images from Wikipedia. The one on the left shows the diffraction pattern of a red laser beam made on a plate after passing a small circular hole in another plate. The pattern is quite clear. On the right-hand side, we have the diffraction pattern generated by ordinary white light going through a hole. In fact, it’s a computer-generated image and the gray scale intensities have been adjusted to enhance the brightness of the outer rings, because we would not be able to see them otherwise.

283px-Airy-pattern 600px-Laser_Interference

But… Didn’t I say I would write about diffraction and the Uncertainty Principle? Yes. And I admit I did not write all that much about the Uncertainty Principle above. But so I’ll do that in my next post, in which I intend to look at Heisenberg’s own illustration of the Uncertainty Principle. That example involves a good understanding of the resolving power of a lens or a microscope, and such understanding also involves some good mathematical analysis. However, as this post has become way too long already, I’ll leave that to the next post indeed. I’ll use the left-hand image above for that, so have a good look at it. In fact, let me quickly quote Wikipedia as an introduction to my next post:

The diffraction pattern resulting from a uniformly-illuminated circular aperture has a bright region in the center, known as the Airy disk which together with the series of concentric bright rings around is called the Airy pattern.

We’ll need in order to define the resolving power of a microscope, which is essential to understanding Heisenberg’s illustration of the Principle he advanced himself. But let me stop here, as it’s the topic of my next write-up indeed. This post has become way too long already. 🙂

Photons as strings

In my previous post, I explored, somewhat jokingly, the grey area between classical physics and quantum mechanics: light as a wave versus light as a particle. I did so by trying to picture a photon as an electromagnetic transient traveling through space, as illustrated below. While actual physicists would probably deride my attempt to think of a photon as an electromagnetic transient traveling through space, the idea illustrates the wave-particle duality quite well, I feel.

Photon wave

Understanding light is the key to understanding physics. Light is a wave, as Thomas Young proved to the Royal Society of London in 1803, thereby demolishing Newton’s corpuscular theory. But its constituents, photons, behave like particles. According to modern-day physics, both were right. Just to put things in perspective, the thickness of the note card which Young used to split the light – ordinary sunlight entering his room through a pinhole in a window shutter – was 1/30 of an inch, or approximately 0.85 mm. Hence, in essence, this is a double-slit experiment with the two slits being separated by a distance of almost 1 millimeter. That’s enormous as compared to modern-day engineering tolerance standards: what was thin then, is obviously not considered to be thin now. Scale matters. I’ll come back to this.

Young’s experiment (from www.physicsclassroom.com)

Young experiment

The table below shows that the ‘particle character’ of electromagnetic radiation becomes apparent when its frequency is a few hundred terahertz, like the sodium light example I used in my previous post: sodium light, as emitted by sodium lamps, has a frequency of 500×1012 oscillations per second and, therefore (the relation between frequency and wavelength is very straightforward: their product is the velocity of the wave, so for light we have the simple λf = c equation), a wavelength of 600 nanometer (600×10–9 meter).

Electromagnetic spectrum

However, whether something behaves like a particle or a wave also depends on our measurement scale: 0.85 mm was thin in Young’s time, and so it was a delicate experiment then but now, it’s a standard classroom experiment indeed. The theory of light as a wave would hold until more delicate equipment refuted it. Such equipment came with another sense of scale. It’s good to remind oneself that Einstein’s “discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”, which explained the photoelectric effect as the result of light energy being carried in discrete quantized packets of energy, now referred to as photons, goes back to 1905 only, and that the experimental apparatus which could measure it was not much older. So waves behave like particles if we look at them close enough. Conversely, particles behave like waves if we look at them close enough. So there is this zone where they are neither, the zone for which we invoke the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics or, to put it more precisely, the formalism of quantum electrodynamics: that “strange theory of light and Matter”, as Feynman calls it.

Let’s have a look at how particles became waves. It should not surprise us that the experimental apparatuses needed to confirm that electrons–or matter in general–can actually behave like a wave is more recent than the 19th century apparatuses which led Einstein to develop his ‘corpuscular’ theory of light (i.e. the theory of light as photons). The engineering tolerances involved are daunting. Let me be precise here. To be sure, the phenomenon of electron diffraction (i.e. electrons going through one slit and producing a diffraction pattern on the other side) had been confirmed experimentally already in 1925, in the famous Davisson-Germer experiment. I am saying because it’s rather famous indeed. First, because electron diffraction was a weird thing to contemplate at the time. Second, because it confirmed the de Broglie hypothesis only two years after Louis de Broglie had advanced it. And, third, because Davisson and Germer had never intended to set it up to detect diffraction: it was pure coincidence. In fact, the observed diffraction pattern was the result of a laboratory accident, and Davisson and Germer weren’t aware of other, conscious, attempts of trying to prove the de Broglie hypothesis. 🙂 […] OK. I am digressing. Sorry. Back to the lesson.

The nanotechnology that was needed to confirm Feynman’s 1965 thought experiment on electron interference (i.e. electrons going through two slits and interfering with each other (rather than producing some diffraction pattern as they go through one slit only) – and, equally significant as an experiment result, with themselves as they go through the slit(s) one by one! – was only developed over the past decades. In fact, it was only in 2008 (and again in 2012) that the experiment was carried out exactly the way Feynman describes it in his Lectures.

It is useful to think of what such experiments entail from a technical point of view. Have a look at the illustration below, which shows the set-up. The insert in the upper-left corner shows the two slits which were used in the 2012 experiment: they are each 62 nanometer wide – that’s 50×10–9 m! – and the distance between them is 272 nanometer, or 0.272 micrometer. [Just to be complete: they are 4 micrometer tall (4×10–6 m), and the thing in the middle of the slits is just a little support (150 nm) to make sure the slit width doesn’t vary.]

The second inset (in the upper-right corner) shows the mask that can be moved to close one or both slits partially or completely. The mask is 4.5µm wide ×20µm tall. Please do take a few seconds to contemplate the technology behind this feat: a nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter, so that’s a billionth of a meter, and a micrometer is a millionth of a meter. To imagine how small a nanometer is, you should imagine dividing one millimeter in ten, and then one of these tenths in ten again, and again, and once again, again, and again. In fact, you actually cannot imagine that because we live in the world we live in and, hence, our mind is used only to addition (and subtraction) when it comes to comparing sizes and – to a much more limited extent – with multiplication (and division): our brain is, quite simply, not wired to deal with exponentials and, hence, it can’t really ‘imagine’ these incredible (negative) powers. So don’t think you can imagine it really, because one can’t: in our mind, these scales exist only as mathematical constructs. They don’t correspond to anything we can actually make a mental picture of.

Electron double-slit set-up

The electron beam consisted of electrons with an (average) energy of 600 eV. That’s not an awful lot: 8.5 times more than the energy of an electron in orbit in a atom, whose energy would be some 70 eV, so the acceleration before they went through the slits was relatively modest. I’ve calculated the corresponding de Broglie wavelength of these electrons in another post (Re-Visiting the Matter-Wave, April 2014), using the de Broglie equations: f = E/h or λ = p/h. And, of course, you could just google the article on the experiment and read about it, but it’s a good exercise, and actually quite simple: just note that you’ll need to express the energy in joule (not in eV) to get it right. Also note that you need to include the rest mass of the electron in the energy. I’ll let you try it (or else just go to that post of mine). You should find a de Broglie wavelength of 50 picometer for these electrons, so that’s 50×10–12 m. While that wavelength is less than a thousandth of the slit width (62 nm), and about 5,500 times smaller than the space between the two slits (272 nm), the interference effect was unambiguous in the experiment. I advice you to google the results yourself (or read that April 2014 post of mine if you want a summary): the experiment was done at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2012.

Electrons and X-rays

To put everything in perspective: 50 picometer is like the wavelength of X-rays, and you can google similar double-slit experiments for X-rays: they also loose their ‘particle behavior’ when we look at them at this tiny scale. In short, scale matters, and the boundary between ‘classical physics’ (electromagnetics) and quantum physics (wave mechanics) is not clear-cut. If anything, it depends on our perspective, i.e. what we can measure, and we seem to be shifting that boundary constantly. In what direction?

Downwards obviously: we’re devising instruments that measure stuff at smaller and smaller scales, and what’s happening is that we can ‘see’ typical ‘particles’, including hard radiation such as gamma rays, as local wave trains. Indeed, the next step is clear-cut evidence for interference between gamma rays.

Energy levels of photons

We would not associate low-frequency electromagnetic waves, such as radio or radar waves, with photons. But light in the visible spectrum, yes. Obviously. […]

Isn’t that an odd dichotomy? If we see that, on a smaller scale, particles start to look like waves, why would the reverse not be true? Why wouldn’t we analyze radio or radar waves, on a much larger scale, as a stream of very (I must say extremely) low-energy photons? I know the idea sounds ridiculous, because the energies involved would be ridiculously low indeed. Think about it. The energy of a photon is given by the Planck relation: E = h= hc/λ. For visible light, with wavelengths ranging from 800 nm (red) to 400 nm (violet or indigo), the photon energies range between 1.5 and 3 eV. Now, the shortest wavelengths for radar waves are in the so-called millimeter band, i.e. they range from 1 mm to 1 cm. A wavelength of 1 mm corresponds to a photon energy of 0.00124 eV. That’s close to nothing, of course, and surely not the kind of energy levels that we can currently detect.

But you get the idea: there is a grey area between classical physics and quantum mechanics, and it’s our equipment–notably the scale of our measurements–that determine where that grey area begins, and where it ends, and it seems to become larger and larger as the sensitivity of our equipment improves.

What do I want to get at? Nothing much. Just some awareness of scale, as an introduction to the actual topic of this post, and that’s some thoughts on a rather primitive string theory of photons. What !? 

Yes. Purely speculative, of course. 🙂

Photons as strings

I think my calculations in the previous post, as primitive as they were, actually provide quite some food for thought. If we’d treat a photon in the sodium light band (i.e. the light emitted by sodium, from a sodium lamp for instance) just like any other electromagnetic pulse, we would find it’s a pulse of some 10 meter long. We also made sense of this incredibly long distance by noting that, if we’d look at it as a particle (which is what we do when analyzing it as a photon), it should have zero size, because it moves at the speed of light and, hence, the relativistic length contraction effect ensures we (or any observer in whatever reference frame really, because light always moves at the speed of light, regardless of the reference frame) will see it as a zero-size particle.

Having said that, and knowing damn well that we have treat the photon as an elementary particle, I would think it’s very tempting to think of it as a vibrating string.

Huh?

Yes. Let me copy that graph again. The assumption I started with is a standard one in physics, and not something that you’d want to argue with: photons are emitted when an electron jumps from a higher to a lower energy level and, for all practical purposes, this emission can be analyzed as the emission of an electromagnetic pulse by an atomic oscillator. I’ll refer you to my previous post – as silly as it is – for details on these basics: the atomic oscillator has a Q, and so there’s damping involved and, hence, the assumption that the electromagnetic pulse resembles a transient should not sound ridiculous. Because the electric field as a function in space is the ‘reversed’ image of the oscillation in time, the suggested shape has nothing blasphemous.

Photon wave

Just go along with it for a while. First, we need to remind ourselves that what’s vibrating here is nothing physical: it’s an oscillating electromagnetic field. That being said, in my previous post, I toyed with the idea that the oscillation could actually also represent the photon’s wave function, provided we use a unit for the electric field that ensures that the area under the squared curve adds up to one, so as to normalize the probability amplitudes. Hence, I suggested that the field strength over the length of this string could actually represent the probability amplitudes, provided we choose an appropriate unit to measure the electric field.

But then I was joking, right? Well… No. Why not consider it? An electromagnetic oscillation packs energy, and the energy is proportional to the square of the amplitude of the oscillation. Now, the probability of detecting a particle is related to its energy, and such probability is calculated from taking the (absolute) square of probability amplitudes. Hence, mathematically, this makes perfect sense.

It’s quite interesting to think through the consequences, and I hope I will (a) understand enough of physics and (b) find enough time for this—one day! One interesting thing is that the field strength (i.e. the magnitude of the electric field vector) is a real number. Hence, if we equate these magnitudes with probability amplitudes, we’d have real probability amplitudes, instead of complex-valued ones. That’s not a very fundamental issue. It probably indicates we should also take into account the fact that the E vector also oscillates in the other direction that’s normal to the direction of propagation, i.e. the y-coordinate (assuming that the z-axis is the direction of propagation). To put it differently, we should take the polarization of the light into account. The figure below–which I took from Wikipedia again (by far the most convenient place to shop for images and animations: what would I do without it?– shows how the electric field vector moves in the xy-plane indeed, as the wave travels along the z-axis. So… Well… I still have to figure it all out, but the idea surely makes sense.

Circular.Polarization.Circularly.Polarized.Light_Right.Handed.Animation.305x190.255Colors

Another interesting thing to think about is how the collapse of the wave function would come about. If we think of a photon as a string, it must have some ‘hooks’ which could cause it to ‘stick’ or ‘collapse’ into a ‘lump’ as it hits a detector. What kind of hook? What force would come into play?

Well… The interaction between the photon and the photodetector is electromagnetic, but we’re looking for some other kind of ‘hook’ here. What could it be? I have no idea. Having said that, we know that the weakest of all fundamental forces—gravity—becomes much stronger—very much stronger—as the distance becomes smaller and smaller. In fact, it is said that, if we go to the Planck scale, the strength of the force of gravity becomes quite comparable with the other forces. So… Perhaps it’s, quite simply, the equivalent mass of the energy involved that gets ‘hooked’, somehow, as it starts interacting with the photon detector. Hence, when thinking about a photon as an oscillating string of energy, we should also think of that string as having some inseparable (equivalent) mass that, once it’s ‘hooked’, has no other option that to ‘collapse into itself’. [You may note there’s no quantum theory for gravity as yet. I am not sure how, but I’ve got a gut instinct that tells me that may help to explain why a photon consists of one single ‘unbreakable’ lump, although I need to elaborate this argument obviously.]

You must be laughing aloud now. A new string theory–really?

I know… I know… I haven’t reach sophomore level and I am already wildly speculating… Well… Yes. What I am talking about here has probably nothing to do with current string theories, although my proposed string would also replace the point-like photon by a one-dimensional ‘string’. However, ‘my’ string is, quite simply, an electromagnetic pulse (a transient actually, for reasons I explained in my previous post). Naive? Perhaps. However, I note that the earliest version of string theory is referred to as bosonic string theory, because it only incorporated bosons, which is what photons are.

So what? Well… Nothing… I am sure others have thought of this too, and I’ll look into it. It’s surely an idea which I’ll keep in the back of my head as I continue to explore physics. The idea is just too simple and beautiful to disregard, even if I am sure it must be pretty naive indeed. Photons as ten-meter long strings? Let’s just forget about it. 🙂 Onwards !!! 🙂

Post Scriptum: The key to ‘closing’ this discussion is, obviously, to be found in a full-blown analysis of the relativity of fields. So, yes, I have not done all of the required ‘homework’ on this and the previous post. I apologize for that. If anything, I hope it helped you to also try to think somewhat beyond the obvious. I realize I wasted a lot of time trying to understand the pre-cooked ready-made stuff that’s ‘on the market’, so to say. I still am, actually. Perhaps I should first thoroughly digest Feynman’s Lectures. In fact, I think that’s what I’ll try to do in the next year or so. Sorry for any inconvenience caused. 🙂

Re-visiting the matter wave (II)

My previous post was, once again, littered with formulas – even if I had not intended it to be that way: I want to convey some kind of understanding of what an electron – or any particle at the atomic scale – actually is – with the minimum number of formulas necessary.

We know particles display wave behavior: when an electron beam encounters an obstacle or a slit that is somewhat comparable in size to its wavelength, we’ll observe diffraction, or interference. [I have to insert a quick note on terminology here: the terms diffraction and interference are often used interchangeably, but there is a tendency to use interference when we have more than one wave source and diffraction when there is only one wave source. However, I’ll immediately add that distinction is somewhat artificial. Do we have one or two wave sources in a double-slit experiment? There is one beam but the two slits break it up in two and, hence, we would call it interference. If it’s only one slit, there is also an interference pattern, but the phenomenon will be referred to as diffraction.]

We also know that the wavelength we are talking about it here is not the wavelength of some electromagnetic wave, like light. It’s the wavelength of a de Broglie wave, i.e. a matter wave: such wave is represented by an (oscillating) complex number – so we need to keep track of a real and an imaginary part – representing a so-called probability amplitude Ψ(x, t) whose modulus squared (│Ψ(x, t)│2) is the probability of actually detecting the electron at point x at time t. [The purists will say that complex numbers can’t oscillate – but I am sure you get the idea.]

You should read the phrase above twice: we cannot know where the electron actually is. We can only calculate probabilities (and, of course, compare them with the probabilities we get from experiments). Hence, when the wave function tells us the probability is greatest at point x at time t, then we may be lucky when we actually probe point x at time t and find it there, but it may also not be there. In fact, the probability of finding it exactly at some point x at some definite time t is zero. That’s just a characteristic of such probability density functions: we need to probe some region Δx in some time interval Δt.

If you think that is not very satisfactory, there’s actually a very common-sense explanation that has nothing to do with quantum mechanics: our scientific instruments do not allow us to go beyond a certain scale anyway. Indeed, the resolution of the best electron microscopes, for example, is some 50 picometer (1 pm = 1×10–12 m): that’s small (and resolutions get higher by the year), but so it implies that we are not looking at points – as defined in math that is: so that’s something with zero dimension – but at pixels of size Δx = 50×10–12 m.

The same goes for time. Time is measured by atomic clocks nowadays but even these clocks do ‘tick’, and these ‘ticks’ are discrete. Atomic clocks take advantage of the property of atoms to resonate at extremely consistent frequencies. I’ll say something more about resonance soon – because it’s very relevant for what I am writing about in this post – but, for the moment, just note that, for example, Caesium-133 (which was used to build the first atomic clock) oscillates at 9,192,631,770 cycles per second. In fact, the International Bureau of Standards and Weights re-defined the (time) second in 1967 to correspond to “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the Caesium-133 atom at rest at a temperature of 0 K.”

Don’t worry about it: the point to note is that when it comes to measuring time, we also have an uncertainty. Now, when using this Caesium-133 atomic clock, this uncertainty would be in the range of ±9.2×10–9 seconds (so that’s nanoseconds: 1 ns = 1×10–9 s), because that’s the rate at which this clock ‘ticks’. However, there are other (much more plausible) ways of measuring time: some of the unstable baryons have lifetimes in the range of a few picoseconds only (1 ps = 1×10–12 s) and the really unstable ones – known as baryon resonances – have lifetimes in the 1×10–22 to 1×10–24 s range. This we can only measure because they leave some trace after these particle collisions in particle accelerators and, because we have some idea about their speed, we can calculate their lifetime from the (limited) distance they travel before disintegrating. The thing to remember is that for time also, we have to make do with time pixels  instead of time points, so there is a Δt as well. [In case you wonder what baryons are: they are particles consisting of three quarks, and the proton and the neutron are the most prominent (and most stable) representatives of this family of particles.]  

So what’s the size of an electron? Well… It depends. We need to distinguish two very different things: (1) the size of the area where we are likely to find the electron, and (2) the size of the electron itself. Let’s start with the latter, because that’s the easiest question to answer: there is a so-called classical electron radius re, which is also known as the Thompson scattering length, which has been calculated as:

r_\mathrm{e} = \frac{1}{4\pi\varepsilon_0}\frac{e^2}{m_{\mathrm{e}} c^2} = 2.817 940 3267(27) \times 10^{-15} \mathrm{m}As for the constants in this formula, you know these by now: the speed of light c, the electron charge e, its mass me, and the permittivity of free space εe. For whatever it’s worth (because you should note that, in quantum mechanics, electrons do not have a size: they are treated as point-like particles, so they have a point charge and zero dimension), that’s small. It’s in the femtometer range (1 fm = 1×10–15 m). You may or may not remember that the size of a proton is in the femtometer range as well – 1.7 fm to be precise – and we had a femtometer size estimate for quarks as well: 0.7 m. So we have the rather remarkable result that the much heavier proton (its rest mass is 938 MeV/csas opposed to only 0.511 MeV MeV/c2, so the proton is 1835 times heavier) is 1.65 times smaller than the electron. That’s something to be explored later: for the moment, we’ll just assume the electron wiggles around a bit more – exactly because it’s lighterHere you just have to note that this ‘classical’ electron radius does measure something: it’s something ‘hard’ and ‘real’ because it scatters, absorbs or deflects photons (and/or other particles). In one of my previous posts, I explained how particle accelerators probe things at the femtometer scale, so I’ll refer you to that post (End of the Road to Reality?) and move on to the next question.

The question concerning the area where we are likely to detect the electron is more interesting in light of the topic of this post (the nature of these matter waves). It is given by that wave function and, from my previous post, you’ll remember that we’re talking the nanometer scale here (1 nm = 1×10–9 m), so that’s a million times larger than the femtometer scale. Indeed, we’ve calculated a de Broglie wavelength of 0.33 nanometer for relatively slow-moving electrons (electrons in orbit), and the slits used in single- or double-slit experiments with electrons are also nanotechnology. In fact, now that we are here, it’s probably good to look at those experiments in detail.

The illustration below relates the actual experimental set-up of a double-slit experiment performed in 2012 to Feynman’s 1965 thought experiment. Indeed, in 1965, the nanotechnology you need for this kind of experiment was not yet available, although the phenomenon of electron diffraction had been confirmed experimentally already in 1925 in the famous Davisson-Germer experiment. [It’s famous not only because electron diffraction was a weird thing to contemplate at the time but also because it confirmed the de Broglie hypothesis only two years after Louis de Broglie had advanced it!]. But so here is the experiment which Feynman thought would never be possible because of technology constraints:

Electron double-slit set-upThe insert in the upper-left corner shows the two slits: they are each 50 nanometer wide (50×10–9 m) and 4 micrometer tall (4×10–6 m). [The thing in the middle of the slits is just a little support. Please do take a few seconds to contemplate the technology behind this feat: 50 nm is 50 millionths of a millimeter. Try to imagine dividing one millimeter in ten, and then one of these tenths in ten again, and again, and once again, again, and again. You just can’t imagine that, because our mind is used to addition/subtraction and – to some extent – with multiplication/division: our mind can’t deal with with exponentiation really – because it’s not a everyday phenomenon.] The second inset (in the upper-right corner) shows the mask that can be moved to close one or both slits partially or completely.

Now, 50 nanometer is 150 times larger than the 0.33 nanometer range we got for ‘our’ electron, but it’s small enough to show diffraction and/or interference. [In fact, in this experiment (done by Bach, Pope, Liou and Batelaan from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln less than two years ago indeed), the beam consisted of electrons with an (average) energy of 600 eV and a de Broglie wavelength of 50 picometer. So that’s like the electrons used in electron microscopes. 50 pm is 6.6 times smaller than the 0.33 nm wavelength we calculated for our low-energy (70 eV) electron – but then the energy and the fact these electrons are guided in electromagnetic fields explain the difference. Let’s go to the results.

The illustration below shows the predicted pattern next to the observed pattern for the two scenarios:

  1. We first close slit 2, let a lot of electrons go through it, and so we get a pattern described by the probability density function P1 = │Φ12. Here we see no interference but a typical diffraction pattern: the intensity follows a more or less normal (i.e. Gaussian) distribution. We then close slit 1 (and open slit 2 again), again let a lot of electrons through, and get a pattern described by the probability density function P2 = │Φ22. So that’s how we get P1 and P2.
  2. We then open both slits, let a whole electrons through, and get according to the pattern described by probability density function P12 = │Φ122, which we get not from adding the probabilities P1 and P2 (hence, P12 ≠  P1 + P2) – as one would expect if electrons would behave like particles – but from adding the probability amplitudes. We have interference, rather than diffraction.

Predicted interference effectBut so what exactly is interfering? Well… The electrons. But that can’t be, can it?

The electrons are obviously particles, as evidenced from the impact they make – one by one – as they hit the screen as shown below. [If you want to know what screen, let me quote the researchers: “The resulting patterns were magnified by an electrostatic quadrupole lens and imaged on a two-dimensional microchannel plate and phosphorus screen, then recorded with a charge-coupled device camera. […] To study the build-up of the diffraction pattern, each electron was localized using a “blob” detection scheme: each detection was replaced by a blob, whose size represents the error in the localization of the detection scheme. The blobs were compiled together to form the electron diffraction patterns.” So there you go.]

Electron blobs

Look carefully at how this interference pattern becomes ‘reality’ as the electrons hit the screen one by one. And then say it: WAW ! 

Indeed, as predicted by Feynman (and any other physics professor at the time), even if the electrons go through the slits one by one, they will interfere – with themselves so to speak. [In case you wonder if these electrons really went through one by one, let me quote the researchers once again: “The electron source’s intensity was reduced so that the electron detection rate in the pattern was about 1 Hz. At this rate and kinetic energy, the average distance between consecutive electrons was 2.3 × 106 meters. This ensures that only one electron is present in the 1 meter long system at any one time, thus eliminating electron-electron interactions.” You don’t need to be a scientist or engineer to understand that, isn’t it?]

While this is very spooky, I have not seen any better way to describe the reality of the de Broglie wave: the particle is not some point-like thing but a matter wave, as evidenced from the fact that it does interfere with itself when forced to move through two slits – or through one slit, as evidenced by the diffraction patterns built up in this experiment when closing one of the two slits: the electrons went through one by one as well!

But so how does it relate to the characteristics of that wave packet which I described in my previous post? Let me sum up the salient conclusions from that discussion:

  1. The wavelength λ of a wave packet is calculated directly from the momentum by using de Broglie‘s second relation: λ = h/p. In this case, the wavelength of the electrons averaged 50 picometer. That’s relatively small as compared to the width of the slit (50 nm) – a thousand times smaller actually! – but, as evidenced by the experiment, it’s small enough to show the ‘reality’ of the de Broglie wave.
  2. From a math point (but, of course, Nature does not care about our math), we can decompose the wave packet in a finite or infinite number of component waves. Such decomposition is referred to, in the first case (finite number of composite waves or discrete calculus) as a Fourier analysis, or, in the second case, as a Fourier transform. A Fourier transform maps our (continuous) wave function, Ψ(x), to a (continuous) wave function in the momentum space, which we noted as φ(p). [In fact, we noted it as Φ(p) but I don’t want to create confusion with the Φ symbol used in the experiment, which is actually the wave function in space, so Ψ(x) is Φ(x) in the experiment – if you know what I mean.] The point to note is that uncertainty about momentum is related to uncertainty about position. In this case, we’ll have pretty standard electrons (so not much variation in momentum), and so the location of the wave packet in space should be fairly precise as well.
  3. The group velocity of the wave packet (vg) – i.e. the envelope in which our Ψ wave oscillates – equals the speed of our electron (v), but the phase velocity (i.e. the speed of our Ψ wave itself) is superluminal: we showed it’s equal to (vp) = E/p =   c2/v = c/β, with β = v/c, so that’s the ratio of the speed of our electron and the speed of light. Hence, the phase velocity will always be superluminal but will approach c as the speed of our particle approaches c. For slow-moving particles, we get astonishing values for the phase velocity, like more than a hundred times the speed of light for the electron we looked at in our previous post. That’s weird but it does not contradict relativity: if it helps, one can think of the wave packet as a modulation of an incredibly fast-moving ‘carrier wave’. 

Is any of this relevant? Does it help you to imagine what the electron actually is? Or what that matter wave actually is? Probably not. You will still wonder: How does it look like? What is it in reality?

That’s hard to say. If the experiment above does not convey any ‘reality’ according to you, then perhaps the illustration below will help. It’s one I have used in another post too (An Easy Piece: Introducing Quantum Mechanics and the Wave Function). I took it from Wikipedia, and it represents “the (likely) space in which a single electron on the 5d atomic orbital of an atom would be found.” The solid body shows the places where the electron’s probability density (so that’s the squared modulus of the probability amplitude) is above a certain value – so it’s basically the area where the likelihood of finding the electron is higher than elsewhere. The hue on the colored surface shows the complex phase of the wave function.

Hydrogen_eigenstate_n5_l2_m1

So… Does this help? 

You will wonder why the shape is so complicated (but it’s beautiful, isn’t it?) but that has to do with quantum-mechanical calculations involving quantum-mechanical quantities such as spin and other machinery which I don’t master (yet). I think there’s always a bit of a gap between ‘first principles’ in physics and the ‘model’ of a real-life situation (like a real-life electron in this case), but it’s surely the case in quantum mechanics! That being said, when looking at the illustration above, you should be aware of the fact that you are actually looking at a 3D representation of the wave function of an electron in orbit. 

Indeed, wave functions of electrons in orbit are somewhat less random than – let’s say – the wave function of one of those baryon resonances I mentioned above. As mentioned in my Not So Easy Piece, in which I introduced the Schrödinger equation (i.e. one of my previous posts), they are solutions of a second-order partial differential equation – known as the Schrödinger wave equation indeed – which basically incorporates one key condition: these solutions – which are (atomic or molecular) ‘orbitals’ indeed – have to correspond to so-called stationary states or standing waves. Now what’s the ‘reality’ of that? 

The illustration below comes from Wikipedia once again (Wikipedia is an incredible resource for autodidacts like me indeed) and so you can check the article (on stationary states) for more details if needed. Let me just summarize the basics:

  1. A stationary state is called stationary because the system remains in the same ‘state’ independent of time. That does not mean the wave function is stationary. On the contrary, the wave function changes as function of both time and space – Ψ = Ψ(x, t) remember? – but it represents a so-called standing wave.
  2. Each of these possible states corresponds to an energy state, which is given through the de Broglie relation: E = hf. So the energy of the state is proportional to the oscillation frequency of the (standing) wave, and Planck’s constant is the factor of proportionality. From a formal point of view, that’s actually the one and only condition we impose on the ‘system’, and so it immediately yields the so-called time-independent Schrödinger equation, which I briefly explained in the above-mentioned Not So Easy Piece (but I will not write it down here because it would only confuse you even more). Just look at these so-called harmonic oscillators below:

QuantumHarmonicOscillatorAnimation

A and B represent a harmonic oscillator in classical mechanics: a ball with some mass m (mass is a measure for inertia, remember?) on a spring oscillating back and forth. In case you’d wonder what the difference is between the two: both the amplitude as well as the frequency of the movement are different. 🙂 A spring and a ball?

It represents a simple system. A harmonic oscillation is basically a resonance phenomenon: springs, electric circuits,… anything that swings, moves or oscillates (including large-scale things such as bridges and what have you – in his 1965 Lectures (Vol. I-23), Feynman even discusses resonance phenomena in the atmosphere in his Lectures) has some natural frequency ω0, also referred to as the resonance frequency, at which it oscillates naturally indeed: that means it requires (relatively) little energy to keep it going. How much energy it takes exactly to keep them going depends on the frictional forces involved: because the springs in A and B keep going, there’s obviously no friction involved at all. [In physics, we say there is no damping.] However, both springs do have a different k (that’s the key characteristic of a spring in Hooke’s Law, which describes how springs work), and the mass m of the ball might be different as well. Now, one can show that the period of this ‘natural’ movement will be equal to t0 = 2π/ω= 2π(m/k)1/2 or that ω= (m/k)–1/2. So we’ve got a A and a B situation which differ in k and m. Let’s go to the so-called quantum oscillator, illustrations C to H.

C to H in the illustration are six possible solutions to the Schrödinger Equation for this situation. The horizontal axis is position (and so time is the variable) – but we could switch the two independent variables easily: as I said a number of times already, time and space are interchangeable in the argument representing the phase (θ) of a wave provided we use the right units (e.g. light-seconds for distance and seconds for time): θ = ωt – kx. Apart from the nice animation, the other great thing about these illustrations – and the main difference with resonance frequencies in the classical world – is that they show both the real part (blue) as well as the imaginary part (red) of the wave function as a function of space (fixed in the x axis) and time (the animation).

Is this ‘real’ enough? If it isn’t, I know of no way to make it any more ‘real’. Indeed, that’s key to understanding the nature of matter waves: we have to come to terms with the idea that these strange fluctuating mathematical quantities actually represent something. What? Well… The spooky thing that leads to the above-mentioned experimental results: electron diffraction and interference. 

Let’s explore this quantum oscillator some more. Another key difference between natural frequencies in atomic physics (so the atomic scale) and resonance phenomena in ‘the big world’ is that there is more than one possibility: each of the six possible states above corresponds to a solution and an energy state indeed, which is given through the de Broglie relation: E = hf. However, in order to be fully complete, I have to mention that, while G and H are also solutions to the wave equation, they are actually not stationary states. The illustration below – which I took from the same Wikipedia article on stationary states – shows why. For stationary states, all observable properties of the state (such as the probability that the particle is at location x) are constant. For non-stationary states, the probabilities themselves fluctuate as a function of time (and space of obviously), so the observable properties of the system are not constant. These solutions are solutions to the time-dependent Schrödinger equation and, hence, they are, obviously, time-dependent solutions.

StationaryStatesAnimationWe can find these time-dependent solutions by superimposing two stationary states, so we have a new wave function ΨN which is the sum of two others:  ΨN = Ψ1  + Ψ2. [If you include the normalization factor (as you should to make sure all probabilities add up to 1), it’s actually ΨN = (2–1/2)(Ψ1  + Ψ2).] So G and H above still represent a state of a quantum harmonic oscillator (with a specific energy level proportional to h), but so they are not standing waves.

Let’s go back to our electron traveling in a more or less straight path. What’s the shape of the solution for that one? It could be anything. Well… Almost anything. As said, the only condition we can impose is that the envelope of the wave packet – its ‘general’ shape so to say – should not change. That because we should not have dispersion – as illustrated below. [Note that this illustration only represent the real or the imaginary part – not both – but you get the idea.]

dispersion

That being said, if we exclude dispersion (because a real-life electron traveling in a straight line doesn’t just disappear – as do dispersive wave packets), then, inside of that envelope, the weirdest things are possible – in theory that is. Indeed, Nature does not care much about our Fourier transforms. So the example below, which shows a theoretical wave packet (again, the real or imaginary part only) based on some theoretical distribution of the wave numbers of the (infinite number) of component waves that make up the wave packet, may or may not represent our real-life electron. However, if our electron has any resemblance to real-life, then I would expect it to not be as well-behaved as the theoretical one that’s shown below.

example of wave packet

The shape above is usually referred to as a Gaussian wave packet, because of the nice normal (Gaussian) probability density functions that are associated with it. But we can also imagine a ‘square’ wave packet: a somewhat weird shape but – in terms of the math involved – as consistent as the smooth Gaussian wave packet, in the sense that we can demonstrate that the wave packet is made up of an infinite number of waves with an angular frequency ω that is linearly related to their wave number k, so the dispersion relation is ω = ak + b. [Remember we need to impose that condition to ensure that our wave packet will not dissipate (or disperse or disappear – whatever term you prefer.] That’s shown below: a Fourier analysis of a square wave.

Square wave packet

While we can construct many theoretical shapes of wave packets that respect the ‘no dispersion!’ condition, we cannot know which one will actually represent that electron we’re trying to visualize. Worse, if push comes to shove, we don’t know if these matter waves (so these wave packets) actually consist of component waves (or time-independent stationary states or whatever).

[…] OK. Let me finally admit it: while I am trying to explain you the ‘reality’ of these matter waves, we actually don’t know how real these matter waves actually are. We cannot ‘see’ or ‘touch’ them indeed. All that we know is that (i) assuming their existence, and (ii) assuming these matter waves are more or less well-behaved (e.g. that actual particles will be represented by a composite wave characterized by a linear dispersion relation between the angular frequencies and the wave numbers of its (theoretical) component waves) allows us to do all that arithmetic with these (complex-valued) probability amplitudes. More importantly, all that arithmetic with these complex numbers actually yields (real-valued) probabilities that are consistent with the probabilities we obtain through repeated experiments. So that’s what’s real and ‘not so real’ I’d say.

Indeed, the bottom-line is that we do not know what goes on inside that envelope. Worse, according to the commonly accepted Copenhagen interpretation of the Uncertainty Principle (and tons of experiments have been done to try to overthrow that interpretation – all to no avail), we never will.

Bose and Fermi

Probability amplitudes: what are they?

Instead of reading Penrose, I’ve started to read Richard Feynman again. Of course, reading the original is always better than whatever others try to make of that, so I’d recommend you read Feynman yourself – instead of this blog. But then you’re doing that already, aren’t you? 🙂

Let’s explore those probability amplitudes somewhat more. They are complex numbers. In a fine little book on quantum mechanics (QED, 1985), Feynman calls them ‘arrows’ – and that’s what they are: two-dimensional vectors, aka complex numbers. So they have a direction and a length (or magnitude). When talking amplitudes, the direction and length are known as the phase and the modulus (or absolute value) respectively and you also know by now that the modulus squared represents a probability or probability density, such as the probability of detecting some particle (a photon or an electron) at some location x or some region Δx, or the probability of some particle going from A to B, or the probability of a photon being emitted or absorbed by an electron (or a proton), etcetera. I’ve inserted two illustrations below to explain the matter.

The first illustration just shows what a complex number really is: a two-dimensional number (z) with a real part (Re(z) = x) and an imaginary part (Im(z) = y). We can represent it in two ways: one uses the (x, y) coordinate system (z = x + iy), and the other is the so-called polar form: z = reiφ. The (real) number e in the latter equation is just Euler’s number, so that’s a mathematical constant (just like π). The little i is the imaginary unit, so that’s the thing we introduce to add a second (vertical) dimension to our analysis: i can be written as 0+= (0, 1) indeed, and so it’s like a (second) basis vector in the two-dimensional (Cartesian or complex) plane.

polar form of complex number

I should not say much more about this, but I must list some essential properties and relationships:

  • The coordinate and polar form are related through Euler’s formula: z = x + iy = reiφ = r(cosφ + isinφ).
  • From this, and the fact that cos(-φ) = cosφ and sin(-φ) = –sinφ, it follows that the (complex) conjugate z* = x – iy of a complex number z = x + iy is equal to z* = reiφ. [I use z* as a symbol, instead of z-bar, because I can’t find a z-bar in the character set here.]  This equality is illustrated above.
  • The length/modulus/absolute value of a complex number is written as |z| and is equal to |z| = (x2 + y2)1/2 = |reiφ| = r (so r is always a positive (real) number).
  • As you can see from the graph, a complex number z and its conjugate z* have the same absolute value: |z| = |x+iy| = |z*| = |x-iy|.
  • Therefore, we have the following: |z||z|=|z*||z*|=|z||z*|=|z|2, and we can use this result to calculate the (multiplicative) inverse: z-1 = 1/z = z*/|z|2.
  • The absolute value of a product of complex numbers equals the product of the absolute values of those numbers: |z1z2| = |z1||z2|.
  • Last but not least, it is important to be aware of the geometric interpretation of the sum and the product of two complex numbers:
    • The sum of two complex numbers amounts to adding vectors, so that’s the familiar parallelogram law for vector addition: (a+ib) + (c+id) = (a+b) + i(c+d).
    • Multiplying two complex numbers amounts to adding the angles and multiplying their lengths – as evident from writing such product in its polar form: reiθseiΘ = rsei(θ+Θ). The result is, quite obviously, another complex number. So it is not the usual scalar or vector product which you may or may not be familiar with.

[For the sake of completeness: (i) the scalar product (aka dot product) of two vectors (ab) is equal to the product of is the product of the magnitudes of the two vectors and the cosine of the angle between them: ab = |a||b|cosα; and (ii) the result of a vector product (or cross product) is a vector which is perpendicular to both, so it’s a vector that is not in the same plane as the vectors we are multiplying: a×b = |a||b| sinα n, with n the unit vector perpendicular to the plane containing a and b in the direction given by the so-called right-hand rule. Just be aware of the difference.]

The second illustration (see below) comes from that little book I mentioned above already: Feynman’s exquisite 1985 Alix G. Mautner Memorial Lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics, better known as QED: the Strange Theory of Light and Matter. It shows how these probability amplitudes, or ‘arrows’ as he calls them, really work, without even mentioning that they are ‘probability amplitudes’ or ‘complex numbers’. That being said, these ‘arrows’ are what they are: probability amplitudes.

To be precise, the illustration below shows the probability amplitude of a photon (so that’s a little packet of light) reflecting from the front surface (front reflection arrow) and the back (back reflection arrow) of a thin sheet of glass. If we write these vectors in polar form (reiφ), then it is obvious that they have the same length (r = 0.2) but their phase φ is different. That’s because the photon needs to travel a bit longer to reach the back of the glass: so the phase varies as a function of time and space, but the length doesn’t. Feynman visualizes that with the stopwatch: as the photon is emitted from a light source and travels through time and space, the stopwatch turns and, hence, the arrow will point in a different direction.

[To be even more precise, the amplitude for a photon traveling from point A to B is a (fairly simple) function (which I won’t write down here though) which depends on the so-called spacetime interval. This spacetime interval (written as I or s2) is equal to I = [(x-x1)2+(y-y1)2+(z-z1)2] – (t-t1)2. So the first term in this expression is the square of the distance in space, and the second term is the difference in time, or the ‘time distance’. Of course, we need to measure time and distance in equivalent units: we do that either by measuring spatial distance in light-seconds (i.e. the distance traveled by light in one second) or by expressing time in units that are equal to the time it takes for light to travel one meter (in the latter case we ‘stretch’ time (by multiplying it with c, i.e. the speed of light) while in the former, we ‘stretch’ our distance units). Because of the minus sign between the two terms, the spacetime interval can be negative, zero, or positive, and we call these intervals time-like (I < 0), light-like (I = 0) or space-like (I > 0). Because nothing travels faster than light, two events separated by a space-like interval cannot have a cause-effect relationship. I won’t go into any more detail here but, at this point, you may want to read the article on the so-called light cone relating past and future events in Wikipedia, because that’s what we’re talking about here really.]

front and back reflection amplitude

Feynman adds the two arrows, because a photon may be reflected either by the front surface or by the back surface and we can’t know which of the two possibilities was the case. So he adds the amplitudes here, not the probabilities. The probability of the photon bouncing off the front surface is the modulus of the amplitude squared, (i.e. |reiφ|2 = r2), and so that’s 4% here (0.2·0.2). The probability for the back surface is the same: 4% also. However, the combined probability of a photon bouncing back from either the front or the back surface – we cannot know which path was followed – is not 8%, but some value between 0 and 16% (5% only in the top illustration, and 16% (i.e. the maximum) in the bottom illustration). This value depends on the thickness of the sheet of glass. That’s because it’s the thickness of the sheet that determines where the hand of our stopwatch stops. If the glass is just thick enough to make the stopwatch make one extra half turn as the photon travels through the glass from the front to the back, then we reach our maximum value of 16%, and so that’s what shown in the bottom half of the illustration above.

For the sake of completeness, I need to note that the full explanation is actually a bit more complex. Just a little bit. 🙂 Indeed, there is no such thing as ‘surface reflection’ really: a photon has an amplitude for scattering by each and every layer of electrons in the glass and so we have actually have many more arrows to add in order to arrive at a ‘final’ arrow. However, Feynman shows how all these arrows can be replaced by two so-called ‘radius arrows’: one for ‘front surface reflection’ and one for ‘back surface reflection’. The argument is relatively easy but I have no intention to fully copy Feynman here because the point here is only to illustrate how probabilities are calculated from probability amplitudes. So just remember: probabilities are real numbers between 0 and 1 (or between 0 and 100%), while amplitudes are complex numbers – or ‘arrows’ as Feynman calls them in this popular lectures series.

In order to give somewhat more credit to Feynman – and also to be somewhat more complete on how light really reflects from a sheet of glass (or a film of oil on water or a mud puddle), I copy one more illustration here – with the text – which speaks for itself: “The phenomenon of colors produced by the partial reflection of white light by two surfaces is called iridescence, and can be found in many places. Perhaps you have wondered how the brilliant colors of hummingbirds and peacocks are produced. Now you know.” The iridescence phenomenon is caused by really small variations in the thickness of the reflecting material indeed, and it is, perhaps, worth noting that Feynman is also known as the father of nanotechnology… 🙂

Iridescence

Light versus matter

So much for light – or electromagnetic waves in general. They consist of photons. Photons are discrete wave-packets of energy, and their energy (E) is related to the frequency of the light (f) through the Planck relation: E = hf. The factor h in this relation is the Planck constant, or the quantum of action in quantum mechanics as this tiny number (6.62606957×10−34) is also being referred to. Photons have no mass and, hence, they travel at the speed of light indeed. But what about the other wave-like particles, like electrons?

For these, we have probability amplitudes (or, more generally, a wave function) as well, the characteristics of which are given by the de Broglie relations. These de Broglie relations also associate a frequency and a wavelength with the energy and/or the momentum of the ‘wave-particle’ that we are looking at: f = E/h and λ = h/p. In fact, one will usually find those two de Broglie relations in a slightly different but equivalent form: ω = E/ħ and k = p/ħ. The symbol ω stands for the angular frequency, so that’s the frequency expressed in radians. In other words, ω is the speed with which the hand of that stopwatch is going round and round and round. Similarly, k is the wave number, and so that’s the wavelength expressed in radians (or the spatial frequency one might say). We use k and ω in wave functions because the argument of these wave functions is the phase of the probability amplitude, and this phase is expressed in radians. For more details on how we go from distance and time units to radians, I refer to my previous post. [Indeed, I need to move on here otherwise this post will become a book of its own! Just check out the following: λ = 2π/k and f = ω/2π.]

How should we visualize a de Broglie wave for, let’s say, an electron? Well, I think the following illustration (which I took from Wikipedia) is not too bad.    

2000px-Quantum_mechanics_travelling_wavefunctions_wavelength

Let’s first look at the graph on the top of the left-hand side of the illustration above. We have a complex wave function Ψ(x) here but only the real part of it is being graphed. Also note that we only look at how this function varies over space at some fixed point of time, and so we do not have a time variable here. That’s OK. Adding the complex part would be nice but it would make the graph even more ‘complex’ :-), and looking at one point in space only and analyzing the amplitude as a function of time only would yield similar graphs. If you want to see an illustration with both the real as well as the complex part of a wave function, have a look at my previous post.

We also have the probability – that’s the red graph – as a function of the probability amplitude: P = |Ψ(x)|2 (so that’s just the modulus squared). What probability? Well, the probability that we can actually find the particle (let’s say an electron) at that location. Probability is obviously always positive (unlike the real (or imaginary) part of the probability amplitude, which oscillate around the x-axis). The probability is also reflected in the opacity of the little red ‘tennis ball’ representing our ‘wavicle’: the opacity varies as a function of the probability. So our electron is smeared out, so to say, over the space denoted as Δx.

Δx is the uncertainty about the position. The question mark next to the λ symbol (we’re still looking at the graph on the top left-hand side of the above illustration only: don’t look at the other three graphs now!) attributes this uncertainty to uncertainty about the wavelength. As mentioned in my previous post, wave packets, or wave trains, do not tend to have an exact wavelength indeed. And so, according to the de Broglie equation λ = h/p, if we cannot associate an exact value with λ, we will not be able to associate an exact value with p. Now that’s what’s shown on the right-hand side. In fact, because we’ve got a relatively good take on the position of this ‘particle’ (or wavicle we should say) here, we have a much wider interval for its momentum : Δpx. [We’re only considering the horizontal component of the momentum vector p here, so that’s px.] Φ(p) is referred to as the momentum wave function, and |Φ(p)|2 is the corresponding probability (or probability density as it’s usually referred to).

The two graphs at the bottom present the reverse situation: fairly precise momentum, but a lot of uncertainty about the wavicle’s position (I know I should stick to the term ‘particle’ – because that’s what physicists prefer – but I think ‘wavicle’ describes better what it’s supposed to be). So the illustration above is not only an illustration of the de Broglie wave function for a particle, but it also illustrates the Uncertainty Principle.

Now, I know I should move on to the thing I really want to write about in this post – i.e. bosons and fermions – but I feel I need to say a few things more about this famous ‘Uncertainty Principle’ – if only because I find it quite confusing. According to Feynman, one should not attach too much importance to it. Indeed, when introducing his simple arithmetic on probability amplitudes, Feynman writes the following about it: “The uncertainty principle needs to be seen in its historical context. When the revolutionary ideas of quantum physics were first coming out, people still tried to understand them in terms of old-fashioned ideas (such as, light goes in straight lines). But at a certain point, the old-fashioned ideas began to fail, so a warning was developed that said, in effect, ‘Your old-fashioned ideas are no damn good when…’ If you get rid of all the old-fashioned ideas and instead use the ideas that I’m explaining in these lectures – adding arrows for all the ways an event can happen – there is no need for the uncertainty principle!” So, according to Feynman, wave function math deals with all and everything and therefore we should, perhaps, indeed forget about this rather mysterious ‘principle’.

However, because it is mentioned so much (especially in the more popular writing), I did try to find some kind of easy derivation of its standard formulation: ΔxΔp ≥ ħ (ħ = h/2π, i.e. the quantum of angular momentum in quantum mechanics). To my surprise, it’s actually not easy to derive the uncertainty principle from other basic ‘principles’. As mentioned above, it follows from the de Broglie equation  λ = h/p that momentum (p) and wavelength (λ) are related, but so how do we relate the uncertainty about the wavelength (Δλ) or the momentum (Δp) to the uncertainty about the position of the particle (Δx)? The illustration below, which analyzes a wave packet (aka a wave train), might provide some clue. Before you look at the illustration and start wondering what it’s all about, remember that a wave function with a definite (angular) frequency ω and wave number k (as described in my previous post), which we can write as Ψ = Aei(ωt-kx), represents the amplitude of a particle with a known momentum p = ħ/at some point x and t, and that we had a big problem with such wave, because the squared modulus of this function is a constant: |Ψ|2 = |Aei(ωt-kx)|= A2. So that means that the probability of finding this particle is the same at all points. So it’s everywhere and nowhere really (so it’s like the second wave function in the illustration above, but then with Δx infinitely long and the same wave shape all along the x-axis). Surely, we can’t have this, can we? Now we cannot – if only because of the fact that if we add up all of the probabilities, we would not get some finite number. So, in reality, particles are effectively confined to some region Δor – if we limit our analysis to one dimension only (for the sake of simplicity) – Δx (remember that bold-type symbols represent vectors). So the probability amplitude of a particle is more likely to look like something that we refer to as a wave packet or a wave train. And so that’s what’s explained more in detail below.

Now, I said that localized wave trains do not tend to have an exact wavelength. What do I mean with that? It doesn’t sound very precise, does it? In fact, we actually can easily sketch a graph of a wave packet with some fixed wavelength (or fixed frequency), so what am I saying here? I am saying that, in quantum physics, we are only looking at a very specific type of wave train: they are a composite of a (potentially infinite) number of waves whose wavelengths are distributed more or less continuously around some average, as shown in the illustration below, and so the addition of all of these waves – or their superposition as the process of adding waves is usually referred to – results in a combined ‘wavelength’ for the localized wave train that we cannot, indeed, equate with some exact number. I have not mastered the details of the mathematical process referred to as Fourier analysis (which refers to the decomposition of a combined wave into its sinusoidal components) as yet, and, hence, I am not in a position to quickly show you how Δx and Δλ are related exactly, but the point to note is that a wider spread of wavelengths results in a smaller Δx. Now, a wider spread of wavelengths corresponds to a wider spread in p too, and so there we have the Uncertainty Principle: the more we know about Δx, the less we know about Δx, and so that’s what the inequality ΔxΔp ≥ h/2π represents really.

Explanation of uncertainty principle

[Those who like to check things out may wonder why a wider spread in wavelength implies a wider spread in momentum. Indeed, if we just replace λ and p with Δλ and Δp  in the de Broglie equation λ = h/p, we get Δλ = h/Δp and so we have an inversely proportional relationship here, don’t we? No. We can’t just write that Δλ = Δ(h/p) but this Δ is not some mathematical operator than you can simply move inside of the brackets. What is Δλ? Is it a standard deviation? Is it the spread and, if so, what’s the spread? We could, for example, define it as the difference between some maximum value λmax and some minimum value λmin, so as Δλ = λmax – λmin. These two values would then correspond with pmax =h/λmin and pmin =h/λmax and so the corresponding spread in momentum would be equal to Δp = pmax – pmin =  h/λmin – h/λmax = h(λmax – λmin)/(λmaxλmin). So a wider spread in wavelength does result in a wider spread in momentum, but the relationship is more subtle than you might think at first. In fact, in a more rigorous approach, we would indeed see the standard deviation (represented by the sigma symbol σ) from some average as a measure of the ‘uncertainty’. To be precise, the more precise formulation of the Uncertainty Principle is: σxσ≥ ħ/2, but don’t ask me where that 2 comes from!]

I really need to move on now, because this post is already way too lengthy and, hence, not very readable. So, back to that very first question: what’s that wave function math? Well, that’s obviously too complex a topic to be fully exhausted here. 🙂 I just wanted to present one aspect of it in this post: Bose-Einstein statistics. Huh? Yes.

When we say Bose-Einstein statistics, we should also say its opposite: Fermi-Dirac statistics. Bose-Einstein statistics were ‘discovered’ by the Indian scientist Satyanendra Nath Bose (the only thing Einstein did was to give Bose’s work on this wider recognition) and they apply to bosons (so they’re named after Bose only), while Fermi-Dirac statistics apply to fermions (‘Fermi-Diraqions’ doesn’t sound good either obviously). Any particle, or any wavicle I should say, is either a fermion or a boson. There’s a strict dichotomy: you can’t have characteristics of both. No split personalities. Not even for a split second.

The best-known examples of bosons are photons and the recently experimentally confirmed Higgs particle. But, in case you have heard of them, gluons (which mediate the so-called strong interactions between particles), and the W+, W and Z particles (which mediate the so-called weak interactions) are bosons too. Protons, neutrons and electrons, on the other hand, are fermions.

More complex particles, such as atomic nuclei, are also either bosons or fermions. That depends on the number of protons and neutrons they consist of. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here, I’ll just note that bosons – unlike fermions – can pile on top of one another without limit, all occupying the same ‘quantum state’. This explains superconductivity, superfluidity and Bose-Einstein condensation at low temperatures. Indeed, these phenomena usually involve (bosonic) helium. You can’t do it with fermions. Superfluid helium has very weird properties, including zero viscosity – so it flows without dissipating energy and it creeps up the wall of its container, seemingly defying gravity: just Google one of the videos on the Web! It’s amazing stuff! Bose statistics also explain why photons of the same frequency can form coherent and extremely powerful laser beams, with (almost) no limit as to how much energy can be focused in a beam.

Fermions, on the other hand, avoid one another. Electrons, for example, organize themselves in shells around a nucleus stack. They can never collapse into some kind of condensed cloud, as bosons can. If electrons would not be fermions, we would not have such variety of atoms with such great range of chemical properties. But, again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Back to the math.

Bose versus Fermi particles

When adding two probability amplitudes (instead of probabilities), we are adding complex numbers (or vectors or arrows or whatever you want to call them), and so we need to take their phase into account or – to put it simply – their direction. If their phase is the same, the length of the new vector will be equal to the sum of the lengths of the two original vectors. When their phase is not the same, then the new vector will be shorter than the sum of the lengths of the two amplitudes that we are adding. How much shorter? Well, that obviously depends on the angle between the two vectors, i.e. the difference in phase: if it’s 180 degrees (or π radians), then they will cancel each other out and we have zero amplitude! So that’s destructive or negative interference. If it’s less than 90 degrees, then we will have constructive or positive interference.

It’s because of this interference effect that we have to add probability amplitudes first, before we can calculate the probability of an event happening in one or the other (indistinguishable) way (let’s say A or B) – instead of just adding probabilities as we would do in the classical world. It’s not subtle. It makes a big difference: |ΨA + ΨB|2 is the probability when we cannot distinguish the alternatives (so when we’re in the world of quantum mechanics and, hence, we have to add amplitudes), while |ΨA|+ |ΨB|is the probability when we can see what happens (i.e. we can see whetheror B was the case). Now, |ΨA + ΨB|is definitely not the same as |ΨA|+ |ΨB|– not for real numbers, and surely not for complex numbers either. But let’s move on with the argument – literally: I mean the argument of the wave function at hand here.

That stopwatch business above makes it easier to introduce the thought experiment which Feynman also uses to introduce Bose versus Fermi statistics (Feynman Lectures (1965), Vol. III, Lecture 4). The experimental set-up is shown below. We have two particles, which are being referred to as particle a and particle b respectively (so we can distinguish the two), heading straight for each other and, hence, they are likely to collide and be scattered in some other direction. The experimental set-up is designed to measure where they are likely to end up, i.e. to measure probabilities. [There’s no certainty in the quantum-mechanical world, remember?] So, in this experiment, we have a detector (or counter) at location 1 and a detector/counter at location 2 and, after many many measurements, we have some value for the (combined) probability that particle a goes to detector 1 and particle b goes to counter 2. This amplitude is a complex number and you may expect it will depend on the angle θ as shown in the illustration below.

scattering identical particles

So this angle θ will obviously show up somehow in the argument of our wave function. Hence, the wave function, or probability amplitude, describing the amplitude of particle a ending up in counter 1 and particle b ending up in counter 2 will be some (complex) function Ψ1= f(θ). Please note, once again, that θ is not some (complex) phase but some real number (expressed in radians) between 0 and 2π that characterizes the set-up of the experiment above. It is also worth repeating that f(θ) is not the amplitude of particle a hitting detector 1 only but the combined amplitude of particle a hitting counter 1 and particle b hitting counter 2! It makes a big difference and it’s essential in the interpretation of this argument! So, the combined probability of a going to 1 and of particle b going to 2, which we will write as P1, is equal to |Ψ1|= |f(θ)|2.

OK. That’s obvious enough. However, we might also find particle a in detector 2 and particle b in detector 1. Surely, the probability amplitude probability for this should be equal to f(θ+π)? It’s just a matter of switching counter 1 and 2 – i.e. we rotate their position over 180 degrees, or π (in radians) – and then we just insert the new angle of this experimental set-up (so that’s θ+π) into the very same wave function and there we are. Right?

Well… Maybe. The probability of a going to 2 and b going to 1, which we will write as P2, will be equal to |f(θ+π)|indeed. However, our probability amplitude, which I’ll write as Ψ2may not be equal to f(θ+π). It’s just a mathematical possibility. I am not saying anything definite here. Huh? Why not? 

Well… Think about the thing we said about the phase and the possibility of a phase shift: f(θ+π) is just one of the many mathematical possibilities for a wave function yielding a probability P=|Ψ2|= |f(θ+π)|2. But any function eiδf(θ+π) will yield the same probability. Indeed, |z1z2| = |z1||z2| and so |eiδ f(θ+π)|2 = (|eiδ||f(θ+π)|)= |eiδ|2|f(θ+π)|= |f(θ+π)|(the square of the modulus of a complex number on the unit circle is always one – because the length of vectors on the unit circle is equal to one). It’s a general thing: if Ψ is some wave function (i.e. it describes some complex amplitude in space and time, then eiδΨ is the same wave function but with a phase shift equal to δ. Huh? Yes. Think about it: we’re multiplying complex numbers here, so that’s adding angles and multiplying lengths. Now the length of eiδ is 1 (because it’s a complex number on the unit circle) but its phase is δ. So multiplying Ψ with eiδ does not change the length of Ψ but it does shift its phase by an amount (in radians) equal to δ. That should be easy enough to understand.

You probably wonder what I am being so fussy, and what that δ could be, or why it would be there. After all, we do have a well-behaved wave function f(θ) here, depending on x, t and θ, and so the only thing we did was to change the angle θ (we added π radians to it). So why would we need to insert a phase shift here? Because that’s what δ really is: some random phase shift. Well… I don’t know. This phase factor is just a mathematical possibility as for now. So we just assume that, for some reason which we don’t understand right now, there might be some ‘arbitrary phase factor’ (that’s how Feynman calls δ) coming into play when we ‘exchange’ the ‘role’ of the particles. So maybe that δ is there, but maybe not. I admit it looks very ugly. In fact, if the story about Bose’s ‘discovery’ of this ‘mathematical possibility’ (in 1924) is correct, then it all started with an obvious ‘mistake’ in a quantum-mechanical calculation – but a ‘mistake’ that, miraculously, gave predictions that agreed with experimental results that could not be explained without introducing this ‘mistake’. So let the argument go full circle – literally – and take your time to appreciate the beauty of argumentation in physics.

Let’s swap detector 1 and detector 2 a second time, so we ‘exchange’ particle a and b once again. So then we need to apply this phase factor δ once again and, because of symmetry in physics, we obviously have to use the same phase factor δ – not some other value γ or something. We’re only rotating our detectors once again. That’s it. So all the rest stays the same. Of course, we also need to add π once more to the argument in our wave function f. In short, the amplitude for this is:

eiδ[eiδf(θ+π+π)] = (eiδ)f(θ) = ei2δ f(θ)

Indeed, the angle θ+2π is the same as θ. But so we have twice that phase shift now: 2δ. As ugly as that ‘thing’ above: eiδf(θ+π). However, if we square the amplitude, we get the same probability: P= |Ψ1|= |ei2δ f(θ)| = |f(θ)|2. So it must be right, right? Yes. But – Hey! Wait a minute! We are obviously back at where we started, aren’t we? We are looking at the combined probability – and amplitude – for particle a going to counter 1 and particle b going to counter 2, and the angle is θ! So it’s the same physical situation, and – What the heck! – reality doesn’t change just because we’re rotating these detectors a couple of times, does it? [In fact, we’re actually doing nothing but a thought experiment here!] Hence, not only the probability but also the amplitude must be the same.  So (eiδ)2f(θ) must equal f(θ) and so… Well… If (eiδ)2f(θ) = f(θ), then (eiδ)2 must be equal to 1. Now, what does that imply for the value of δ?

Well… While the square of the modulus of all vectors on the unit circle is always equal to 1, there are only two cases for which the square of the vector itself yields 1: (I) eiδ = eiπ =  eiπ = –1 (check it: (eiπ)= (–1)ei2π = ei0 = +1), and (II) eiδ = ei2π eie= +1 (check it: ei2π)= (+1)ei4π = ei0 = +1). In other words, our phase factor δ is either δ = 0 (or 0 ± 2nπ) or, else, δ = π (or π ± 2nπ). So eiδ = ± 1 and Ψ2 is either +f(θ+π) or, else, –f(θ+π). What does this mean? It means that, if we’re going to be adding the amplitudes, then the ‘exchanged case’ may contribute with the same sign or, else, with the opposite sign.

But, surely, there is no need to add amplitudes here, is there? Particle a can be distinguished from particle b and so the first case (particle a going into counter 1 and particle b going into counter 2) is not the same as the ‘exchanged case’ (particle a going into counter 2 and b going into counter 1). So we can clearly distinguish or verify which of the two possible paths are followed and, hence, we should be adding probabilities if we want to get the combined probability for both cases, not amplitudes. Now that is where the fun starts. Suppose that we have identical particles here – so not some beam of α-particles (i.e. helium nuclei) bombarding beryllium nuclei for instance but, let’s say, electrons on electrons, or photons on photons indeed – then we do have to add the amplitudes, not the probabilities, in order to calculate the combined probability of a particle going into counter 1 and the other particle going into counter 2, for the simple reason that we don’t know which is which and, hence, which is going where.

Let me immediately throw in an important qualifier: defining ‘identical particles’ is not as easy as it sounds. Our ‘wavicle’ of choice, for example, an electron, can have its spin ‘up’ or ‘down’ – and so that’s two different things. When an electron arrives in a counter, we can measure its spin (in practice or in theory: it doesn’t matter in quantum mechanics) and so we can distinguish it and, hence, an electron that’s ‘up’ is not identical to one that’s ‘down’. [I should resist the temptation but I’ll quickly make the remark: that’s the reason why we have two electrons in one atomic orbital: one is ‘up’ and the other one is ‘down’. Identical particles need to be in the same ‘quantum state’ (that’s the standard expression for it) to end up as ‘identical particles’ in, let’s say, a laser beam or so. As Feynman states it: in this (theoretical) experiment, we are talking polarized beams, with no mixture of different spin states.]

The wonderful thing in quantum mechanics is that mathematical possibility usually corresponds with reality. For example, electrons with positive charge, or anti-matter in general, is not only a theoretical possibility: they exist. Likewise, we effectively have particles which interfere with positive sign – these are called Bose particles – and particles which interfere with negative sign – Fermi particles.

So that’s reality. The factor eiδ = ± 1 is there, and it’s a strict dichotomy: photons, for example, always behave like Bose particles, and protons, neutrons and electrons always behave like Fermi particles. So they don’t change their mind and switch from one to the other category, not for a short while, and not for a long while (or forever) either. In fact, you may or may not be surprised to hear that there are experiments trying to find out if they do – just in case. 🙂 For example, just Google for Budker and English (2010) from the University of California at Berkeley. The experiments confirm the dichotomy: no split personalities here, not even for a nanosecond (10−9 s), or a picosecond (10−12 s). [A picosecond is the time taken by light to travel 0.3 mm in a vacuum. In a nanosecond, light travels about one foot.]

In any case, does all of this really matter? What’s the difference, in practical terms that is? Between Bose or Fermi, I must assume we prefer the booze.

It’s quite fundamental, however. Hang in there for a while and you’ll see why.

Bose statistics

Suppose we have, once again, some particle a and b that (i) come from different directions (but, this time around, not necessarily in the experimental set-up as described above: the two particles may come from any direction really), (ii) are being scattered, at some point in space (but, this time around, not necessarily the same point in space), (iii) end up going in one and the same direction and – hopefully – (iv) arrive together at some other point in space. So they end up in the same state, which means they have the same direction and energy (or momentum) and also whatever other condition that’s relevant. Again, if the particles are not identical, we can catch both of them and identify which is which. Now, if it’s two different particles, then they won’t take exactly the same path. Let’s say they travel along two infinitesimally close paths referred to as path 1 and 2 and so we should have two infinitesimally small detectors: one at location 1 and the other at location 2. The illustration below (credit to Feynman once again!) is for n particles, but here we’ll limit ourselves to the calculations for just two.

Boson particles

Let’s denote the amplitude of a to follow path 1 (and end up in counter 1) as a1, and the amplitude of b to follow path 2 (and end up in counter 2) as b1. Then the amplitude for these two scatterings to occur at the same time is the product of these two amplitudes, and so the probability is equal to |a1b1|= [|a1||b1|]= |a1|2|b1|2. Similarly, the combined amplitude of a following path 2 (and ending up in counter 2) and b following path 1 (etcetera) is |a2|2|b2|2. But so we said that the directions 1 and 2 were infinitesimally close and, hence, the values for aand a2, and for band b2, should also approach each other, so we can equate them with a and b respectively and, hence, the probability of some kind of combined detector picking up both particles as they hit the counter is equal to P = 2|a|2|b|2 (just substitute and add). [Note: For those who would think that separate counters and ‘some kind of combined detector’ radically alter the set-up of this thought experiment (and, hence, that we cannot just do this kind of math), I refer to Feynman (Vol. III, Lecture 4, section 4): he shows how it works using differential calculus.]

Now, if the particles cannot be distinguished – so if we have ‘identical particles’ (like photons, or polarized electrons) – and if we assume they are Bose particles (so they interfere with a positive sign – i.e. like photons, but not like electrons), then we should no longer add the probabilities but the amplitudes, so we get a1b+ a2b= 2ab for the amplitude and – lo and behold! – a probability equal to P = 4|a|2|b|2So what? Well… We’ve got a factor 2 difference here: 4|a|2|b|is two times 2|a|2|b|2.

This is a strange result: it means we’re twice as likely to find two identical Bose particles scattered into the same state as you would assuming the particles were different. That’s weird, to say the least. In fact, it gets even weirder, because this experiment can easily be extended to a situation where we have n particles present (which is what the illustration suggests), and that makes it even more interesting (more ‘weird’ that is). I’ll refer to Feynman here for the (fairly easy but somewhat lengthy) calculus in case we have n particles, but the conclusion is rock-solid: if we have n bosons already present in some state, then the probability of getting one extra boson is n+1 times greater than it would be if there were none before.

So the presence of the other particles increases the probability of getting one more: bosons like to crowd. And there’s no limit to it: the more bosons you have in one space, the more likely it is another one will want to occupy the same space. It’s this rather weird phenomenon which explains equally weird things such as superconductivity and superfluidity, or why photons of the same frequency can form such powerful laser beams: they don’t mind being together – literally on the same spot – in huge numbers. In fact, they love it: a laser beam, superfluidity or superconductivity are actually quantum-mechanical phenomena that are visible at a macro-scale.

OK. I won’t go into any more detail here. Let me just conclude by showing how interference works for Fermi particles. Well… That doesn’t work or, let me be more precise, it leads to the so-called (Pauli) Exclusion Principle which, for electrons, states that “no two electrons can be found in exactly the same state (including spin).” Indeed, we get a1b– a2b1= ab – ab = 0 (zero!) if we let the values of aand a2, and band b2, come arbitrarily close to each other. So the amplitude becomes zero as the two directions (1 and 2) approach each other. That simply means that it is not possible at all for two electrons to have the same momentum, location or, in general, the same state of motion – unless they are spinning opposite to each other (in which case they are not ‘identical’ particles). So what? Well… Nothing much. It just explains all of the chemical properties of atoms. 🙂

In addition, the Pauli exclusion principle also explains the stability of matter on a larger scale: protons and neutrons are fermions as well, and so they just “don’t get close together with one big smear of electrons around them”, as Feynman puts it, adding: “Atoms must keep away from each other, and so the stability of matter on a large scale is really a consequence of the Fermi particle nature of the electrons, protons and neutrons.”

Well… There’s nothing much to add to that, I guess. 🙂

Post scriptum:

I wrote that “more complex particles, such as atomic nuclei, are also either bosons or fermions”, and that this depends on the number of protons and neutrons they consist of. In fact, bosons are, in general, particles with integer spin (0 or 1), while fermions have half-integer spin (1/2). Bosonic Helium-4 (He4) has zero spin. Photons (which mediate electromagnetic interactions), gluons (which mediate the so-called strong interactions between particles), and the W+, W and Z particles (which mediate the so-called weak interactions) all have spin one (1). As mentioned above, Lithium-7 (Li7) has half-integer spin (3/2). The underlying reason for the difference in spin between He4 and Li7 is their composition indeed: He4  consists of two protons and two neutrons, while Liconsists of three protons and four neutrons.

However, we have to go beyond the protons and neutrons for some better explanation. We now know that protons and neutrons are not ‘fundamental’ any more: they consist of quarks, and quarks have a spin of 1/2. It is probably worth noting that Feynman did not know this when he wrote his Lectures in 1965, although he briefly sketches the findings of Murray Gell-Man and Georg Zweig, who published their findings in 1961 and 1964 only, so just a little bit before, and describes them as ‘very interesting’. I guess this is just another example of Feynman’s formidable intellect and intuition… In any case, protons and neutrons are so-called baryons: they consist of three quarks, as opposed to the short-lived (unstable) mesons, which consist of one quark and one anti-quark only (you may not have heard about mesons – they don’t live long – and so I won’t say anything about them). Now, an uneven number of quarks result in half-integer spin, and so that’s why protons and neutrons have half-integer spin. An even number of quarks result in integer spin, and so that’s why mesons have spin zero 0 or 1. Two protons and two neutrons together, so that’s He4, can condense into a bosonic state with spin zero, because four half-integer spins allows for an integer sum. Seven half-integer spins, however, cannot be combined into some integer spin, and so that’s why Li7 has half-integer spin (3/2). Electrons also have half-integer spin (1/2) too. So there you are.

Now, I must admit that this spin business is a topic of which I understand little – if anything at all. And so I won’t go beyond the stuff I paraphrased or quoted above. The ‘explanation’ surely doesn’t ‘explain’ this fundamental dichotomy between bosons and fermions. In that regard, Feynman’s 1965 conclusion still stands: “It appears to be one of the few places in physics where there is a rule which can be stated very simply, but for which no one has found a simple and easy explanation. The explanation is deep down in relativistic quantum mechanics. This probably means that we do not have a complete understanding of the fundamental principle involved. For the moment, you will just have to take it as one of the rules of the world.”