Understanding semiconductors, lasers and other technical stuff

I wrote a lot of papers but most of them – if not all – deal with very basic stuff: the meaning of uncertainty (just statistical indeterminacy because we have no information on the initial condition of the system), the Planck-Einstein relation (how Planck’s quantum of action models an elementary cycle or an oscillation), and Schrödinger’s wavefunctions (the solutions to his equation) as the equations of motion for a pointlike charge. If anything, I hope I managed to restore a feeling that quantum electrodynamics is not essentially different from classical physics: it just adds the element of a quantization – of energy, momentum, magnetic flux, etcetera.

Importantly, we also talked about what photons and electrons actually are, and that electrons are pointlike but not dimensionless: their magnetic moment results from an internal current and, hence, spin is something real – something we can explain in terms of a two-dimensional perpetual current. In the process, we also explained why electrons take up some space: they have a radius (the Compton radius). So that explains the quantization of space, if you want.

We also talked fields and told you – because matter-particles do have a structure – we should have a dynamic view of the fields surrounding those. Potential barriers – or their corollary: potential wells – should, therefore, not be thought of as static fields. They result from one or more charges moving around and these fields, therefore, vary in time. Hence, a particle breaking through a ‘potential wall’ or coming out of a potential ‘well’ is just using an opening, so to speak, which corresponds to a classical trajectory.

We, therefore, have the guts to say that some of what you will read in a standard textbook is plain nonsense. Richard Feynman, for example, starts his lecture on a current in a crystal lattice by writing this: “You would think that a low-energy electron would have great difficulty passing through a solid crystal. The atoms are packed together with their centers only a few angstroms apart, and the effective diameter of the atom for electron scattering is roughly an angstrom or so. That is, the atoms are large, relative to their spacing, so that you would expect the mean free path between collisions to be of the order of a few angstroms—which is practically nothing. You would expect the electron to bump into one atom or another almost immediately. Nevertheless, it is a ubiquitous phenomenon of nature that if the lattice is perfect, the electrons are able to travel through the crystal smoothly and easily—almost as if they were in a vacuum. This strange fact is what lets metals conduct electricity so easily; it has also permitted the development of many practical devices. It is, for instance, what makes it possible for a transistor to imitate the radio tube. In a radio tube electrons move freely through a vacuum, while in the transistor they move freely through a crystal lattice.” [The italics are mine.]

It is nonsense because it is not the electron that is traveling smoothly, easily or freely: it is the electrical signal, and – no ! – that is not to be equated with the quantum-mechanical amplitude. The quantum-mechanical amplitude is just a mathematical concept: it does not travel through the lattice in any physical sense ! In fact, it does not even travel through the lattice in a logical sense: the quantum-mechanical amplitudes are to be associated with the atoms in the crystal lattice, and describe their state – i.e. whether or not they have an extra electron or (if we are analyzing electron holes in the lattice) if they are lacking one. So the drift velocity of the electron is actually very low, and the way the signal moves through the lattice is just like in the game of musical chairs – but with the chairs on a line: all players agree to kindly move to the next chair for the new arrival so the last person on the last chair can leave the game to get a beer. So here it is the same: one extra electron causes all other electrons to move. [For more detail, we refer to our paper on matter-waves, amplitudes and signals.]

But so, yes, we have not said much about semiconductors, lasers and other technical stuff. Why not? Not because it should be difficult: we already cracked the more difficult stuff (think of an explanation of the anomalous magnetic moment, the Lamb shift, or one-photon Mach-Zehnder interference here). No. We are just lacking time ! It is, effectively, going to be an awful lot of work to rewrite those basic lectures on semiconductors – or on lasers or other technical matters which attract students in physics – so as to show why and how the mechanics of these things actually work: not approximately, but how exactly – and, more importantly, why and how these phenomena can be explained in terms of something real: actual electrons moving through the lattice at lower or higher drift speeds within a conduction band (and then what that conduction band actually is).

The same goes for lasers: we talk about induced emission and all that, but we need to explain what that might actually represent – while avoiding the usual mumbo-jumbo about bosonic behavior and other useless generalizations of properties of actually matter- and light-particles that can be reasonably explained in terms of the structure of these particles – instead of invoking quantum-mechanical theorems or other dogmatic or canonical a priori assumptions.

So, yes, it is going to be hard work – and I am not quite sure if I have sufficient time or energy for it. I will try, and so I will probably be offline for quite some time while doing that. Be sure to have fun in the meanwhile ! 🙂

Post scriptum: Perhaps I should also focus on converting some of my papers into journal articles, but then I don’t feel like it’s worth going through all of the trouble that takes. Academic publishing is a weird thing. Either the editorial line of the journal is very strong, in which case they do not want to publish non-mainstream theory, and also insist on introductions and other credentials, or, else, it is very weak or even absent – and then it is nothing more than vanity or ego, right? So I think I am just fine with the viXra collection and the ‘preprint’ papers on ResearchGate now. I’ve been thinking it allows me to write what I want and – equally important – how I want to write it. In any case, I am writing for people like you and me. Not so much for dogmatic academics or philosophers. The poor experience with reviewers of my manuscript has taught me well, I guess. I should probably wait to get an invitation to publish now.

Lasers, masers, two-state systems and Feynman’s Lectures

The past few days I re-visited Feynman’s lectures on quantum math—the ones in which he introduces the concept of probability amplitudes (I will provide no specific reference or link to them because that is apparently unfair use of copyrighted material). The Great Richard Feynman introduces the concept of probability amplitudes as part of a larger discussion of two-state systems—and lasers and masers are a great example of such two-state systems. I have done a few posts on that while building up this blog over the past few years but because these have been mutilated by DMCA take-downs of diagrams and illustrations as a result of such ‘unfair use’, I won’t refer to them either. The point is this:

I have come to the conclusion we actually do not need the machinery of state vectors and probability amplitudes to explain how a maser (and, therefore, a laser) actually works.

The functioning of masers and lasers crucially depends on a dipole moment (of an ammonia molecule for a maser and of light-emitting atoms for a laser) which will flip up and down in sync with an external oscillating electromagnetic field. It all revolves around the resonant frequency (ω0), which depends on the tiny difference between the energies of the ‘up’ and ‘down’ states. This tiny energy difference (the A in the Hamiltonian matrix) is given by the product of the dipole moment (μ) and the external electromagnetic field that gets the thing going (Ɛ0). [Don’t confuse the symbols with the magnetic and electric constants here!] And so… Well… I have come to the conclusion that we can analyze this as just any other classical electromagnetic oscillation. We can effectively directly use the Planck-Einstein relation to determine the frequency instead of having to invoke all of the machinery that comes with probability amplitudes, base states, Hamiltonian matrices and differential equations:

ω0 = E/ħ = A/ħ = μƐ0/ħ

All the rest follows logically.

You may say: so what? Well… I find this very startling. I’ve been systematically dismantling a lot of ‘quantum-mechanical myths’, and so this seemed to be the last myth standing. It has fallen now: here is the link to the paper.

What’s the implication? The implication is that we can analyze all of the QED sector now in terms of classical mechanics: oscillator math, Maxwell’s equations, relativity theory and the Planck-Einstein relation will do. All that was published before the first World War broke out, in other words—with the added discoveries made by the likes of Holly Compton (photon-electron interactions), Carl Anderson (the discovery of anti-matter), James Chadwick (experimental confirmation of the existence of the neutron) and a few others after the war, of course! But that’s it, basically: nothing more, nothing less. So all of the intellectual machinery that was invented after World War I (the Bohr-Heisenberg theory of quantum mechanics) and after World War II (quantum field theory, the quark hypothesis and what have you) may be useful in the QCD sector of physics but − IMNSHO − even that remains to be seen!

I actually find this more than startling: it is shocking! I started studying Feynman’s Lectures – and everything that comes with it – back in 2012, only to find out that my idol had no intention whatsoever to make things easy. That is OK. In his preface, he writes he wanted to make sure that even the most intelligent student would be unable to completely encompass everything that was in the lectures—so that’s why we were attracted to them, of course! But that is, of course, something else than doing what he did, and that is to promote a Bright Shining Lie


Long time ago, I took the side of Bill Gates in the debate on Feynman’s qualities as a teacher. For Bill Gates, Feynman was, effectively, “the best teacher he never had.” One of those very bright people who actually had him as a teacher (John F. McGowan, PhD and math genius) paints a very different picture, however. I would take the side of McGowan in this discussion now—especially when it turns out that Mr. Feynman’s legacy can apparently no longer be freely used as a reference anyway.

Philip Anderson and Freeman Dyson died this year—both at the age of 96. They were the last of what is generally thought of as a brilliant generation of quantum physicists—the third generation, we might say. May they all rest in peace.

Post scriptum: In case you wonder why I refer to them as the third rather than the second generation: I actually consider Heisenberg’s generation to be the second generation of quantum physicists—first was the generation of the likes of Einstein!

As for the (intended) irony in my last remarks, let me quote from an interesting book on the state of physics that was written by Doris Teplitz back in 1982: “The state of the classical electromagnetic theory reminds one of a house under construction that was abandoned by its working workmen upon receiving news of an approaching plague. The plague was in this case, of course, quantum theory.” I now very much agree with this bold statement. So… Well… I think I’ve had it with studying Feynman’s Lectures. Fortunately, I spent only ten years on them or so. Academics have to spend their whole life on what Paul Ehrenfest referred to as the ‘unendlicher Heisenberg-Born-Dirac-Schrödinger Wurstmachinen-Physik-Betrieb.:-/

A post for my kids: About Einstein’s laws of radiation, and lasers

Pre-scriptum (dated 26 June 2020): These posts on elementary math and physics have not suffered much the attack by the dark force—which is good because I still like them. While my views on the true nature of light, matter and the force or forces that act on them have evolved significantly as part of my explorations of a more realist (classical) explanation of quantum mechanics, I think most (if not all) of the analysis in this post remains valid and fun to read. In fact, I find the simplest stuff is often the best. 🙂

Original post:

I wrapped up my previous post, which gave Planck’s solution for the blackbody radiation problem, wondering whether or not one could find the same equation using some other model, not involving the assumption that atomic oscillators have discrete energy levels.

I still don’t have an answer to that question but, sure enough, Feynman introduces another model a few pages further in his Lectures. It’s a model developed by Einstein, in 1916, and it’s much ‘richer’ in the sense that it takes into account what we know to be true: unlike matter-particles (fermions), photons like to crowd together. In more advanced quantum-mechanical parlance, their wave functions obey Bose-Einstein statistics. Now, Bose-Einstein statistics are what allows a laser to focus so much energy in one beam, and so I am writing this post for two reasons–one serious and the other not-so-serious:

  1. To present Einstein’s 1916 model for blackbody radiation.
  2. For my kids, so they understand how a laser works.

Let’s start with Einstein’s model first because, if I’d start with the laser, my kids would only read about that and nothing else. [That being said, I am sure my kids will go straight to the second part and, hence, skip Einstein anyway. :-)]

Einstein’s model of blackbody radiation

Einstein’s model is based on Planck’s and, hence, also assumes that the energy of atomic oscillators can also only take on one value of a set of permitted energy levels. However, unlike Planck, he assumes two types of emission. The first is spontaneous, and that’s basically just Planck’s model. The second is induced emission: that’s emission when light is alrady present, and Einstein’s hypothesis was that an atomic oscillator is more likely to emit a photon when there’s light of the same frequency is shining on it.


The basics of the model are shown above, and the two new variables are the following:

  • Amn is the probability for the oscillator to have its energy drop from energy level m to energy level n, independent of whether light is shining on the atom or not. So that’s the probability of spontaneous emission and it only depends on m and n.
  • Bmn is not a probability but a proportionality constant that, together with the intensity of the light shining on the oscillator–denoted by I(ω), co-determines the probability of of induced emission.

Now, as mentioned above, in this post, I basically want to explain how a laser works, and so let me be as brief as possibly by just copying Feynman here, who says it all:

Feynman on Einstein

Of course, this result must match Planck’s equation for blackbody radiation, because Planck’s equation matched experiment:

formula blackbody

To get the eħω/kT –1, Bmn must be equal to Bnm, and you should not think that’s an obvious result, because it isn’t: this equality says that the induced emission probability and the absorption probability must be equal. Good to know: this keeps the numbers of atoms in the various levels constant through what is referred to as detailed balancing: in thermal equilibrium, every process is balanced by its exact opposite. While that’s nice, and the way it actually works, it’s not obvious. It shows that the process is fully time-reversible. That’s not obvious in a situation involving statistical mechanics, which is what we’re talking about there. In any case, that’s a different topic.

As for Amn, taking into account that Bmn = Bnm, we find that Amn/Bmn =ħω3/π2c2. So we have a ratio here. What about calculating the individual values for Amn and Bmn? Can we calculate the absolute spontaneous and induced emission rates? Feynman says: No. Not with what Einstein had at the time. That was possible only a decade or so later, it seems, when Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Pascual Jordan, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac and John von Neumann developed a fully complete theory, in the space of just five years (1925-1930), but that’s the subject of the history of science.

The point is: we have got everything here now to sort of understand how lasers work, so let’s try that to do that now.


Laser is an acronym which stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. It’s based on the mechanism described above, which I am sure you’ve studied in very much detail. 🙂

The trick is to find a method to get a gas in a state in which the number of atomic oscillators with energy level m is much and much greater than the number with energy level n. So we’re talking a situation that is not in equilibrium. On the contrary: it’s far out of equilibrium. And then, suddenly, we induce emission from this upper state, which creates a sort of chain reaction that makes “the whole lot of them dump down together”, as Feynman puts it.

The diagram below is taken from the Wikipedia article on lasers. It shows a so-called Nd:YAG laser. Huh? Yes. Nd:YAG stands for neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet, and an Nd:YAG laser is a pretty common type of laser. A garnet is a precious stone: a crystal composed of a silicate mineral. And that’s what it is here, and why the laser is so-called solid-state laser, because the so-called laser medium (see the diagram) may also be a gas or even a liquid, as in dye lasers). I could also take a ruby laser, which uses ruby as the laser medium. But let’s go along with this one as for now.


In the set-up as shown above, a simple xenon flash lamp (yes, that’s a ‘neon’ lamp) provides the energy exciting the atomic oscillators in the crystal. It’s important that the so-called pumping source emits light of a higher frequency than the laser light, as shown below. In fact, the light from xenon gas, or any source, will be a spectrum but so it should (also) have light in the blue or violet range (as shown below). The important thing is that it should not have the red laser frequency, because that’s what would trigger the laser, of course.


The diagram above shows how it actually works.The trick is to get the atoms to a higher state (that’s h in the diagram above, but it’s got nothing to do with the Planck constant) from where they trickle down (and, yes, they do emit other photons while doing that), until they all get stuck in the state m, which is referred to as metastable but which is, in effect, unstable. And so then they are all dumped down together by induced emissions. So the source ‘pumps’ the crystal indeed, leading to that ‘metastable’ state which is referred to as population inversion in statistical mechanics: a lot of atoms (i.e. the members of the ‘population’) are in an excited state, rather than in a lower energy state.

And then we have a so-called optical resonator (aka as a cavity) which, in its simplest form, consists of just two mirrors around the gain medium (i.e. the crystal): these mirrors reflect the light so, once the dump starts, the induced effect is enhanced: the light which is emitted gets a chance to induce more emission, and then another chance, and another, and so on. However, although the mirrors are almost one hundred percent reflecting, light does get out because one of the mirrors is only a partial reflector, which is referred to as the output coupler, and which produces the laser’s output beam.

So… That’s all there is to it.

Really? Is it that simple? Yep. I googled a few questions to increase my understanding but so that’s basically it. Perhaps they’ll help you too and so I copied them hereunder. Before you go through that, however, have a look at how they really look like. The image below (from Wikipedia again) shows a disassembled (and assembled) ruby laser head. You can clearly see the crystal rod in the middle, and the two flashlamps that are used for pumping. I am just inserting it here because, in engineering, I found that a diagram of something and the actual thing often have not all that much in common. 🙂 As you can see, it’s not the case here: it looks amazingly simple, doesn’t it?


Q: We have crystal here. What’s the atomic oscillator in the crystal? A: It is the neodymium ion which provides the lasing activity in the crystal, in the same fashion as red chromium ion in ruby lasers.

Q: But how does it work exactly? A: Well… The diagram is a bit misleading. The distance between h and m should not be too big of course, because otherwise half of the energy goes into these photons that are being emitted as the oscillators ‘trickle down’. Also, if these ‘in-between’ emissions would have the same frequency as the laser light, they would induce the emission, which is not what we want. So the actual distances should look more like this:


For an actual Nd:YAG laser, we have absorption mostly in the bands between 730–760 nm and 790–820 nm, and emitted light with a wavelength with a wavelength of 1064 nm. Huh? Yes. Remember: shorter wavelength (λ) is higher frequency (ν = c/λ) and, hence, higher energy (E =  hν = hc/λ). So that’s what’s shown below.


Q: But… You’re talking bullsh**. Wavelengths in the 700–800 nm range are infrared (IR) and, hence, not even visible. And light of 1064 nm even less. A: Now you are a smart-ass! You’re right. What actually happens is a bit more complicated, as you might expect. There’s something else going on as well, a process referred to as frequency doubling or second harmonic generation (SHG). It’s a process in which photons with the same frequency (1064 nm) interact with some material to effectively ‘combine’ into new photons with twice the energy, twice the frequency and, therefore, half the wavelength of the initial photons. And so that’s light with a wavelength of 532 nm. We actuall also have so-called higher harmonics, with wavelengths at 355 and 266 nm.

Q: But… That’s green? A: Sure. A Nd:YAG laser produces a green laser beam, as shown below. If you want the red color, buy a ruby laser, which produces pulses of light with a wavelength of 694.3 nm: that’s the deep red color you’d associate with lasers. In fact, the first operational laser, produced by Hughes Research Laboratories back in 1960 (the research arm of Hughes Aircraft, now part of the Raytheon), was a ruby laser.

Powerlite_NdYAGQ: Pulses? That reminds me of something: lasers pulsate indeed, don’t they? How does that work? A: They do. Lasers have a so-called continuous wave output mode. However, there’s a technique called Q-switching. Here, an optical switch is added to the system. It’s inserted into laser cavity, and it waits for a maximum population inversion before it opens. Then the light wave runs through the cavity, depopulating the excited laser medium at maximum population inversion. It allows to produce light pulses with extremely high peak power, much higher than would be produced by the same laser if it were operating in constant output mode.

Q: What’s the use of lasers? A: Because of their ability to focus, they’re used a surgical knives, in eye surgery, or to remove tumors in the brain and treat skin cancer. Lasers are also widely used for engraving, etching, and marking of metals and plastics. When they pack more power, they can also be used to cut or weld steel. Their ability to focus is why these tiny pocket lasers can damage your eye: it’s not like a flashlight. It’s a really focused beam and so it can really blind you–not for a while but permanently.

Q: Lasers can also be used as weapons, can’t they? A: Yes. As mentioned above, techniques like Q-switching allow to produce pulses packing enormous amounts of energy into one single pulse, and you hear a lot about lasers being used as directed-energy weapons (DEWs). However, they won’t replace explosives anytime soon. Lasers were already widely used for sighting, ranging and targeting for guns, but so they’re not the source of the weapon’s firepower. That being said, the pulse of a megajoule laser would deliver the same energy as 200 grams of high explosive, but all focused on a tiny little spot. Now that’s firepower obviously, and such lasers are now possible. However, their power is more likely to be used for more benign purposes, notably igniting a nuclear fusion reaction. There’s nice stuff out there if you’d want to read more.

Q: No. I think I’ve had it. But what are those pocket lasers? A: They are what they are: handheld lasers. It just shows how technology keeps evolving. The Nano costs a hundred dollars only. I wonder if Einstein would ever have imagined that what he wrote back in 1916 would, ultimately, lead to us manipulating light with little handheld tools. We live in amazing times. 🙂

Some content on this page was disabled on June 17, 2020 as a result of a DMCA takedown notice from Michael A. Gottlieb, Rudolf Pfeiffer, and The California Institute of Technology. You can learn more about the DMCA here:

Some content on this page was disabled on June 17, 2020 as a result of a DMCA takedown notice from Michael A. Gottlieb, Rudolf Pfeiffer, and The California Institute of Technology. You can learn more about the DMCA here:


Bose and Fermi

Pre-scriptum (dated 26 June 2020): This post suffered from the DMCA take-down of material from Feynman’s Lectures, so some graphs are lacking and the layout was altered as a result. In any case, I now think the distinction between bosons and fermions is one of the most harmful scientific myths in physics. I deconstructed quite a few myths in my realist interpretation of QM, but I focus on this myth in particular in this paper: Feynman’s Worst Jokes and the Boson-Fermion Theory.

Original post:

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… 🙂


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.    


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.”

Some content on this page was disabled on June 20, 2020 as a result of a DMCA takedown notice from Michael A. Gottlieb, Rudolf Pfeiffer, and The California Institute of Technology. You can learn more about the DMCA here:

Some content on this page was disabled on June 20, 2020 as a result of a DMCA takedown notice from Michael A. Gottlieb, Rudolf Pfeiffer, and The California Institute of Technology. You can learn more about the DMCA here: