Some thoughts on the nature of reality

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

Physical dimensions and Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fundamental units

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

Let me write this out:

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

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

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

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

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

  • 螖E路螖t =
  • 螖p路螖x =

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

Uncertainty

Also think of the following: if聽螖E路螖t =聽h聽and 螖p路螖x =聽h, then聽螖E路螖t =聽螖p路螖x and, therefore,聽螖E/螖p must be equal to 螖x/螖t. Hence, the聽ratio聽of the uncertainty about x (the distance) and the uncertainty about t (the time) equals the聽ratio聽of the uncertainty about E (the energy) and the uncertainty about p (the momentum).

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

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

Action, energy and mass

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

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

E = m路c2

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

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

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

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

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

E/f聽= E/(n/s) = E路s/n聽= 6.626070040(81)脳10鈭34聽J路s 鈬 E/n聽= 6.626070040(81)脳10鈭34聽J

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

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

Well… What’s an oscillation? We’re used to聽counting聽them:聽n聽oscillations per second, so that’s聽per time unit. How many do we have in total? We wrote about that in our posts on the shape and size of a photon. We know photons are emitted by atomic oscillators – or, to put it simply, just atoms going from one energy level to another. Feynman calculated the Q of these atomic oscillators: it鈥檚 of the order of 108聽(see his聽Lectures,聽I-33-3: it鈥檚 a wonderfully simple exercise, and one that really shows his greatness as a physics teacher), so… Well… This wave train will last about 10鈥8聽seconds (that鈥檚 the time it takes for the radiation to die out by a factor 1/e). To give a somewhat more precise example,聽for sodium light, which has a frequency of 500 THz (500脳1012聽oscillations per second) and a wavelength of 600 nm (600脳10鈥9聽meter), the radiation will lasts about 3.2脳10鈥8聽seconds. [In fact, that鈥檚 the time it takes for the radiation鈥檚 energy to die out by a factor 1/e, so(i.e. the so-called decay time 蟿), so the wavetrain will actually last聽longer, but so the amplitude becomes quite small after that time.]聽So… Well… That鈥檚 a very short time but… Still, taking into account the rather spectacular frequency (500 THz) of sodium light, that makes for some 16 million oscillations and, taking into the account the rather spectacular speed of light (3脳108聽m/s), that makes for a wave train with a length of, roughly,聽9.6 meter. Huh? 9.6 meter!? But a photon is supposed to be pointlike, isn’it it? It has no length, does it?

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

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

The reality of the wavefunction

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

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

蠄(r, t) = ei路(E/魔)路tf(r)

As I explained in previous posts (see, for example, my recent post聽on reality and perception), the聽f(r) function basically provides some envelope for the two-dimensional ei路胃聽=聽ei路(E/魔)路t聽= cos胃 + isin胃聽oscillation, with r= (x, y, z),聽胃 = (E/魔)路t聽= 蠅路t聽and 蠅 = E/魔. So it presumes the聽duration of each oscillation is some constant. Why? Well… Look at the formula: this thing has a constant frequency in time. It’s only the amplitude that is varying as a function of the r= (x, y, z) coordinates. 馃檪 So… Well… If each oscillation is to always聽pack聽6.626070040(81)脳10鈭34joule, but the amplitude of the oscillation varies from point to point, then… Well… We’ve got a problem. The wavefunction above is likely to be an approximation of reality only. 馃檪 The associated energy is the same, but… Well… Reality is probably聽not聽the nice geometrical shape we associate with those wavefunctions.

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

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

oscillation of a ball

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