Math, physics and reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some thoughts on the nature of reality

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

Physical dimensions and Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fundamental units

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

Let me write this out:

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

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

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

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

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

  • ΔE·Δt = ħ 
  • Δp·Δx = ħ

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

Uncertainty

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

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

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

Action, energy and mass

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

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

E = m·c2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reality of the wavefunction

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

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

ψ(r, t) = ei·(E/ħ)·t·f(r)

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

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

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

oscillation of a ball

Occam’s Razor

The analysis of a two-state system (i.e. the rather famous example of an ammonia molecule ‘flipping’ its spin direction from ‘up’ to ‘down’, or vice versa) in my previous post is a good opportunity to think about Occam’s Razor once more. What are we doing? What does the math tell us?

In the example we chose, we didn’t need to worry about space. It was all about time: an evolving state over time. We also knew the answers we wanted to get: if there is some probability for the system to ‘flip’ from one state to another, we know it will, at some point in time. We also want probabilities to add up to one, so we knew the graph below had to be the result we would find: if our molecule can be in two states only, and it starts of in one, then the probability that it will remain in that state will gradually decline, while the probability that it flips into the other state will gradually increase, which is what is depicted below.

graph

However, the graph above is only a Platonic idea: we don’t bother to actually verify what state the molecule is in. If we did, we’d have to ‘re-set’ our t = 0 point, and start all over again. The wavefunction would collapse, as they say, because we’ve made a measurement. However, having said that, yes, in the physicist’s Platonic world of ideas, the probability functions above make perfect sense. They are beautiful. You should note, for example, that P1 (i.e. the probability to be in state 1) and P2 (i.e. the probability to be in state 2) add up to 1 all of the time, so we don’t need to integrate over a cycle or something: so it’s all perfect!

These probability functions are based on ideas that are even more Platonic: interfering amplitudes. Let me explain.

Quantum physics is based on the idea that these probabilities are determined by some wavefunction, a complex-valued amplitude that varies in time and space. It’s a two-dimensional thing, and then it’s not. It’s two-dimensional because it combines a sine and cosine, i.e. a real and an imaginary part, but the argument of the sine and the cosine is the same, and the sine and cosine are the same function, except for a phase shift equal to π. We write:

a·eiθ = cos(θ) – sin(−θ) = cosθ – sinθ

The minus sign is there because it turns out that Nature measures angles, i.e. our phase, clockwise, rather than counterclockwise, so that’s not as per our mathematical convention. But that’s a minor detail, really. [It should give you some food for thought, though.] For the rest, the related graph is as simple as the formula:

graph sin and cos

Now, the phase of this wavefunction is written as θ = (ω·t − k ∙x). Hence, ω determines how this wavefunction varies in time, and the wavevector k tells us how this wave varies in space. The young Frenchman Comte Louis de Broglie noted the mathematical similarity between the ω·t − k ∙x expression and Einstein’s four-vector product pμxμ = E·t − px, which remains invariant under a Lorentz transformation. He also understood that the Planck-Einstein relation E = ħ·ω actually defines the energy unit and, therefore, that any frequency, any oscillation really, in space or in time, is to be expressed in terms of ħ.

[To be precise, the fundamental quantum of energy is h = ħ·2π, because that’s the energy of one cycle. To illustrate the point, think of the Planck-Einstein relation. It gives us the energy of a photon with frequency f: Eγ = h·f. If we re-write this equation as Eγ/f = h, and we do a dimensional analysis, we get: h = Eγ/f ⇔ 6.626×10−34 joule·second [x joule]/[cycles per second] ⇔ h = 6.626×10−34 joule per cycle. It’s only because we are expressing ω and k as angular frequencies (i.e. in radians per second or per meter, rather than in cycles per second or per meter) that we have to think of ħ = h/2π rather than h.]

Louis de Broglie connected the dots between some other equations too. He was fully familiar with the equations determining the phase and group velocity of composite waves, or a wavetrain that actually might represent a wavicle traveling through spacetime. In short, he boldly equated ω with ω = E/ħ and k with k = p/ħ, and all came out alright. It made perfect sense!

I’ve written enough about this. What I want to write about here is how this also makes for the situation on hand: a simple two-state system that depends on time only. So its phase is θ = ω·t = E0/ħ. What’s E0? It is the total energy of the system, including the equivalent energy of the particle’s rest mass and any potential energy that may be there because of the presence of one or the other force field. What about kinetic energy? Well… We said it: in this case, there is no translational or linear momentum, so p = 0. So our Platonic wavefunction reduces to:

a·eiθ = ae(i/ħ)·(E0·t)

Great! […] But… Well… No! The problem with this wavefunction is that it yields a constant probability. To be precise, when we take the absolute square of this wavefunction – which is what we do when calculating a probability from a wavefunction − we get P = a2, always. The ‘normalization’ condition (so that’s the condition that probabilities have to add up to one) implies that P1 = P2 = a2 = 1/2. Makes sense, you’ll say, but the problem is that this doesn’t reflect reality: these probabilities do not evolve over time and, hence, our ammonia molecule never ‘flips’ its spin direction from ‘up’ to ‘down’, or vice versa. In short, our wavefunction does not explain reality.

The problem is not unlike the problem we’d had with a similar function relating the momentum and the position of a particle. You’ll remember it: we wrote it as a·eiθ = ae(i/ħ)·(p·x). [Note that we can write a·eiθ = a·e−(i/ħ)·(E0·t − p·x) = a·e−(i/ħ)·(E0·t)·e(i/ħ)·(p·x), so we can always split our wavefunction in a ‘time’ and a ‘space’ part.] But then we found that this wavefunction also yielded a constant and equal probability all over space, which implies our particle is everywhere (and, therefore, nowhere, really).

In quantum physics, this problem is solved by introducing uncertainty. Introducing some uncertainty about the energy, or about the momentum, is mathematically equivalent to saying that we’re actually looking at a composite wave, i.e. the sum of a finite or infinite set of component waves. So we have the same ω = E/ħ and k = p/ħ relations, but we apply them to n energy levels, or to some continuous range of energy levels ΔE. It amounts to saying that our wave function doesn’t have a specific frequency: it now has n frequencies, or a range of frequencies Δω = ΔE/ħ.

We know what that does: it ensures our wavefunction is being ‘contained’ in some ‘envelope’. It becomes a wavetrain, or a kind of beat note, as illustrated below:

File-Wave_group

[The animation also shows the difference between the group and phase velocity: the green dot shows the group velocity, while the red dot travels at the phase velocity.]

This begs the following question: what’s the uncertainty really? Is it an uncertainty in the energy, or is it an uncertainty in the wavefunction? I mean: we have a function relating the energy to a frequency. Introducing some uncertainty about the energy is mathematically equivalent to introducing uncertainty about the frequency. Of course, the answer is: the uncertainty is in both, so it’s in the frequency and in the energy and both are related through the wavefunction. So… Well… Yes. In some way, we’re chasing our own tail. 🙂

However, the trick does the job, and perfectly so. Let me summarize what we did in the previous post: we had the ammonia molecule, i.e. an NH3 molecule, with the nitrogen ‘flipping’ across the hydrogens from time to time, as illustrated below:

dipole

This ‘flip’ requires energy, which is why we associate two energy levels with the molecule, rather than just one. We wrote these two energy levels as E+ A and E− A. That assumption solved all of our problems. [Note that we don’t specify what the energy barrier really consists of: moving the center of mass obviously requires some energy, but it is likely that a ‘flip’ also involves overcoming some electrostatic forces, as shown by the reversal of the electric dipole moment in the illustration above.] To be specific, it gave us the following wavefunctions for the amplitude to be in the ‘up’ or ‘1’ state versus the ‘down’ or ‘2’ state respectivelly:

  • C= (1/2)·e(i/ħ)·(E− A)·t + (1/2)·e(i/ħ)·(E+ A)·t
  • C= (1/2)·e(i/ħ)·(E− A)·t – (1/2)·e(i/ħ)·(E+ A)·t

Both are composite waves. To be precise, they are the sum of two component waves with a temporal frequency equal to ω= (E− A)/ħ and ω= (E+ A)/ħ respectively. [As for the minus sign in front of the second term in the wave equation for C2, −1 = e±iπ, so + (1/2)·e(i/ħ)·(E+ A)·t and – (1/2)·e(i/ħ)·(E+ A)·t are the same wavefunction: they only differ because their relative phase is shifted by ±π.] So the so-called base states of the molecule themselves are associated with two different energy levels: it’s not like one state has more energy than the other.

You’ll say: so what?

Well… Nothing. That’s it really. That’s all I wanted to say here. The absolute square of those two wavefunctions gives us those time-dependent probabilities above, i.e. the graph we started this post with. So… Well… Done!

You’ll say: where’s the ‘envelope’? Oh! Yes! Let me tell you. The C1(t) and C2(t) equations can be re-written as:

C2

Now, remembering our rules for adding and subtracting complex conjugates (eiθ + e–iθ = 2cosθ and eiθ − e–iθ = 2sinθ), we can re-write this as:

C3

So there we are! We’ve got wave equations whose temporal variation is basically defined by Ebut, on top of that, we have an envelope here: the cos(A·t/ħ) and sin(A·t/ħ) factor respectively. So their magnitude is no longer time-independent: both the phase as well as the amplitude now vary with time. The associated probabilities are the ones we plotted:

  • |C1(t)|= cos2[(A/ħ)·t], and
  • |C2(t)|= sin2[(A/ħ)·t].

So, to summarize it all once more, allowing the nitrogen atom to push its way through the three hydrogens, so as to flip to the other side, thereby breaking the energy barrier, is equivalent to associating two energy levels to the ammonia molecule as a whole, thereby introducing some uncertainty, or indefiniteness as to its energy, and that, in turn, gives us the amplitudes and probabilities that we’ve just calculated. [And you may want to note here that the probabilities “sloshing back and forth”, or “dumping into each other” – as Feynman puts it – is the result of the varying magnitudes of our amplitudes, so that’s the ‘envelope’ effect. It’s only because the magnitudes vary in time that their absolute square, i.e. the associated probability, varies too.

So… Well… That’s it. I think this and all of the previous posts served as a nice introduction to quantum physics. More in particular, I hope this post made you appreciate the mathematical framework is not as horrendous as it often seems to be.

When thinking about it, it’s actually all quite straightforward, and it surely respects Occam’s principle of parsimony in philosophical and scientific thought, also know as Occam’s Razor: “When trying to explain something, it is vain to do with more what can be done with less.” So the math we need is the math we need, really: nothing more, nothing less. As I’ve said a couple of times already, Occam would have loved the math behind QM: the physics call for the math, and the math becomes the physics.

That’s what makes it beautiful. 🙂

Post scriptum:

One might think that the addition of a term in the argument in itself would lead to a beat note and, hence, a varying probability but, no! We may look at e(i/ħ)·(E+ A)·t as a product of two amplitudes:

e(i/ħ)·(E+ A)·t e(i/ħ)·E0·t·e(i/ħ)·A·t

But, when writing this all out, one just gets a cos(α·t+β·t)–sin(α·t+β·t), whose absolute square |cos(α·t+β·t)–sin(α·t+β·t)|= 1. However, writing e(i/ħ)·(E+ A)·t as a product of two amplitudes in itself is interesting. We multiply amplitudes when an event consists of two sub-events. For example, the amplitude for some particle to go from s to x via some point a is written as:

x | s 〉via a = 〈 x | a 〉〈 a | s 〉

Having said that, the graph of the product is uninteresting: the real and imaginary part of the wavefunction are a simple sine and cosine function, and their absolute square is constant, as shown below. graph

Adding two waves with very different frequencies – A is a fraction of E– gives a much more interesting pattern, like the one below, which shows an eiαt+eiβt = cos(αt)−i·sin(αt)+cos(βt)−i·sin(βt) = cos(αt)+cos(βt)−i·[sin(αt)+sin(βt)] pattern for α = 1 and β = 0.1.

graph 2

That doesn’t look a beat note, does it? The graphs below, which use 0.5 and 0.01 for β respectively, are not typical beat notes either.

 graph 3graph 4

We get our typical ‘beat note’ only when we’re looking at a wave traveling in space, so then we involve the space variable again, and the relations that come with in, i.e. a phase velocity v= ω/k  = (E/ħ)/(p/ħ) = E/p = c2/v (read: all component waves travel at the same speed), and a group velocity v= dω/dk = v (read: the composite wave or wavetrain travels at the classical speed of our particle, so it travels with the particle, so to speak). That’s what’s I’ve shown numerous times already, but I’ll insert one more animation here, just to make sure you see what we’re talking about. [Credit for the animation goes to another site, one on acoustics, actually!]

beats

So what’s left? Nothing much. The only thing you may want to do is to continue thinking about that wavefunction. It’s tempting to think it actually is the particle, somehow. But it isn’t. So what is it then? Well… Nobody knows, really, but I like to think it does travel with the particle. So it’s like a fundamental property of the particle. We need it every time when we try to measure something: its position, its momentum, its spin (i.e. angular momentum) or, in the example of our ammonia molecule, its orientation in space. So the funny thing is that, in quantum mechanics,

  1. We can measure probabilities only, so there’s always some randomness. That’s how Nature works: we don’t really know what’s happening. We don’t know the internal wheels and gears, so to speak, or the ‘hidden variables’, as one interpretation of quantum mechanics would say. In fact, the most commonly accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics says there are no ‘hidden variables’.
  2. But then, as Polonius famously put, there is a method in this madness, and the pioneers – I mean Werner Heisenberg, Louis de Broglie, Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, etcetera – discovered. All probabilities can be found by taking the square of the absolute value of a complex-valued wavefunction (often denoted by Ψ), whose argument, or phase (θ), is given by the de Broglie relations ω = E/ħ and k = p/ħ:

θ = (ω·t − k ∙x) = (E/ħ)·t − (p/ħ)·x

That should be obvious by now, as I’ve written dozens of posts on this by now. 🙂 I still have trouble interpreting this, however—and I am not ashamed, because the Great Ones I just mentioned have trouble with that too. But let’s try to go as far as we can by making a few remarks:

  •  Adding two terms in math implies the two terms should have the same dimension: we can only add apples to apples, and oranges to oranges. We shouldn’t mix them. Now, the (E/ħ)·t and (p/ħ)·x terms are actually dimensionless: they are pure numbers. So that’s even better. Just check it: energy is expressed in newton·meter (force over distance, remember?) or electronvolts (1 eV = 1.6×10−19 J = 1.6×10−19 N·m); Planck’s constant, as the quantum of action, is expressed in J·s or eV·s; and the unit of (linear) momentum is 1 N·s = 1 kg·m/s = 1 N·s. E/ħ gives a number expressed per second, and p/ħ a number expressed per meter. Therefore, multiplying it by t and x respectively gives us a dimensionless number indeed.
  • It’s also an invariant number, which means we’ll always get the same value for it. As mentioned above, that’s because the four-vector product pμxμ = E·t − px is invariant: it doesn’t change when analyzing a phenomenon in one reference frame (e.g. our inertial reference frame) or another (i.e. in a moving frame).
  • Now, Planck’s quantum of action h or ħ (they only differ in their dimension: h is measured in cycles per second and ħ is measured in radians per second) is the quantum of energy really. Indeed, if “energy is the currency of the Universe”, and it’s real and/or virtual photons who are exchanging it, then it’s good to know the currency unit is h, i.e. the energy that’s associated with one cycle of a photon.
  • It’s not only time and space that are related, as evidenced by the fact that t − x itself is an invariant four-vector, E and p are related too, of course! They are related through the classical velocity of the particle that we’re looking at: E/p = c2/v and, therefore, we can write: E·β = p·c, with β = v/c, i.e. the relative velocity of our particle, as measured as a ratio of the speed of light. Now, I should add that the t − x four-vector is invariant only if we measure time and space in equivalent units. Otherwise, we have to write c·t − x. If we do that, so our unit of distance becomes meter, rather than one meter, or our unit of time becomes the time that is needed for light to travel one meter, then = 1, and the E·β = p·c becomes E·β = p, which we also write as β = p/E: the ratio of the energy and the momentum of our particle is its (relative) velocity.

Combining all of the above, we may want to assume that we are measuring energy and momentum in terms of the Planck constant, i.e. the ‘natural’ unit for both. In addition, we may also want to assume that we’re measuring time and distance in equivalent units. Then the equation for the phase of our wavefunctions reduces to:

θ = (ω·t − k ∙x) = E·t − p·x

Now, θ is the argument of a wavefunction, and we can always re-scale such argument by multiplying or dividing it by some constant. It’s just like writing the argument of a wavefunction as v·t–x or (v·t–x)/v = t –x/v  with the velocity of the waveform that we happen to be looking at. [In case you have trouble following this argument, please check the post I did for my kids on waves and wavefunctions.] Now, the energy conservation principle tells us the energy of a free particle won’t change. [Just to remind you, a ‘free particle’ means it is present in a ‘field-free’ space, so our particle is in a region of uniform potential.] You see what I am going to do now: we can, in this case, treat E as a constant, and divide E·t − p·x by E, so we get a re-scaled phase for our wavefunction, which I’ll write as:

φ = (E·t − p·x)/E = t − (p/E)·x = t − β·x

Now that’s the argument of a wavefunction with the argument expressed in distance units. Alternatively, we could also look at p as some constant, as there is no variation in potential energy that will cause a change in momentum, i.e. in kinetic energy. We’d then divide by p and we’d get (E·t − p·x)/p = (E/p)·t − x) = t/β − x, which amounts to the same, as we can always re-scale by multiplying it with β, which would then yield the same t − β·x argument.

The point is, if we measure energy and momentum in terms of the Planck unit (I mean: in terms of the Planck constant, i.e. the quantum of energy), and if we measure time and distance in ‘natural’ units too, i.e. we take the speed of light to be unity, then our Platonic wavefunction becomes as simple as:

Φ(φ) = a·eiφ = a·ei(t − β·x)

This is a wonderful formula, but let me first answer your most likely question: why would we use a relative velocity?Well… Just think of it: when everything is said and done, the whole theory of relativity and, hence, the whole of physics, is based on one fundamental and experimentally verified fact: the speed of light is absolute. In whatever reference frame, we will always measure it as 299,792,458 m/s. That’s obvious, you’ll say, but it’s actually the weirdest thing ever if you start thinking about it, and it explains why those Lorentz transformations look so damn complicated. In any case, this fact legitimately establishes as some kind of absolute measure against which all speeds can be measured. Therefore, it is only natural indeed to express a velocity as some number between 0 and 1. Now that amounts to expressing it as the β = v/c ratio.

Let’s now go back to that Φ(φ) = a·eiφ = a·ei(t − β·x) wavefunction. Its temporal frequency ω is equal to one, and its spatial frequency k is equal to β = v/c. It couldn’t be simpler but, of course, we’ve got this remarkably simple result because we re-scaled the argument of our wavefunction using the energy and momentum itself as the scale factor. So, yes, we can re-write the wavefunction of our particle in a particular elegant and simple form using the only information that we have when looking at quantum-mechanical stuff: energy and momentum, because that’s what everything reduces to at that level.

Of course, the analysis above does not include uncertainty. Our information on the energy and the momentum of our particle will be incomplete: we’ll write E = E± σE, and p = p± σp. [I am a bit tired of using the Δ symbol, so I am using the σ symbol here, which denotes a standard deviation of some density function. It underlines the probabilistic, or statistical, nature of our approach.] But, including that, we’ve pretty much explained what quantum physics is about here.

You just need to get used to that complex exponential: eiφ = cos(−φ) + i·sin(−φ) = cos(φ) − i·sin(φ). Of course, it would have been nice if Nature would have given us a simple sine or cosine function. [Remember the sine and cosine function are actually the same, except for a phase difference of 90 degrees: sin(φ) = cos(π/2−φ) = cos(φ+π/2). So we can go always from one to the other by shifting the origin of our axis.] But… Well… As we’ve shown so many times already, a real-valued wavefunction doesn’t explain the interference we observe, be it interference of electrons or whatever other particles or, for that matter, the interference of electromagnetic waves itself, which, as you know, we also need to look at as a stream of photons , i.e. light quanta, rather than as some kind of infinitely flexible aether that’s undulating, like water or air.

So… Well… Just accept that eiφ is a very simple periodic function, consisting of two sine waves rather than just one, as illustrated below.

 sine

And then you need to think of stuff like this (the animation is taken from Wikipedia), but then with a projection of the sine of those phasors too. It’s all great fun, so I’ll let you play with it now. 🙂

Sumafasores