Pre-scriptum (dated 26 June 2020): This post does not seem to have suffered from the attack by the dark force. However, my views on the nature of light and matter have evolved as part of my explorations of a more realist (classical) explanation of quantum mechanics. If you are reading this, then you are probably looking for not-to-difficult reading. In that case, I would suggest you read my re-write of Feynman’s introductory lecture to QM. If you want something shorter, you can also read my paper on what I believe to be the true Principles of Physics.

Original post:

I started the two previous posts attempting to justify why we need all these mathematical formulas to understand stuff: because otherwise we just keep on repeating very simplistic but nonsensical things such as ‘matter behaves (sometimes) like light’, ‘light behaves (sometimes) like matter’ or, combining both, ‘light and matter behave like wavicles’. Indeed: what does ‘like‘ mean? Like the same but different? 🙂 However, I have not said much about light so far.

Light and matter are two very different things. For matter, we have quantum mechanics. For light, we have quantum electrodynamics (QED). However, QED is not only a quantum theory about light: as Feynman pointed out in his little but exquisite 1985 book on quantum electrodynamics (QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter), it is first and foremost a theory about how light interacts with matter. However, let’s limit ourselves here to light.

In classical physics, light is an electromagnetic wave: it just travels on and on and on because of that wonderful interaction between electric and magnetic fields. A changing electric field induces a magnetic field, the changing magnetic field then induces an electric field, and then the changing electric field induces a magnetic field, and… Well, you got the idea: it goes on and on and on. This wonderful machinery is summarized in Maxwell’s equations – and most beautifully so in the so-called Heaviside form of these equations, which assume a charge-free vacuum space (so there are no other charges lying around exerting a force on the electromagnetic wave or the (charged) particle whom’s behavior we want to study) and they also make abstraction of other complications such as electric currents (so there are no moving charges going around either).

I reproduced Heaviside’s Maxwell equations below as well as an animated gif which is supposed to illustrate the dynamics explained above. [In case you wonder who’s Heaviside? Well… Check it out: he was quite a character.] The animation is not all that great but OK enough. And don’t worry if you don’t understand the equations – just note the following:

  1. The electric and magnetic field E and B are represented by perpendicular oscillating vectors.
  2. The first and third equation (∇·E = 0 and ∇·B = 0) state that there are no static or moving charges around and, hence, they do not have any impact on (the flux of) E and B.
  3. The second and fourth equation are the ones that are essential. Note the time derivatives (∂/∂t): E and B oscillate and perpetuate each other by inducing new circulation of B and E.

Heaviside form of Maxwell's equations

The constants μ and ε in the fourth equation are the so-called permeability (μ) and permittivity (ε) of the medium, and μ0 and ε0 are the values for these constants in a vacuum space. Now, it is interesting to note that με equals 1/c2, so a changing electric field only produces a tiny change in the circulation of the magnetic field. That’s got something to do with magnetism being a ‘relativistic’ effect but I won’t explore that here – except for noting that the final Lorentz force on a (charged) particle F = q(E + v×B) will be the same regardless of the reference frame (moving or inertial): the reference frame will determine the mixture of E and B fields, but there is only one combined force on a charged particle in the end, regardless of the reference frame (inertial or moving at whatever speed – relativistic (i.e. close to c) or not). [The forces F, E and B on a moving (charged) particle are shown below the animation of the electromagnetic wave.] In other words, Maxwell’s equations are compatible with both special as well as general relativity. In fact, Einstein observed that these equations ensure that electromagnetic waves always travel at speed c (to use his own words: “Light is always propagated in empty space with a definite velocity c which is independent of the state of motion of the emitting body.”) and it’s this observation that led him to develop his special relativity theory.



The other interesting thing to note is that there is energy in these oscillating fields and, hence, in the electromagnetic wave. Hence, if the wave hits an impenetrable barrier, such as a paper sheet, it exerts pressure on it – known as radiation pressure. [By the way, did you ever wonder why a light beam can travel through glass but not through paper? Check it out!] A very oft-quoted example is the following: if the effects of the sun’s radiation pressure on the Viking spacecraft had been ignored, the spacecraft would have missed its Mars orbit by about 15,000 kilometers. Another common example is more science fiction-oriented: the (theoretical) possibility of space ships using huge sails driven by sunlight (paper sails obviously – one should not use transparent plastic for that). 

I am mentioning radiation pressure because, although it is not that difficult to explain radiation pressure using classical electromagnetism (i.e. light as waves), the explanation provided by the ‘particle model’ of light is much more straightforward and, hence, a good starting point to discuss the particle nature of light:

  1. Electromagnetic radiation is quantized in particles called photons. We know that because of Max Planck’s work on black body radiation, which led to Planck’s relation: E = hν. Photons are bona fide particles in the so-called Standard Model of physics: they are defined as bosons with spin 1, but zero rest mass and no electric charge (as opposed to W bosons). They are denoted by the letter or symbol γ (gamma), so that’s the same symbol that’s used to denote gamma rays. [Gamma rays are high-energy electromagnetic radiation (i.e. ‘light’) that have a very definite particle character. Indeed, because of their very short wavelength – less than 10 picometer (10×10–12 m) and high energy (hundreds of KeV – as opposed to visible light, which has a wavelength between 380 and 750 nanometer (380-750×10–9 m) and typical energy of 2 to 3 eV only (so a few hundred thousand times less), they are capable of penetrating through thick layers of concrete, and the human body – where they might damage intracellular bodies and create cancer (lead is a more efficient barrier obviously: a shield of a few centimeter of lead will stop most of them. In case you are not sure about the relation between energy and penetration depth, see the Post Scriptum.]
  2. Although photons are considered to have zero rest mass, they have energy and, hence, an equivalent relativistic mass (m = E/c2) and, therefore, also momentum. Indeed, energy and momentum are related through the following (relativistic) formula: E = (p2c+ m02c4)1/2 (the non-relativistic version is simply E = p2/2m0 but – quite obviously – an approximation that cannot be used in this case – if only because the denominator would be zero). This simplifies to E = pc or p = E/c in this case. This basically says that the energy (E) and the momentum (p) of a photon are proportional, with c – the velocity of the wave – as the factor of proportionality.
  3. The generation of radiation pressure can then be directly related to the momentum property of photons, as shown in the diagram below – which shows how radiation force could – perhaps – propel a space sailing ship. [Nice idea, but I’d rather bet on nuclear-thermal rocket technology.]


I said in my introduction to this post that light and matter are two very different things. They are, and the logic connecting matter waves and electromagnetic radiation is not straightforward – if there is any. Let’s look at the two equations that are supposed to relate the two – the de Broglie relation and the Planck relation:

  1. The de Broglie relation E = hassigns a de Broglie frequency (i.e. the frequency of a complex-valued probability amplitude function) to a particle with mass m through the mass-energy equivalence relation E = mc2. However, the concept of a matter wave is rather complicated (if you don’t think so: read the two previous posts): matter waves have little – if anything – in common with electromagnetic waves. Feynman calls electromagnetic waves ‘real’ waves (just like water waves, or sound waves, or whatever other wave) as opposed to… Well – he does stop short of calling matter waves unreal but it’s obvious they look ‘less real’ than ‘real waves’. Indeed, these complex-valued psi functions (Ψ) – for which we have to square the modulus to get the probability of something happening in space and time, or to measure the likely value of some observable property of the system – are obviously ‘something else’! [I tried to convey their ‘reality’ as well as I could in my previous post, but I am not sure I did a good job – not all really.]
  2. The Planck relation E = hν relates the energy of a photon – the so-called quantum of light (das Lichtquant as Einstein called it in 1905 – the term ‘photon’ was coined some 20 years later it is said) – to the frequency of the electromagnetic wave of which it is part. [That Greek symbol (ν) – it’s the letter nu (the ‘v’ in Greek is amalgamated with the ‘b’) – is quite confusing: it’s not the v for velocity.]

So, while the Planck relation (which goes back to 1905) obviously inspired Louis de Broglie (who introduced his theory on electron waves some 20 years later – in his PhD thesis of 1924 to be precise), their equations look the same but are different – and that’s probably the main reason why we keep two different symbols – f and ν – for the two frequencies.

Photons and electrons are obviously very different particles as well. Just to state the obvious:

  1. Photons have zero rest mass, travel at the speed of light, have no electric charge, are bosons, and so on and so on, and so they behave differently (see, for example, my post on Bose and Fermi, which explains why one cannot make proton beam lasers). [As for the boson qualification, bosons are force carriers: photons in particular mediate (or carry) the electromagnetic force.]
  2. Electrons do not weigh much and, hence, can attain speeds close to light (but it requires tremendous amounts of energy to accelerate them very near c) but so they do have some mass, they have electric charge (photons are electrically neutral), and they are fermions – which means they’re an entirely different ‘beast’ so to say when it comes to combining their probability amplitudes (so that’s why they’ll never get together in some kind of electron laser beam either – just like protons or neutrons – as I explain in my post on Bose and Fermi indeed).

That being said, there’s some connection of course (and that’s what’s being explored in QED):

  1. Accelerating electric charges cause electromagnetic radiation (so moving charges (the negatively charged electrons) cause the electromagnetic field oscillations, but it’s the (neutral) photons that carry it).
  2. Electrons absorb and emit photons as they gain/lose energy when going from one energy level to the other.
  3. Most important of all, individual photons – just like electrons – also have a probability amplitude function – so that’s a de Broglie or matter wave function if you prefer that term.

That means photons can also be described in terms of some kind of complex wave packet, just like that electron I kept analyzing in my previous posts – until I (and surely you) got tired of it. That means we’re presented with the same type of mathematics. For starters, we cannot be happy with assigning a unique frequency to our (complex-valued) de Broglie wave, because that would – once again – mean that we have no clue whatsoever where our photon actually is. So, while the shape of the wave function below might well describe the E and B of a bona fide electromagnetic wave, it cannot describe the (real or imaginary) part of the probability amplitude of the photons we would associate with that wave.

constant frequency waveSo that doesn’t work. We’re back at analyzing wave packets – and, by now, you know how complicated that can be: I am sure you don’t want me to mention Fourier transforms again! So let’s turn to Feynman once again – the greatest of all (physics) teachers – to get his take on it. Now, the surprising thing is that, in his 1985 Lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), he doesn’t really care about the amplitude of a photon to be at point x at time t. What he needs to know is:

  1. The amplitude of a photon to go from point A to B, and
  2. The amplitude of a photon to be absorbed/emitted by an electron (a photon-electron coupling as it’s called).

And then he needs only one more thing: the amplitude of an electron to go from point A to B. That’s all he needs to explain EVERYTHING – in quantum electrodynamics that is. So that’s partial reflection, diffraction, interference… Whatever! In Feynman’s own words: “Out of these three amplitudes, we can make the whole world, aside from what goes on in nuclei, and gravitation, as always!” So let’s have a look at it.

I’ve shown some of his illustrations already in the Bose and Fermi post I mentioned above. In Feynman’s analysis, photons get emitted by some source and, as soon as they do, they travel with some stopwatch, as illustrated below. The speed with which the hand of the stopwatch turns is the angular frequency of the phase of the probability amplitude, and it’s length is the modulus -which, you’ll remember, we need to square to get a probability of something, so for the illustration below we have a probability of 0.2×0.2 = 4%. Probability of what? Relax. Let’s go step by step.


Let’s first relate this probability amplitude stopwatch to a theoretical wave packet, such as the one below – which is a nice Gaussian wave packet:

example of wave packet

This thing really fits the bill: it’s associated with a nice Gaussian probability distribution (aka as a normal distribution, because – despite its ideal shape (from a math point of view), it actually does describe many real-life phenomena), and we can easily relate the stopwatch’s angular frequency to the angular frequency of the phase of the wave. The only thing you’ll need to remember is that its amplitude is not constant in space and time: indeed, this photon is somewhere sometime, and that means it’s no longer there when it’s gone, and also that it’s not there when it hasn’t arrived yet. 🙂 So, as you long as you remember that, Feynman’s stopwatch is a great way to represent a photon (or any particle really). [Just think of a stopwatch in your hand with no hand, but then suddenly that hand grows from zero to 0.2 (or some other random value between 0 and 1) and then shrinks back from that random value to 0 as the photon whizzes by. […] Or find some other creative interpretation if you don’t like this one. :-)]

Now, of course we do not know at what time the photon leaves the source and so the hand of the stopwatch could be at 2 o’clock, 9 o’clock or whatever: so the phase could be shifted by any value really. However, the thing to note is that the stopwatch’s hand goes around and around at a steady (angular) speed.

That’s OK. We can’t know where the photon is because we’re obviously assuming a nice standardized light source emitting polarized light with a very specific color, i.e. all photons have the same frequency (so we don’t have to worry about spin and all that). Indeed, because we’re going to add and multiply amplitudes, we have to keep it simple (the complicated things should be left to clever people – or academics). More importantly, it’s OK because we don’t need to know the exact position of the hand of the stopwatch as the photon leaves the source in order to explain phenomena like the partial reflection of light on glass. What matters there is only how much the stopwatch hand turns in the short time it takes to go from the front surface of the glass to its back surface. That difference in phase is independent from the position of the stopwatch hand as it reaches the glass: it only depends on the angular frequency (i.e. the energy of the photon, or the frequency of the light beam) and the thickness of the glass sheet. The two cases below present two possibilities: a 5% chance of reflection and a 16% chance of reflection (16% is actually a maximum, as Feynman shows in that little book, but that doesn’t matter here).

partial reflection

But – Hey! – I am suddenly talking amplitudes for reflection here, and the probabilities that I am calculating (by adding amplitudes, not probabilities) are also (partial) reflection probabilities. Damn ! YOU ARE SMART! It’s true. But you get the idea, and I told you already that Feynman is not interested in the probability of a photon just being here or there or wherever. He’s interested in (1) the amplitude of it going from the source (i.e. some point A) to the glass surface (i.e. some other point B), and then (2) the amplitude of photon-electron couplings – which determine the above amplitudes for being reflected (i.e. being (back)scattered by an electron actually).

So what? Well… Nothing. That’s it. I just wanted you to give some sense of de Broglie waves for photons. The thing to note is that they’re like de Broglie waves for electrons. So they are as real or unreal as these electron waves, and they have close to nothing to do with the electromagnetic wave of which they are part. The only thing that relates them with that real wave so to say, is their energy level, and so that determines their de Broglie wavelength. So, it’s strange to say, but we have two frequencies for a photon: E= hν and E = hf. The first one is the Planck relation (E= hν): it associates the energy of a photon with the frequency of the real-life electromagnetic wave. The second is the de Broglie relation (E = hf): once we’ve calculated the energy of a photon using E= hν, we associate a de Broglie wavelength with the photon. So we imagine it as a traveling stopwatch with angular frequency ω = 2πf.

So that’s it (for now). End of story.


Now, you may want to know something more about these other amplitudes (that’s what I would want), i.e. the amplitude of a photon to go from A to B and this coupling amplitude and whatever else that may or may not be relevant. Right you are: it’s fascinating stuff. For example, you may or may not be surprised that photons have an amplitude to travel faster or slower than light from A to B, and that they actually have many amplitudes to go from A to B: one for each possible path. [Does that mean that the path does not have to be straight? Yep. Light can take strange paths – and it’s the interplay (i.e. the interference) between all these amplitudes that determines the most probable path – which, fortunately (otherwise our amplitude theory would be worthless), turns out to be the straight line.] We can summarize this in a really short and nice formula for the P(A to B) amplitude [note that the ‘P’ stands for photon, not for probability – Feynman uses an E for the related amplitude for an electron, so he writes E(A to B)].

However, I won’t make this any more complicated right now and so I’ll just reveal that P(A to B) depends on the so-called spacetime interval. This spacetime interval (I) is equal to I = (z2– z1)+ (y2– y1)+ (x2– x1)– (t2– t1)2, with the time and spatial distance being measured in equivalent units (so we’d use light-seconds for the unit of distance or, for the unit of time, the time it takes for light to travel one meter). I am sure you’ve heard about this interval. It’s used to explain the famous light cone – which determines what’s past and future in respect to the here and now in spacetime (or the past and present of some event in spacetime) in terms of

  1. What could possibly have impacted the here and now (taking into account nothing can travel faster than light – even if we’ve mentioned some exceptions to this already, such as the phase velocity of a matter wave – but so that’s not a ‘signal’ and, hence, not in contradiction with relativity)?
  2. What could possible be impacted by the here and now (again taking into account that nothing can travel faster than c)?

In short, the light cone defines the past, the here, and the future in spacetime in terms of (potential) causal relations. However, as this post has – once again – become too long already, I’ll need to write another post to discuss these other types of amplitudes – and how they are used in quantum electrodynamics. So my next post should probably say something about light-matter interaction, or on photons as the carriers of the electromagnetic force (both in light as well as in an atom – as it’s the electromagnetic force that keeps an electron in orbit around the (positively charged) nucleus). In case you wonder, yes, that’s Feynman diagrams – among other things.

Post scriptum: On frequency, wavelength and energy – and the particle- versus wave-like nature of electromagnetic waves

I wrote that gamma waves have a very definite particle character because of their very short wavelength. Indeed, most discussions of the electromagnetic spectrum will start by pointing out that higher frequencies or shorter wavelengths – higher frequency (f) implies shorter wavelength (λ) because the wavelength is the speed of the wave (c in this case) over the frequency: λ = c/f – will make the (electromagnetic) wave more particle-like. For example, I copied two illustrations from Feynman’s very first Lectures (Volume I, Lectures 2 and 5) in which he makes the point by showing

  1. The familiar table of the electromagnetic spectrum (we could easily add a column for the wavelength (just calculate λ = c/f) and the energy (E = hf) besides the frequency), and
  2. An illustration that shows how matter (a block of carbon of 1 cm thick in this case) looks like for an electromagnetic wave racing towards it. It does not look like Gruyère cheese, because Gruyère cheese is cheese with holes: matter is huge holes with just a tiny little bit of cheese ! Indeed, at the micro-level, matter looks like a lot of nothing with only a few tiny specks of matter sprinkled about!

And so then he goes on to describe how ‘hard’ rays (i.e. rays with short wavelengths) just plow right through and so on and so on.

  electromagnetic spectrumcarbon close-up view

Now it will probably sound very stupid to non-autodidacts but, for a very long time, I was vaguely intrigued that the amplitude of a wave doesn’t seem to matter when looking at the particle- versus wave-like character of electromagnetic waves. Electromagnetic waves are transverse waves so they oscillate up and down, perpendicular to the direction of travel (as opposed to longitudinal waves, such as sound waves or pressure waves for example: these oscillate back and forth – in the same direction of travel). And photon paths are represented by wiggly lines, so… Well, you may not believe it but that’s why I stupidly thought it’s the amplitude that should matter, not the wavelength.

Indeed, the illustration below – which could be an example of how E or B oscillates in space and time – would suggest that lower amplitudes (smaller A’s) are the key to ‘avoiding’ those specks of matter. And if one can’t do anything about amplitude, then one may be forgiven to think that longer wavelengths – not shorter ones – are the key to avoiding those little ‘obstacles’ presented by atoms or nuclei in some crystal or non-crystalline structure. [Just jot it down: more wiggly lines increase the chance of hitting something.] But… Both lower amplitudes as well as longer wavelengths imply less energy. Indeed, the energy of a wave is, in general, proportional to the square of its amplitude and electromagnetic waves are no exception in this regard. As for wavelength, we have Planck’s relation. So what’s wrong in my very childish reasoning?

Cosine wave concepts

As usual, the answer is easy for those who already know it: neither wavelength nor amplitude have anything to do with how much space this wave actually takes as it propagates. But of course! You didn’t know that? Well… Sorry. Now I do. The vertical y axis might measure E and B indeed, but the graph and the nice animation above should not make you think that these field vectors actually occupy some space. So you can think of electromagnetic waves as particle waves indeed: we’ve got ‘something’ that’s traveling in a straight line, and it’s traveling at the speed of light. That ‘something’ is a photon, and it can have high or low energy. If it’s low-energy, it’s like a speck of dust: even if it travels at the speed of light, it is easy to deflect (i.e. scatter), and the ’empty space’ in matter (which is, of course, not empty but full of all kinds of electromagnetic disturbances) may well feel like jelly to it: it will get stuck (read: it will be absorbed somewhere or not even get through the first layer of atoms at all). If it’s high-energy, then it’s a different story: then the photon is like a tiny but very powerful bullet – same size as the speck of dust, and same speed, but much and much heavier. Such ‘bullet’ (e.g. a gamma ray photon) will indeed have a tendency to plow through matter like it’s air: it won’t care about all these low-energy fields in it.

It is, most probably, a very trivial point to make, but I thought it’s worth doing so.

[When thinking about the above, also remember the trivial relationship between energy and momentum for photons: p = E/c, so more energy means more momentum: a heavy truck crashing into your house will create more damage than a Mini at the same speed because the truck has much more momentum. So just use the mass-energy equivalence (E = mc2) and think about high-energy photons as armored vehicles and low-energy photons as mom-and-pop cars.]

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A not so easy piece: introducing the wave equation (and the Schrödinger equation)

Pre-scriptum (dated 26 June 2020): This post did not suffer from the DMCA take-down of some material. It is, therefore, still quite readable—even if my views on these  matters have evolved quite a bit as part of my realist interpretation of QM.

Original post:

The title above refers to a previous post: An Easy Piece: Introducing the wave function.

Indeed, I may have been sloppy here and there – I hope not – and so that’s why it’s probably good to clarify that the wave function (usually represented as Ψ – the psi function) and the wave equation (Schrödinger’s equation, for example – but there are other types of wave equations as well) are two related but different concepts: wave equations are differential equations, and wave functions are their solutions.

Indeed, from a mathematical point of view, a differential equation (such as a wave equation) relates a function (such as a wave function) with its derivatives, and its solution is that function or – more generally – the set (or family) of functions that satisfies this equation. 

The function can be real-valued or complex-valued, and it can be a function involving only one variable (such as y = y(x), for example) or more (such as u = u(x, t) for example). In the first case, it’s a so-called ordinary differential equation. In the second case, the equation is referred to as a partial differential equation, even if there’s nothing ‘partial’ about it: it’s as ‘complete’ as an ordinary differential equation (the name just refers to the presence of partial derivatives in the equation). Hence, in an ordinary differential equation, we will have terms involving dy/dx and/or d2y/dx2, i.e. the first and second derivative of y respectively (and/or higher-order derivatives, depending on the degree of the differential equation), while in partial differential equations, we will see terms involving ∂u/∂t and/or ∂u2/∂x(and/or higher-order partial derivatives), with ∂ replacing d as a symbol for the derivative.

The independent variables could also be complex-valued but, in physics, they will usually be real variables (or scalars as real numbers are also being referred to – as opposed to vectors, which are nothing but two-, three- or more-dimensional numbers really). In physics, the independent variables will usually be x – or let’s use r = (x, y, z) for a change, i.e. the three-dimensional space vector – and the time variable t. An example is that wave function which we introduced in our ‘easy piece’.

Ψ(r, t) = Aei(p·r – Et)ħ

[If you read the Easy Piece, then you might object that this is not quite what I wrote there, and you are right: I wrote Ψ(r, t) = Aei(p/ħr – ωt). However, here I am just introducing the other de Broglie relation (i.e. the one relating energy and frequency): E = hf =ħω and, hence, ω = E/ħ. Just re-arrange a bit and you’ll see it’s the same.]

From a physics point of view, a differential equation represents a system subject to constraints, such as the energy conservation law (the sum of the potential and kinetic energy remains constant), and Newton’s law of course: F = d(mv)/dt. A differential equation will usually also be given with one or more initial conditions, such as the value of the function at point t = 0, i.e. the initial value of the function. To use Wikipedia’s definition: “Differential equations arise whenever a relation involving some continuously varying quantities (modeled by functions) and their rates of change in space and/or time (expressed as derivatives) is known or postulated.”

That sounds a bit more complicated, perhaps, but it means the same: once you have a good mathematical model of a physical problem, you will often end up with a differential equation representing the system you’re looking at, and then you can do all kinds of things, such as analyzing whether or not the actual system is in an equilibrium and, if not, whether it will tend to equilibrium or, if not, what the equilibrium conditions would be. But here I’ll refer to my previous posts on the topic of differential equations, because I don’t want to get into these details – as I don’t need them here.

The one thing I do need to introduce is an operator referred to as the gradient (it’s also known as the del operator, but I don’t like that word because it does not convey what it is). The gradient – denoted by ∇ – is a shorthand for the partial derivatives of our function u or Ψ with respect to space, so we write:

∇ = (∂/∂x, ∂/∂y, ∂/∂z)

You should note that, in physics, we apply the gradient only to the spatial variables, not to time. For the derivative in regard to time, we just write ∂u/∂t or ∂Ψ/∂t.

Of course, an operator means nothing until you apply it to a (real- or complex-valued) function, such as our u(x, t) or our Ψ(r, t):

∇u = ∂u/∂x and ∇Ψ = (∂Ψ/∂x, ∂Ψ/∂y, ∂Ψ/∂z)

As you can see, the gradient operator returns a vector with three components if we apply it to a real- or complex-valued function of r, and so we can do all kinds of funny things with it combining it with the scalar or vector product, or with both. Here I need to remind you that, in a vector space, we can multiply vectors using either (i) the scalar product, aka the dot product (because of the dot in its notation: ab) or (ii) the vector product, aka as the cross product (yes, because of the cross in its notation: b).

So we can define a whole range of new operators using the gradient and these two products, such as the divergence and the curl of a vector field. For example, if E is the electric field vector (I am using an italic bold-type E so you should not confuse E with the energy E, which is a scalar quantity), then div E = ∇•E, and curl E =∇×E. Taking the divergence of a vector will yield some number (so that’s a scalar), while taking the curl will yield another vector. 

I am mentioning these operators because you will often see them. A famous example is the set of equations known as Maxwell’s equations, which integrate all of the laws of electromagnetism and from which we can derive the electromagnetic wave equation:

(1) ∇•E = ρ/ε(Gauss’ law)

(2) ∇×E = –∂B/∂t (Faraday’s law)

(3) ∇•B = 0

(4) c2∇×B =  j+  ∂E/∂t  

I should not explain these but let me just remind you of the essentials:

  1. The first equation (Gauss’ law) can be derived from the equations for Coulomb’s law and the forces acting upon a charge q in an electromagnetic field: F = q(E + v×B) – with B the magnetic field vector (F is also referred to as the Lorentz force: it’s the combined force on a charged particle caused by the electric and magnetic fields; v the velocity of the (moving) charge;  ρ the charge density (so charge is thought of as being distributed in space, rather than being packed into points, and that’s OK because our scale is not the quantum-mechanical one here); and, finally, ε0 the electric constant (some 8.854×10−12 farads per meter).
  2. The second equation (Faraday’s law) gives the electric field associated with a changing magnetic field.
  3. The third equation basically states that there is no such thing as a magnetic charge: there are only electric charges.
  4. Finally, in the last equation, we have a vector j representing the current density: indeed, remember than magnetism only appears when (electric) charges are moving, so if there’s an electric current. As for the equation itself, well… That’s a more complicated story so I will leave that for the post scriptum.

We can do many more things: we can also take the curl of the gradient of some scalar, or the divergence of the curl of some vector (both have the interesting property that they are zero), and there are many more possible combinations – some of them useful, others not so useful. However, this is not the place to introduce differential calculus of vector fields (because that’s what it is).

The only other thing I need to mention here is what happens when we apply this gradient operator twice. Then we have an new operator ∇•∇ = ∇which is referred to as the Laplacian. In fact, when we say ‘apply ∇ twice’, we are actually doing a dot product. Indeed, ∇ returns a vector, and so we are going to multiply this vector once again with a vector using the dot product rule: a= ∑aib(so we multiply the individual vector components and then add them). In the case of our functions u and Ψ, we get:

∇•(∇u) =∇•∇u = (∇•∇)u = ∇u =∂2u/∂x2

∇•(∇Ψ) = ∇Ψ = ∂2Ψ/∂x+ ∂2Ψ/∂y+ ∂2Ψ/∂z2

Now, you may wonder what it means to take the derivative (or partial derivative) of a complex-valued function (which is what we are doing in the case of Ψ) but don’t worry about that: a complex-valued function of one or more real variables,  such as our Ψ(x, t), can be decomposed as Ψ(x, t) =ΨRe(x, t) + iΨIm(x, t), with ΨRe and ΨRe two real-valued functions representing the real and imaginary part of Ψ(x, t) respectively. In addition, the rules for integrating complex-valued functions are, to a large extent, the same as for real-valued functions. For example, if z is a complex number, then dez/dz = ez and, hence, using this and other very straightforward rules, we can indeed find the partial derivatives of a function such as Ψ(r, t) = Aei(p·r – Et)ħ with respect to all the (real-valued) variables in the argument.

The electromagnetic wave equation  

OK. That’s enough math now. We are ready now to look at – and to understand – a real wave equation – I mean one that actually represents something in physics. Let’s take Maxwell’s equations as a start. To make it easy – and also to ensure that you have easy access to the full derivation – we’ll take the so-called Heaviside form of these equations:

Heaviside form of Maxwell's equations

This Heaviside form assumes a charge-free vacuum space, so there are no external forces acting upon our electromagnetic wave. There are also no other complications such as electric currents. Also, the c2 (i.e. the square of the speed of light) is written here c2 = 1/με, with μ and ε the so-called permeability (μ) and permittivity (ε) respectively (c0, μand ε0 are the values in a vacuum space: indeed, light travels slower elsewhere (e.g. in glass) – if at all).

Now, these four equations can be replaced by just two, and it’s these two equations that are referred to as the electromagnetic wave equation(s):

electromagnetic wave equation

The derivation is not difficult. In fact, it’s much easier than the derivation for the Schrödinger equation which I will present in a moment. But, even if it is very short, I will just refer to Wikipedia in case you would be interested in the details (see the article on the electromagnetic wave equation). The point here is just to illustrate what is being done with these wave equations and why – not so much howIndeed, you may wonder what we have gained with this ‘reduction’.

The answer to this very legitimate question is easy: the two equations above are second-order partial differential equations which are relatively easy to solve. In other words, we can find a general solution, i.e. a set or family of functions that satisfy the equation and, hence, can represent the wave itself. Why a set of functions? If it’s a specific wave, then there should only be one wave function, right? Right. But to narrow our general solution down to a specific solution, we will need extra information, which are referred to as initial conditions, boundary conditions or, in general, constraints. [And if these constraints are not sufficiently specific, then we may still end up with a whole bunch of possibilities, even if they narrowed down the choice.]

Let’s give an example by re-writing the above wave equation and using our function u(x, t) or, to simplify the analysis, u(x, t) – so we’re looking at a plane wave traveling in one dimension only:

Wave equation for u

There are many functional forms for u that satisfy this equation. One of them is the following:

general solution for wave equation

This resembles the one I introduced when presenting the de Broglie equations, except that – this time around – we are talking a real electromagnetic wave, not some probability amplitude. Another difference is that we allow a composite wave with two components: one traveling in the positive x-direction, and one traveling in the negative x-direction. Now, if you read the post in which I introduced the de Broglie wave, you will remember that these Aei(kx–ωt) or Be–i(kx+ωt) waves give strange probabilities. However, because we are not looking at some probability amplitude here – so it’s not a de Broglie wave but a real wave (so we use complex number notation only because it’s convenient but, in practice, we’re only considering the real part), this functional form is quite OK.

That being said, the following functional form, representing a wave packet (aka a wave train) is also a solution (or a set of solutions better):

Wave packet equation

Huh? Well… Yes. If you really can’t follow here, I can only refer you to my post on Fourier analysis and Fourier transforms: I cannot reproduce that one here because that would make this post totally unreadable. We have a wave packet here, and so that’s the sum of an infinite number of component waves that interfere constructively in the region of the envelope (so that’s the location of the packet) and destructively outside. The integral is just the continuum limit of a summation of n such waves. So this integral will yield a function u with x and t as independent variables… If we know A(k) that is. Now that’s the beauty of these Fourier integrals (because that’s what this integral is). 

Indeed, in my post on Fourier transforms I also explained how these amplitudes A(k) in the equation above can be expressed as a function of u(x, t) through the inverse Fourier transform. In fact, I actually presented the Fourier transform pair Ψ(x) and Φ(p) in that post, but the logic is same – except that we’re inserting the time variable t once again (but with its value fixed at t=0):

Fourier transformOK, you’ll say, but where is all of this going? Be patient. We’re almost done. Let’s now introduce a specific initial condition. Let’s assume that we have the following functional form for u at time t = 0:

u at time 0

You’ll wonder where this comes from. Well… I don’t know. It’s just an example from Wikipedia. It’s random but it fits the bill: it’s a localized wave (so that’s a a wave packet) because of the very particular form of the phase (θ = –x2+ ik0x). The point to note is that we can calculate A(k) when inserting this initial condition in the equation above, and then – finally, you’ll say – we also get a specific solution for our u(x, t) function by inserting the value for A(k) in our general solution. In short, we get:



u final form

As mentioned above, we are actually only interested in the real part of this equation (so that’s the e with the exponent factor (note there is no in it, so it’s just some real number) multiplied with the cosine term).

However, the example above shows how easy it is to extend the analysis to a complex-valued wave function, i.e. a wave function describing a probability amplitude. We will actually do that now for Schrödinger’s equation. [Note that the example comes from Wikipedia’s article on wave packets, and so there is a nice animation which shows how this wave packet (be it the real or imaginary part of it) travels through space. Do watch it!]

Schrödinger’s equation

Let me just write it down:

Schrodinger's equation

That’s it. This is the Schrödinger equation – in a somewhat simplified form but it’s OK.

[…] You’ll find that equation above either very simple or, else, very difficult depending on whether or not you understood most or nothing at all of what I wrote above it. If you understood something, then it should be fairly simple, because it hardly differs from the other wave equation.

Indeed, we have that imaginary unit (i) in front of the left term, but then you should not panic over that: when everything is said and done, we are working here with the derivative (or partial derivative) of a complex-valued function, and so it should not surprise us that we have an i here and there. It’s nothing special. In fact, we had them in the equation above too, but they just weren’t explicit. The second difference with the electromagnetic wave equation is that we have a first-order derivative of time only (in the electromagnetic wave equation we had 2u/∂t2, so that’s a second-order derivative). Finally, we have a -1/2 factor in front of the right-hand term, instead of c2. OK, so what? It’s a different thing – but that should not surprise us: when everything is said and done, it is a different wave equation because it describes something else (not an electromagnetic wave but a quantum-mechanical system).

To understand why it’s different, I’d need to give you the equivalent of Maxwell’s set of equations for quantum mechanics, and then show how this wave equation is derived from them. I could do that. The derivation is somewhat lengthier than for our electromagnetic wave equation but not all that much. The problem is that it involves some new concepts which we haven’t introduced as yet – mainly some new operators. But then we have introduced a lot of new operators already (such as the gradient and the curl and the divergence) so you might be ready for this. Well… Maybe. The treatment is a bit lengthy, and so I’d rather do in a separate post. Why? […] OK. Let me say a few things about it then. Here we go:

  • These new operators involve matrix algebra. Fine, you’ll say. Let’s get on with it. Well… It’s matrix algebra with matrices with complex elements, so if we write a n×m matrix A as A = (aiaj), then the elements aiaj (i = 1, 2,… n and j = 1, 2,… m) will be complex numbers.
  • That allows us to define Hermitian matrices: a Hermitian matrix is a square matrix A which is the same as the complex conjugate of its transpose.
  • We can use such matrices as operators indeed: transformations acting on a column vector X to produce another column vector AX.
  • Now, you’ll remember – from your course on matrix algebra with real (as opposed to complex) matrices, I hope – that we have this very particular matrix equation AX = λX which has non-trivial solutions (i.e. solutions X ≠ 0) if and only if the determinant of A-λI is equal to zero. This condition (det(A-λI) = 0) is referred to as the characteristic equation.
  • This characteristic equation is a polynomial of degree n in λ and its roots are called eigenvalues or characteristic values of the matrix A. The non-trivial solutions X ≠ 0 corresponding to each eigenvalue are called eigenvectors or characteristic vectors.

Now – just in case you’re still with me – it’s quite simple: in quantum mechanics, we have the so-called Hamiltonian operator. The Hamiltonian in classical mechanics represents the total energy of the system: H = T + V (total energy H = kinetic energy T + potential energy V). Here we have got something similar but different. 🙂 The Hamiltonian operator is written as H-hat, i.e. an H with an accent circonflexe (as they say in French). Now, we need to let this Hamiltonian operator act on the wave function Ψ and if the result is proportional to the same wave function Ψ, then Ψ is a so-called stationary state, and the proportionality constant will be equal to the energy E of the state Ψ. These stationary states correspond to standing waves, or ‘orbitals’, such as in atomic orbitals or molecular orbitals. So we have:

E\Psi=\hat H \Psi

I am sure you are no longer there but, in fact, that’s it. We’re done with the derivation. The equation above is the so-called time-independent Schrödinger equation. It’s called like that not because the wave function is time-independent (it is), but because the Hamiltonian operator is time-independent: that obviously makes sense because stationary states are associated with specific energy levels indeed. However, if we do allow the energy level to vary in time (which we should do – if only because of the uncertainty principle: there is no such thing as a fixed energy level in quantum mechanics), then we cannot use some constant for E, but we need a so-called energy operator. Fortunately, this energy operator has a remarkably simple functional form:

\hat{E} \Psi = i\hbar\dfrac{\partial}{\partial t}\Psi = E\Psi  Now if we plug that in the equation above, we get our time-dependent Schrödinger equation  

i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial t}\Psi = \hat H \Psi

OK. You probably did not understand one iota of this but, even then, you will object that this does not resemble the equation I wrote at the very beginning: i(u/∂t) = (-1/2)2u.

You’re right, but we only need one more step for that. If we leave out potential energy (so we assume a particle moving in free space), then the Hamiltonian can be written as:

\hat{H} = -\frac{\hbar^2}{2m}\nabla^2

You’ll ask me how this is done but I will be short on that: the relationship between energy and momentum is being used here (and so that’s where the 2m factor in the denominator comes from). However, I won’t say more about it because this post would become way too lengthy if I would include each and every derivation and, remember, I just want to get to the result because the derivations here are not the point: I want you to understand the functional form of the wave equation only. So, using the above identity and, OK, let’s be somewhat more complete and include potential energy once again, we can write the time-dependent wave equation as:

 i\hbar\frac{\partial}{\partial t}\Psi(\mathbf{r},t) = -\frac{\hbar^2}{2m}\nabla^2\Psi(\mathbf{r},t) + V(\mathbf{r},t)\Psi(\mathbf{r},t)

Now, how is the equation above related to i(u/∂t) = (-1/2)2u? It’s a very simplified version of it: potential energy is, once again, assumed to be not relevant (so we’re talking a free particle again, with no external forces acting on it) but the real simplification is that we give m and ħ the value 1, so m = ħ = 1. Why?

Well… My initial idea was to do something similar as I did above and, hence, actually use a specific example with an actual functional form, just like we did for that the real-valued u(x, t) function. However, when I look at how long this post has become already, I realize I should not do that. In fact, I would just copy an example from somewhere else – probably Wikipedia once again, if only because their examples are usually nicely illustrated with graphs (and often animated graphs). So let me just refer you here to the other example given in the Wikipedia article on wave packets: that example uses that simplified i(u/∂t) = (-1/2)2u equation indeed. It actually uses the same initial condition:

u at time 0

However, because the wave equation is different, the wave packet behaves differently. It’s a so-called dispersive wave packet: it delocalizes. Its width increases over time and so, after a while, it just vanishes because it diffuses all over space. So there’s a solution to the wave equation, given this initial condition, but it’s just not stable – as a description of some particle that is (from a mathematical point of view – or even a physical point of view – there is no issue).

In any case, this probably all sounds like Chinese – or Greek if you understand Chinese :-). I actually haven’t worked with these Hermitian operators yet, and so it’s pretty shaky territory for me myself. However, I felt like I had picked up enough math and physics on this long and winding Road to Reality (I don’t think I am even halfway) to give it a try. I hope I succeeded in passing the message, which I’ll summarize as follows:

  1. Schrödinger’s equation is just like any other differential equation used in physics, in the sense that it represents a system subject to constraints, such as the relationship between energy and momentum.
  2. It will have many general solutions. In other words, the wave function – which describes a probability amplitude as a function in space and time – will have many general solutions, and a specific solution will depend on the initial conditions.
  3. The solution(s) can represent stationary states, but not necessary so: a wave (or a wave packet) can be non-dispersive or dispersive. However, when we plug the wave function into the wave equation, it will satisfy that equation.

That’s neither spectacular nor difficult, is it? But, perhaps, it helps you to ‘understand’ wave equations, including the Schrödinger equation. But what is understanding? Dirac once famously said: “I consider that I understand an equation when I can predict the properties of its solutions, without actually solving it.”

Hmm… I am not quite there yet, but I am sure some more practice with it will help. 🙂

Post scriptum: On Maxwell’s equations

First, we should say something more about these two other operators which I introduced above: the divergence and the curl. First on the divergence.

The divergence of a field vector E (or B) at some point r represents the so-called flux of E, i.e. the ‘flow’ of E per unit volume. So flux and divergence both deal with the ‘flow’ of electric field lines away from (positive) charges. [The ‘away from’ is from positive charges indeed – as per the convention: Maxwell himself used the term ‘convergence’ to describe flow towards negative charges, but so his ‘convention’ did not survive. Too bad, because I think convergence would be much easier to remember.]

So if we write that ∇•ρ/ε0, then it means that we have some constant flux of E because of some (fixed) distribution of charges.

Now, we already mentioned that equation (2) in Maxwell’s set meant that there is no such thing as a ‘magnetic’ charge: indeed, ∇•B = 0 means there is no magnetic flux. But, of course, magnetic fields do exist, don’t they? They do. A current in a wire, for example, i.e. a bunch of steadily moving electric charges, will induce a magnetic field according to Ampère’s law, which is part of equation (4) in Maxwell’s set: c2∇×B =  j0, with j representing the current density and ε0 the electric constant.

Now, at this point, we have this curl: ∇×B. Just like divergence (or convergence as Maxwell called it – but then with the sign reversed), curl also means something in physics: it’s the amount of ‘rotation’, or ‘circulation’ as Feynman calls it, around some loop.

So, to summarize the above, we have (1) flux (divergence) and (2) circulation (curl) and, of course, the two must be related. And, while we do not have any magnetic charges and, hence, no flux for B, the current in that wire will cause some circulation of B, and so we do have a magnetic field. However, that magnetic field will be static, i.e. it will not change. Hence, the time derivative ∂B/∂t will be zero and, hence, from equation (2) we get that ∇×E = 0, so our electric field will be static too. The time derivative ∂E/∂t which appears in equation (4) also disappears and we just have c2∇×B =  j0. This situation – of a constant magnetic and electric field – is described as electrostatics and magnetostatics respectively. It implies a neat separation of the four equations, and it makes magnetism and electricity appear as distinct phenomena. Indeed, as long as charges and currents are static, we have:

[I] Electrostatics: (1) ∇•E = ρ/εand (2) ∇×E = 0

[II] Magnetostatics: (3) c2∇×B =  jand (4) ∇•B = 0

The first two equations describe a vector field with zero curl and a given divergence (i.e. the electric field) while the third and fourth equations second describe a seemingly separate vector field with a given curl but zero divergence. Now, I am not writing this post scriptum to reproduce Feynman’s Lectures on Electromagnetism, and so I won’t say much more about this. I just want to note two points:

1. The first point to note is that factor cin the c2∇×B =  jequation. That’s something which you don’t have in the ∇•E = ρ/εequation. Of course, you’ll say: So what? Well… It’s weird. And if you bring it to the other side of the equation, it becomes clear that you need an awful lot of current for a tiny little bit of magnetic circulation (because you’re dividing by c , so that’s a factor 9 with 16 zeroes after it (9×1016):  an awfully big number in other words). Truth be said, it reveals something very deep. Hmm? Take a wild guess. […] Relativity perhaps? Well… Yes!

It’s obvious that we buried v somewhere in this equation, the velocity of the moving charges. But then it’s part of j of course: the rate at which charge flows through a unit area per second. But – Hey! – velocity as compared to what? What’s the frame of reference? The frame of reference is us obviously or – somewhat less subjective – the stationary charges determining the electric field according to equation (1) in the set above: ∇•E = ρ/ε0. But so here we can ask the same question: stationary in what reference frame? As compared to the moving charges? Hmm… But so how does it work with relativity? I won’t copy Feynman’s 13th Lecture here, but so, in that lecture, he analyzes what happens to the electric and magnetic force when we look at the scene from another coordinate system – let’s say one that moves parallel to the wire at the same speed as the moving electrons, so – because of our new reference frame – the ‘moving electrons’ now appear to have no speed at all but, of course, our stationary charges will now seem to move.

What Feynman finds – and his calculations are very easy and straightforward – is that, while we will obviously insert different input values into Maxwell’s set of equations and, hence, get different values for the E and B fields, the actual physical effect – i.e. the final Lorentz force on a (charged) particle – will be the same. To be very specific, in a coordinate system at rest with respect to the wire (so we see charges move in the wire), we find a ‘magnetic’ force indeed, but in a coordinate system moving at the same speed of those charges, we will find an ‘electric’ force only. And from yet another reference frame, we will find a mixture of E and B fields. However, the physical result is the same: there is only one combined force in the end – the Lorentz force F = q(E + v×B) – and it’s always the same, regardless of the reference frame (inertial or moving at whatever speed – relativistic (i.e. close to c) or not).

In other words, Maxwell’s description of electromagnetism is invariant or, to say exactly the same in yet other words, electricity and magnetism taken together are consistent with relativity: they are part of one physical phenomenon: the electromagnetic interaction between (charged) particles. So electric and magnetic fields appear in different ‘mixtures’ if we change our frame of reference, and so that’s why magnetism is often described as a ‘relativistic’ effect – although that’s not very accurate. However, it does explain that cfactor in the equation for the curl of B. [How exactly? Well… If you’re smart enough to ask that kind of question, you will be smart enough to find the derivation on the Web. :-)]

Note: Don’t think we’re talking astronomical speeds here when comparing the two reference frames. It would also work for astronomical speeds but, in this case, we are talking the speed of the electrons moving through a wire. Now, the so-called drift velocity of electrons – which is the one we have to use here – in a copper wire of radius 1 mm carrying a steady current of 3 Amps is only about 1 m per hour! So the relativistic effect is tiny  – but still measurable !

2. The second thing I want to note is that  Maxwell’s set of equations with non-zero time derivatives for E and B clearly show that it’s changing electric and magnetic fields that sort of create each other, and it’s this that’s behind electromagnetic waves moving through space without losing energy. They just travel on and on. The math behind this is beautiful (and the animations in the related Wikipedia articles are equally beautiful – and probably easier to understand than the equations), but that’s stuff for another post. As the electric field changes, it induces a magnetic field, which then induces a new electric field, etc., allowing the wave to propagate itself through space. I should also note here that the energy is in the field and so, when electromagnetic waves, such as light, or radiowaves, travel through space, they carry their energy with them.

Let me be fully complete here, and note that there’s energy in electrostatic fields as well, and the formula for it is remarkably beautiful. The total (electrostatic) energy U in an electrostatic field generated by charges located within some finite distance is equal to:

Energy of electrostatic field

This equation introduces the electrostatic potential. This is a scalar field Φ from which we can derive the electric field vector just by applying the gradient operator. In fact, all curl-free fields (such as the electric field in this case) can be written as the gradient of some scalar field. That’s a universal truth. See how beautiful math is? 🙂

An easy piece: introducing quantum mechanics and the wave function

Pre-scriptum (dated 26 June 2020): A quick glance at this piece – so many years after I have written it – tells me it is basically OK. However, it is quite obvious that, in terms of interpreting the math, I have come a very long way. However, I would recommend you go through the piece so as to get the basic math, indeed, and then you may or may not be ready for the full development of my realist or classical interpretation of QM. My manuscript may also be a fun read for you.

Original post:

After all those boring pieces on math, it is about time I got back to physics. Indeed, what’s all that stuff on differential equations and complex numbers good for? This blog was supposed to be a journey into physics, wasn’t it? Yes. But wave functions – functions describing physical waves (in classical mechanics) or probability amplitudes (in quantum mechanics) – are the solution to some differential equation, and they will usually involve complex-number notation. However, I agree we have had enough of that now. Let’s see how it works. By the way, the title of this post – An Easy Piece – is an obvious reference to (some of) Feynman’s 1965 Lectures on Physics, some of which were re-packaged in 1994 (six years after his death that is) in ‘Six Easy Pieces’ indeed – but, IMHO, it makes more sense to read all of them as part of the whole series.

Let’s first look at one of the most used mathematical shapes: the sinusoidal wave. The illustration below shows the basic concepts: we have a wave here – some kind of cyclic thing – with a wavelength λ, an amplitude (or height) of (maximum) A0, and a so-called phase shift equal to φ. The Wikipedia definition of a wave is the following: “a wave is a disturbance or oscillation that travels through space and matter, accompanied by a transfer of energy.” Indeed, a wave transports energy as it travels (oh – I forgot to mention the speed or velocity of a wave (v) as an important characteristic of a wave), and the energy it carries is directly proportional to the square of the amplitude of the wave: E ∝ A2 (this is true not only for waves like water waves, but also for electromagnetic waves, like light).

Cosine wave concepts

Let’s now look at how these variables get into the argument – literally: into the argument of the wave function. Let’s start with that phase shift. The phase shift is usually defined referring to some other wave or reference point (in this case the origin of the x and y axis). Indeed, the amplitude – or ‘height’ if you want (think of a water wave, or the strength of the electric field) – of the wave above depends on (1) the time t (not shown above) and (2) the location (x), but so we will need to have this phase shift φ in the argument of the wave function because at x = 0 we do not have a zero height for the wave. So, as we can see, we can shift the x-axis left or right with this φ. OK. That’s simple enough. Let’s look at the other independent variables now: time and position.

The height (or amplitude) of the wave will obviously vary both in time as well as in space. On this graph, we fixed time (t = 0) – and so it does not appear as a variable on the graph – and show how the amplitude y = A varies in space (i.e. along the x-axis). We could also have looked at one location only (x = 0 or x1 or whatever other location) and shown how the amplitude varies over time at that location only. The graph would be very similar, except that we would have a ‘time distance’ between two crests (or between two troughs or between any other two points separated by a full cycle of the wave) instead of the wavelength λ (i.e. a distance in space). This ‘time distance’ is the time needed to complete one cycle and is referred to as the period of the wave (usually denoted by the symbol T or T– in line with the notation for the maximum amplitude A0). In other words, we will also see time (t) as well as location (x) in the argument of this cosine or sine wave function. By the way, it is worth noting that it does not matter if we use a sine or cosine function because we can go from one to the other using the basic trigonometric identities cos θ = sin(π/2 – θ) and sin θ = cos(π/2 – θ). So all waves of the shape above are referred to as sinusoidal waves even if, in most cases, the convention is to actually use the cosine function to represent them.

So we will have x, t and φ in the argument of the wave function. Hence, we can write A = A(x, t, φ) = cos(x + t + φ) and there we are, right? Well… No. We’re adding very different units here: time is measured in seconds, distance in meter, and the phase shift is measured in radians (i.e. the unit of choice for angles). So we can’t just add them up. The argument of a trigonometric function (like this cosine function) is an angle and, hence, we need to get everything in radians – because that’s the unit we use to measure angles. So how do we do that? Let’s do it step by step.

First, it is worth noting that waves are usually caused by something. For example, electromagnetic waves are caused by an oscillating point charge somewhere, and radiate out from there. Physical waves – like water waves, or an oscillating string – usually also have some origin. In fact, we can look at a wave as a way of transmitting energy originating elsewhere. In the case at hand here – i.e. the nice regular sinusoidal wave illustrated above – it is obvious that the amplitude at some time t = tat some point x = x1 will be the same as the amplitude of that wave at point x = 0 some time ago. How much time ago? Well… The time (t) that was needed for that wave to travel from point x = 0 to point x = xis easy to calculate: indeed, if the wave originated at t = 0 and x = 0, then x1 (i.e. the distance traveled by the wave) will be equal to its velocity (v) multiplied by t1, so we have x1= v.t1 (note that we assume the wave velocity is constant – which is a very reasonable assumption). In other words, inserting x1and t1 in the argument of our cosine function should yield the same value as inserting zero for x and t. Distance and time can be substituted so to say, and that’s we will have something like x – vt or vt – x in the argument in that cosine function: we measure both time and distance in units of distance so to say. [Note that x – vt and –(x-vt) = vt – x are equivalent because cos θ = cos (-θ)]

Does this sound fishy? It shouldn’t. Think about it. In the (electric) field equation for electromagnetic radiation (that’s one of the examples of a wave which I mentioned above), you’ll find the so-called retarded acceleration a(t – x/c) in the argument: that’s the acceleration (a)of the charge causing the electric field at point x to change not at time t but at time t – x/c. So that’s the retarded acceleration indeed: x/c is the time it took for the wave to travel from its origin (the oscillating point charge) to x and so we subtract that from t. [When talking electromagnetic radiation (e.g. light), the wave velocity v is obviously equal to c, i.e. the speed of light, or of electromagnetic radiation in general.] Of course, you will now object that t – x/c is not the same as vt – x, and you are right: we need time units in the argument of that acceleration function, not distance. We can get to distance units if we would multiply the time with the wave velocity v but that’s complicated business because the velocity of that moving point charge is not a constant.

[…] I am not sure if I made myself clear here. If not, so be it. The thing to remember is that we need an input expressed in radians for our cosine function, not time, nor distance. Indeed, the argument in a sine or cosine function is an angle, not some distance. We will call that angle the phase of the wave, and it is usually denoted by the symbol θ  – which we also used above. But so far we have been talking about amplitude as a function of distance, and we expressed time in distance units too – by multiplying it with v. How can we go from some distance to some angle? It is simple: we’ll multiply x – vt with 2π/λ.

Huh? Yes. Think about it. The wavelength will be expressed in units of distance – typically 1 m in the SI International System of Units but it could also be angstrom (10–10 m = 0.1 nm) or nano-meter (10–9 m = 10 Å). A wavelength of two meter (2 m) means that the wave only completes half a cycle per meter of travel. So we need to translate that into radians, which – once again – is the measure used to… well… measure angles, or the phase of the wave as we call it here. So what’s the ‘unit’ here? Well… Remember that we can add or subtract 2π (and any multiple of 2π, i.e. ± 2nπ with n = ±1, ±2, ±3,…) to the argument of all trigonometric functions and we’ll get the same value as for the original argument. In other words, a cycle characterized by a wavelength λ corresponds to the angle θ going around the origin and describing one full circle, i.e. 2π radians. Hence, it is easy: we can go from distance to radians by multiplying our ‘distance argument’ x – vt with 2π/λ. If you’re not convinced, just work it out for the example I gave: if the wavelength is 2 m, then 2π/λ equals 2π/2 = π. So traveling 6 meters along the wave – i.e. we’re letting x go from 0 to 6 m while fixing our time variable – corresponds to our phase θ going from 0 to 6π: both the ‘distance argument’ as well as the change in phase cover three cycles (three times two meter for the distance, and three times 2π for the change in phase) and so we’re fine. [Another way to think about it is to remember that the circumference of the unit circle is also equal to 2π (2π·r = 2π·1 in this case), so the ratio of 2π to λ measures how many times the circumference contains the wavelength.]

In short, if we put time and distance in the (2π/λ)(x-vt) formula, we’ll get everything in radians and that’s what we need for the argument for our cosine function. So our sinusoidal wave above can be represented by the following cosine function:

A = A(x, t) = A0cos[(2π/λ)(x-vt)]

We could also write A = A0cosθ with θ = (2π/λ)(x-vt). […] Both representations look rather ugly, don’t they? They do. And it’s not only ugly: it’s not the standard representation of a sinusoidal wave either. In order to make it look ‘nice’, we have to introduce some more concepts here, notably the angular frequency and the wave number. So let’s do that.

The angular frequency is just like the… well… the frequency you’re used to, i.e. the ‘non-angular’ frequency f,  as measured in cycles per second (i.e. in Hertz). However, instead of measuring change in cycles per second, the angular frequency (usually denoted by the symbol ω) will measure the rate of change of the phase with time, so we can write or define ω as ω = ∂θ/∂t. In this case, we can easily see that ω = –2πv/λ. [Note that we’ll take the absolute value of that derivative because we want to work with positive numbers for such properties of functions.] Does that look complicated? In doubt, just remember that ω is measured in radians per second and then you can probably better imagine what it is really. Another way to understand ω somewhat better is to remember that the product of ω and the period T is equal to 2π, so that’s a full cycle. Indeed, the time needed to complete one cycle multiplied with the phase change per second (i.e. per unit time) is equivalent to going round the full circle: 2π = ω.T. Because f = 1/T, we can also relate ω to f and write ω = 2π.f = 2π/T.

Likewise, we can measure the rate of change of the phase with distance, and that gives us the wave number k = ∂θ/∂x, which is like the spatial frequency of the wave. So it is just like the wavelength but then measured in radians per unit distance. From the function above, it is easy to see that k = 2π/λ. The interpretation of this equality is similar to the ω.T = 2π equality. Indeed, we have a similar equation for k: 2π = k.λ, so the wavelength (λ) is for k what the period (T) is for ω. If you’re still uncomfortable with it, just play a bit with some numerical examples and you’ll be fine.

To make a long story short, this, then, allows us to re-write the sinusoidal wave equation above in its final form (and let me include the phase shift φ again in order to be as complete as possible at this stage):

A(x, t) = A0cos(kx – ωt + φ)

You will agree that this looks much ‘nicer’ – and also more in line with what you’ll find in textbooks or on Wikipedia. 🙂 I should note, however, that we’re not adding any new parameters here. The wave number k and the angular frequency ω are not independent: this is still the same wave (A = A0cos[(2π/λ)(x-vt)]), and so we are not introducing anything more than the frequency and – equally important – the speed with which the wave travels, which is usually referred to as the phase velocity. In fact, it is quite obvious from the ω.T = 2π and the k = 2π/λ identities that kλ = ω.T and, hence, taking into account that λ is obviously equal to λ = v.T (the wavelength is – by definition – the distance traveled by the wave in one period), we find that the phase (or wave) velocity v is equal to the ratio of ω and k, so we have that v = ω/k. So x, t, ω and k could be re-scaled or so but their ratio cannot change: the velocity of the wave is what it is. In short, I am introducing two new concepts and symbols (ω and k) but there are no new degrees of freedom in the system so to speak.

[At this point, I should probably say something about the difference between the phase velocity and the so-called group velocity of a wave. Let me do that in as brief a way as I can manage. Most real-life waves travel as a wave packet, aka a wave train. So that’s like a burst, or an “envelope” (I am shamelessly quoting Wikipedia here…), of “localized wave action that travels as a unit.” Such wave packet has no single wave number or wavelength: it actually consists of a (large) set of waves with phases and amplitudes such that they interfere constructively only over a small region of space, and destructively elsewhere. The famous Fourier analysis (or infamous if you have problems understanding what it is really) decomposes this wave train in simpler pieces. While these ‘simpler’ pieces – which, together, add up to form the wave train – are all ‘nice’ sinusoidal waves (that’s why I call them ‘simple’), the wave packet as such is not. In any case (I can’t be too long on this), the speed with which this wave train itself is traveling through space is referred to as the group velocity. The phase velocity and the group velocity are usually very different: for example, a wave packet may be traveling forward (i.e. its group velocity is positive) but the phase velocity may be negative, i.e. traveling backward. However, I will stop here and refer to the Wikipedia article on group and phase velocity: it has wonderful illustrations which are much and much better than anything I could write here. Just one last point that I’ll use later: regardless of the shape of the wave (sinusoidal, sawtooth or whatever), we have a very obvious relationship relating wavelength and frequency to the (phase) velocity: v = λ.f, or f = v/λ. For example, the frequency of a wave traveling 3 meter per second and wavelength of 1 meter will obviously have a frequency of three cycles per second (i.e. 3 Hz). Let’s go back to the main story line now.]

With the rather lengthy ‘introduction’ to waves above, we are now ready for the thing I really wanted to present here. I will go much faster now that we have covered the basics. Let’s go.

From my previous posts on complex numbers (or from what you know on complex numbers already), you will understand that working with cosine functions is much easier when writing them as the real part of a complex number A0eiθ = A0ei(kx – ωt + φ). Indeed, A0eiθ = A0(cosθ + isinθ) and so the cosine function above is nothing else but the real part of the complex number A0eiθ. Working with complex numbers makes adding waves and calculating interference effects and whatever we want to do with these wave functions much easier: we just replace the cosine functions by complex numbers in all of the formulae, solve them (algebra with complex numbers is very straightforward), and then we look at the real part of the solution to see what is happening really. We don’t care about the imaginary part, because that has no relationship to the actual physical quantities – for physical and electromagnetic waves that is, or for any other problem in classical wave mechanics. Done. So, in classical mechanics, the use of complex numbers is just a mathematical tool.

Now, that is not the case for the wave functions in quantum mechanics: the imaginary part of a wave equation – yes, let me write one down here – such as Ψ = Ψ(x, t) = (1/x)ei(kx – ωt) is very much part and parcel of the so-called probability amplitude that describes the state of the system here. In fact, this Ψ function is an example taken from one of Feynman’s first Lectures on Quantum Mechanics (i.e. Volume III of his Lectures) and, in this case, Ψ(x, t) = (1/x)ei(kx – ωt) represents the probability amplitude of a tiny particle (e.g. an electron) moving freely through space – i.e. without any external forces acting upon it – to go from 0 to x and actually be at point x at time t. [Note how it varies inversely with the distance because of the 1/x factor, so that makes sense.] In fact, when I started writing this post, my objective was to present this example – because it illustrates the concept of the wave function in quantum mechanics in a fairly easy and relatively understandable way. So let’s have a go at it.

First, it is necessary to understand the difference between probabilities and probability amplitudes. We all know what a probability is: it is a real number between o and 1 expressing the chance of something happening. It is usually denoted by the symbol P. An example is the probability that monochromatic light (i.e. one or more photons with the same frequency) is reflected from a sheet of glass. [To be precise, this probability is anything between 0 and 16% (i.e. P = 0 to 0.16). In fact, this example comes from another fine publication of Richard Feynman – QED (1985) – in which he explains how we can calculate the exact probability, which depends on the thickness of the sheet.]

A probability amplitude is something different. A probability amplitude is a complex number (3 + 2i, or 2.6ei1.34, for example) and – unlike its equivalent in classical mechanics – both the real and imaginary part matter. That being said, probabilities and probability amplitudes are obviously related: to be precise, one calculates the probability of an event actually happening by taking the square of the modulus (or the absolute value) of the probability amplitude associated with that event. Huh? Yes. Just let it sink in. So, if we denote the probably amplitude by Φ, then we have the following relationship:

P =|Φ|2

P = probability

Φ = probability amplitude

In addition, where we would add and multiply probabilities in the classical world (for example, to calculate the probability of an event which can happen in two different ways – alternative 1 and alternative 2 let’s say – we would just add the individual probabilities to arrive at the probably of the event happening in one or the other way, so P = P1+ P2), in the quantum-mechanical world we should add and multiply probability amplitudes, and then take the square of the modulus of that combined amplitude to calculate the combined probability. So, formally, the probability of a particle to reach a given state by two possible routes (route 1 or route 2 let’s say) is to be calculated as follows:

Φ = Φ1+ Φ2

and P =|Φ|=|Φ1+ Φ2|2

Also, when we have only one route, but that one route consists of two successive stages (for example: to go from A to C, the particle would have first have to go from A to B, and then from B to C, with different probabilities of stage AB and stage BC actually happening), we will not multiply the probabilities (as we would do in the classical world) but the probability amplitudes. So we have:


and P =|Φ|=|ΦAB ΦBC|2

In short, it’s the probability amplitudes (and, as mentioned, these are complex numbers, not real numbers) that are to be added and multiplied etcetera and, hence, the probability amplitudes act as the equivalent, so to say, in quantum mechanics, of the conventional probabilities in classical mechanics. The difference is not subtle. Not at all. I won’t dwell too much on this. Just re-read any account of the double-slit experiment with electrons which you may have read and you’ll remember how fundamental this is. [By the way, I was surprised to learn that the double-slit experiment with electrons has apparently only been done in 2012 in exactly the way as Feynman described it. So when Feynman described it in his 1965 Lectures, it was still very much a ‘thought experiment’ only – even a 1961 experiment (not mentioned by Feynman) had clearly established the reality of electron interference.]

OK. Let’s move on. So we have this complex wave function in quantum mechanics and, as Feynman writes, “It is not like a real wave in space; one cannot picture any kind of reality to this wave as one does for a sound wave.” That being said, one can, however, get pretty close to ‘imagining’ what it actually is IMHO. Let’s go by the example which Feynman gives himself – on the very same page where he writes the above actually. The amplitude for a free particle (i.e. with no forces acting on it) with momentum p = m to go from location rto location ris equal to

Φ12 = (1/r12)eip.r12/ħ with r12 = rr

I agree this looks somewhat ugly again, but so what does it say? First, be aware of the difference between bold and normal type: I am writing p and v in bold type above because they are vectors: they have a magnitude (which I will denote by p and v respectively) as well as a direction in space. Likewise, r12 is a vector going from r1 to r2 (and rand r2 themselves are space vectors themselves obviously) and so r12 (non-bold) is the magnitude of that vector. Keeping that in mind, we know that the dot product p.r12 is equal to the product of the magnitudes of those vectors multiplied by cosα, with α the angle between those two vectors. Hence, p.r12  .= p.r12.cosα. Now, if p and r12 have the same direction, the angle α will be zero and so cosα will be equal to one and so we just have p.r12 = p.r12 or, if we’re considering a particle going from 0 to some position x, p.r12 = p.r12 = px.

Now we also have Planck’s constant there, in its reduced form ħ = h/2π. As you can imagine, this 2π has something to do with the fact that we need radians in the argument. It’s the same as what we did with x in the argument of that cosine function above: if we have to express stuff in radians, then we have to absorb a factor of 2π in that constant. However, here I need to make an additional digression. Planck’s constant is obviously not just any constant: it is the so-called quantum of action. Indeed, it appears in what may well the most fundamental relations in physics.

The first of these fundamental relations is the so-called Planck relation: E = hf. The Planck relation expresses the wave-particle duality of light (or electromagnetic waves in general): light comes in discrete quanta of energy (photons), and the energy of these ‘wave particles’ is directly proportional to the frequency of the wave, and the factor of proportionality is Planck’s constant.

The second fundamental relation, or relations – in plural – I should say, are the de Broglie relations. Indeed, Louis-Victor-Pierre-Raymond, 7th duc de Broglie, turned the above on its head: if the fundamental nature of light is (also) particle-like, then the fundamental nature of particles must (also) be wave-like. So he boldly associated a frequency f and a wavelength λ with all particles, such as electrons for example – but larger-scale objects, such as billiard balls, or planets, also have a de Broglie wavelength and frequency! The de Broglie relation determining the de Broglie frequency is – quite simply – the re-arranged Planck relation: f = E/h. So this relation relates the de Broglie frequency with energy. However, in the above wave function, we’ve got momentum, not energy. Well… Energy and momentum are obviously related, and so we have a second de Broglie relation relating momentum with wavelength: λ = h/p.

We’re almost there: just hang in there. 🙂 When we presented the sinusoidal wave equation, we introduced the angular frequency (ω)  and the wave number (k), instead of working with f and λ. That’s because we want an argument expressed in radians. Here it’s the same. The two de Broglie equations have a equivalent using angular frequency and wave number: ω = E/ħ and k = p/ħ. So we’ll just use the second one (i.e. the relation with the momentum in it) to associate a wave number with the particle (k = p/ħ).

Phew! So, finally, we get that formula which we introduced a while ago already:  Ψ(x) = (1/x)eikx, or, including time as a variable as well (we made abstraction of time so far):

Ψ(x, t) = (1/x)ei(kx – ωt)

The formula above obviously makes sense. For example, the 1/x factor makes the probability amplitude decrease as we get farther away from where the particle started: in fact, this 1/x or 1/r variation is what we see with electromagnetic waves as well: the amplitude of the electric field vector E varies as 1/r and, because we’re talking some real wave here and, hence, its energy is proportional to the square of the field, the energy that the source can deliver varies inversely as the square of the distance. [Another way of saying the same is that the energy we can take out of a wave within a given conical angle is the same, no matter how far away we are: the energy flux is never lost – it just spreads over a greater and greater effective area. But let’s go back to the main story.]

We’ve got the math – I hope. But what does this equation mean really? What’s that de Broglie wavelength or frequency in reality? What wave are we talking about? Well… What’s reality? As mentioned above, the famous de Broglie relations associate a wavelength λ and a frequency f to a particle with momentum p and energy E, but it’s important to mention that the associated de Broglie wave function yields probability amplitudes. So it is, indeed, not a ‘real wave in space’ as Feynman would put it. It is a quantum-mechanical wave equation.

Huh? […] It’s obviously about time I add some illustrations here, and so that’s what I’ll do. Look at the two cases below. The case on top is pretty close to the situation I described above: it’s a de Broglie wave – so that’s a complex wave – traveling through space (in one dimension only here). The real part of the complex amplitude is in blue, and the green is the imaginary part. So the probability of finding that particle at some position x is the modulus squared of this complex amplitude. Now, this particular wave function ignores the 1/x variation and, hence, the squared modulus of Aei(kx – ωt) is equal to a constant. To be precise, it’s equal to A2 (check it: the squared modulus of a complex number z equals the product of z and its complex conjugate, and so we get Aas a result indeed). So what does this mean? It means that the probability of finding that particle (an electron, for example) is the same at all points! In other words, we don’t know where it is! In the illustration below (top part), that’s shown as the (yellow) color opacity: the probability is spread out, just like the wave itself, so there is no definite position of the particle indeed.


[Note that the formula in the illustration above (which I took from Wikipedia once again) uses p instead of k as the factor in front of x. While it does not make a big difference from a mathematical point of view (ħ is just a factor of proportionality: k = p/ħ), it does make a big difference from a conceptual point of view and, hence, I am puzzled as to why the author of this article did this. Also, there is some variation in the opacity of the yellow (i.e. the color of our tennis (or ping pong) ball representing our ‘wavicle’) which shouldn’t be there because the probability associated with this particular wave function is a constant indeed: so there is no variation in the probability (when squaring the absolute value of a complex number, the phase factor does not come into play). Also note that, because all probabilities have to add up to 100% (or to 1), a wave function like this is quite problematic. However, don’t worry about it just now: just try to go with the flow.]

By now, I must assume you shook your head in disbelief a couple of time already. Surely, this particle (let’s stick to the example of an electron) must be somewhere, yes? Of course.

The problem is that we gave an exact value to its momentum and its energy and, as a result, through the de Broglie relations, we also associated an exact frequency and wavelength to the de Broglie wave associated with this electron.  Hence, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle comes into play: if we have exact knowledge on momentum, then we cannot know anything about its location, and so that’s why we get this wave function covering the whole space, instead of just some region only. Sort of. Here we are, of course, talking about that deep mystery about which I cannot say much – if only because so many eminent physicists have already exhausted the topic. I’ll just state Feynman once more: “Things on a very small scale behave like nothing that you have any direct experience with. […] It is very difficult to get used to, and it appears peculiar and mysterious to everyone – both to the novice and to the experienced scientist. Even the experts do not understand it the way they would like to, and it is perfectly reasonable that they should not because all of direct, human experience and of human intuition applies to large objects. We know how large objects will act, but things on a small scale just do not act that way. So we have to learn about them in a sort of abstract or imaginative fashion and not by connection with our direct experience.” And, after describing the double-slit experiment, he highlights the key conclusion: “In quantum mechanics, it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen. We can only predict the odds [i.e. probabilities]. Physics has given up on the problem of trying to predict exactly what will happen. Yes! Physics has given up. We do not know how to predict what will happen in a given circumstance. It is impossible: the only thing that can be predicted is the probability of different events. It must be recognized that this is a retrenchment in our ideal of understanding nature. It may be a backward step, but no one has seen a way to avoid it.”

[…] That’s enough on this I guess, but let me – as a way to conclude this little digression – just quickly state the Uncertainty Principle in a more or less accurate version here, rather than all of the ‘descriptions’ which you may have seen of it: the Uncertainty Principle refers to any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit (fundamental means it’s got nothing to do with observer or measurement effects, or with the limitations of our experimental technologies) to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle (these pairs are known as complementary variables) such as, for example, position (x) and momentum (p), can be known simultaneously. More in particular, for position and momentum, we have that σxσp ≥ ħ/2 (and, in this formulation, σ is, obviously the standard symbol for the standard deviation of our point estimate for x and p respectively).

OK. Back to the illustration above. A particle that is to be found in some specific region – rather than just ‘somewhere’ in space – will have a probability amplitude resembling the wave equation in the bottom half: it’s a wave train, or a wave packet, and we can decompose it, using the Fourier analysis, in a number of sinusoidal waves, but so we do not have a unique wavelength for the wave train as a whole, and that means – as per the de Broglie equations – that there’s some uncertainty about its momentum (or its energy).

I will let this sink in for now. In my next post, I will write some more about these wave equations. They are usually a solution to some differential equation – and that’s where my next post will connect with my previous ones (on differential equations). Just to say goodbye – as for now that is – I will just copy another beautiful illustration from Wikipedia. See below: it represents the (likely) space in which a single electron on the 5d atomic orbital of a hydrogen atom would be found. The solid body shows the places where the electron’s probability density (so that’s the squared modulus of the probability amplitude) is above a certain value – so it’s basically the area where the likelihood of finding the electron is higher than elsewhere. The hue on the colored surface shows the complex phase of the wave function.


It is a wonderful image, isn’t it? At the very least, it increased my understanding of the mystery surround quantum mechanics somewhat. I hope it helps you too. 🙂

Post scriptum 1: On the need to normalize a wave function

In this post, I wrote something about the need for probabilities to add up to 1. In mathematical terms, this condition will resemble something like

probability amplitude adding up to some constant

In this integral, we’ve got – once again – the squared modulus of the wave function, and so that’s the probability of find the particle somewhere. The integral just states that all of the probabilities added all over space (Rn) should add up to some finite number (a2). Hey! But that’s not equal to 1 you’ll say. Well… That’s a minor problem only: we can create a normalized wave function ψ out of ψ0 by simply dividing ψ by a so we have ψ = ψ0/a, and then all is ‘normal’ indeed. 🙂

Post scriptum 2: On using colors to represent complex numbers

When inserting that beautiful 3D graph of that 5d atomic orbital (again acknowledging its source: Wikipedia), I wrote that “the hue on the colored surface shows the complex phase of the wave function.” Because this kind of visual representation of complex numbers will pop up in other posts as well (and you’ve surely encountered it a couple of times already), it’s probably useful to be explicit on what it represents exactly. Well… I’ll just copy the Wikipedia explanation, which is clear enough: “Given a complex number z = reiθ, the phase (also known as argument) θ can be represented by a hue, and the modulus r =|z| is represented by either intensity or variations in intensity. The arrangement of hues is arbitrary, but often it follows the color wheel. Sometimes the phase is represented by a specific gradient rather than hue.” So here you go…

Unit circle domain coloring.png

Post scriptum 3: On the de Broglie relations

The de Broglie relations are a wonderful pair. They’re obviously equivalent: energy and momentum are related, and wavelength and frequency are obviously related too through the general formula relating frequency, wavelength and wave velocity: fλ = v (the product of the frequency and the wavelength must yield the wave velocity indeed). However, when it comes to the relation between energy and momentum, there is a little catch. What kind of energy are we talking about? We were describing a free particle (e.g. an electron) traveling through space, but with no (other) charges acting on it – in other words: no potential acting upon it), and so we might be tempted to conclude that we’re talking about the kinetic energy (K.E.) here. So, at relatively low speeds (v), we could be tempted to use the equations p = mv and K.E. = p2/2m = mv2/2 (the one electron in a hydrogen atom travels at less than 1% of the speed of light, and so that’s a non-relativistic speed indeed) and try to go from one equation to the other with these simple formulas. Well… Let’s try it.

f = E/h according to de Broglie and, hence, substituting E with p2/2m and f with v/λ, we get v/λ = m2v2/2mh. Some simplification and re-arrangement should then yield the second de Broglie relation: λ = 2h/mv = 2h/p. So there we are. Well… No. The second de Broglie relation is just λ = h/p: there is no factor 2 in it. So what’s wrong? The problem is the energy equation: de Broglie does not use the K.E. formula. [By the way, you should note that the K.E. = mv2/2 equation is only an approximation for low speeds – low compared to c that is.] He takes Einstein’s famous E = mc2 equation (which I am tempted to explain now but I won’t) and just substitutes c, the speed of light, with v, the velocity of the slow-moving particle. This is a very fine but also very deep point which, frankly, I do not yet fully understand. Indeed, Einstein’s E = mcis obviously something much ‘deeper’ than the formula for kinetic energy. The latter has to do with forces acting on masses and, hence, obeys Newton’s laws – so it’s rather familiar stuff. As for Einstein’s formula, well… That’s a result from relativity theory and, as such, something that is much more difficult to explain. While the difference between the two energy formulas is just a factor of 1/2 (which is usually not a big problem when you’re just fiddling with formulas like this), it makes a big conceptual difference.

Hmm… Perhaps we should do some examples. So these de Broglie equations associate a wave with frequency f and wavelength λ with particles with energy E, momentum p and mass m traveling through space with velocity v: E = hf and p = h/λ. [And, if we would want to use some sine or cosine function as an example of such wave function – which is likely – then we need an argument expressed in radians rather than in units of time or distance. In other words, we will need to convert frequency and wavelength to angular frequency and wave number respectively by using the 2π = ωT = ω/f and 2π = kλ relations, with the wavelength (λ), the period (T) and the velocity (v) of the wave being related through the simple equations f = 1/T and λ = vT. So then we can write the de Broglie relations as: E = ħω and p =  ħk, with ħ = h/2π.]

In these equations, the Planck constant (be it h or ħ) appears as a simple factor of proportionality (we will worry about what h actually is in physics in later posts) – but a very tiny one: approximately 6.626×10–34 J·s (Joule is the standard SI unit to measure energy, or work: 1 J = 1 kg·m2/s2), or 4.136×10–15 eV·s when using a more appropriate (i.e. larger) measure of energy for atomic physics: still, 10–15 is only 0.000 000 000 000 001. So how does it work? First note, once again, that we are supposed to use the equivalent for slow-moving particles of Einstein’s famous E = mcequation as a measure of the energy of a particle: E = mv2. We know velocity adds mass to a particle – with mass being a measure for inertia. In fact, the mass of so-called massless particles,  like photons, is nothing but their energy (divided by c2). In other words, they do not have a rest mass, but they do have a relativistic mass m = E/c2, with E = hf (and with f the frequency of the light wave here). Particles, such as electrons, or protons, do have a rest mass, but then they don’t travel at the speed of light. So how does that work out in that E = mvformula which – let me emphasize this point once again – is not the standard formula (for kinetic energy) that we’re used to (i.e. E = mv2/2)? Let’s do the exercise.

For photons, we can re-write E = hf as E = hc/λ. The numerator hc in this expression is 4.136×10–15 eV·s (i.e. the value of the Planck constant h expressed in eV·s) multiplied with 2.998×108 m/s (i.e. the speed of light c) so that’s (more or less) hc ≈ 1.24×10–6 eV·m. For visible light, the denominator will range from 0.38 to 0.75 micrometer (1 μm = 10–6 m), i.e. 380 to 750 nanometer (1 nm = 10–6 m), and, hence, the energy of the photon will be in the range of 3.263 eV to 1.653 eV. So that’s only a few electronvolt (an electronvolt (eV) is, by definition, the amount of energy gained (or lost) by a single electron as it moves across an electric potential difference of one volt). So that’s 2.6 to 5.2 Joule (1 eV = 1.6×10–19 Joule) and, hence, the equivalent relativistic mass of these photons is E/cor 2.9 to 5.8×10–34 kg. That’s tiny – but not insignificant. Indeed, let’s look at an electron now.

The rest mass of an electron is about 9.1×10−31 kg (so that’s a scale factor of a thousand as compared to the values we found for the relativistic mass of photons). Also, in a hydrogen atom, it is expected to speed around the nucleus with a velocity of about 2.2×10m/s. That’s less than 1% of the speed of light but still quite fast obviously: at this speed (2,200 km per second), it could travel around the earth in less than 20 seconds (a photon does better: it travels not less than 7.5 times around the earth in one second). In any case, the electron’s energy – according to the formula to be used as input for calculating the de Broglie frequency – is 9.1×10−31 kg multiplied with the square of 2.2×106 m/s, and so that’s about 44×10–19 Joule or about 70 eV (1 eV = 1.6×10–19 Joule). So that’s – roughly – 35 times more than the energy associated with a photon.

The frequency we should associate with 70 eV can be calculated from E = hv/λ (we should, once again, use v instead of c), but we can also simplify and calculate directly from the mass: λ = hv/E = hv/mv2 = h/m(however, make sure you express h in J·s in this case): we get a value for λ equal to 0.33 nanometer, so that’s more than one thousand times shorter than the above-mentioned wavelengths for visible light. So, once again, we have a scale factor of about a thousand here. That’s reasonable, no? [There is a similar scale factor when moving to the next level: the mass of protons and neutrons is about 2000 times the mass of an electron.] Indeed, note that we would get a value of 0.510 MeV if we would apply the E = mc2, equation to the above-mentioned (rest) mass of the electron (in kg): MeV stands for mega-electronvolt, so 0.510 MeV is 510,000 eV. So that’s a few hundred thousand times the energy of a photon and, hence, it is obvious that we are not using the energy equivalent of an electron’s rest mass when using de Broglie’s equations. No. It’s just that simple but rather mysterious E = mvformula. So it’s not mcnor mv2/2 (kinetic energy). Food for thought, isn’t it? Let’s look at the formulas once again.

They can easily be linked: we can re-write the frequency formula as λ = hv/E = hv/mv2 = h/mand then, using the general definition of momentum (p = mv), we get the second de Broglie equation: p = h/λ. In fact, de Broglie‘s rather particular definition of the energy of a particle (E = mv2) makes v a simple factor of proportionality between the energy and the momentum of a particle: v = E/p or E = pv. [We can also get this result in another way: we have h = E/f = pλ and, hence, E/p = fλ = v.]

Again, this is serious food for thought: I have not seen any ‘easy’ explanation of this relation so far. To appreciate its peculiarity, just compare it to the usual relations relating energy and momentum: E =p2/2m or, in its relativistic form, p2c2 = E2 – m02c4 . So these two equations are both not to be used when going from one de Broglie relation to another. [Of course, it works for massless photons: using the relativistic form, we get p2c2 = E2 – 0 or E = pc, and the de Broglie relation becomes the Planck relation: E = hf (with f the frequency of the photon, i.e. the light beam it is part of). We also have p = h/λ = hf/c, and, hence, the E/p = c comes naturally. But that’s not the case for (slower-moving) particles with some rest mass: why should we use mv2 as a energy measure for them, rather than the kinetic energy formula?

But let’s just accept this weirdness and move on. After all, perhaps there is some mistake here and so, perhaps, we should just accept that factor 2 and replace λ = h/p by λ = 2h/p. Why not? 🙂 In any case, both the λ = h/mv and λ = 2h/p = 2h/mv expressions give the impression that both the mass of a particle as well as its velocity are on a par so to say when it comes to determining the numerical value of the de Broglie wavelength: if we double the speed, or the mass, the wavelength gets shortened by half. So, one would think that larger masses can only be associated with extremely short de Broglie wavelengths if they move at a fairly considerable speed. But that’s where the extremely small value of h changes the arithmetic we would expect to see. Indeed, things work different at the quantum scale, and it’s the tiny value of h that is at the core of this. Indeed, it’s often referred to as the ‘smallest constant’ in physics, and so here’s the place where we should probably say a bit more about what h really stands for.

Planck’s constant h describes the tiny discrete packets in which Nature packs energy: one cannot find any smaller ‘boxes’. As such, it’s referred to as the ‘quantum of action’. But, surely, you’ll immediately say that it’s cousin, ħ = h/2π, is actually smaller. Well… Yes. You’re actually right: ħ = h/2π is actually smaller. It’s the so-called quantum of angular momentum, also (and probably better) known as spin. Angular momentum is a measure of… Well… Let’s call it the ‘amount of rotation’ an object has, taking into account its mass, shape and speed. Just like p, it’s a vector. To be precise, it’s the product of a body’s so-called rotational inertia (so that’s similar to the mass m in p = mv) and its rotational velocity (so that’s like v, but it’s ‘angular’ velocity), so we can write L = Iω but we’ll not go in any more detail here. The point to note is that angular momentum, or spin as it’s known in quantum mechanics, also comes in discrete packets, and these packets are multiples of ħ. [OK. I am simplifying here but the idea or principle that I am explaining here is entirely correct.]

But let’s get back to the de Broglie wavelength now. As mentioned above, one would think that larger masses can only be associated with extremely short de Broglie wavelengths if they move at a fairly considerable speed. Well… It turns out that the extremely small value of h upsets our everyday arithmetic. Indeed, because of the extremely small value of h as compared to the objects we are used to ( in one grain of salt alone, we will find about 1.2×1018 atoms – just write a 1 with 18 zeroes behind and you’ll appreciate this immense numbers somewhat more), it turns out that speed does not matter all that much – at least not in the range we are used to. For example, the de Broglie wavelength associated with a baseball weighing 145 grams and traveling at 90 mph (i.e. approximately 40 m/s) would be 1.1×10–34 m. That’s immeasurably small indeed – literally immeasurably small: not only technically but also theoretically because, at this scale (i.e. the so-called Planck scale), the concepts of size and distance break down as a result of the Uncertainty Principle. But, surely, you’ll think we can improve on this if we’d just be looking at a baseball traveling much slower. Well… It does not much get better for a baseball traveling at a snail’s pace – let’s say 1 cm per hour, i.e. 2.7×10–6 m/s. Indeed, we get a wavelength of 17×10–28 m, which is still nowhere near the nanometer range we found for electrons.  Just to give an idea: the resolving power of the best electron microscope is about 50 picometer (1 pm = ×10–12 m) and so that’s the size of a small atom (the size of an atom ranges between 30 and 300 pm). In short, for all practical purposes, the de Broglie wavelength of the objects we are used to does not matter – and then I mean it does not matter at all. And so that’s why quantum-mechanical phenomena are only relevant at the atomic scale.