Wavefunctions as gravitational waves

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I. Energy as a two-dimensional oscillation of mass

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

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

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

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

Figure 1: Oscillations in two dimensionsV-2 engine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are sensible questions. Let us explore them. 

II. The wavefunction as a two-dimensional oscillation

The elementary wavefunction is written as:

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

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

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

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

Figure 2: Euler’s formula760px-eulers_formula

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

Figure 3: Geometric representation of the wavefunction5d_euler_f

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. What is mass?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

IV. Schrödinger’s equation as an energy diffusion equation

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

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

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

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

The ubiquitous diffusion equation in physics is:

∂φ(x, t)/∂t = D·∇2φ(x, t)

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

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

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

  1. B/∂t = –∇×E
  2. E/∂t = c2∇×B

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

Figure 4: Propagation mechanismspropagation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N/kg = N/(N·s2/m)= m/s2

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

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

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

V. Energy densities and flows

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 5: Electromagnetic wave: E and BEM field

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

|ψ|2  = |a·ei∙E·t/ħ|2 = a2 = u

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

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

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

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

VI. Group and phase velocity of the matter-wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vp/= βp = c/vp = 1/βg = 1/(c/vp)

Figure 6: Reciprocal relation between phase and group velocitygraph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both equations imply the following dispersion relation:

ω = ħ·k2/(2meff)

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

VII. Explaining spin

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

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

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

Figure 7: Torque and angular momentum vectorsTorque_animation

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

L = I·ω

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

ω = 2π/[2π·(ħ/E0)] = E0

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

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

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

L = a2·E02/(2·ħ·c2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIII. The boson-fermion dichotomy

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

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

ψ(θi= ai·(cosθi + i·sinθi)

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

ψ(θi= ai·(cosθii·sinθi)

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

ψ = a·cos(E0∙t/ħ) − i·a·sin(E0∙t/ħ)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IX. Concluding remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix 1: The de Broglie relations and energy

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

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

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

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

Appendix 2: The concept of the effective mass

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

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

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

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

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

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

meff = m∙(v/c)2 = m∙β2

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (III)

This is my third and final comments on Feynman’s popular little booklet: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, also known as Feynman’s Lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics (QED).

The origin of this short lecture series is quite moving: the death of Alix G. Mautner, a good friend of Feynman’s. She was always curious about physics but her career was in English literature and so she did not manage the math. Hence, Feynman introduces this 1985 publication by writing: “Here are the lectures I really prepared for Alix, but unfortunately I can’t tell them to her directly, now.”

Alix Mautner died from a brain tumor, and it is her husband, Leonard Mautner, who sponsored the QED lectures series at the UCLA, which Ralph Leigton transcribed and published as the booklet that we’re talking about here. Feynman himself died a few years later, at the relatively young age of 69. Tragic coincidence: he died of cancer too. Despite all this weirdness, Feynman’s QED never quite got the same iconic status of, let’s say, Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time. I wonder why, but the answer to that question is probably in the realm of chaos theory. 🙂 I actually just saw the movie on Stephen Hawking’s life (The Theory of Everything), and I noted another strange coincidence: Jane Wilde, Hawking’s first wife, also has a PhD in literature. It strikes me that, while the movie documents that Jane Wilde gave Hawking three children, after which he divorced her to marry his nurse, Elaine, the movie does not mention that he separated from Elaine too, and that he has some kind of ‘working relationship’ with Jane again.

Hmm… What to say? I should get back to quantum mechanics here or, to be precise, to quantum electrodynamics.

One reason why Feynman’s Strange Theory of Light and Matter did not sell like Hawking’s Brief History of Time, might well be that, in some places, the text is not entirely accurate. Why? Who knows? It would make for an interesting PhD thesis in History of Science. Unfortunately, I have no time for such PhD thesis. Hence, I must assume that Richard Feynman simply didn’t have much time or energy left to correct some of the writing of Ralph Leighton, who transcribed and edited these four short lectures a few years before Feynman’s death. Indeed, when everything is said and done, Ralph Leighton is not a physicist and, hence, I think he did compromise – just a little bit – on accuracy for the sake of readability. Ralph Leighton’s father, Robert Leighton, an eminent physicist who worked with Feynman, would probably have done a much better job.

I feel that one should not compromise on accuracy, even when trying to write something reader-friendly. That’s why I am writing this blog, and why I am writing three posts specifically on this little booklet. Indeed, while I’d warmly recommend that little book on QED as an excellent non-mathematical introduction to the weird world of quantum mechanics, I’d also say that, while Ralph Leighton’s story is great, it’s also, in some places, not entirely accurate indeed.

So… Well… I want to do better than Ralph Leighton here. Nothing more. Nothing less. 🙂 Let’s go for it.

I. Probability amplitudes: what are they?

The greatest achievement of that little QED publication is that it manages to avoid any reference to wave functions and other complicated mathematical constructs: all of the complexity of quantum mechanics is reduced to three basic events or actions and, hence, three basic amplitudes which are represented as ‘arrows’—literally.

Now… Well… You may or may not know that a (probability) amplitude is actually a complex number, but it’s not so easy to intuitively understand the concept of a complex number. In contrast, everyone easily ‘gets’ the concept of an ‘arrow’. Hence, from a pedagogical point of view, representing complex numbers by some ‘arrow’ is truly a stroke of genius.

Whatever we call it, a complex number or an ‘arrow’, a probability amplitude is something with (a) a magnitude and (b) a phase. As such, it resembles a vector, but it’s not quite the same, if only because we’ll impose some restrictions on the magnitude. But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. Let’s start with the basics.

A magnitude is some real positive number, like a length, but you should not associate it with some spatial dimension in physical space: it’s just a number. As for the phase, we could associate that concept with some direction but, again, you should just think of it as a direction in a mathematical space, not in the real (physical) space.

Let me insert a parenthesis here. If I say the ‘real’ or ‘physical’ space, I mean the space in which the electrons and photons and all other real-life objects that we’re looking at exist and move. That’s a non-mathematical definition. In fact, in math, the real space is defined as a coordinate space, with sets of real numbers (vectors) as coordinates, so… Well… That’s a mathematical space only, not the ‘real’ (physical) space. So the real (vector) space is not real. 🙂 The mathematical real space may, or may not, accurately describe the real (physical) space. Indeed, you may have heard that physical space is curved because of the presence of massive objects, which means that the real coordinate space will actually not describe it very accurately. I know that’s a bit confusing but I hope you understand what I mean: if mathematicians talk about the real space, they do not mean the real space. They refer to a vector space, i.e. a mathematical construct. To avoid confusion, I’ll use the term ‘physical space’ rather than ‘real’ space in the future. So I’ll let the mathematicians get away with using the term ‘real space’ for something that isn’t real actually. 🙂

End of digression. Let’s discuss these two mathematical concepts – magnitude and phase – somewhat more in detail.

A. The magnitude

Let’s start with the magnitude or ‘length’ of our arrow. We know that we have to square these lengths to find some probability, i.e. some real number between 0 and 1. Hence, the length of our arrows cannot be larger than one. That’s the restriction I mentioned already, and this ‘normalization’ condition reinforces the point that these ‘arrows’ do not have any spatial dimension (not in any real space anyway): they represent a function. To be specific, they represent a wavefunction.

If we’d be talking complex numbers instead of ‘arrows’, we’d say the absolute value of the complex number cannot be larger than one. We’d also say that, to find the probability, we should take the absolute square of the complex number, so that’s the square of the magnitude or absolute value of the complex number indeed. We cannot just square the complex number: it has to be the square of the absolute value.

Why? Well… Just write it out. [You can skip this section if you’re not interested in complex numbers, but I would recommend you try to understand. It’s not that difficult. Indeed, if you’re reading this, you’re most likely to understand something of complex numbers and, hence, you should be able to work your way through it. Just remember that a complex number is like a two-dimensional number, which is why it’s sometimes written using bold-face (z), rather than regular font (z). However, I should immediately add this convention is usually not followed. I like the boldface though, and so I’ll try to use it in this post.] The square of a complex number z = a + bi is equal to z= a+ 2abi – b2, while the square of its absolute value (i.e. the absolute square) is |z|= [√(a+ b2)]2 = a+ b2. So you can immediately see that the square and the absolute square of a complex numbers are two very different things indeed: it’s not only the 2abi term, but there’s also the minus sign in the first expression, because of the i= –1 factor. In case of doubt, always remember that the square of a complex number may actually yield a negative number, as evidenced by the definition of the imaginary unit itself: i= –1.

End of digression. Feynman and Leighton manage to avoid any reference to complex numbers in that short series of four lectures and, hence, all they need to do is explain how one squares a length. Kids learn how to do that when making a square out of rectangular paper: they’ll fold one corner of the paper until it meets the opposite edge, forming a triangle first. They’ll then cut or tear off the extra paper, and then unfold. Done. [I could note that the folding is a 90 degree rotation of the original length (or width, I should say) which, in mathematical terms, is equivalent to multiplying that length with the imaginary unit (i). But I am sure the kids involved would think I am crazy if I’d say this. 🙂 So let me get back to Feynman’s arrows.

B. The phase

Feynman and Leighton’s second pedagogical stroke of genius is the metaphor of the ‘stopwatch’ and the ‘stopwatch hand’ for the variable phase. Indeed, although I think it’s worth explaining why z = a + bi = rcosφ + irsinφ in the illustration below can be written as z = reiφ = |z|eiφ, understanding Euler’s representation of complex number as a complex exponential requires swallowing a very substantial piece of math and, if you’d want to do that, I’ll refer you to one of my posts on complex numbers).


The metaphor of the stopwatch represents a periodic function. To be precise, it represents a sinusoid, i.e. a smooth repetitive oscillation. Now, the stopwatch hand represents the phase of that function, i.e. the φ angle in the illustration above. That angle is a function of time: the speed with which the stopwatch turns is related to some frequency, i.e. the number of oscillations per unit of time (i.e. per second).

You should now wonder: what frequency? What oscillations are we talking about here? Well… As we’re talking photons and electrons here, we should distinguish the two:

  1. For photons, the frequency is given by Planck’s energy-frequency relation, which relates the energy (E) of a photon (1.5 to 3.5 eV for visible light) to its frequency (ν). It’s a simple proportional relation, with Planck’s constant (h) as the proportionality constant: E = hν, or ν = E/h.
  2. For electrons, we have the de Broglie relation, which looks similar to the Planck relation (E = hf, or f = E/h) but, as you know, it’s something different. Indeed, these so-called matter waves are not so easy to interpret because there actually is no precise frequency f. In fact, the matter wave representing some particle in space will consist of a potentially infinite number of waves, all superimposed one over another, as illustrated below.


For the sake of accuracy, I should mention that the animation above has its limitations: the wavetrain is complex-valued and, hence, has a real as well as an imaginary part, so it’s something like the blob underneath. Two functions in one, so to speak: the imaginary part follows the real part with a phase difference of 90 degrees (or π/2 radians). Indeed, if the wavefunction is a regular complex exponential reiθ, then rsin(φ–π/2) = rcos(φ), which proves the point: we have two functions in one here. 🙂 I am actually just repeating what I said before already: the probability amplitude, or the wavefunction, is a complex number. You’ll usually see it written as Ψ (psi) or Φ (phi). Here also, using boldface (Ψ or Φ instead of Ψ or Φ) would usefully remind the reader that we’re talking something ‘two-dimensional’ (in mathematical space, that is), but this convention is usually not followed.

Photon wave

In any case… Back to frequencies. The point to note is that, when it comes to analyzing electrons (or any other matter-particle), we’re dealing with a range of frequencies f really (or, what amounts to the same, a range of wavelengths λ) and, hence, we should write Δf = ΔE/h, which is just one of the many expressions of the Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics.

Now, that’s just one of the complications. Another difficulty is that matter-particles, such as electrons, have some rest mass, and so that enters the energy equation as well (literally). Last but not least, one should distinguish between the group velocity and the phase velocity of matter waves. As you can imagine, that makes for a very complicated relationship between ‘the’ wavelength and ‘the’ frequency. In fact, what I write above should make it abundantly clear that there’s no such thing as the wavelength, or the frequency: it’s a range really, related to the fundamental uncertainty in quantum physics. I’ll come back to that, and so you shouldn’t worry about it here. Just note that the stopwatch metaphor doesn’t work very well for an electron!

In his postmortem lectures for Alix Mautner, Feynman avoids all these complications. Frankly, I think that’s a missed opportunity because I do not think it’s all that incomprehensible. In fact, I write all that follows because I do want you to understand the basics of waves. It’s not difficult. High-school math is enough here. Let’s go for it.

One turn of the stopwatch corresponds to one cycle. One cycle, or 1 Hz (i.e. one oscillation per second) covers 360 degrees or, to use a more natural unit, 2π radians. [Why is radian a more natural unit? Because it measures an angle in terms of the distance unit itself, rather than in arbitrary 1/360 cuts of a full circle. Indeed, remember that the circumference of the unit circle is 2π.] So our frequency ν (expressed in cycles per second) corresponds to a so-called angular frequency ω = 2πν. From this formula, it should be obvious that ω is measured in radians per second.

We can also link this formula to the period of the oscillation, T, i.e. the duration of one cycle. T = 1/ν and, hence, ω = 2π/T. It’s all nicely illustrated below. [And, yes, it’s an animation from Wikipedia: nice and simple.]


The easy math above now allows us to formally write the phase of a wavefunction – let’s denote the wavefunction as φ (phi), and the phase as θ (theta) – as a function of time (t) using the angular frequency ω. So we can write: θ = ωt = 2π·ν·t. Now, the wave travels through space, and the two illustrations above (i.e. the one with the super-imposed waves, and the one with the complex wave train) would usually represent a wave shape at some fixed point in time. Hence, the horizontal axis is not t but x. Hence, we can and should write the phase not only as a function of time but also of space. So how do we do that? Well… If the hypothesis is that the wave travels through space at some fixed speed c, then its frequency ν will also determine its wavelength λ. It’s a simple relationship: c = λν (the number of oscillations per second times the length of one wavelength should give you the distance traveled per second, so that’s, effectively, the wave’s speed).

Now that we’ve expressed the frequency in radians per second, we can also express the wavelength in radians per unit distance too. That’s what the wavenumber does: think of it as the spatial frequency of the wave. We denote the wavenumber by k, and write: k = 2π/λ. [Just do a numerical example when you have difficulty following. For example, if you’d assume the wavelength is 5 units distance (i.e. 5 meter) – that’s a typical VHF radio frequency: ν = (3×10m/s)/(5 m) = 0.6×108 Hz = 60 MHz – then that would correspond to (2π radians)/(5 m) ≈ 1.2566 radians per meter. Of course, we can also express the wave number in oscillations per unit distance. In that case, we’d have to divide k by 2π, because one cycle corresponds to 2π radians. So we get the reciprocal of the wavelength: 1/λ. In our example, 1/λ is, of course, 1/5 = 0.2, so that’s a fifth of a full cycle. You can also think of it as the number of waves (or wavelengths) per meter: if the wavelength is λ, then one can fit 1/λ waves in a meter.


Now, from the ω = 2πν, c = λν and k = 2π/λ relations, it’s obvious that k = 2π/λ = 2π/(c/ν) = (2πν)/c = ω/c. To sum it all up, frequencies and wavelengths, in time and in space, are all related through the speed of propagation of the wave c. More specifically, they’re related as follows:

c = λν = ω/k

From that, it’s easy to see that k = ω/c, which we’ll use in a moment. Now, it’s obvious that the periodicity of the wave implies that we can find the same phase by going one oscillation (or a multiple number of oscillations back or forward in time, or in space. In fact, we can also find the same phase by letting both time and space vary. However, if we want to do that, it should be obvious that we should either (a) go forward in space and back in time or, alternatively, (b) go back in space and forward in time. In other words, if we want to get the same phase, then time and space sort of substitute for each other. Let me quote Feynman on this: “This is easily seen by considering the mathematical behavior of a(tr/c). Evidently, if we add a little time Δt, we get the same value for a(tr/c) as we would have if we had subtracted a little distance: ΔcΔt.” The variable a stands for the acceleration of an electric charge here, causing an electromagnetic wave, but the same logic is valid for the phase, with a minor twist though: we’re talking a nice periodic function here, and so we need to put the angular frequency in front. Hence, the rate of change of the phase in respect to time is measured by the angular frequency ω. In short, we write:

θ = ω(t–x/c) = ωt–kx

Hence, we can re-write the wavefunction, in terms of its phase, as follows:

φ(θ) = φ[θ(x, t)] = φ[ωt–kx]

Note that, if the wave would be traveling in the ‘other’ direction (i.e. in the negative x-direction), we’d write φ(θ) = φ[kx+ωt]. Time travels in one direction only, of course, but so one minus sign has to be there because of the logic involved in adding time and subtracting distance. You can work out an example (with a sine or cosine wave, for example) for yourself.

So what, you’ll say? Well… Nothing. I just hope you agree that all of this isn’t rocket science: it’s just high-school math. But so it shows you what that stopwatch really is and, hence, – but who am I? – would have put at least one or two footnotes on this in a text like Feynman’s QED.

Now, let me make a much longer and more serious digression:

Digression 1: on relativity and spacetime

As you can see from the argument (or phase) of that wave function φ(θ) = φ[θ(x, t)] = φ[ωt–kx] = φ[–k(x–ct)], any wave equation establishes a deep relation between the wave itself (i.e. the ‘thing’ we’re describing) and space and time. In fact, that’s what the whole wave equation is all about! So let me say a few things more about that.

Because you know a thing or two about physics, you may ask: when we’re talking time, whose time are we talking about? Indeed, if we’re talking photons going from A to B, these photons will be traveling at or near the speed of light and, hence, their clock, as seen from our (inertial) frame of reference, doesn’t move. Likewise, according to the photon, our clock seems to be standing still.

Let me put the issue to bed immediately: we’re looking at things from our point of view. Hence, we’re obviously using our clock, not theirs. Having said that, the analysis is actually fully consistent with relativity theory. Why? Well… What do you expect? If it wasn’t, the analysis would obviously not be valid. 🙂 To illustrate that it’s consistent with relativity theory, I can mention, for example, that the (probability) amplitude for a photon to travel from point A to B depends on the spacetime interval, which is invariant. Hence, A and B are four-dimensional points in spacetime, involving both spatial as well as time coordinates: A = (xA, yA, zA, tA) and B = (xB, yB, zB, tB). And so the ‘distance’ – as measured through the spacetime interval – is invariant.

Now, having said that, we should draw some attention to the intimate relationship between space and time which, let me remind you, results from the absoluteness of the speed of light. Indeed, one will always measure the speed of light c as being equal to 299,792,458 m/s, always and everywhere. It does not depend on your reference frame (inertial or moving). That’s why the constant c anchors all laws in physics, and why we can write what we write above, i.e. include both distance (x) as well as time (t) in the wave function φ = φ(x, t) = φ[ωt–kx] = φ[–k(x–ct)]. The k and ω are related through the ω/k = c relationship: the speed of light links the frequency in time (ν = ω/2π = 1/T) with the frequency in space (i.e. the wavenumber or spatial frequency k). There is only degree of freedom here: the frequency—in space or in time, it doesn’t matter: ν and ω are not independent.  [As noted above, the relationship between the frequency in time and in space is not so obvious for electrons, or for matter waves in general: for those matter-waves, we need to distinguish group and phase velocity, and so we don’t have a unique frequency.]

Let me make another small digression within the digression here. Thinking about travel at the speed of light invariably leads to paradoxes. In previous posts, I explained the mechanism of light emission: a photon is emitted – one photon only – when an electron jumps back to its ground state after being excited. Hence, we may imagine a photon as a transient electromagnetic wave–something like what’s pictured below. Now, the decay time of this transient oscillation (τ) is measured in nanoseconds, i.e. billionths of a second (1 ns = 1×10–9 s): the decay time for sodium light, for example, is some 30 ns only.

decay time

However, because of the tremendous speed of light, that still makes for a wavetrain that’s like ten meter long, at least (30×10–9 s times 3×10m/s is nine meter, but you should note that the decay time measures the time for the oscillation to die out by a factor 1/e, so the oscillation itself lasts longer than that). Those nine or ten meters cover like 16 to 17 million oscillations (the wavelength of sodium light is about 600 nm and, hence, 10 meter fits almost 17 million oscillations indeed). Now, how can we reconcile the image of a photon as a ten-meter long wavetrain with the image of a photon as a point particle?

The answer to that question is paradoxical: from our perspective, anything traveling at the speed of light – including this nine or ten meter ‘long’ photon – will have zero length because of the relativistic length contraction effect. Length contraction? Yes. I’ll let you look it up, because… Well… It’s not easy to grasp. Indeed, from the three measurable effects on objects moving at relativistic speeds – i.e. (1) an increase of the mass (the energy needed to further accelerate particles in particle accelerators increases dramatically at speeds nearer to c), (2) time dilation, i.e. a slowing down of the (internal) clock (because of their relativistic speeds when entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the measured half-life of muons is five times that when at rest), and (3) length contraction – length contraction is probably the most paradoxical of all.

Let me end this digression with yet another short note. I said that one will always measure the speed of light c as being equal to 299,792,458 m/s, always and everywhere and, hence, that it does not depend on your reference frame (inertial or moving). Well… That’s true and not true at the same time. I actually need to nuance that statement a bit in light of what follows: an individual photon does have an amplitude to travel faster or slower than c, and when discussing matter waves (such as the wavefunction that’s associated with an electron), we can have phase velocities that are faster than light! However, when calculating those amplitudes, is a constant.

That doesn’t make sense, you’ll say. Well… What can I say? That’s how it is unfortunately. I need to move on and, hence, I’ll end this digression and get back to the main story line. Part I explained what probability amplitudes are—or at least tried to do so. Now it’s time for part II: the building blocks of all of quantum electrodynamics (QED).

II. The building blocks: P(A to B), E(A to B) and j

The three basic ‘events’ (and, hence, amplitudes) in QED are the following:

1. P(A to B)

P(A to B) is the (probability) amplitude for a photon to travel from point A to B. However, I should immediately note that A and B are points in spacetime. Therefore, we associate them not only with some specific (x, y, z) position in space, but also with a some specific time t. Now, quantum-mechanical theory gives us an easy formula for P(A to B): it depends on the so-called (spacetime) interval between the two points A and B, i.e. I = Δr– Δt= (x2–x1)2+(y2–y1)2+(z2–z1)– (t2–t1)2. The point to note is that the spacetime interval takes both the distance in space as well as the ‘distance’ in time into account. As I mentioned already, this spacetime interval does not depend on our reference frame and, hence, it’s invariant (as long as we’re talking reference frames that move with constant speed relative to each other). Also note that we should measure time and distance in equivalent units when using that Δr– Δtformula for I. So we either measure distance in light-seconds or, else, we measure time in units that correspond to the time that’s needed for light to travel one meter. If no equivalent units are adopted, the formula is I = Δrc·Δt2.

Now, in quantum theory, anything is possible and, hence, not only do we allow for crooked paths, but we also allow for the difference in time to differ from  the time you’d expect a photon to need to travel along some curve (whose length we’ll denote by l), i.e. l/c. Hence, our photon may actually travel slower or faster than the speed of light c! There is one lucky break, however, that makes all come out alright: it’s easy to show that the amplitudes associated with the odd paths and strange timings generally cancel each other out. [That’s what the QED booklet shows.] Hence, what remains, are the paths that are equal or, importantly, those that very near to the so-called ‘light-like’ intervals in spacetime only. The net result is that light – even one single photon – effectively uses a (very) small core of space as it travels, as evidenced by the fact that even one single photon interferes with itself when traveling through a slit or a small hole!

[If you now wonder what it means for a photon to interfere for itself, let me just give you the easy explanation: it may change its path. We assume it was traveling in a straight line – if only because it left the source at some point in time and then arrived at the slit obviously – but so it no longer travels in a straight line after going through the slit. So that’s what we mean here.]

2. E(A to B)

E(A to B) is the (probability) amplitude for an electron to travel from point A to B. The formula for E(A to B) is much more complicated, and it’s the one I want to discuss somewhat more in detail in this post. It depends on some complex number j (see the next remark) and some real number n.

3. j

Finally, an electron could emit or absorb a photon, and the amplitude associated with this event is denoted by j, for junction number. It’s the same number j as the one mentioned when discussing E(A to B) above.

Now, this junction number is often referred to as the coupling constant or the fine-structure constant. However, the truth is, as I pointed out in my previous post, that these numbers are related, but they are not quite the same: α is the square of j, so we have α = j2. There is also one more, related, number: the gauge parameter, which is denoted by g (despite the g notation, it has nothing to do with gravitation). The value of g is the square root of 4πε0α, so g= 4πε0α. I’ll come back to this. Let me first make an awfully long digression on the fine-structure constant. It will be awfully long. So long that it’s actually part of the ‘core’ of this post actually.

Digression 2: on the fine-structure constant, Planck units and the Bohr radius

The value for j is approximately –0.08542454.

How do we know that?

The easy answer to that question is: physicists measured it. In fact, they usually publish the measured value as the square root of the (absolute value) of j, which is that fine-structure constant α. Its value is published (and updated) by the US National Institute on Standards and Technology. To be precise, the currently accepted value of α is 7.29735257×10−3. In case you doubt, just check that square root:

j = –0.08542454 ≈ –√0.00729735257 = –√α

As noted in Feynman’s (or Leighton’s) QED, older and/or more popular books will usually mention 1/α as the ‘magical’ number, so the ‘special’ number you may have seen is the inverse fine-structure constant, which is about 137, but not quite:

1/α = 137.035999074 ± 0.000000044

I am adding the standard uncertainty just to give you an idea of how precise these measurements are. 🙂 About 0.32 parts per billion (just divide the 137.035999074 number by the uncertainty). So that‘s the number that excites popular writers, including Leighton. Indeed, as Leighton puts it:

“Where does this number come from? Nobody knows. It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the “hand of God” wrote that number, and “we don’t know how He pushed his pencil.” We know what kind of a dance to do experimentally to measure this number very accurately, but we don’t know what kind of dance to do on the computer to make this number come out, without putting it in secretly!”

Is it Leighton, or did Feynman really say this? Not sure. While the fine-structure constant is a very special number, it’s not the only ‘special’ number. In fact, we derive it from other ‘magical’ numbers. To be specific, I’ll show you how we derive it from the fundamental properties – as measured, of course – of the electron. So, in fact, I should say that we do know how to make this number come out, which makes me doubt whether Feynman really said what Leighton said he said. 🙂

So we can derive α from some other numbers. That brings me to the more complicated answer to the question as to what the value of j really is: j‘s value is the electron charge expressed in Planck units, which I’ll denote by –eP:

j = –eP

[You may want to reflect on this, and quickly verify on the Web. The Planck unit of electric charge, expressed in Coulomb, is about 1.87555×10–18 C. If you multiply that j = –eP, so with –0.08542454, you get the right answer: the electron charge is about –0.160217×10–18 C.]

Now that is strange.

Why? Well… For starters, when doing all those quantum-mechanical calculations, we like to think of j as a dimensionless number: a coupling constant. But so here we do have a dimension: electric charge.

Let’s look at the basics. If is –√α, and it’s also equal to –eP, then the fine-structure constant must also be equal to the square of the electron charge eP, so we can write:

α = eP2

You’ll say: yes, so what? Well… I am pretty sure that, if you’ve ever seen a formula for α, it’s surely not this simple j = –eP or α = eP2 formula. What you’ve seen, most likely, is one or more of the following expressions below :

Fine-structure constant formula

That’s a pretty impressive collection of physical constants, isn’t it? 🙂 They’re all different but, somehow, when we combine them in one or the other ratio (we have not less than five different expressions here (each identity is a separate expression), and I could give you a few more!), we get the very same number: α. Now that is what I call strange. Truly strange. Incomprehensibly weird!

You’ll say… Well… Those constants must all be related… Of course! That’s exactly the point I am making here. They are, but look how different they are: mmeasures mass, rmeasures distance, e is a charge, and so these are all very different numbers with very different dimensions. Yet, somehow, they are all related through this α number. Frankly, I do not know of any other expression that better illustrates some kind of underlying unity in Nature than the one with those five identities above.

Let’s have a closer look at those constants. You know most of them already. The only constants you may not have seen before are μ0Rand, perhaps, ras well as m. However, these can easily be defined as some easy function of the constants that you did see before, so let me quickly do that:

  1. The μ0 constant is the so-called magnetic constant. It’s something similar as ε0 and it’s referred to as the magnetic permeability of the vacuum. So it’s just like the (electric) permittivity of the vacuum (i.e. the electric constant ε0) and the only reason why this blog hasn’t mentioned this constant before is because I haven’t really discussed magnetic fields so far. I only talked about the electric field vector. In any case, you know that the electric and magnetic force are part and parcel of the same phenomenon (i.e. the electromagnetic interaction between charged particles) and, hence, they are closely related. To be precise, μ0ε0 = 1/c= c–2. So that shows the first and second expression for α are, effectively, fully equivalent. [Just in case you’d doubt that μ0ε0 = 1/c2, let me give you the values: μ0 = 4π·10–7 N/A2, and ε0 = (1/4π·c2)·10C2/N·m2. Just plug them in, and you’ll see it’s bang on. Moreover, note that the ampere (A) unit is equal to the coulomb per second unit (C/s), so even the units come out alright. 🙂 Of course they do!]
  2. The ke constant is the Coulomb constant and, from its definition ke = 1/4πε0, it’s easy to see how those two expressions are, in turn, equivalent with the third expression for α.
  3. The Rconstant is the so-called von Klitzing constant. Huh? Yes. I know. I am pretty sure you’ve never ever heard of that one before. Don’t worry about it. It’s, quite simply, equal to Rh/e2. Hence, substituting (and don’t forget that h = 2πħ) will demonstrate the equivalence of the fourth expression for α.
  4. Finally, the re factor is the classical electron radius, which is usually written as a function of me, i.e. the electron mass: re = e2/4πε0mec2. Also note that this also implies that reme = e2/4πε0c2. In words: the product of the electron mass and the electron radius is equal to some constant involving the electron (e), the electric constant (ε0), and c (the speed of light).

I am sure you’re under some kind of ‘formula shock’ now. But you should just take a deep breath and read on. The point to note is that all these very different things are all related through α.

So, again, what is that α really? Well… A strange number indeed. It’s dimensionless (so we don’t measure in kg, m/s, eV·s or whatever) and it pops up everywhere. [Of course, you’ll say: “What’s everywhere? This is the first time I‘ve heard of it!” :-)]

Well… Let me start by explaining the term itself. The fine structure in the name refers to the splitting of the spectral lines of atoms. That’s a very fine structure indeed. 🙂 We also have a so-called hyperfine structure. Both are illustrated below for the hydrogen atom. The numbers n, JI, and are quantum numbers used in the quantum-mechanical explanation of the emission spectrum, which is  also depicted below, but note that the illustration gives you the so-called Balmer series only, i.e. the colors in the visible light spectrum (there are many more ‘colors’ in the high-energy ultraviolet and the low-energy infrared range).



To be precise: (1) n is the principal quantum number: here it takes the values 1 or 2, and we could say these are the principal shells; (2) the S, P, D,… orbitals (which are usually written in lower case: s, p, d, f, g, h and i) correspond to the (orbital) angular momentum quantum number l = 0, 1, 2,…, so we could say it’s the subshell; (3) the J values correspond to the so-called magnetic quantum number m, which goes from –l to +l; (4) the fourth quantum number is the spin angular momentum s. I’ve copied another diagram below so you see how it works, more or less, that is.

hydrogen spectrum

Now, our fine-structure constant is related to these quantum numbers. How exactly is a bit of a long story, and so I’ll just copy Wikipedia’s summary on this: ” The gross structure of line spectra is the line spectra predicted by the quantum mechanics of non-relativistic electrons with no spin. For a hydrogenic atom, the gross structure energy levels only depend on the principal quantum number n. However, a more accurate model takes into account relativistic and spin effects, which break the degeneracy of the the energy levels and split the spectral lines. The scale of the fine structure splitting relative to the gross structure energies is on the order of ()2, where Z is the atomic number and α is the fine-structure constant.” There you go. You’ll say: so what? Well… Nothing. If you aren’t amazed by that, you should stop reading this.

It is an ‘amazing’ number, indeed, and, hence, it does quality for being “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics”, as Feynman and/or Leighton put it. Having said that, I would not go as far as to write that it’s “a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man.” In fact, I think Feynman/Leighton could have done a much better job when explaining what it’s all about. So, yes, I hope to do better than Leighton here and, as he’s still alive, I actually hope he reads this. 🙂

The point is: α is not the only weird number. What’s particular about it, as a physical constant, is that it’s dimensionless, because it relates a number of other physical constants in such a way that the units fall away. Having said that, the Planck or Boltzmann constant are at least as weird.

So… What is this all about? Well… You’ve probably heard about the so-called fine-tuning problem in physics and, if you’re like me, your first reaction will be to associate fine-tuning with fine-structure. However, the two terms have nothing in common, except for four letters. 🙂 OK. Well… I am exaggerating here. The two terms are actually related, to some extent at least, but let me explain how.

The term fine-tuning refers to the fact that all the parameters or constants in the so-called Standard Model of physics are, indeed, all related to each other in the way they are. We can’t sort of just turn the knob of one and change it, because everything falls apart then. So, in essence, the fine-tuning problem in physics is more like a philosophical question: why is the value of all these physical constants and parameters exactly what it is? So it’s like asking: could we change some of the ‘constants’ and still end up with the world we’re living in? Or, if it would be some different world, how would it look like? What if was some other number? What if ke or ε0 was some other number? In short, and in light of those expressions for α, we may rephrase the question as: why is α what is is?

Of course, that’s a question one shouldn’t try to answer before answering some other, more fundamental, question: how many degrees of freedom are there really? Indeed, we just saw that ke and εare intimately related through some equation, and other constants and parameters are related too. So the question is like: what are the ‘dependent’ and the ‘independent’ variables in this so-called Standard Model?

There is no easy answer to that question. In fact, one of the reasons why I find physics so fascinating is that one cannot easily answer such questions. There are the obvious relationships, of course. For example, the ke = 1/4πεrelationship, and the context in which they are used (Coulomb’s Law) does, indeed, strongly suggest that both constants are actually part and parcel of the same thing. Identical, I’d say. Likewise, the μ0ε0 = 1/crelation also suggests there’s only one degree of freedom here, just like there’s only one degree of freedom in that ω/k = relationship (if we set a value for ω, we have k, and vice versa). But… Well… I am not quite sure how to phrase this, but… What physical constants could be ‘variables’ indeed?

It’s pretty obvious that the various formulas for α cannot answer that question: you could stare at them for days and weeks and months and years really, but I’d suggest you use your time to read more of Feynman’s real Lectures instead. 🙂 One point that may help to come to terms with this question – to some extent, at least – is what I casually mentioned above already: the fine-structure constant is equal to the square of the electron charge expressed in Planck units: α = eP2.

Now, that’s very remarkable because Planck units are some kind of ‘natural units’ indeed (for the detail, see my previous post: among other things, it explains what these Planck units really are) and, therefore, it is quite tempting to think that we’ve actually got only one degree of freedom here: α itself. All the rest should follow from it.


It should… But… Does it?

The answer is: yes and no. To be frank, it’s more no than yes because, as I noted a couple of times already, the fine-structure constant relates a lot of stuff but it’s surely not the only significant number in the Universe. For starters, I said that our E(A to B) formula has two ‘variables’:

  1. We have that complex number j, which, as mentioned, is equal to the electron charge expressed in Planck units. [In case you wonder why –eP ≈ –0.08542455 is said to be an amplitude, i.e. a complex number or an ‘arrow’… Well… Complex numbers include the real numbers and, hence, –0.08542455 is both real and complex. When combining ‘arrows’ or, to be precise, when multiplying some complex number with –0.08542455, we will (a) shrink the original arrow to about 8.5% of its original value (8.542455% to be precise) and (b) rotate it over an angle of plus or minus 180 degrees. In other words, we’ll reverse its direction. Hence, using Euler’s notation for complex numbers, we can write: –1 = eiπ eiπ and, hence, –0.085 = 0.085·eiπ = 0.085·eiπ. So, in short, yes, j is a complex number, or an ‘arrow’, if you prefer that term.]
  2. We also have some some real number n in the E(A to B) formula. So what’s the n? Well… Believe it or not, it’s the electron mass! Isn’t that amazing?

You’ll say: “Well… Hmm… I suppose so.” But then you may – and actually should – also wonder: the electron mass? In what units? Planck units again? And are we talking relativistic mass (i.e. its total mass, including the equivalent mass of its kinetic energy) or its rest mass only? And we were talking α here, so can we relate it to α too, just like the electron charge?

These are all very good questions. Let’s start with the second one. We’re talking rather slow-moving electrons here, so the relativistic mass (m) and its rest mass (m0) is more or less the same. Indeed, the Lorentz factor γ in the m = γm0 equation is very close to 1 for electrons moving at their typical speed. So… Well… That question doesn’t matter very much. Really? Yes. OK. Because you’re doubting, I’ll quickly show it to you. What is their ‘typical’ speed?

We know we shouldn’t attach too much importance to the concept of an electron in orbit around some nucleus (we know it’s not like some planet orbiting around some star) and, hence, to the concept of speed or velocity (velocity is speed with direction) when discussing an electron in an atom. The concept of momentum (i.e. velocity combined with mass or energy) is much more relevant. There’s a very easy mathematical relationship that gives us some clue here: the Uncertainty Principle. In fact, we’ll use the Uncertainty Principle to relate the momentum of an electron (p) to the so-called Bohr radius r (think of it as the size of a hydrogen atom) as follows: p ≈ ħ/r. [I’ll come back on this in a moment, and show you why this makes sense.]

Now we also know its kinetic energy (K.E.) is mv2/2, which we can write as p2/2m. Substituting our p ≈ ħ/r conjecture, we get K.E. = mv2/2 = ħ2/2mr2. This is equivalent to m2v2 = ħ2/r(just multiply both sides with m). From that, we get v = ħ/mr. Now, one of the many relations we can derive from the formulas for the fine-structure constant is re = α2r. [I haven’t showed you that yet, but I will shortly. It’s a really amazing expression. However, as for now, just accept it as a simple formula for interim use in this digression.] Hence, r = re2. The rfactor in this expression is the so-called classical electron radius. So we can now write v = ħα2/mre. Let’s now throw c in: v/c = α2ħ/mcre. However, from that fifth expression for α, we know that ħ/mcre = α, so we get v/c = α. We have another amazing result here: the v/c ratio for an electron (i.e. its speed expressed as a fraction of the speed of light) is equal to that fine-structure constant α. So that’s about 1/137, so that’s less than 1% of the speed of light. Now… I’ll leave it to you to calculate the Lorentz factor γ but… Well… It’s obvious that it will be very close to 1. 🙂 Hence, the electron’s speed – however we want to visualize that – doesn’t matter much indeed, so we should not worry about relativistic corrections in the formulas.

Let’s now look at the question in regard to the Planck units. If you know nothing at all about them, I would advise you to read what I wrote about them in my previous post. Let me just note we get those Planck units by equating not less than five fundamental physical constants to 1, notably (1) the speed of light, (2) Planck’s (reduced) constant, (3) Boltzmann’s constant, (4) Coulomb’s constant and (5) Newton’s constant (i.e. the gravitational constant). Hence, we have a set of five equations here (ħ = kB = ke = G = 1), and so we can solve that to get the five Planck units, i.e. the Planck length unit, the Planck time unit, the Planck mass unit, the Planck energy unit, the Planck charge unit and, finally (oft forgotten), the Planck temperature unit. Of course, you should note that all mass and energy units are directly related because of the mass-energy equivalence relation E = mc2, which simplifies to E = m if c is equated to 1. [I could also say something about the relation between temperature and (kinetic) energy, but I won’t, as it would only further confuse you.]

Now, you may or may not remember that the Planck time and length units are unimaginably small, but that the Planck mass unit is actually quite sizable—at the atomic scale, that is. Indeed, the Planck mass is something huge, like the mass of an eyebrow hair, or a flea egg. Is that huge? Yes. Because if you’d want to pack it in a Planck-sized particle, it would make for a tiny black hole. 🙂 No kidding. That’s the physical significance of the Planck mass and the Planck length and, yes, it’s weird. 🙂

Let me give you some values. First, the Planck mass itself: it’s about 2.1765×10−8 kg. Again, if you think that’s tiny, think again. From the E = mc2 equivalence relationship, we get that this is equivalent to 2 giga-joule, approximately. Just to give an idea, that’s like the monthly electricity consumption of an average American family. So that’s huge indeed! 🙂 [Many people think that nuclear energy involves the conversion of mass into energy, but the story is actually more complicated than that. In any case… I need to move on.]

Let me now give you the electron mass expressed in the Planck mass unit:

  1. Measured in our old-fashioned super-sized SI kilogram unit, the electron mass is me = 9.1×10–31 kg.
  2. The Planck mass is mP = 2.1765×10−8 kg.
  3. Hence, the electron mass expressed in Planck units is meP = me/mP = (9.1×10–31 kg)/(2.1765×10−8 kg) = 4.181×10−23.

We can, once again, write that as some function of the fine-structure constant. More specifically, we can write:

meP = α/reP = α/α2rP  = 1/αrP

So… Well… Yes: yet another amazing formula involving α.

In this formula, we have reP and rP, which are the (classical) electron radius and the Bohr radius expressed in Planck (length) units respectively. So you can see what’s going on here: we have all kinds of numbers here expressed in Planck units: a charge, a radius, a mass,… And we can relate all of them to the fine-structure constant

Why? Who knows? I don’t. As Leighton puts it: that’s just the way “God pushed His pencil.” 🙂

Note that the beauty of natural units ensures that we get the same number for the (equivalent) energy of an electron. Indeed, from the E = mc2 relation, we know the mass of an electron can also be written as 0.511 MeV/c2. Hence, the equivalent energy is 0.511 MeV (so that’s, quite simply, the same number but without the 1/cfactor). Now, the Planck energy EP (in eV) is 1.22×1028 eV, so we get EeP = Ee/EP = (0.511×10eV)/(1.22×1028 eV) = 4.181×10−23. So it’s exactly the same as the electron mass expressed in Planck units. Isn’t that nice? 🙂

Now, are all these numbers dimensionless, just like α? The answer to that question is complicated. Yes, and… Well… No:

  1. Yes. They’re dimensionless because they measure something in natural units, i.e. Planck units, and, hence, that’s some kind of relative measure indeed so… Well… Yes, dimensionless.
  2. No. They’re not dimensionless because they do measure something, like a charge, a length, or a mass, and when you chose some kind of relative measure, you still need to define some gauge, i.e. some kind of standard measure. So there’s some ‘dimension’ involved there.

So what’s the final answer? Well… The Planck units are not dimensionless. All we can say is that they are closely related, physically. I should also add that we’ll use the electron charge and mass (expressed in Planck units) in our amplitude calculations as a simple (dimensionless) number between zero and one. So the correct answer to the question as to whether these numbers have any dimension is: expressing some quantities in Planck units sort of normalizes them, so we can use them directly in dimensionless calculations, like when we multiply and add amplitudes.

Hmm… Well… I can imagine you’re not very happy with this answer but it’s the best I can do. Sorry. I’ll let you further ponder that question. I need to move on.  

Note that that 4.181×10−23 is still a very small number (23 zeroes after the decimal point!), even if it’s like 46 million times larger than the electron mass measured in our conventional SI unit (i.e. 9.1×10–31 kg). Does such small number make any sense? The answer is: yes, it does. When we’ll finally start discussing that E(A to B) formula (I’ll give it to you in a moment), you’ll see that a very small number for n makes a lot of sense.

Before diving into it all, let’s first see if that formula for that alpha, that fine-structure constant, still makes sense with me expressed in Planck units. Just to make sure. 🙂 To do that, we need to use the fifth (last) expression for a, i.e. the one with re in it. Now, in my previous post, I also gave some formula for re: re = e2/4πε0mec2, which we can re-write as reme = e2/4πε0c2. If we substitute that expression for reme  in the formula for α, we can calculate α from the electron charge, which indicates both the electron radius and its mass are not some random God-given variable, or “some magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man“, as Feynman – well… Leighton, I guess – puts it. No. They are magic numbers alright, one related to another through the equally ‘magic’ number α, but so I do feel we actually can create some understanding here.

At this point, I’ll digress once again, and insert some quick back-of-the-envelope argument from Feynman’s very serious Caltech Lectures on Physics, in which, as part of the introduction to quantum mechanics, he calculates the so-called Bohr radius from Planck’s constant h. Let me quickly explain: the Bohr radius is, roughly speaking, the size of the simplest atom, i.e. an atom with one electron (so that’s hydrogen really). So it’s not the classical electron radius re. However, both are also related to that ‘magical number’ α. To be precise, if we write the Bohr radius as r, then re = α2r ≈ 0.000053… times r, which we can re-write as:

α = √(re /r) = (re /r)1/2

So that’s yet another amazing formula involving the fine-structure constant. In fact, it’s the formula I used as an ‘interim’ expression to calculate the relative speed of electrons. I just used it without any explanation there, but I am coming back to it here. Alpha again…

Just think about it for a while. In case you’d still doubt the magic of that number, let me write what we’ve discovered so far:

(1) α is the square of the electron charge expressed in Planck units: α = eP2.

(2) α is the square root of the ratio of (a) the classical electron radius and (b) the Bohr radius: α = √(re /r). You’ll see this more often written as re = α2r. Also note that this is an equation that does not depend on the units, in contrast to equation 1 (above), and 4 and 5 (below), which require you to switch to Planck units. It’s the square of a ratio and, hence, the units don’t matter. They fall away.

(3) α is the (relative) speed of an electron: α = v/c. [The relative speed is the speed as measured against the speed of light. Note that the ‘natural’ unit of speed in the Planck system of units is equal to c. Indeed, if you divide one Planck length by one Planck time unit, you get (1.616×10−35 m)/(5.391×10−44 s) = m/s. However, this is another equation, just like (2), that does not depend on the units: we can express v and c in whatever unit we want, as long we’re consistent and express both in the same units.]

(4) Finally – I’ll show you in a moment – α is also equal to the product of (a) the electron mass (which I’ll simply write as me here) and (b) the classical electron radius re (if both are expressed in Planck units): α = me·re. Now think that’s, perhaps, the most amazing of all of the expressions for α. If you don’t think that’s amazing, I’d really suggest you stop trying to study physics. 🙂

Note that, from (2) and (4), we find that:

(5) The electron mass (in Planck units) is equal me = α/r= α/α2r = 1/αr. So that gives us an expression, using α once again, for the electron mass as a function of the Bohr radius r expressed in Planck units.

Finally, we can also substitute (1) in (5) to get:

(6) The electron mass (in Planck units) is equal to me = α/r = eP2/re. Using the Bohr radius, we get me = 1/αr = 1/eP2r.

So… As you can see, this fine-structure constant really links ALL of the fundamental properties of the electron: its charge, its radius, its distance to the nucleus (i.e. the Bohr radius), its velocity, its mass (and, hence, its energy),… In short,


Now that should answer the question in regard to the degrees of freedom we have here, doesn’t it? It looks like we’ve got only one degree of freedom here. Indeed, if we’ve got some value for α, then we’ve have the electron charge, and from the electron charge, we can calculate the Bohr radius r (as I will show below), and if we have r, we have mand re. And then we can also calculate v, which gives us its momentum (mv) and its kinetic energy (mv2/2). In short,


Isn’t that amazing? Hmm… You should reserve your judgment as for now, and carefully go over all of the formulas above and verify my statement. If you do that, you’ll probably struggle to find the Bohr radius from the charge (i.e. from α). So let me show you how you do that, because it will also show you why you should, indeed, reserve your judgment. In other words, I’ll show you why alpha does NOT give us everything! The argument below will, finally, prove some of the formulas that I didn’t prove above. Let’s go for it:

1. If we assume that (a) an electron takes some space – which I’ll denote by r 🙂 – and (b) that it has some momentum p because of its mass m and its velocity v, then the ΔxΔp = ħ relation (i.e. the Uncertainty Principle in its roughest form) suggests that the order of magnitude of r and p should be related in the very same way. Hence, let’s just boldly write r ≈ ħ/p and see what we can do with that. So we equate Δx with r and Δp with p. As Feynman notes, this is really more like a ‘dimensional analysis’ (he obviously means something very ‘rough’ with that) and so we don’t care about factors like 2 or 1/2. [Indeed, note that the more precise formulation of the Uncertainty Principle is σxσ≥ ħ/2.] In fact, we didn’t even bother to define r very rigorously. We just don’t care about precise statements at this point. We’re only concerned about orders of magnitude. [If you’re appalled by the rather rude approach, I am sorry for that, but just try to go along with it.]

2. From our discussions on energy, we know that the kinetic energy is mv2/2, which we can write as p2/2m so we get rid of the velocity factor. [Why? Because we can’t really imagine what it is anyway. As I said a couple of times already, we shouldn’t think of electrons as planets orbiting around some star. That model doesn’t work.] So… What’s next? Well… Substituting our p ≈ ħ/r conjecture, we get K.E. = ħ2/2mr2. So that’s a formula for the kinetic energy. Next is potential.

3. Unfortunately, the discussion on potential energy is a bit more complicated. You’ll probably remember that we had an easy and very comprehensible formula for the energy that’s needed (i.e. the work that needs to be done) to bring two charges together from a large distance (i.e. infinity). Indeed, we derived that formula directly from Coulomb’s Law (and Newton’s law of force) and it’s U = q1q2/4πε0r12. [If you think I am going too fast, sorry, please check for yourself by reading my other posts.] Now, we’re actually talking about the size of an atom here in my previous post, so one charge is the proton (+e) and the other is the electron (–e), so the potential energy is U = P.E. = –e2/4πε0r, with r the ‘distance’ between the proton and the electron—so that’s the Bohr radius we’re looking for!

[In case you’re struggling a bit with those minus signs when talking potential energy  – I am not ashamed to admit I did! – let me quickly help you here. It has to do with our reference point: the reference point for measuring potential energy is at infinity, and it’s zero there (that’s just our convention). Now, to separate the proton and the electron, we’d have to do quite a lot of work. To use an analogy: imagine we’re somewhere deep down in a cave, and we have to climb back to the zero level. You’ll agree that’s likely to involve some sweat, don’t you? Hence, the potential energy associated with us being down in the cave is negative. Likewise, if we write the potential energy between the proton and the electron as U(r), and the potential energy at the reference point as U(∞) = 0, then the work to be done to separate the charges, i.e. the potential difference U(∞) – U(r), will be positive. So U(∞) – U(r) = 0 – U(r) > 0 and, hence, U(r) < 0. If you still don’t ‘get’ this, think of the electron being in some (potential) well, i.e. below the zero level, and so it’s potential energy is less than zero. Huh? Sorry. I have to move on. :-)]

4. We can now write the total energy (which I’ll denote by E, but don’t confuse it with the electric field vector!) as

E = K.E. + P.E. =  ħ2/2mr– e2/4πε0r

Now, the electron (whatever it is) is, obviously, in some kind of equilibrium state. Why is that obvious? Well… Otherwise our hydrogen atom wouldn’t or couldn’t exist. 🙂 Hence, it’s in some kind of energy ‘well’ indeed, at the bottom. Such equilibrium point ‘at the bottom’ is characterized by its derivative (in respect to whatever variable) being equal to zero. Now, the only ‘variable’ here is r (all the other symbols are physical constants), so we have to solve for dE/dr = 0. Writing it all out yields:

dE/dr = –ħ2/mr+ e2/4πε0r= 0 ⇔ r = 4πε0ħ2/me2

You’ll say: so what? Well… We’ve got a nice formula for the Bohr radius here, and we got it in no time! 🙂 But the analysis was rough, so let’s check if it’s any good by putting the values in:

r = 4πε0h2/me2

= [(1/(9×109) C2/N·m2)·(1.055×10–34 J·s)2]/[(9.1×10–31 kg)·(1.6×10–19 C)2]

= 53×10–12 m = 53 pico-meter (pm)

So what? Well… Double-check it on the Internet: the Bohr radius is, effectively, about 53 trillionths of a meter indeed! So we’re right on the spot! 

[In case you wonder about the units, note that mass is a measure of inertia: one kg is the mass of an object which, subject to a force of 1 newton, will accelerate at the rate of 1 m/s per second. Hence, we write F = m·a, which is equivalent to m = F/a. Hence, the kg, as a unit, is equivalent to 1 N/(m/s2). If you make this substitution, we get r in the unit we want to see: [(C2/N·m2)·(N2·m2·s2)/[(N·s2/m)·C2] = m.]

Moreover, if we take that value for r and put it in the (total) energy formula above, we’d find that the energy of the electron is –13.6 eV. [Don’t forget to convert from joule to electronvolt when doing the calculation!] Now you can check that on the Internet too: 13.6 eV is exactly the amount of energy that’s needed to ionize a hydrogen atom (i.e. the energy that’s needed to kick the electron out of that energy well)!

Waw ! Isn’t it great that such simple calculations yield such great results? 🙂 [Of course, you’ll note that the omission of the 1/2 factor in the Uncertainty Principle was quite strategic. :-)] Using the r = 4πε0ħ2/meformula for the Bohr radius, you can now easily check the re = α2r formula. You should find what we jotted down already: the classical electron radius is equal to re = e2/4πε0mec2. To be precise, re = (53×10–6)·(53×10–12m) = 2.8×10–15 m. Now that’s again something you should check on the Internet. Guess what? […] It’s right on the spot again. 🙂

We can now also check that α = m·re formula: α = m·r= 4.181×10−23 times… Hey! Wait! We have to express re in Planck units as well, of course! Now, (2.81794×10–15 m)/(1.616×10–35 m) ≈ 1.7438 ×1020. So now we get 4.181×10−23 times 1.7438×1020 = 7.29×10–3 = 0.00729 ≈ 1/137. Bingo! We got the magic number once again. 🙂

So… Well… Doesn’t that confirm we actually do have it all with α?

Well… Yes and no… First, you should note that I had to use h in that calculation of the Bohr radius. Moreover, the other physical constants (most notably c and the Coulomb constant) were actually there as well, ‘in the background’ so to speak, because one needs them to derive the formulas we used above. And then we have the equations themselves, of course, most notably that Uncertainty Principle… So… Well…

It’s not like God gave us one number only (α) and that all the rest flows out of it. We have a whole bunch of ‘fundamental’ relations and ‘fundamental’ constants here.

Having said that, it’s true that statement still does not diminish the magic of alpha.

Hmm… Now you’ll wonder: how many? How many constants do we need in all of physics?

Well… I’d say, you should not only ask about the constants: you should also ask about the equations: how many equations do we need in all of physics? [Just for the record, I had to smile when the Hawking of the movie says that he’s actually looking for one formula that sums up all of physics. Frankly, that’s a nonsensical statement. Hence, I think the real Hawking never said anything like that. Or, if he did, that it was one of those statements one needs to interpret very carefully.]

But let’s look at a few constants indeed. For example, if we have c, h and α, then we can calculate the electric charge e and, hence, the electric constant ε= e2/2αhc. From that, we get Coulomb’s constant ke, because ke is defined as 1/4πε0… But…

Hey! Wait a minute! How do we know that ke = 1/4πε0? Well… From experiment. But… Yes? That means 1/4π is some fundamental proportionality coefficient too, isn’t it?

Wow! You’re smart. That’s a good and valid remark. In fact, we use the so-called reduced Planck constant ħ in a number of calculations, and so that involves a 2π factor too (ħ = h/2π). Hence… Well… Yes, perhaps we should consider 2π as some fundamental constant too! And, then, well… Now that I think of it, there’s a few other mathematical constants out there, like Euler’s number e, for example, which we use in complex exponentials.


I am joking, right? I am not saying that 2π and Euler’s number are fundamental ‘physical’ constants, am I? [Note that it’s a bit of a nuisance we’re also using the symbol for Euler’s number, but so we’re not talking the electron charge here: we’re talking that 2.71828…etc number that’s used in so-called ‘natural’ exponentials and logarithms.]

Well… Yes and no. They’re mathematical constants indeed, rather than physical, but… Well… I hope you get my point. What I want to show here, is that it’s quite hard to say what’s fundamental and what isn’t. We can actually pick and choose a bit among all those constants and all those equations. As one physicist puts its: it depends on how we slice it. The one thing we know for sure is that a great many things are related, in a physical way (α connects all of the fundamental properties of the electron, for example) and/or in a mathematical way (2π connects not only the circumference of the unit circle with the radius but quite a few other constants as well!), but… Well… What to say? It’s a tough discussion and I am not smart enough to give you an unambiguous answer. From what I gather on the Internet, when looking at the whole Standard Model (including the strong force, the weak force and the Higgs field), we’ve got a few dozen physical ‘fundamental’ constants, and then a few mathematical ones as well.

That’s a lot, you’ll say. Yes. At the same time, it’s not an awful lot. Whatever number it is, it does raise a very fundamental question: why are they what they are? That brings us back to that ‘fine-tuning’ problem. Now, I can’t make this post too long (it’s way too long already), so let me just conclude this discussion by copying Wikipedia on that question, because what it has on this topic is not so bad:

“Some physicists have explored the notion that if the physical constants had sufficiently different values, our Universe would be so radically different that intelligent life would probably not have emerged, and that our Universe therefore seems to be fine-tuned for intelligent life. The anthropic principle states a logical truism: the fact of our existence as intelligent beings who can measure physical constants requires those constants to be such that beings like us can exist.

I like this. But the article then adds the following, which I do not like so much, because I think it’s a bit too ‘frivolous’:

“There are a variety of interpretations of the constants’ values, including that of a divine creator (the apparent fine-tuning is actual and intentional), or that ours is one universe of many in a multiverse (e.g. the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics), or even that, if information is an innate property of the universe and logically inseparable from consciousness, a universe without the capacity for conscious beings cannot exist.”

Hmm… As said, I am quite happy with the logical truism: we are there because alpha (and a whole range of other stuff) is what it is, and we can measure alpha (and a whole range of other stuff) as what it is, because… Well… Because we’re here. Full stop. As for the ‘interpretations’, I’ll let you think about that for yourself. 🙂

I need to get back to the lesson. Indeed, this was just a ‘digression’. My post was about the three fundamental events or actions in quantum electrodynamics, and so I was talking about that E(A to B) formula. However, I had to do that digression on alpha to ensure you understand what I want to write about that. So let me now get back to it. End of digression. 🙂

The E(A to B) formula

Indeed, I must assume that, with all these digressions, you are truly despairing now. Don’t. We’re there! We’re finally ready for the E(A to B) formula! Let’s go for it.

We’ve now got those two numbers measuring the electron charge and the electron mass in Planck units respectively. They’re fundamental indeed and so let’s loosen up on notation and just write them as e and m respectively. Let me recap:

1. The value of e is approximately –0.08542455, and it corresponds to the so-called junction number j, which is the amplitude for an electron-photon coupling. When multiplying it with another amplitude (to find the amplitude for an event consisting of two sub-events, for example), it corresponds to a ‘shrink’ to less than one-tenth (something like 8.5% indeed, corresponding to the magnitude of e) and a ‘rotation’ (or a ‘turn’) over 180 degrees, as mentioned above.

Please note what’s going on here: we have a physical quantity, the electron charge (expressed in Planck units), and we use it in a quantum-mechanical calculation as a dimensionless (complex) number, i.e. as an amplitude. So… Well… That’s what physicists mean when they say that the charge of some particle (usually the electric charge but, in quantum chromodynamics, it will be the ‘color’ charge of a quark) is a ‘coupling constant’.

2. We also have m, the electron mass, and we’ll use in the same way, i.e. as some dimensionless amplitude. As compared to j, it’s is a very tiny number: approximately 4.181×10−23. So if you look at it as an amplitude, indeed, then it corresponds to an enormous ‘shrink’ (but no turn) of the amplitude(s) that we’ll be combining it with.

So… Well… How do we do it?

Well… At this point, Leighton goes a bit off-track. Just a little bit. 🙂 From what he writes, it’s obvious that he assumes the frequency (or, what amounts to the same, the de Broglie wavelength) of an electron is just like the frequency of a photon. Frankly, I just can’t imagine why and how Feynman let this happen. It’s wrong. Plain wrong. As I mentioned in my introduction already, an electron traveling through space is not like a photon traveling through space.

For starters, an electron is much slower (because it’s a matter-particle: hence, it’s got mass). Secondly, the de Broglie wavelength and/or frequency of an electron is not like that of a photon. For example, if we take an electron and a photon having the same energy, let’s say 1 eV (that corresponds to infrared light), then the de Broglie wavelength of the electron will be 1.23 nano-meter (i.e. 1.23 billionths of a meter). Now that’s about one thousand times smaller than the wavelength of our 1 eV photon, which is about 1240 nm. You’ll say: how is that possible? If they have the same energy, then the f = E/h and ν = E/h should give the same frequency and, hence, the same wavelength, no?

Well… No! Not at all! Because an electron, unlike the photon, has a rest mass indeed – measured as not less than 0.511 MeV/c2, to be precise (note the rather particular MeV/c2 unit: it’s from the E = mc2 formula) – one should use a different energy value! Indeed, we should include the rest mass energy, which is 0.511 MeV. So, almost all of the energy here is rest mass energy! There’s also another complication. For the photon, there is an easy relationship between the wavelength and the frequency: it has no mass and, hence, all its energy is kinetic, or movement so to say, and so we can use that ν = E/h relationship to calculate its frequency ν: it’s equal to ν = E/h = (1 eV)/(4.13567×10–15 eV·s) ≈ 0.242×1015 Hz = 242 tera-hertz (1 THz = 1012 oscillations per second). Now, knowing that light travels at the speed of light, we can check the result by calculating the wavelength using the λ = c/ν relation. Let’s do it: (2.998×10m/s)/(242×1012 Hz) ≈ 1240 nm. So… Yes, done!

But so we’re talking photons here. For the electron, the story is much more complicated. That wavelength I mentioned was calculated using the other of the two de Broglie relations: λ = h/p. So that uses the momentum of the electron which, as you know, is the product of its mass (m) and its velocity (v): p = mv. You can amuse yourself and check if you find the same wavelength (1.23 nm): you should! From the other de Broglie relation, f = E/h, you can also calculate its frequency: for an electron moving at non-relativistic speeds, it’s about 0.123×1021 Hz, so that’s like 500,000 times the frequency of the photon we we’re looking at! When multiplying the frequency and the wavelength, we should get its speed. However, that’s where we get in trouble. Here’s the problem with matter waves: they have a so-called group velocity and a so-called phase velocity. The idea is illustrated below: the green dot travels with the wave packet – and, hence, its velocity corresponds to the group velocity – while the red dot travels with the oscillation itself, and so that’s the phase velocity. [You should also remember, of course, that the matter wave is some complex-valued wavefunction, so we have both a real as well as an imaginary part oscillating and traveling through space.]

Wave_group (1)

To be precise, the phase velocity will be superluminal. Indeed, using the usual relativistic formula, we can write that p = γm0v and E = γm0c2, with v the (classical) velocity of the electron and what it always is, i.e. the speed of light. Hence, λ = h/γm0v and = γm0c2/h, and so λf = c2/v. Because v is (much) smaller than c, we get a superluminal velocity. However, that’s the phase velocity indeed, not the group velocity, which corresponds to v. OK… I need to end this digression.

So what? Well, to make a long story short, the ‘amplitude framework’ for electrons is differerent. Hence, the story that I’ll be telling here is different from what you’ll read in Feynman’s QED. I will use his drawings, though, and his concepts. Indeed, despite my misgivings above, the conceptual framework is sound, and so the corrections to be made are relatively minor.

So… We’re looking at E(A to B), i.e. the amplitude for an electron to go from point A to B in spacetime, and I said the conceptual framework is exactly the same as that for a photon. Hence, the electron can follow any path really. It may go in a straight line and travel at a speed that’s consistent with what we know of its momentum (p), but it may also follow other paths. So, just like the photon, we’ll have some so-called propagator function, which gives you amplitudes based on the distance in space as well as in the distance in ‘time’ between two points. Now, Ralph Leighton identifies that propagator function with the propagator function for the photon, i.e. P(A to B), but that’s wrong: it’s not the same.

The propagator function for an electron depends on its mass and its velocity, and/or on the combination of both (like it momentum p = mv and/or its kinetic energy: K.E. = mv2 = p2/2m). So we have a different propagator function here. However, I’ll use the same symbol for it: P(A to B).

So, the bottom line is that, because of the electron’s mass (which, remember, is a measure for inertia), momentum and/or kinetic energy (which, remember, are conserved in physics), the straight line is definitely the most likely path, but (big but!), just like the photon, the electron may follow some other path as well.

So how do we formalize that? Let’s first associate an amplitude P(A to B) with an electron traveling from point A to B in a straight line and in a time that’s consistent with its velocity. Now, as mentioned above, the P here stands for propagator function, not for photon, so we’re talking a different P(A to B) here than that P(A to B) function we used for the photon. Sorry for the confusion. 🙂 The left-hand diagram below then shows what we’re talking about: it’s the so-called ‘one-hop flight’, and so that’s what the P(A to B) amplitude is associated with.

Diagram 1Now, the electron can follow other paths. For photons, we said the amplitude depended on the spacetime interval I: when negative or positive (i.e. paths that are not associated with the photon traveling in a straight line and/or at the speed of light), the contribution of those paths to the final amplitudes (or ‘final arrow’, as it was called) was smaller.

For an electron, we have something similar, but it’s modeled differently. We say the electron could take a ‘two-hop flight’ (via point C or C’), or a ‘three-hop flight’ (via D and E) from point A to B. Now, it makes sense that these paths should be associated with amplitudes that are much smaller. Now that’s where that n-factor comes in. We just put some real number n in the formula for the amplitude for an electron to go from A to B via C, which we write as:

P(A to C)∗n2∗P(C to B)

Note what’s going on here. We multiply two amplitudes, P(A to C) and P(C to B), which is OK, because that’s what the rules of quantum mechanics tell us: if an ‘event’ consists of two sub-events, we need to multiply the amplitudes (not the probabilities) in order to get the amplitude that’s associated with both sub-events happening. However, we add an extra factor: n2. Note that it must be some very small number because we have lots of alternative paths and, hence, they should not be very likely! So what’s the n? And why n2 instead of just n?

Well… Frankly, I don’t know. Ralph Leighton boldly equates n to the mass of the electron. Now, because he obviously means the mass expressed in Planck units, that’s the same as saying n is the electron’s energy (again, expressed in Planck’s ‘natural’ units), so n should be that number m = meP = EeP = 4.181×10−23. However, I couldn’t find any confirmation on the Internet, or elsewhere, of the suggested n = m identity, so I’ll assume n = m indeed, but… Well… Please check for yourself. It seems the answer is to be found in a mathematical theory that helps physicists to actually calculate j and n from experiment. It’s referred to as perturbation theory, and it’s the next thing on my study list. As for now, however, I can’t help you much. I can only note that the equation makes sense.

Of course, it does: inserting a tiny little number n, close to zero, ensures that those other amplitudes don’t contribute too much to the final ‘arrow’. And it also makes a lot of sense to associate it with the electron’s mass: if mass is a measure of inertia, then it should be some factor reducing the amplitude that’s associated with the electron following such crooked path. So let’s go along with it, and see what comes out of it.

A three-hop flight is even weirder and uses that n2 factor two times:

P(A to E)∗n2∗P(E to D)∗n2∗P(D to B)

So we have an (n2)= nfactor here, which is good, because two hops should be much less likely than one hop. So what do we get? Well… (4.181×10−23)≈ 305×10−92. Pretty tiny, huh? 🙂 Of course, any point in space is a potential hop for the electron’s flight from point A to B and, hence, there’s a lot of paths and a lot of amplitudes (or ‘arrows’ if you want), which, again, is consistent with a very tiny value for n indeed.

So, to make a long story short, E(A to B) will be a giant sum (i.e. some kind of integral indeed) of a lot of different ways an electron can go from point A to B. It will be a series of terms P(A to E) + P(A to C)∗n2∗P(C to B) + P(A to E)∗n2∗P(E to D)∗n2∗P(D to B) + … for all possible intermediate points C, D, E, and so on.

What about the j? The junction number of coupling constant. How does that show up in the E(A to B) formula? Well… Those alternative paths with hops here and there are actually the easiest bit of the whole calculation. Apart from taking some strange path, electrons can also emit and/or absorb photons during the trip. In fact, they’re doing that constantly actually. Indeed, the image of an electron ‘in orbit’ around the nucleus is that of an electron exchanging so-called ‘virtual’ photons constantly, as illustrated below. So our image of an electron absorbing and then emitting a photon (see the diagram on the right-hand side) is really like the tiny tip of a giant iceberg: most of what’s going on is underneath! So that’s where our junction number j comes in, i.e. the charge (e) of the electron.

So, when you hear that a coupling constant is actually equal to the charge, then this is what it means: you should just note it’s the charge expressed in Planck units. But it’s a deep connection, isn’t? When everything is said and done, a charge is something physical, but so here, in these amplitude calculations, it just shows up as some dimensionless negative number, used in multiplications and additions of amplitudes. Isn’t that remarkable?

d2 d3

The situation becomes even more complicated when more than one electron is involved. For example, two electrons can go in a straight line from point 1 and 2 to point 3 and 4 respectively, but there’s two ways in which this can happen, and they might exchange photons along the way, as shown below. If there’s two alternative ways in which one event can happen, you know we have to add amplitudes, rather than multiply them. Hence, the formula for E(A to B) becomes even more complicated.


Moreover, a single electron may first emit and then absorb a photon itself, so there’s no need for other particles to be there to have lots of j factors in our calculation. In addition, that photon may briefly disintegrate into an electron and a positron, which then annihilate each other to again produce a photon: in case you wondered, that’s what those little loops in those diagrams depicting the exchange of virtual photons is supposed to represent. So, every single junction (i.e. every emission and/or absorption of a photon) involves a multiplication with that junction number j, so if there are two couplings involved, we have a j2 factor, and so that’s 0.085424552 = α ≈ 0.0073. Four couplings implies a factor of 0.085424554 ≈ 0.000053.

Just as an example, I copy two diagrams involving four, five or six couplings indeed. They all have some ‘incoming’ photon, because Feynman uses them to explain something else (the so-called magnetic moment of a photon), but it doesn’t matter: the same illustrations can serve multiple purposes.

d6 d7

Now, it’s obvious that the contributions of the alternatives with many couplings add almost nothing to the final amplitude – just like the ‘many-hop’ flights add almost nothing – but… Well… As tiny as these contributions are, they are all there, and so they all have to be accounted for. So… Yes. You can easily appreciate how messy it all gets, especially in light of the fact that there are so many points that can serve as a ‘hop’ or a ‘coupling’ point!

So… Well… Nothing. That’s it! I am done! I realize this has been another long and difficult story, but I hope you appreciated and that it shed some light on what’s really behind those simplified stories of what quantum mechanics is all about. It’s all weird and, admittedly, not so easy to understand, but I wouldn’t say an understanding is really beyond the reach of us, common mortals. 🙂

Post scriptum: When you’ve reached here, you may wonder: so where’s the final formula then for E(A to B)? Well… I have no easy formula for you. From what I wrote above, it should be obvious that we’re talking some really awful-looking integral and, because it’s so awful, I’ll let you find it yourself. 🙂

I should also note another reason why I am reluctant to identify n with m. The formulas in Feynman’s QED are definitely not the standard ones. The more standard formulations will use the gauge coupling parameter about which I talked already. I sort of discussed it, indirectly, in my first comments on Feynman’s QED, when I criticized some other part of the book, notably its explanation of the phenomenon of diffraction of light, which basically boiled down to: “When you try to squeeze light too much [by forcing it to go through a small hole], it refuses to cooperate and begins to spread out”, because “there are not enough arrows representing alternative paths.”

Now that raises a lot of questions, and very sensible ones, because that simplification is nonsensical. Not enough arrows? That statement doesn’t make sense. We can subdivide space in as many paths as we want, and probability amplitudes don’t take up any physical space. We can cut up space in smaller and smaller pieces (so we analyze more paths within the same space). The consequence – in terms of arrows – is that directions of our arrows won’t change but their length will be much and much smaller as we’re analyzing many more paths. That’s because of the normalization constraint. However, when adding them all up – a lot of very tiny ones, or a smaller bunch of bigger ones – we’ll still get the same ‘final’ arrow. That’s because the direction of those arrows depends on the length of the path, and the length of the path doesn’t change simply because we suddenly decide to use some other ‘gauge’.

Indeed, the real question is: what’s a ‘small’ hole? What’s ‘small’ and what’s ‘large’ in quantum electrodynamics? Now, I gave an intuitive answer to that question in that post of mine, but it’s much more accurate than Feynman’s, or Leighton’s. The answer to that question is: there’s some kind of natural ‘gauge’, and it’s related to the wavelength. So the wavelength of a photon, or an electron, in this case, comes with some kind of scale indeed. That’s why the fine-structure constant is often written in yet another form:

α = 2πree = rek

λe and kare the Compton wavelength and wavenumber of the electron (so kis not the Coulomb constant here). The Compton wavelength is the de Broglie wavelength of the electron. [You’ll find that Wikipedia defines it as “the wavelength that’s equivalent to the wavelength of a photon whose energy is the same as the rest-mass energy of the electron”, but that’s a very confusing definition, I think.]

The point to note is that the spatial dimension in both the analysis of photons as well as of matter waves, especially in regard to studying diffraction and/or interference phenomena, is related to the frequencies, wavelengths and/or wavenumbers of the wavefunctions involved. There’s a certain ‘gauge’ involved indeed, i.e. some measure that is relative, like the gauge pressure illustrated below. So that’s where that gauge parameter g comes in. And the fact that it’s yet another number that’s closely related to that fine-structure constant is… Well… Again… That alpha number is a very magic number indeed… 🙂


Post scriptum (5 October 2015):

Much stuff is physics is quite ‘magical’, but it’s never ‘too magical’. I mean: there’s always an explanation. So there is a very logical explanation for the above-mentioned deep connection between the charge of an electron, its energy and/or mass, its various radii (or physical dimensions) and the coupling constant too. I wrote a piece about that, much later than when I wrote the piece above. I would recommend you read that piece too. It’s a piece in which I do take the magic out of ‘God’s number’. Understanding it involves a deep understanding of electromagnetism, however, and that requires some effort. It’s surely worth the effort, though.

The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (II)

If we limit our attention to the interaction between light and matter (i.e. the behavior of photons and electrons only—so we we’re not talking quarks and gluons here), then the ‘crazy ideas’ of quantum mechanics can be summarized as follows:

  1. At the atomic or sub-atomic scale, we can no longer look at light as an electromagnetic wave. It consists of photons, and photons come in blobs. Hence, to some extent, photons are ‘particle-like’.
  2. At the atomic or sub-atomic scale, electrons don’t behave like particles. For example, if we send them through a slit that’s small enough, we’ll observe a diffraction pattern. Hence, to some extent, electrons are ‘wave-like’.

In short, photons aren’t waves, but they aren’t particles either. Likewise, electrons aren’t particles, but they aren’t waves either. They are neither. The weirdest thing of all, perhaps, is that, while light and matter are two very different things in our daily experience – light and matter are opposite concepts, I’d say, just like particles and waves are opposite concepts) – they look pretty much the same in quantum physics: they are both represented by a wavefunction.

Let me immediately make a little note on terminology here. The term ‘wavefunction’ is a bit ambiguous, in my view, because it makes one think of a real wave, like a water wave, or an electromagnetic wave. Real waves are described by real-valued wave functions describing, for example, the motion of a ball on a spring, or the displacement of a gas (e.g. air) as a sound wave propagates through it, or – in the case of an electromagnetic wave – the strength of the electric and magnetic field.

You may have questions about the ‘reality’ of fields, but electromagnetic waves – i.e. the classical description of light – are quite ‘real’ too, even if:

  1. Light doesn’t travel in a medium (like water or air: there is no aether), and
  2. The magnitude of the electric and magnetic field (they are usually denoted by E and B) depend on your reference frame: if you calculate the fields using a moving coordinate system, you will get a different mixture of E and B. Therefore, E and B may not feel very ‘real’ when you look at them separately, but they are very real when we think of them as representing one physical phenomenon: the electromagnetic interaction between particles. So the E and B mix is, indeed, a dual representation of one reality. I won’t dwell on that, as I’ve done that in another post of mine.

How ‘real’ is the quantum-mechanical wavefunction?

The quantum-mechanical wavefunction is not like any of these real waves. In fact, I’d rather use the term ‘probability wave’ but, apparently, that’s used only by bloggers like me 🙂 and so it’s not very scientific. That’s for a good reason, because it’s not quite accurate either: the wavefunction in quantum mechanics represents probability amplitudes, not probabilities. So we should, perhaps, be consistent and term it a ‘probability amplitude wave’ – but then that’s too cumbersome obviously, so the term ‘probability wave’ may be confusing, but it’s not so bad, I think.

Amplitudes and probabilities are related as follows:

  1. Probabilities are real numbers between 0 and 1: they represent the probability of something happening, e.g. a photon moves from point A to B, or a photon is absorbed (and emitted) by an electron (i.e. a ‘junction’ or ‘coupling’, as you know).
  2. Amplitudes are complex numbers, or ‘arrows’ as Feynman calls them: they have a length (or magnitude) and a direction.
  3. We get the probabilities by taking the (absolute) square of the amplitudes.

So photons aren’t waves, but they aren’t particles either. Likewise, electrons aren’t particles, but they aren’t waves either. They are neither. So what are they? We don’t have words to describe what they are. Some use the term ‘wavicle’ but that doesn’t answer the question, because who knows what a ‘wavicle’ is? So we don’t know what they are. But we do know how they behave. As Feynman puts it, when comparing the behavior of light and then of electrons in the double-slit experiment—struggling to find language to describe what’s going on: “There is one lucky break: electrons behave just like light.”

He says so because of that wave function: the mathematical formalism is the same, for photons and for electrons. Exactly the same? […] But that’s such a weird thing to say, isn’t it? We can’t help thinking of light as waves, and of electrons as particles. They can’t be the same. They’re different, aren’t they? They are.

Scales and senses

To some extent, the weirdness can be explained because the scale of our world is not atomic or sub-atomic. Therefore, we ‘see’ things differently. Let me say a few words about the instrument we use to look at the world: our eye.

Our eye is particular. The retina has two types of receptors: the so-called cones are used in bright light, and distinguish color, but when we are in a dark room, the so-called rods become sensitive, and it is believed that they actually can detect a single photon of light. However, neural filters only allow a signal to pass to the brain when at least five photons arrive within less than a tenth of a second. A tenth of a second is, roughly, the averaging time of our eye. So, as Feynman puts it: “If we were evolved a little further so we could see ten times more sensitively, we wouldn’t have this discussion—we would all have seen very dim light of one color as a series of intermittent little flashes of equal intensity.” In other words, the ‘particle-like’ character of light would have been obvious to us.

Let me make a few more remarks here, which you may or may not find useful. The sense of ‘color’ is not something ‘out there’:  colors, like red or brown, are experiences in our eye and our brain. There are ‘pigments’ in the cones (cones are the receptors that work only if the intensity of the light is high enough) and these pigments absorb the light spectrum somewhat differently, as a result of which we ‘see’ color. Different animals see different things. For example, a bee can distinguish between white paper using zinc white versus lead white, because they reflect light differently in the ultraviolet spectrum, which the bee can see but we don’t. Bees can also tell the direction of the sun without seeing the sun itself, because they are sensitive to polarized light, and the scattered light of the sky (i.e. the blue sky as we see it) is polarized. The bee can also notice flicker up to 200 oscillations per second, while we see it only up to 20, because our averaging time is like a tenth of a second, which is short for us, but so the averaging time of the bee is much shorter. So we cannot see the quick leg movements and/or wing vibrations of bees, but the bee can!

Sometimes we can’t see any color. For example, we see the night sky in ‘black and white’ because the light intensity is very low, and so it’s our rods, not the cones, that process the signal, and so these rods can’t ‘see’ color. So those beautiful color pictures of nebulae are not artificial (although the pictures are often enhanced). It’s just that the camera that is used to take those pictures (film or, nowadays, digital) is much more sensitive than our eye. 

Regardless, color is a quality which we add to our experience of the outside world ourselves. What’s out there are electromagnetic waves with this or that wavelength (or, what amounts to the same, this or that frequency). So when critics of the exact sciences say so much is lost when looking at (visible) light as an electromagnetic wave in the range of 430 to 790 teraherz, they’re wrong. Those critics will say that physics reduces reality. That is not the case.

What’s going on is that our senses process the signal that they are receiving, especially when it comes to vision. As Feynman puts it: “None of the other senses involves such a large amount of calculation, so to speak, before the signal gets into a nerve that one can make measurements on. The calculations for all the rest of the senses usually happen in the brain itself, where it is very difficult to get at specific places to make measurements, because there are so many interconnections. Here, with the visual sense, we have the light, three layers of cells making calculations, and the results of the calculations being transmitted through the optic nerve.”

Hence, things like color and all of the other sensations that we have are the object of study of other sciences, including biochemistry and neurobiology, or physiology. For all we know, what’s ‘out there’ is, effectively, just ‘boring’ stuff, like electromagnetic radiation, energy and ‘elementary particles’—whatever they are. No colors. Just frequencies. 🙂

Light versus matter

If we accept the crazy ideas of quantum mechanics, then the what and the how become one and the same. Hence we can say that photons and electrons are a wavefunction somewhere in space. Photons, of course, are always traveling, because they have energy but no rest mass. Hence, all their energy is in the movement: it’s kinetic, not potential. Electrons, on the other hand, usually stick around some nucleus. And, let’s not forget, they have an electric charge, so their energy is not only kinetic but also potential.

But, otherwise, it’s the same type of ‘thing’ in quantum mechanics: a wavefunction, like those below.


Why diagram A and B? It’s just to emphasize the difference between a real-valued wave function and those ‘probability waves’ we’re looking at here (diagram C to H). A and B represent a mass on a spring, oscillating at more or less the same frequency but a different amplitude. The amplitude here means the displacement of the mass. The function describing the displacement of a mass on a spring (so that’s diagram A and B) is an example of a real-valued wave function: it’s a simple sine or cosine function, as depicted below. [Note that a sine and a cosine are the same function really, except for a phase difference of 90°.]

cos and sine

Let’s now go back to our ‘probability waves’. Photons and electrons, light and matter… The same wavefunction? Really? How can the sunlight that warms us up in the morning and makes trees grow be the same as our body, or the tree? The light-matter duality that we experience must be rooted in very different realities, isn’t it?

Well… Yes and no. If we’re looking at one photon or one electron only, it’s the same type of wavefunction indeed. The same type… OK, you’ll say. So they are the same family or genus perhaps, as they say in biology. Indeed, both of them are, obviously, being referred to as ‘elementary particles’ in the so-called Standard Model of physics. But so what makes an electron and a photon specific as a species? What are the differences?

There’re  quite a few, obviously:

1. First, as mentioned above, a photon is a traveling wave function and, because it has no rest mass, it travels at the ultimate speed, i.e. the speed of light (c). An electron usually sticks around or, if it travels through a wire, it travels at very low speeds. Indeed, you may find it hard to believe, but the drift velocity of the free electrons in a standard copper wire is measured in cm per hour, so that’s very slow indeed—and while the electrons in an electron microscope beam may be accelerated up to 70% of the speed of light, and close to in those huge accelerators, you’re not likely to find an electron microscope or accelerator in Nature. In fact, you may want to remember that a simple thing like electricity going through copper wires in our houses is a relatively modern invention. 🙂

So, yes, those oscillating wave functions in those diagrams above are likely to represent some electron, rather than a photon. To be precise, the wave functions above are examples of standing (or stationary) waves, while a photon is a traveling wave: just extend that sine and cosine function in both directions if you’d want to visualize it or, even better, think of a sine and cosine function in an envelope traveling through space, such as the one depicted below.

Photon wave

Indeed, while the wave function of our photon is traveling through space, it is likely to be limited in space because, when everything is said and done, our photon is not everywhere: it must be somewhere. 

At this point, it’s good to pause and think about what is traveling through space. It’s the oscillation. But what’s the oscillation? There is no medium here, and even if there would be some medium (like water or air or something like aether—which, let me remind you, isn’t there!), the medium itself would not be moving, or – I should be precise here – it would only move up and down as the wave propagates through space, as illustrated below. To be fully complete, I should add we also have longitudinal waves, like sound waves (pressure waves): in that case, the particles oscillate back and forth along the direction of wave propagation. But you get the point: the medium does not travel with the wave.


When talking electromagnetic waves, we have no medium. These E and B vectors oscillate but is very wrong to assume they use ‘some core of nearby space’, as Feynman puts it. They don’t. Those field vectors represent a condition at one specific point (admittedly, a point along the direction of travel) in space but, for all we know, an electromagnetic wave travels in a straight line and, hence, we can’t talk about its diameter or so.

Still, as mentioned above, we can imagine, more or less, what E and B stand for (we can use field line to visualize them, for instance), even if we have to take into account their relativity (calculating their values from a moving reference frame results in different mixtures of E and B). But what are those amplitudes? How should we visualize them?

The honest answer is: we can’t. They are what they are: two mathematical quantities which, taken together, form a two-dimensional vector, which we square to find a value for a real-life probability, which is something that – unlike the amplitude concept – does make sense to us. Still, that representation of a photon above (i.e. the traveling envelope with a sine and cosine inside) may help us to ‘understand’ it somehow. Again, you absolute have to get rid of the idea that these ‘oscillations’ would somehow occupy some physical space. They don’t. The wave itself has some definite length, for sure, but that’s a measurement in the direction of travel, which is often denoted as x when discussing uncertainty in its position, for example—as in the famous Uncertainty Principle (ΔxΔp > h).

You’ll say: Oh!—but then, at the very least, we can talk about the ‘length’ of a photon, can’t we? So then a photon is one-dimensional at least, not zero-dimensional! The answer is yes and no. I’ve talked about this before and so I’ll be short(er) on it now. A photon is emitted by an atom when an electron jumps from one energy level to another. It thereby emits a wave train that lasts about 10–8 seconds. That’s not very long but, taking into account the rather spectacular speed of light (3×10m/s), that still makes for a wave train with a length of not less than 3 meter. […] That’s quite a length, you’ll say. You’re right. But you forget that light travels at the speed of light and, hence, we will see this length as zero because of the relativistic length contraction effect. So… Well… Let me get back to the question: if photons and electrons are both represented by a wavefunction, what makes them different?

2. A more fundamental difference between photons and electrons is how they interact with each other.

From what I’ve written above, you understand that probability amplitudes are complex numbers, or ‘arrows’, or ‘two-dimensional vectors’. [Note that all of these terms have precise mathematical definitions and so they’re actually not the same, but the difference is too subtle to matter here.] Now, there are two ways of combining amplitudes, which are referred to as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ interference respectively. I should immediately note that there’s actually nothing ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ about the interaction: we’re just putting two arrows together, and there are two ways to do that. That’s all.

The diagrams below show you these two ways. You’ll say: there are four! However, remember that we square an arrow to get a probability. Hence, the direction of the final arrow doesn’t matter when we’re taking the square: we get the same probability. It’s the direction of the individual amplitudes that matters when combining them. So the square of A+B is the same as the square of –(A+B) = –A+(–B) = –AB. Likewise, the square of AB is the same as the square of –(AB) = –A+B.

vector addition

These are the only two logical possibilities for combining arrows. I’ve written ad nauseam about this elsewhere: see my post on amplitudes and statistics, and so I won’t go into too much detail here. Or, in case you’d want something less than a full mathematical treatment, I can refer you to my previous post also, where I talked about the ‘stopwatch’ and the ‘phase’: the convention for the stopwatch is to have its hand turn clockwise (obviously!) while, in quantum physics, the phase of a wave function will turn counterclockwise. But so that’s just convention and it doesn’t matter, because it’s the phase difference between two amplitudes that counts. To use plain language: it’s the difference in the angles of the arrows, and so that difference is just the same if we reverse the direction of both arrows (which is equivalent to putting a minus sign in front of the final arrow).

OK. Let me get back to the lesson. The point is: this logical or mathematical dichotomy distinguishes bosons (i.e. force-carrying ‘particles’, like photons, which carry the electromagnetic force) from fermions (i.e. ‘matter-particles’, such as electrons and quarks, which make up protons and neutrons). Indeed, the so-called ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ interference leads to two very different behaviors:

  1. The probability of getting a boson where there are already present, is n+1 times stronger than it would be if there were none before.
  2. In contrast, the probability of getting two electrons into exactly the same state is zero. 

The behavior of photons makes lasers possible: we can pile zillions of photon on top of each other, and then release all of them in one powerful burst. [The ‘flickering’ of a laser beam is due to the quick succession of such light bursts. If you want to know how it works in detail, check my post on lasers.]

The behavior of electrons is referred to as Fermi’s exclusion principle: it is only because real-life electrons can have one of two spin polarizations (i.e. two opposite directions of angular momentum, which are referred to as ‘up’ or ‘down’, but they might as well have been referred to as ‘left’ or ‘right’) that we find two electrons (instead of just one) in any atomic or molecular orbital.

So, yes, while both photons and electrons can be described by a similar-looking wave function, their behavior is fundamentally different indeed. How is that possible? Adding and subtracting ‘arrows’ is a very similar operation, isn’it?

It is and it isn’t. From a mathematical point of view, I’d say: yes. From a physics point of view, it’s obviously not very ‘similar’, as it does lead to these two very different behaviors: the behavior of photons allows for laser shows, while the behavior of electrons explain (almost) all the peculiarities of the material world, including us walking into doors. 🙂 If you want to check it out for yourself, just check Feynman’s Lectures for more details on this or, else, re-read my posts on it indeed.

3. Of course, there are even more differences between photons and electrons than the two key differences I mentioned above. Indeed, I’ve simplified a lot when I wrote what I wrote above. The wavefunctions of electrons in orbit around a nucleus can take very weird shapes, as shown in the illustration below—and please do google a few others if you’re not convinced. As mentioned above, they’re so-called standing waves, because they occupy a well-defined position in space only, but standing waves can look very weird. In contrast, traveling plane waves, or envelope curves like the one above, are much simpler.


In short: yes, the mathematical representation of photons and electrons (i.e. the wavefunction) is very similar, but photons and electrons are very different animals indeed.

Potentiality and interconnectedness

I guess that, by now, you agree that quantum theory is weird but, as you know, quantum theory does explain all of the stuff that couldn’t be explained before: “It works like a charm”, as Feynman puts it. In fact, he’s often quoted as having said the following:

“It is often stated that of all the theories proposed in this century, the silliest is quantum theory. Some say the the only thing that quantum theory has going for it, in fact, is that it is unquestionably correct.”

Silly? Crazy? Uncommon-sensy? Truth be told, you do get used to thinking in terms of amplitudes after a while. And, when you get used to them, those ‘complex’ numbers are no longer complicated. 🙂 Most importantly, when one thinks long and hard enough about it (as I am trying to do), it somehow all starts making sense.

For example, we’ve done away with dualism by adopting a unified mathematical framework, but the distinction between bosons and fermions still stands: an ‘elementary particle’ is either this or that. There are no ‘split personalities’ here. So the dualism just pops up at a different level of description, I’d say. In fact, I’d go one step further and say it pops up at a deeper level of understanding.

But what about the other assumptions in quantum mechanics. Some of them don’t make sense, do they? Well… I struggle for quite a while with the assumption that, in quantum mechanics, anything is possible really. For example, a photon (or an electron) can take any path in space, and it can travel at any speed (including speeds that are lower or higher than light). The probability may be extremely low, but it’s possible.

Now that is a very weird assumption. Why? Well… Think about it. If you enjoy watching soccer, you’ll agree that flying objects (I am talking about the soccer ball here) can have amazing trajectories. Spin, lift, drag, whatever—the result is a weird trajectory, like the one below:


But, frankly, a photon taking the ‘southern’ route in the illustration below? What are the ‘wheels and gears’ there? There’s nothing sensible about that route, is there?


In fact, there’s at least three issues here:

  1. First, you should note that strange curved paths in the real world (such as the trajectories of billiard or soccer balls) are possible only because there’s friction involved—between the felt of the pool table cloth and the ball, or between the balls, or, in the case of soccer, between the ball and the air. There’s no friction in the vacuum. Hence, in empty space, all things should go in a straight line only.
  2. While it’s quite amazing what’s possible, in the real world that is, in terms of ‘weird trajectories’, even the weirdest trajectories of a billiard or soccer ball can be described by a ‘nice’ mathematical function. We obviously can’t say the same of that ‘southern route’ which a photon could follow, in theory that is. Indeed, you’ll agree the function describing that trajectory cannot be ‘nice’. So even we’d allow all kinds of ‘weird’ trajectories, shouldn’t we limit ourselves to ‘nice’ trajectories only? I mean: it doesn’t make sense to allow the photons traveling from your computer screen to your retina take some trajectory to the Sun and back, does it?
  3. Finally, and most fundamentally perhaps, even when we would assume that there’s some mechanism combining (a) internal ‘wheels and gears’ (such as spin or angular momentum) with (b) felt or air or whatever medium to push against, what would be the mechanism determining the choice of the photon in regard to these various paths? In Feynman’s words: How does the photon ‘make up its mind’?

Feynman answers these questions, fully or partially (I’ll let you judge), when discussing the double-slit experiment with photons:

“Saying that a photon goes this or that way is false. I still catch myself saying, “Well, it goes either this way or that way,” but when I say that, I have to keep in mind that I mean in the sense of adding amplitudes: the photon has an amplitude to go one way, and an amplitude to go the other way. If the amplitudes oppose each other, the light won’t get there—even though both holes are open.”

It’s probably worth re-calling the results of that experiment here—if only to help you judge whether or not Feynman fully answer those questions above!

The set-up is shown below. We have a source S, two slits (A and B), and a detector D. The source sends photons out, one by one. In addition, we have two special detectors near the slits, which may or may not detect a photon, depending on whether or not they’re switched on as well as on their accuracy.

set-up photons

First, we close one of the slits, and we find that 1% of the photons goes through the other (so that’s one photon for every 100 photons that leave S). Now, we open both slits to study interference. You know the results already:

  1. If we switch the detectors off (so we have no way of knowing where the photon went), we get interference. The interference pattern depends on the distance between A and B and varies from 0% to 4%, as shown in diagram (a) below. That’s pretty standard. As you know, classical theory can explain that too assuming light is an electromagnetic wave. But so we have blobs of energy – photons – traveling one by one. So it’s really that double-slit experiment with electrons, or whatever other microscopic particles (as you know, they’ve done these interference electrons with large molecules as well—and they get the same result!). We get the interference pattern by using those quantum-mechanical rules to calculate probabilities: we first add the amplitudes, and it’s only when we’re finished adding those amplitudes, that we square the resulting arrow to the final probability.
  2. If we switch those special detectors on, and if they are 100% reliable (i.e. all photons going through are being detected), then our photon suddenly behaves like a particle, instead of as a wave: they will go through one of the slits only, i.e. either through A, or, alternatively, through B. So the two special detectors never go off together. Hence, as Feynman puts it: we shouldn’t think there is “sneaky way that the photon divides in two and then comes back together again.” It’s one or the other way and, and there’s no interference: the detector at D goes off 2% of the time, which is the simple sum of the probabilities for A and B (i.e. 1% + 1%).
  3. When the special detectors near A and B are not 100% reliable (and, hence, do not detect all photons going through), we have three possible final conditions: (i) A and D go off, (ii) B and D go off, and (iii) D goes off alone (none of the special detectors went off). In that case, we have a final curve that’s a mixture, as shown in diagram (c) and (d) below. We get it using the same quantum-mechanical rules: we add amplitudes first, and then we square to get the probabilities.

double-slit photons - results

Now, I think you’ll agree with me that Feynman doesn’t answer my (our) question in regard to the ‘weird paths’. In fact, all of the diagrams he uses assume straight or nearby paths. Let me re-insert two of those diagrams below, to show you what I mean.

 Many arrowsFew arrows

So where are all the strange non-linear paths here? Let me, in order to make sure you get what I am saying here, insert that illustration with the three crazy routes once again. What we’ve got above (Figure 33 and 34) is not like that. Not at all: we’ve got only straight lines there! Why? The answer to that question is easy: the crazy paths don’t matter because their amplitudes cancel each other out, and so that allows Feynman to simplify the whole situation and show all the relevant paths as straight lines only.


Now, I struggled with that for quite a while. Not because I can’t see the math or the geometry involved. No. Feynman does a great job showing why those amplitudes cancel each other out indeed (if you want a summary, see my previous post once again).  My ‘problem’ is something else. It’s hard to phrase it, but let me try: why would we even allow for the logical or mathematical possibility of ‘weird paths’ (and let me again insert that stupid diagram below) if our ‘set of rules’ ensures that the truly ‘weird’ paths (like that photon traveling from your computer screen to your eye doing a detour taking it to the Sun and back) cancel each other out anyway? Does that respect Occam’s Razor? Can’t we devise some theory including ‘sensible’ paths only?

Of course, I am just an autodidact with limited time, and I know hundreds (if not thousands) of the best scientists have thought long and hard about this question and, hence, I readily accept the answer is quite simply: no. There is no better theory. I accept that answer, ungrudgingly, not only because I think I am not so smart as those scientists but also because, as I pointed out above, one can’t explain any path that deviates from a straight line really, as there is no medium, so there are no ‘wheels and gears’. The only path that makes sense is the straight line, and that’s only because…

Well… Thinking about it… We think the straight path makes sense because we have no good theory for any of the other paths. Hmm… So, from a logical point of view, assuming that the straight line is the only reasonable path is actually pretty random too. When push comes to shove, we have no good theory for the straight line either!

You’ll say I’ve just gone crazy. […] Well… Perhaps you’re right. 🙂 But… Somehow, it starts to make sense to me. We allow for everything to, then, indeed weed out the crazy paths using our interference theory, and so we do end up with what we’re ending up with: some kind of vague idea of “light not really traveling in a straight line but ‘smelling’ all of the neighboring paths around it and, hence, using a small core of nearby space“—as Feynman puts it.

Hmm… It brings me back to Richard Feynman’s introduction to his wonderful little book, in which he says we should just be happy to know how Nature works and not aspire to know why it works that way. In fact, he’s basically saying that, when it comes to quantum mechanics, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ are one and the same, so asking ‘why’ doesn’t make sense, because we know ‘how’. He compares quantum theory with the system of calculation used by the Maya priests, which was based on a system of bars and dots, which helped them to do complex multiplications and divisions, for example. He writes the following about it: “The rules were tricky, but they were a much more efficient way of getting an answer to complicated questions (such as when Venus would rise again) than by counting beans.”

When I first read this, I thought the comparison was flawed: if a common Maya Indian did not want to use the ‘tricky’ rules of multiplication and what have you (or, more likely, if he didn’t understand them), he or she could still resort to counting beans. But how do we count beans in quantum mechanics? We have no ‘simpler’ rules than those weird rules about adding amplitudes and taking the (absolute) square of complex numbers so… Well… We actually are counting beans here then:

  1. We allow for any possibility—any path: straight, curved or crooked. Anything is possible.
  2. But all those possibilities are inter-connected. Also note that every path has a mirror image: for every route ‘south’, there is a similar route ‘north’, so to say, except for the straight line, which is a mirror image of itself.
  3. And then we have some clock ticking. Time goes by. It ensures that the paths that are too far removed from the straight line cancel each other. [Of course, you’ll ask: what is too far? But I answered that question –  convincingly, I hope – in my previous post: it’s not about the ‘number of arrows’ (as suggested in the caption under that Figure 34 above), but about the frequency and, hence, the ‘wavelength’ of our photon.]
  4. And so… Finally, what’s left is a limited number of possibilities that interfere with each other, which results in what we ‘see’: light seems to use a small core of space indeed–a limited number of nearby paths.

You’ll say… Well… That still doesn’t ‘explain’ why the interference pattern disappears with those special detectors or – what amounts to the same – why the special detectors at the slits never click simultaneously.

You’re right. How do we make sense of that? I don’t know. You should try to imagine what happens for yourself. Everyone has his or her own way of ‘conceptualizing’ stuff, I’d say, and you may well be content and just accept all of the above without trying to ‘imagine’ what’s happening really when a ‘photon’ goes through one or both of those slits. In fact, that’s the most sensible thing to do. You should not try to imagine what happens and just follow the crazy calculus rules.

However, when I think about it, I do have some image in my head. The image is of one of those ‘touch-me-not’ weeds. I quickly googled one of these images, but I couldn’t quite find what I am looking for: it would be more like something that, when you touch it, curls up in a little ball. Any case… You know what I mean, I hope.


You’ll shake your head now and solemnly confirm that I’ve gone mad. Touch-me-not weeds? What’s that got to do with photons? 

Well… It’s obvious you and I cannot really imagine how a photon looks like. But I think of it as a blob of energy indeed, which is inseparable, and which effectively occupies some space (in three dimensions that is). I also think that, whatever it is, it actually does travel through both slits, because, as it interferes with itself, the interference pattern does depend on the space between the two slits as well as the width of those slits. In short, the whole ‘geometry’ of the situation matters, and so the ‘interaction’ is some kind of ‘spatial’ thing. [Sorry for my awfully imprecise language here.]

Having said that, I think it’s being detected by one detector only because only one of them can sort of ‘hook’ it, somehow. Indeed, because it’s interconnected and inseparable, it’s the whole blob that gets hooked, not just one part of it. [You may or may not imagine that the detectors that’s got the best hold of it gets it, but I think that’s pushing the description too much.] In any case, the point is that a photon is surely not like a lizard dropping its tail while trying to escape. Perhaps it’s some kind of unbreakable ‘string’ indeed – and sorry for summarizing string theory so unscientifically here – but then a string oscillating in dimensions we can’t imagine (or in some dimension we can’t observe, like the Kaluza-Klein theory suggests). It’s something, for sure, and something that stores energy in some kind of oscillation, I think.

What it is, exactly, we can’t imagine, and we’ll probably never find out—unless we accept that the how of quantum mechanics is not only the why, but also the what. 🙂

Does this make sense? Probably not but, if anything, I hope it fired your imagination at least. 🙂

The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (I)

I am of the opinion that Richard Feynman’s wonderful little common-sense introduction to the ‘uncommon-sensy‘ theory of quantum electrodynamics (The Strange Theory of Light and Matter), which were published a few years before his death only, should be mandatory reading for high school students.

I actually mean that: it should just be part of the general education of the first 21st century generation. Either that or, else, the Education Board should include a full-fledged introduction to complex analysis and quantum physics in the curriculum. 🙂

Having praised it (just now, as well as in previous posts), I re-read it recently during a trek in Nepal with my kids – I just grabbed the smallest book I could find the morning we left 🙂 – and, frankly, I now think Ralph Leighton, who transcribed and edited these four short lectures, could have cross-referenced it better. Moreover, there are two or three points where Feynman (or Leighton?) may have sacrificed accuracy for readability. Let me recapitulate the key points and try to improve here and there.

Amplitudes and arrows

The booklet avoids scary mathematical terms and formulas but doesn’t avoid the fundamental concepts behind, and it doesn’t avoid the kind of ‘deep’ analysis one needs to get some kind of ‘feel’ for quantum mechanics either. So what are the simplifications?

A probability amplitude (i.e. a complex number) is, quite simply, an arrow, with a direction and a length. Thus Feynman writes: “Arrows representing probabilities from 0% to 16% [as measured by the surface of the square which has the arrow as its side] have lengths from 0 to 0.4.” That makes sense: such geometrical approach does away, for example, with the need to talk about the absolute square (i.e. the square of the absolute value, or the squared norm) of a complex number – which is what we need to calculate probabilities from probability amplitudes. So, yes, it’s a wonderful metaphor. We have arrows and surfaces now, instead of wave functions and absolute squares of complex numbers.

The way he combines these arrows make sense too. He even notes the difference between photons (bosons) and electrons (fermions): for bosons, we just add arrows; for fermions, we need to subtract them (see my post on amplitudes and statistics in this regard).

There is also the metaphor for the phase of a wave function, which is a stroke of genius really (I mean it): the direction of the ‘arrow’ is determined by a stopwatch hand, which starts turning when a photon leaves the light source, and stops when it arrives, as shown below.

front and back reflection amplitude

OK. Enough praise. What are the drawbacks?

The illustration above accompanies an analysis of how light is either reflected from the front surface of a sheet of a glass or, else, from the back surface. Because it takes more time to bounce off the back surface (the path is associated with a greater distance), the front and back reflection arrows point in different directions indeed (the stopwatch is stopped somewhat later when the photon reflects from the back surface). Hence, the difference in phase (but that’s a term that Feynman also avoids) is determined by the thickness of the glass. Just look at it. In the upper part of the illustration above, the thickness is such that the chance of a photon reflecting off the front or back surface is 5%: we add two arrows, each with a length of 0.2, and then we square the resulting (aka final) arrow. Bingo! We get a surface measuring 0.05, or 5%.

Huh? Yes. Just look at it: if the angle between the two arrows would be 90° exactly, it would be 0.08 or 8%, but the angle is a bit less. In the lower part of the illustration, the thickness of the glass is such that the two arrows ‘line up’ and, hence, they form an arrow that’s twice the length of either arrow alone (0.2 + 0.2 = 0.4), with a square four times as large (0.16 = 16%). So… It all works like a charm, as Feynman puts it.


But… Hey! Look at the stopwatch for the front reflection arrows in the upper and lower diagram: they point in the opposite direction of the stopwatch hand! Well… Hmm… You’re right. At this point, Feynman just notes that we need an extra rule: “When we are considering the path of a photon bouncing off the front surface of the glass, we reverse the direction of the arrow.

He doesn’t say why. He just adds this random rule to the other rules – which most readers who read this book already know. But why this new rule? Frankly, this inconsistency – or lack of clarity – would wake me up at night. This is Feynman: there must be a reason. Why?

Initially, I suspected it had something to do with the two types of ‘statistics’ in quantum mechanics (i.e. those different rules for combining amplitudes of bosons and fermions respectively, which I mentioned above). But… No. Photons are bosons anyway, so we surely need to add, not subtract. So what is it?

[…] Feynman explains it later, much later – in the third of the four chapters of this little book, to be precise. It’s, quite simply, the result of the simplified model he uses in that first chapter. The photon can do anything really, and so there are many more arrows than just two. We actually should look at an infinite number of arrows, representing all possible paths in spacetime, and, hence, the two arrows (i.e. the one for the reflection from the front and back surface respectively) are combinations of many other arrows themselves. So how does that work?

An analysis of partial reflection (I)

The analysis in Chapter 3 of the same phenomenon (i.e. partial reflection by glass) is a simplified analysis too, but it’s much better – because there are no ‘random’ rules here. It is what Leighton promises to the reader in his introduction: “A complete description, accurate in every detail, of a framework onto which more advanced concepts can be attached without modification. Nothing has to be ‘unlearned’ later.

Well… Accurate in every detail? Perhaps not. But it’s good, and I still warmly recommend a reading of this delightful little book to anyone who’d ask me what to read as a non-mathematical introduction to quantum mechanics. I’ll limit myself here to just some annotations.

The first drawing (a) depicts the situation:

  1. A photon from a light source is being reflected by the glass. Note that it may also go straight through, but that’s a possibility we’ll analyze separately. We first assume that the photon is effectively being reflected by the glass, and so we want to calculate the probability of that event using all these ‘arrows’, i.e. the underlying probability amplitudes.
  2. As for the geometry of the situation: while the light source and the detector seem to be positioned at some angle from the normal, that is not the case: the photon travels straight down (and up again when reflected). It’s just a limitation of the drawing. It doesn’t really matter much for the analysis: we could look at a light beam coming in at some angle, but so we’re not doing that. It’s the simplest situation possible, in terms of experimental set-up that is. I just want to be clear on that.

partial reflection

Now, rather than looking at the front and back surface only (as Feynman does in Chapter 1), the glass sheet is now divided into a number of very thin sections: five, in this case, so we have six points from which the photon can be scattered into the detector at A: X1 to X6. So that makes six possible paths. That’s quite a simplification but it’s easy to see it doesn’t matter: adding more sections would result in many more arrows, but these arrows would also be much smaller, and so the final arrow would be the same.

The more significant simplification is that the paths are all straight paths, and that the photon is assumed to travel at the speed of light, always. If you haven’t read the booklet, you’ll say that’s obvious, but it’s not: a photon has an amplitude to go faster or slower than c but, as Feynman points out, these amplitudes cancel out over longer distances. Likewise, a photon can follow any path in space really, including terribly crooked paths, but these paths also cancel out. As Feynman puts it: “Only the paths near the straight-line path have arrows pointing in nearly the same direction, because their timings are nearly the same, and only these arrows are important, because it is from them that we accumulate a large final arrow.” That makes perfect sense, so there’s no problem with the analysis here either.

So let’s have a look at those six arrows in illustration (b). They point in a slightly different direction because the paths are slightly different and, hence, the distances (and, therefore, the timings) are different too. Now, Feynman (but I think it’s Leighton really) loses himself here in a digression on monochromatic light sources. A photon is a photon: it will have some wave function with a phase that varies in time and in space and, hence, illustration (b) makes perfect sense. [I won’t quote what he writes on a ‘monochromatic light source’ because it’s quite confusing and, IMHO, not correct.]

The stopwatch metaphor has only one minor shortcoming: the hand of a stopwatch rotates clockwise (obviously!), while the phase of an actual wave function goes counterclockwise with time. That’s just convention, and I’ll come back to it when I discuss the mathematical representation of the so-called wave function, which gives you these amplitudes. However, it doesn’t change the analysis, because it’s the difference in the phase that matters when combining amplitudes, so the clock can turn in either way indeed, as long as we’re agreed on it.

At this point, I can’t resist: I’ll just throw the math in. If you don’t like it, you can just skip the section that follows.

Feynman’s arrows and the wave function

The mathematical representation of Feynman’s ‘arrows’ is the wave function:

f = f(x–ct)

Is that the wave function? Yes. It is: it’s a function whose argument is x – ct, with x the position in space, and t the time variable. As for c, that’s the speed of light. We throw it in to make the units in which we measure time and position compatible. 

Really? Yes: f is just a regular wave function. To make it look somewhat more impressive, I could use the Greek symbol Φ (phi) or Ψ (psi) for it, but it’s just what it is: a function whose value depends on position and time indeed, so we write f = f(x–ct). Let me explain the minus sign and the c in the argument.

Time and space are interchangeable in the argument, provided we measure time in the ‘right’ units, and so that’s why we multiply the time in seconds with c, so the new unit of time becomes the time that light needs to travel a distance of one meter. That also explains the minus sign in front of ct: if we add one distance unit (i.e. one meter) to the argument, we have to subtract one time unit from it – the new time unit of course, so that’s the time that light needs to travel one meter – in order to get the same value for f. [If you don’t get that x–ct thing, just think a while about this, or make some drawing of a wave function. Also note that the spacetime diagram in illustration (b) above assumes the same: time is measured in an equivalent unit as distance, so the 45% line from the south-west to the north-east, that bounces back to the north-west, represents a photon traveling at speed c in space indeed: one unit of time corresponds to one meter of travel.]

Now I want to be a bit more aggressive. I said is a simple function. That’s true and not true at the same time. It’s a simple function, but it gives you probability amplitudes, which are complex numbers – and you may think that complex numbers are, perhaps, not so simple. However, you shouldn’t be put off. Complex numbers are really like Feynman’s ‘arrows’ and, hence, fairly simple things indeed. They have two dimensions, so to say: an a– and a b-coordinate. [I’d say an x– and y-coordinate, because that’s what you usually see, but then I used the x symbol already for the position variable in the argument of the function, so you have to switch to a and b for a while now.]

This a– and b-coordinate are referred to as the real and imaginary part of a complex number respectively. The terms ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ are confusing because both parts are ‘real’ – well… As real as numbers can be, I’d say. 🙂 They’re just two different directions in space: the real axis is the a-axis in coordinate space, and the imaginary axis is the b-axis. So we could write it as an ordered pair of numbers (a, b). However, we usually write it as a number itself, and we distinguish the b-coordinate from the a-coordinate by writing an i in front: (a, b) = a + ib. So our function f = f(x–ct) is a complex-valued function: it will give you two numbers (an a and a b) instead of just one when you ‘feed’ it with specific values for x and t. So we write:

f = f(x–ct) = (a, b) = a + ib

So what’s the shape of this function? Is it linear or irregular or what? We’re talking a very regular wave function here, so it’s shape is ‘regular’ indeed. It’s a periodic function, so it repeats itself again and again. The animations below give you some idea of such ‘regular’ wave functions. Animation A and B shows a real-valued ‘wave’: a ball on a string that goes up and down, for ever and ever. Animations C to H are – believe it or not – basically the same thing, but so we have two numbers going up and down. That’s all.


The wave functions above are, obviously, confined in space, and so the horizontal axis represents the position in space. What we see, then, is how the real and imaginary part of these wave functions varies as time goes by. [Think of the blue graph as the real part, and the imaginary part as the pinkish thing – or the other way around. It doesn’t matter.] Now, our wave function – i.e. the one that Feynman uses to calculate all those probabilities – is even more regular than those shown above: its real part is an ordinary cosine function, and it’s imaginary part is a sine. Let me write this in math:

f = f(x–ct) = a + ib = r(cosφ + isinφ)

It’s really the most regular wave function in the world: the very simple illustration below shows how the two components of f vary as a function in space (i.e. the horizontal axis) while we keep the time fixed, or vice versa: it could also show how the function varies in time at one particular point in space, in which case the horizontal axis would represent the time variable. It is what it is: a sine and a cosine function, with the angle φ as its argument.

cos and sine

Note that a sine function is the same as a cosine function, but it just lags a bit. To be precise, the phase difference is 90°, or π/2 in radians (the radian (i.e. the length of the arc on the unit circle) is a much more natural unit to express angles, as it’s fully compatible with our distance unit and, hence, most – if not all – of our other units). Indeed, you may or may not remember the following trigonometric identities: sinφ = cos(π/2–φ) = cos(φ–π/2).

In any case, now we have some r and φ here, instead of a and b. You probably wonder where I am going with all of this. Where are the x and t variables? Be patient! You’re right. We’ll get there. I have to explain that r and φ first. Together, they are the so-called polar coordinates of Feynman’s ‘arrow’ (i.e. the amplitude). Polar coordinates are just as good as coordinates as these Cartesian coordinates we’re used to (i.e. a and b). It’s just a different coordinate system. The illustration below shows how they are related to each other. If you remember anything from your high school trigonometry course, you’ll immediately agree that a is, obviously, equal to rcosφ, and b is rsinφ, which is what I wrote above. Just as good? Well… The polar coordinate system has some disadvantages (all of those expressions and rules we learned in vector analysis assume rectangular coordinates, and so we should watch out!) but, for our purpose here, polar coordinates are actually easier to work with, so they’re better.


Feynman’s wave function is extremely simple because his ‘arrows’ have a fixed length, just like the stopwatch hand. They’re just turning around and around and around as time goes by. In other words, is constant and does not depend on position and time. It’s the angle φ that’s turning and turning and turning as the stopwatch ticks while our photon is covering larger and larger distances. Hence, we need to find a formula for φ that makes it explicit how φ changes as a function in spacetime. That φ variable is referred to as the phase of the wave function. That’s a term you’ll encounter frequently and so I had better mention it. In fact, it’s generally used as a synonym for any angle, as you can see from my remark on the phase difference between a sine and cosine function.

So how do we express φ as a function of x and t? That’s where Euler’s formula comes in. Feynman calls it the most remarkable formula in mathematics – our jewel! And he’s probably right: of all the theorems and formulas, I guess this is the one we can’t do without when studying physics. I’ve written about this in another post, and repeating what I wrote there would eat up too much space, so I won’t do it and just give you that formula. A regular complex-valued wave function can be represented as a complex (natural) exponential function, i.e. an exponential function with Euler’s number e (i.e. 2.728…) as the base, and the complex number iφ as the (variable) exponent. Indeed, according to Euler’s formula, we can write:

f = f(x–ct) = a + ib = r(cosφ + isinφ) = r·eiφ

As I haven’t explained Euler’s formula (you should really have a look at my posts on it), you should just believe me when I say that r·eiφ is an ‘arrow’ indeed, with length r and angle φ (phi), as illustrated above, with a and b coordinates arcosφ and b = rsinφ. What you should be able to do now, is to imagine how that φ angle goes round and round as time goes by, just like Feynman’s ‘arrow’ goes round and round – just like a stopwatch hand indeed, but note our φ angle turns counterclockwise indeed.

Fine, you’ll say – but so we need a mathematical expression, don’t we? Yes,we do. We need to know how that φ angle (i.e. the variable in our r·eiφ function) changes as a function of x and t indeed. It turns out that the φ in r·eiφ can be substituted as follows:

eiφ = r·ei(ωt–kx) = r·eik(x–ct)

Huh? Yes. The phase (φ) of the probability amplitude (i.e. the ‘arrow’) is a simple linear function of x and t indeed: φ = ωt–kx = –k(x–ct). What about all these new symbols, k and ω? The ω and k in this equation are the so-called angular frequency and the wave number of the wave. The angular frequency is just the frequency expressed in radians, and you should think of the wave number as the frequency in space. [I could write some more here, but I can’t make it too long, and you can easily look up stuff like this on the Web.] Now, the propagation speed c of the wave is, quite simply, the ratio of these two numbers: c = ω/k. [Again, it’s easy to show how that works, but I won’t do it here.]

Now you know it all, and so it’s time to get back to the lesson.

An analysis of partial reflection (II)

Why did I digress? Well… I think that what I write above makes much more sense than Leighton’s rather convoluted description of a monochromatic light source as he tries to explain those arrows in diagram (b) above. Whatever it is, a monochromatic light source is surely not “a device that has been carefully arranged so that the amplitude for a photon to be emitted at a certain time can be easily calculated.” That’s plain nonsense. Monochromatic light is light of a specific color, so all photons have the same frequency (or, to be precise, their wave functions have all the same well-defined frequency), but these photons are not in phase. Photons are emitted by atoms, as an electron moves from one energy level to the other. Now, when a photon is emitted, what actually happens is that the atom radiates a train of waves only for about 10–8 sec, so that’s about 10 billionths of a second. After 10–8 sec, some other atom takes over, and then another atom, and so on. Each atom emits one photon, whose energy is the difference between the two energy levels that the electron is jumping to or from. So the phase of the light that is being emitted can really only stay the same for about 10–8 sec. Full stop.

Now, what I write above on how atoms actually emit photons is a paraphrase of Feynman’s own words in his much more serious series of Lectures on Mechanics, Radiation and Heat. Therefore, I am pretty sure it’s Leighton who gets somewhat lost when trying to explain what’s happening. It’s not photons that interfere. It’s the probability amplitudes associated with the various paths that a photon can take. To be fully precise, we’re talking the photon here, i.e. the one that ends up in the detector, and so what’s going on is that the photon is interfering with itself. Indeed, that’s exactly what the ‘craziness’ of quantum mechanics is all about: we sent electrons, one by one, through two slits, and we observe an interference pattern. Likewise, we got one photon here, that can go various ways, and it’s those amplitudes that interfere, so… Yes: the photon interferes with itself.

OK. Let’s get back to the lesson and look at diagram (c) now, in which the six arrows are added. As mentioned above, it would not make any difference if we’d divide the glass in 10 or 20 or 1000 or a zillion ‘very thin’ sections: there would be many more arrows, but they would be much smaller ones, and they would cover the same circular segment: its two endpoints would define the same arc, and the same chord on the circle that we can draw when extending that circular segment. Indeed, the six little arrows define a circle, and that’s the key to understanding what happens in the first chapter of Feynman’s QED, where he adds two arrows only, but with a reversal of the direction of the ‘front reflection’ arrow. Here there’s no confusion – Feynman (or Leighton) eloquently describe what they do:

“There is a mathematical trick we can use to get the same answer [i.e. the same final arrow]: Connecting the arrows in order from 1 to 6, we get something like an arc, or part of a circle. The final arrow forms the chord of this arc. If we draw arrows from the center of the ‘circle’ to the tail of arrow 1 and to the head of arrow 6, we get two radii. If the radius arrow from the center to arrow 1 is turned 180° (“subtracted”), then it can be combined with the other radius arrow to give us the same final arrow! That’s what I was doing in the first lecture: these two radii are the two arrows I said represented the ‘front surface’ and ‘back surface’ reflections. They each have the famous length of 0.2.”

That’s what’s shown in part (d) of the illustration above and, in case you’re still wondering what’s going on, the illustration below should help you to make your own drawings now.

CircularsegmentSo… That explains the phenomenon Feynman wanted to explain, which is a phenomenon that cannot be explained in classical physics. Let me copy the original here:


Partial reflection by glass—a phenomenon that cannot be explained in classical physics? Really?

You’re right to raise an objection: partial reflection by glass can, in fact, be explained by the classical theory of light as an electromagnetic wave. The assumption then is that light is effectively being reflected by both the front and back surface and the reflected waves combine or cancel out (depending on the thickness of the glass and the angle of reflection indeed) to match the observed pattern. In fact, that’s how the phenomenon was explained for hundreds of years! The point to note is that the wave theory of light collapsed as technology advanced, and experiments could be made with very weak light hitting photomultipliers. As Feynman writes: “As the light got dimmer and dimmer, the photomultipliers kept making full-sized clicks—there were just fewer of them. Light behaved as particles!”

The point is that a photon behaves like an electron when going through two slits: it interferes with itself! As Feynman notes, we do not have any ‘common-sense’ theory to explain what’s going on here. We only have quantum mechanics, and quantum mechanics is an “uncommon-sensy” theory: a “strange” or even “absurd” theory, that looks “cockeyed” and incorporates “crazy ideas”. But… It works.

Now that we’re here, I might just as well add a few more paragraphs to fully summarize this lovely publication – if only because summarizing stuff like this helps me to come to terms with understanding things better myself!

Calculating amplitudes: the basic actions

So it all boils down to calculating amplitudes: an event is divided into alternative ways of how the event can happen, and the arrows for each way are ‘added’. Now, every way an event can happen can be further subdivided into successive steps. The amplitudes for these steps are then ‘multiplied’. For example, the amplitude for a photon to go from A to C via B is the ‘product’ of the amplitude to go from A to B and the amplitude to go from B to C.

I marked the terms ‘multiplied’ and ‘product’ with apostrophes, as if to say it’s not a ‘real’ product. But it is an actual multiplication: it’s the product of two complex numbers. Feynman does not explicitly compare this product to other products, such as the dot (•) or cross (×) product of two vectors, but he uses the ∗ symbol for multiplication here, which clearly distinguishes VW from VW or V×W indeed or, more simply, from the product of two ordinary numbers. [Ordinary numbers? Well… With ‘ordinary’ numbers, I mean real numbers, of course, but once you get used to complex numbers, you won’t like that term anymore, because complex numbers start feeling just as ‘real’ as other numbers – especially when you get used to the idea of those complex-valued wave functions underneath reality.]

Now, multiplying complex numbers, or ‘arrows’ using QED’s simpler language, consists of adding their angles and multiplying their lengths. That being said, the arrows here all have a length smaller than one (because their square cannot be larger than one, because that square is a probability, i.e. a (real) number between 0 and 1), Feynman defines successive multiplication as successive ‘shrinks and turns’ of the unit arrow. That all makes sense – very much sense.

But what’s the basic action? As Feynman puts the question: “How far can we push this process of splitting events into simpler and simpler subevents? What are the smallest possible bits and pieces? Is there a limit?” He immediately answers his own question. There are three ‘basic actions’:

  1. A photon goes from one point (in spacetime) to another: this amplitude is denoted by P(A to B).
  2. An electron goes from one point to another: E(A to B).
  3. An electron emits and/or absorbs a photon: this is referred to as a ‘junction’ or a ‘coupling’, and the amplitude for this is denoted by the symbol j, i.e. the so-called junction number.

How do we find the amplitudes for these?

The amplitudes for (1) and (2) are given by a so-called propagator functions, which give you the probability amplitude for a particle to travel from one place to another in a given time indeed, or to travel with a certain energy and momentum. Judging from the Wikipedia article on these functions, the subject-matter is horrendously complicated, and the formulas are too, even if Feynman says it’s ‘very simple’ – for a photon, that is. The key point to note is that any path is possible. Moreover, there are also amplitudes for photons to go faster or slower than the speed of light (c)! However, these amplitudes make smaller contributions, and cancel out over longer distances. The same goes for the crooked paths: the amplitudes cancel each other out as well.

What remains are the ‘nearby paths’. In my previous post (check the section on electromagnetic radiation), I noted that, according to classical wave theory, a light wave does not occupy any physical space: we have electric and magnetic field vectors that oscillate in a direction that’s perpendicular to the direction of propagation, but these do not take up any space. In quantum mechanics, the situation is quite different. As Feynman puts it: “When you try to squeeze light too much [by forcing it to go through a small hole, for example, as illustrated below], it refuses to cooperate and begins to spread out.” He explains this in the text below the second drawing: “There are not enough arrows representing the paths to Q to cancel each other out.”

Many arrowsFew arrows

Not enough arrows? We can subdivide space in as many paths as we want, can’t we? Do probability amplitudes take up space? And now that we’re asking the tougher questions, what’s a ‘small’ hole? What’s ‘small’ and what’s ‘large’ in this funny business?

Unfortunately, there’s not much of an attempt in the booklet to try to answer these questions. One can begin to formulate some kind of answer when doing some more thinking about these wave functions. To be precise, we need to start looking at their wavelength. The frequency of a typical photon (and, hence, of the wave function representing that photon) is astronomically high. For visible light, it’s in the range of 430 to 790 teraherz, i.e. 430–790×1012 Hz. We can’t imagine such incredible numbers. Because the frequency is so high, the wavelength is unimaginably small. There’s a very simple and straightforward relation between wavelength (λ) and frequency (ν) indeed: c = λν. In words: the speed of a wave is the wavelength (i.e. the distance (in space) of one cycle) times the frequency (i.e. the number of cycles per second). So visible light has a wavelength in the range of 390 to 700 nanometer, i.e. 390–700 billionths of a meter. A meter is a rather large unit, you’ll say, so let me express it differently: it’s less than one thousandth of a micrometer, and a micrometer itself is one thousandth of a millimeter. So, no, we can’t imagine that distance either.

That being said, that wavelength is there, and it does imply that some kind of scale is involved. A wavelength covers one full cycle of the oscillation: it means that, if we travel one wavelength in space, our ‘arrow’ will point in the same direction again. Both drawings above (Figure 33 and 34) suggest the space between the two blocks is less than one wavelength. It’s a bit hard to make sense of the direction of the arrows but note the following:

  1. The phase difference between (a) the ‘arrow’ associated with the straight route (i.e. the ‘middle’ path) and (b) the ‘arrow’ associated with the ‘northern’ or ‘southern’ route (i.e. the ‘highest’ and ‘lowest’ path) in Figure 33 is like quarter of a full turn, i.e. 90°. [Note that the arrows for the northern and southern route to P point in the same direction, because they are associated with the same timing. The same is true for the two arrows in-between the northern/southern route and the middle path.]
  2. In Figure 34, the phase difference between the longer routes and the straight route is much less, like 10° only.

Now, the calculations involved in these analyses are quite complicated but you can see the explanation makes sense: the gap between the two blocks is much narrower in Figure 34 and, hence, the geometry of the situation does imply that the phase difference between the amplitudes associated with the ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ routes to Q is much smaller than the phase difference between those amplitudes in Figure 33. To be precise,

  1. The phase difference between (a) the ‘arrow’ associated with the ‘northern route’ to Q and (b) the ‘arrow’ associated with the ‘southern’ route to Q (i.e. the ‘highest’ and ‘lowest’ path) in Figure 33 is like three quarters of a full turn, i.e. 270°. Hence, the final arrow is very short indeed, which means that the probability of the photon going to Q is very low indeed. [Note that the arrows for the northern and southern route no longer point in the same direction, because they are associated with very different timings: the ‘southern route’ is shorter and, hence, faster.]
  2. In Figure 34, we have a phase difference between the shortest and longest route that is like 60° only and, hence, the final arrow is very sizable and, hence, the probability of the photon going to Q is, accordingly, quite substantial.

OK… What did I say here about P(A to B)? Nothing much. I basically complained about the way Feynman (or Leighton, more probably) explained the interference or diffraction phenomenon and tried to do a better job before tacking the subject indeed: how do we get that P(A to B)?

A photon can follow any path from A to B, including the craziest ones (as shown below). Any path? Good players give a billiard ball extra spin that may make the ball move in a curved trajectory, and will also affect its its collision with any other ball – but a trajectory like the one below? Why would a photon suddenly take a sharp turn left, or right, or up, or down? What’s the mechanism here? What are the ‘wheels and gears inside’ of the photon that (a) make a photon choose this path in the first place and (b) allow it to whirl, swirl and twirl like that?


We don’t know. In fact, the question may make no sense, because we don’t know what actually happens when a photon travels through space. We know it leaves as a lump of energy, and we know it arrives as a similar lump of energy. When we actually put a detector to check which path is followed – by putting special detectors at the slits in the famous double-slit experiment, for example – the interference pattern disappears. So… Well… We don’t know how to describe what’s going on: a photon is not a billiard ball, and it’s not a classical electromagnetic wave either. It is neither. The only thing that we know is that we get probabilities that match with the results of experiment if we accept this nonsensical assumptions and do all of the crazy arithmetic involved. Let me get back to the lesson.  

Photons can also travel faster or slower than the speed of light (c is some 3×108 meter per second but, in our special time unit, it’s equal to one). Does that violate relativity? It doesn’t, apparently, but for the reasoning behind I must, once again, refer you to more sophisticated writing.

In any case, if the mathematicians and physicists have to take into account both of these assumptions (any path is possible, and speeds higher or lower than c are possible too!), they must be looking at some kind of horrendous integral, don’t they?

They are. When everything is said and done, that propagator function is some monstrous integral indeed, and I can’t explain it to you in a couple of words – if only because I am struggling with it myself. 🙂 So I will just believe Feynman when he says that, when the mathematicians and physicists are finished with that integral, we do get some simple formula which depends on the value of the so-called spacetime interval between two ‘points’ – let’s just call them 1 and 2 – in space and time. You’ve surely heard about it before: it’s denoted by sor I (or whatever) and it’s zero if an object moves at the speed of light, which is what light is supposed to do – but so we’re dealing with a different situation here. 🙂 To be precise, I consists of two parts:

  1. The distance d between the two points (1 and 2), i.e. Δr, which is just the square root of d= Δr= (x2–x2)2+(y2–y1)2+(z2–z1)2. [This formula is just a three-dimensional version of the Pythagorean Theorem.]
  2. The ‘distance’ (or difference) in time, which is usually expressed in those ‘equivalent’ time units that we introduced above already, i.e. the time that light – traveling at the speed of light 🙂 – needs to travel one meter. We will usually see that component of I in a squared version too: Δt= (t2–t1)2, or, if time is expressed in the ‘old’ unit (i.e. seconds), then we write c2Δt2 = c2(t2–t1)2.

Now, the spacetime interval itself is defined as the excess of the squared distance (in space) over the squared time difference:

s= I = Δr– Δt= (x2–x2)2+(y2–y1)2+(z2–z1)– (t2–t1)2

You know we can then define time-like, space-like and light-like intervals, and these, in turn, define the so-called light cone. The spacetime interval can be negative, for example. In that case, Δt2 will be greater than Δr2, so there is no ‘excess’ of distance over time: it means that the time difference is large enough to allow for a cause–effect relation between the two events, and the interval is said to be time-like. In any case, that’s not the topic of this post, and I am sorry I keep digressing.

The point to note is that the formula for the propagator favors light-like intervals: they are associated with large arrows. Space- and time-like intervals, on the other hand, will contribute much smaller arrows. In addition, the arrows for space- and time-like intervals point in opposite directions, so they will cancel each other out. So, when everything is said and done, over longer distances, light does tend to travel in a straight line and at the speed of light. At least, that’s what Feynman tells us, and I tend to believe him. 🙂

But so where’s the formula? Feynman doesn’t give it, probably because it would indeed confuse us. Just google ‘propagator for a photon’ and you’ll see what I mean. He does integrate the above conclusions in that illustration (b) though. What illustration? 

Oh… Sorry. You probably forgot what I am trying to do here, but so we’re looking at that analysis of partial reflection of light by glass. Let me insert it once again so you don’t have to scroll all the way up.

partial reflection

You’ll remember that Feynman divided the glass sheet into five sections and, hence, there are six points from which the photon can be scattered into the detector at A: X1 to X6. So that makes six possible paths: these paths are all straight (so Feynman makes abstraction of all of the crooked paths indeed), and the other assumption is that the photon effectively traveled at the speed of light, whatever path it took (so Feynman also assumes the amplitudes for speeds higher or lower than c cancel each other out). So that explains the difference in time at emission from the light source. The longest path is the path to point X6 and then back up to the detector. If the photon would have taken that path, it would have to be emitted earlier in time – earlier as compared to the other possibilities, which take less time. So it would have to be emitted at T = T6. The direction of the ‘arrow’ is like one o’clock. The shorter paths are associated with shorter times (the difference between the time of arrival and departure is shorter) and so T5 is associated with an arrow in the 12 o’clock direction, T5 is 11 o’clock, and so on, till T5, which points at the 9 o’clock direction.

But… What? These arrows also include the reflection, i.e. the interaction between the photon and some electron in the glass, don’t they? […] Right you are. Sorry. So… Yes. The action above involves four ‘basic actions’:

  1. A photon is emitted by the source at a time T = T1, T2, T3, T4, T5 or T6: we don’t know. Quantum-mechanical uncertainty. 🙂
  2. It goes from the source to one of the points X = X1, X2, X3, X4, X5 or Xin the glass: we don’t know which one, because we don’t have a detector there.
  3. The photon interacts with an electron at that point.
  4. It makes it way back up to the detector at A.

Step 1 does not have any amplitude. It’s just the start of the event. Well… We start with the unit arrow pointing north actually, so its length is one and its direction is 12 o’clock. And so we’ll shrink and turn it, i.e. multiply it with other arrows, in the next steps.

Steps 2 and 4 are straightforward and are associated with arrows of the same length. Their direction depends on the distance traveled and/or the time of emission: it amounts to the same because we assume the speed is constant and exactly the same for the six possibilities (that speed is c = 1 obviously). But what length? Well… Some length according to that formula which Feynman didn’t give us. 🙂

So now we need to analyze the third of those three basic actions: a ‘junction’ or ‘coupling’ between an electron and a photon. At this point, Feynman embarks on a delightful story highlighting the difficulties involved in calculating that amplitude. A photon can travel following crooked paths and at devious speeds, but an electron is even worse: it can take what Feynman refers to as ‘one-hop flights’, ‘two-hop flights’, ‘three-hop flights’,… any ‘n-hop flight’ really. Each stop involves an additional amplitude, which is represented by n2, with n some number that has been determined from experiment. The formula for E(A to B) then becomes a series of terms: P(A to B) + (P(A to C)∗n2∗(P(C to B) + (P(A to D)∗n2∗P(D to E)∗n2∗P(E to C)+…

P(A to B) is the ‘one-hop flight’ here, while C, D and E are intermediate points, and (P(A to C)∗n2∗(P(C to B) and (P(A to D)∗n2∗P(D to E)∗n2∗P(E to C) are the ‘two-hop’ and ‘three-hop’ flight respectively. Note that this calculation has to be made for all possible intermediate points C, D, E and so on. To make matters worse, the theory assumes that electrons can emit and absorb photons along the way, and then there’s a host of other problems, which Feynman tries to explain in the last and final chapter of his little book. […]

Hey! Stop it!


You’re talking about E(A to B) here. You’re supposed to be talking about that junction number j.

Oh… Sorry. You’re right. Well… That junction number j is about –0.1. I know that looks like an ordinary number, but it’s an amplitude, so you should interpret it as an arrow. When you multiply it with another arrow, it amounts to a shrink to one-tenth, and half a turn. Feynman entertains us also on the difficulties of calculating this number but, you’re right, I shouldn’t be trying to copy him here – if only because it’s about time I finish this post. 🙂

So let me conclude it indeed. We can apply the same transformation (i.e. we multiply with j) to each of the six arrows we’ve got so far, and the result is those six arrows next to the time axis in illustration (b). And then we combine them to get that arc, and then we apply that mathematical trick to show we get the same result as in a classical wave-theoretical analysis of partial reflection.

Done. […] Are you happy now?

[…] You shouldn’t be. There are so many questions that have been left unanswered. For starters, Feynman never gives that formula for the length of P(A to B), so we have no clue about the length of these arrows and, hence, about that arc. If physicists know their length, it seems to have been calculated backwards – from those 0.2 arrows used in the classical wave theory of light. Feynman is actually quite honest about that, and simply writes:

“The radius of the arc [i.e. the arc that determines the final arrow] evidently depends on the length of the arrow for each section, which is ultimately determined by the amplitude S that an electron in an atom of glass scatters a photon. This radius can be calculated using the formulas for the three basic actions. […] It must be said, however, that no direct calculation from first principles for a substance as complex as glass has actually been done. In such cases, the radius is determined by experiment. For glass, it has been determined from experiment that the radius is approximately 0.2 (when the light shines directly onto the glass at right angles).”

Well… OK. I think that says enough. So we have a theory – or first principles at last – but we don’t them to calculate. That actually sounds a bit like metaphysics to me. 🙂 In any case… Well… Bye for now!

But… Hey! You said you’d analyze how light goes straight through the glass as well?

Yes. I did. But I don’t feel like doing that right now. I think we’ve got enough stuff to think about right now, don’t we? 🙂

End of the Road to Reality?

Or the end of theoretical physics?

In my previous post, I mentioned the Goliath of science and engineering: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) under the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva. I actually started uploading some pictures, but then I realized I should write a separate post about it. So here we go.

The first image (see below) shows the LHC tunnel, while the other shows (a part of) one of the two large general-purpose particle detectors that are part of this Large Hadron Collider. A detector is the thing that’s used to look at those collisions. This is actually the smallest of the two general-purpose detectors: it’s the so-called CMS detector (the other one is the ATLAS detector), and it’s ‘only’ 21.6 meter long and 15 meter in diameter – and it weighs about 12,500 tons. But so it did detect a Higgs particle – just like the ATLAS detector. [That’s actually not 100% sure but it was sure enough for the Nobel Prize committee – so I guess that should be good enough for us common mortals :-)]

LHC tunnelLHC - CMS detector

image of collision

The picture above shows one of these collisions in the CMS detector. It’s not the one with the trace of the Higgs particle though. In fact, I have not found any image that actually shows the Higgs particle: the closest thing to such image are some impressionistic images on the ATLAS site. See http://atlas.ch/news/2013/higgs-into-fermions.html

In case you wonder what’s being scattered here… Well… All kinds of things – but so the original collision is usually between protons (so these are hydrogen ions: Hnuclei), although the LHC can produce other nucleon beams as well (collectively referred to as hadrons). These protons have energy levels of 4 TeV (tera-electronVolt: 1 TeV = 1000 GeV = 1 trillion eV = 1×1012 eV).

Now, let’s think about scale once again. Remember (from that same previous post) that we calculated a wavelength of 0.33 nanometer (1 nm = 1×10–9 m, so that’s a billionth of a meter) for an electron. Well, this LHC is actually exploring the sub-femtometer (fm) frontier. One femtometer (fm) is 1×10–15 m so that’s another million times smaller. Yes: so we are talking a millionth of a billionth of a meter. The size of a proton is an estimated 1.7 femtometer indeed and, as you surely know, a proton is a point-like thing occupying a very tiny space, so it’s not like an electron ‘cloud’ swirling around: it’s much smaller. In fact, quarks – three of them make up a proton (or a neutron) – are usually thought of as being just a little bit less than half that size – so that’s about 0.7 fm.

It may also help you to use the value I mentioned for high-energy electrons when I was discussing the LEP (the Large Electron-Positron Collider, which preceded the LHC) – so that was 104.5 GeV – and calculate the associated de Broglie wavelength using E = hf and λ = v/f. The velocity is close to and, hence, if we plug everything in, we get a value close to 1.2×10–15 m indeed, so that’s the femtometer scale indeed. [If you don’t want to calculate anything, then just note we’re going from eV to giga-eV energy levels here, and so our wavelength decreases accordingly: one billion times smaller. Also remember (from the previous posts) that we calculated a wavelength of 0.33×10–6 m and an associated energy level of 70 eV for a slow-moving electron – i.e. one going at 2200 km per second ‘only’, i.e. less than 1% of the speed of light.]  Also note that, at these energy levels, it doesn’t matter whether or not we include the rest mass of the electron: 0.511 MeV is nothing as compared to the GeV realm. In short, we are talking very very tiny stuff here.

But so that’s the LEP scale. I wrote that the LHC is probing things at the sub-femtometer scale. So how much sub-something is that? Well… Quite a lot: the LHC is looking at stuff at a scale that’s more than a thousand times smaller. Indeed, if collision experiments in the giga-electronvolt (GeV) energy range correspond to probing stuff at the femtometer scale, then tera-electronvolt (TeV) energy levels correspond to probing stuff that’s, once again, another thousand times smaller, so we’re looking at distances of less than a thousandth of a millionth of a billionth of a meter. Now, you can try to ‘imagine’ that, but you can’t really.

So what do we actually ‘see’ then? Well… Nothing much one could say: all we can ‘see’ are traces of point-like ‘things’ being scattered, which then disintegrate or just vanish from the scene – as shown in the image above. In fact, as mentioned above, we do not even have such clear-cut ‘trace’ of a Higgs particle: we’ve got a ‘kinda signal’ only. So that’s it? Yes. But then these images are beautiful, aren’t they? If only to remind ourselves that particle physics is about more than just a bunch of formulas. It’s about… Well… The essence of reality: its intrinsic nature so to say. So… Well…

Let me be skeptical. So we know all of that now, don’t we? The so-called Standard Model has been confirmed by experiment. We now know how Nature works, don’t we? We observe light (or, to be precise, radiation: most notably that cosmic background radiation that reaches us from everywhere) that originated nearly 14 billion years ago  (to be precise: 380,000 years after the Big Bang – but what’s 380,000 years  on this scale?) and so we can ‘see’ things that are 14 billion light-years away. In fact, things that were 14 billion light-years away: indeed, because of the expansion of the universe, they are further away now and so that’s why the so-called observable universe is actually larger. So we can ‘see’ everything we need to ‘see’ at the cosmic distance scale and now we can also ‘see’ all of the particles that make up matter, i.e. quarks and electrons mainly (we also have some other so-called leptons, like neutrinos and muons), and also all of the particles that make up anti-matter of course (i.e. antiquarks, positrons etcetera). As importantly – or even more – we can also ‘see’ all of the ‘particles’ carrying the forces governing the interactions between the ‘matter particles’ – which are collectively referred to as fermions, as opposed to the ‘force carrying’ particles, which are collectively referred to as bosons (see my previous post on Bose and Fermi). Let me quickly list them – just to make sure we’re on the same page:

  1. Photons for the electromagnetic force.
  2. Gluons for the so-called strong force, which explains why positively charged protons ‘stick’ together in nuclei – in spite of their electric charge, which should push them away from each other. [You might think it’s the neutrons that ‘glue’ them together but so, no, it’s the gluons.]
  3. W+, W, and Z bosons for the so-called ‘weak’ interactions (aka as Fermi’s interaction), which explain how one type of quark can change into another, thereby explaining phenomena such as beta decay. [For example, carbon-14 will – through beta decay – spontaneously decay into nitrogen-14. Indeed, carbon-12 is the stable isotope, while carbon-14 has a life-time of 5,730 ± 40 years ‘only’ 🙂 and, hence, measuring how much carbon-14 is left in some organic substance allows us to date it (that’s what (radio)carbon-dating is about). As for the name, a beta particle can refer to an electron or a positron, so we can have β decay (e.g. the above-mentioned carbon-14 decay) as well as βdecay (e.g. magnesium-23 into sodium-23). There’s also alpha and gamma decay but that involves different things. In any case… Let me end this digression within the digression.]
  4. Finally, the existence of the Higgs particle – and, hence, of the associated Higgs field – has been predicted since 1964 already, but so it was only experimentally confirmed (i.e. we saw it, in the LHC) last year, so Peter Higgs – and a few others of course – got their well-deserved Nobel prize only 50 years later. The Higgs field gives fermions, and also the W+, W, and Z bosons, mass (but not photons and gluons, and so that’s why the weak force has such short range – as compared to the electromagnetic and strong forces).

So there we are. We know it all. Sort of. Of course, there are many questions left – so it is said. For example, the Higgs particle does actually not explain the gravitational force, so it’s not the (theoretical) graviton, and so we do not have a quantum field theory for the gravitational force. [Just Google it and you’ll see why: there’s theoretical as well as practical (experimental) reasons for that.] Secondly, while we do have a quantum field theory for all of the forces (or ‘interactions’ as physicists prefer to call them), there are a lot of constants in them (much more than just that Planck constant I introduced in my posts!) that seem to be ‘unrelated and arbitrary.’ I am obviously just quoting Wikipedia here – but it’s true.

Just look at it: three ‘generations’ of matter with various strange properties, four force fields (and some ‘gauge theory’ to provide some uniformity), bosons that have mass (the W+, W, and Z bosons, and then the Higgs particle itself) but then photons and gluons don’t… It just doesn’t look good, and then Feynman himself wrote, just a few years before his death (QED, 1985, p. 128), that the math behind calculating some of these constants (the coupling constant j for instance, or the rest mass n of an electron), which he actually invented (it makes use of a mathematical approximation method called perturbation theory) and for which he got a Nobel Prize, is a “dippy process” and that “having to resort to such hocus-pocus has prevented us from proving that the theory of quantum electrodynamics is mathematically self-consistent“. He adds: “It’s surprising that the theory still hasn’t been proved self-consistent one way or the other by now; I suspect that renormalization [“the shell game that we play to find n and j” as he calls it]  is not mathematically legitimate.” And so he writes this about quantum electrodynamics, not about “the rest of physics” (and so that’s quantum chromodynamics (QCD) – the theory of the strong interactions – and quantum flavordynamics (QFD) – the theory of weak interactions) which, he adds, “has not been checked anywhere near as well as electrodynamics.”

Waw ! That’s a pretty damning statement, isn’t it? In short, all of the celebrations around the experimental confirmation of the Higgs particle cannot hide the fact that it all looks a bit messy. There are other questions as well – most of which I don’t understand so I won’t mention them. To make a long story short, physicists and mathematicians alike seem to think there must be some ‘more fundamental’ theory behind. But – Hey! – you can’t have it all, can you? And, of course, all these theoretical physicists and mathematicians out there do need to justify their academic budget, don’t they? And so all that talk about a Grand Unification Theory (GUT) is probably just what is it: talk. Isn’t it? Maybe.

The key question is probably easy to formulate: what’s beyond this scale of a thousandth of a proton diameter (0.001×10–15 m) – a thousandth of a millionth of a billionth of a meter that is. Well… Let’s first note that this so-called ‘beyond’ is a ‘universe’ which mankind (or let’s just say ‘we’) will never see. Never ever. Why? Because there is no way to go substantially beyond the 4 TeV energy levels that were reached last year – at great cost – in the world’s largest particle collider (the LHC). Indeed, the LHC is widely regarded not only as “the most complex and ambitious scientific project ever accomplished by humanity” (I am quoting a CERN scientist here) but – with a cost of more than 7.5 billion Euro – also as one of the most expensive ones. Indeed, taking into account inflation and all that, it was like the Manhattan project indeed (although scientists loathe that comparison). So we should not have any illusions: there will be no new super-duper LHC any time soon, and surely not during our lifetime: the current LHC is the super-duper thing!

Indeed, when I write ‘substantially‘ above, I really mean substantially. Just to put things in perspective: the LHC is currently being upgraded to produce 7 TeV beams (it was shut down for this upgrade, and it should come back on stream in 2015). That sounds like an awful lot (from 4 to 7 is +75%), and it is: it amounts to packing the kinetic energy of seven flying mosquitos (instead of four previously :-)) into each and every particle that makes up the beam. But that’s not substantial, in the sense that it is very much below the so-called GUT energy scale, which is the energy level above which, it is believed (by all those GUT theorists at least), the electromagnetic force, the weak force and the strong force will all be part and parcel of one and the same unified force. Don’t ask me why (I’ll know when I finished reading Penrose, I hope) but that’s what it is (if I should believe what I am reading currently that is). In any case, the thing to remember is that the GUT energy levels are in the 1016 GeV range, so that’s – sorry for all these numbers – a trillion TeV. That amounts to pumping more than 160,000 Joule in each of those tiny point-like particles that make up our beam. So… No. Don’t even try to dream about it. It won’t happen. That’s science fiction – with the emphasis on fiction. [Also don’t dream about a trillion flying mosquitos packed into one proton-sized super-mosquito either. :-)]

So what?

Well… I don’t know. Physicists refer to the zone beyond the above-mentioned scale (so things smaller than 0.001×10–15 m) as the Great Desert. That’s a very appropriate name I think – for more than one reason. And so it’s this ‘desert’ that Roger Penrose is actually trying to explore in his ‘Road to Reality’. As for me, well… I must admit I have great trouble following Penrose on this road. I’ve actually started to doubt that Penrose’s Road leads to Reality. Maybe it takes us away from it. Huh? Well… I mean… Perhaps the road just stops at that 0.001×10–15 m frontier? 

In fact, that’s a view which one of the early physicists specialized in high-energy physics, Raoul Gatto, referred to as the zeroth scenarioI am actually not quoting Gatto here, but another theoretical physicist: Gerard ‘t Hooft, another Nobel prize winner (you may know him better because he’s a rather fervent Mars One supporter, but so here I am referring to his popular 1996 book In Search of the Ultimate Building Blocks). In any case, Gatto, and most other physicists, including ‘T Hooft (despite the fact ‘T Hooft got his Nobel prize for his contribution to gauge theory – which, together with Feynman’s application of perturbation theory to QED, is actually the backbone of the Standard Model) firmly reject this zeroth scenario. ‘T Hooft himself thinks superstring theory (i.e. supersymmetric string theory – which has now been folded into M-theory or – back to the original term – just string theory – the terminology is quite confusing) holds the key to exploring this desert.

But who knows? In fact, we can’t – because of the above-mentioned practical problem of experimental confirmation. So I am likely to stay on this side of the frontier for quite a while – if only because there’s still so much to see here and, of course, also because I am just at the beginning of this road. 🙂 And then I also realize I’ll need to understand gauge theory and all that to continue on this road – which is likely to take me another six months or so (if not more) and then, only then, I might try to look at those little strings, even if we’ll never see them because… Well… Their theoretical diameter is the so-called Planck length. So what? Well… That’s equal to 1.6×10−35 m. So what? Well… Nothing. It’s just that 1.6×10−35 m is 1/10 000 000 000 000 000 of that sub-femtometer scale. I don’t even want to write this in trillionths of trillionths of trillionths etcetera because I feel that’s just not making any sense. And perhaps it doesn’t. One thing is for sure: that ‘desert’ that GUT theorists want us to cross is not just ‘Great’: it’s ENORMOUS!

Richard Feynman – another Nobel Prize scientist whom I obviously respect a lot – surely thought trying to cross a desert like that amounts to certain death. Indeed, he’s supposed to have said the following about string theorists, about a year or two before he died (way too young): I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation–a fix-up to say, “Well, it might be true.” For example, the theory requires ten dimensions. Well, maybe there’s a way of wrapping up six of the dimensions. Yes, that’s all possible mathematically, but why not seven? When they write their equation, the equation should decide how many of these things get wrapped up, not the desire to agree with experiment. In other words, there’s no reason whatsoever in superstring theory that it isn’t eight out of the ten dimensions that get wrapped up and that the result is only two dimensions, which would be completely in disagreement with experience. So the fact that it might disagree with experience is very tenuous, it doesn’t produce anything; it has to be excused most of the time. It doesn’t look right.”

Hmm…  Feynman and ‘T Hooft… Two giants in science. Two Nobel Prize winners – and for stuff that truly revolutionized physics. The amazing thing is that those two giants – who are clearly at loggerheads on this one – actually worked closely together on a number of other topics – most notably on the so-called Feynman-‘T Hooft gauge, which – as far as I understand – is the one that is most widely used in quantum field calculations. But I’ll leave it at that here – and I’ll just make a mental note of the terminology here. The Great Desert… Probably an appropriate term. ‘T Hooft says that most physicists think that desert is full of tiny flowers. I am not so sure – but then I am not half as smart as ‘T Hooft. Much less actually. So I’ll just see where the road I am currently following leads me. With Feynman’s warning in mind, I should probably expect the road condition to deteriorate quickly.

Post scriptum: You will not be surprised to hear that there’s a word for 1×10–18 m: it’s called an attometer (with two t’s, and abbreviated as am). And beyond that we have zeptometer (1 zm = 1×10–21 m) and yoctometer (1 ym = 1×10–23 m). In fact, these measures actually represent something: 20 yoctometer is the estimated radius of a 1 MeV neutrino – or, to be precise, its the radius of the cross section, which is “the effective area that governs the probability of some scattering or absorption event.” But so then there are no words anymore. The next measure is the Planck length: 1.62 × 10−35 m – but so that’s a trillion (1012) times smaller than a yoctometer. Unimaginable, isn’t it? Literally. 

Note: A 1 MeV neutrino? Well… Yes. The estimated rest mass of an (electron) neutrino is tiny: at least 50,000 times smaller than the mass of the electron and, therefore, neutrinos are often assumed to be massless, for all practical purposes that is. However, just like the massless photon, they can carry high energy. High-energy gamma ray photons, for example, are also associated with MeV energy levels. Neutrinos are one of the many particles produced in high-energy particle collisions in particle accelerators, but they are present everywhere: they’re produced by stars (which, as you know, are nuclear fusion reactors). In fact, most neutrinos passing through Earth are produced by our Sun. The largest neutrino detector on Earth is called IceCube. It sits on the South Pole – or under it, as it’s suspended under the Antarctic ice, and it regularly captures high-energy neutrinos in the range of 1 to 10 TeV. Last year (in November 2013), it captured two with energy levels around 1000 TeV – so that’s the peta-electronvolt level (1 PeV = 1×1015 eV). If you think that’s amazing, it is. But also remember that 1 eV is 1.6×10−19 Joule, so it’s ‘only’ a ten-thousandth of a Joule. In other words, you would need at least ten thousand of them to briefly light up an LED. The PeV pair was dubbed Bert and Ernie and the illustration below (from IceCube’s website) conveys how the detectors sort of lit up when they passed. It was obviously a pretty clear ‘signal’ – but so the illustration also makes it clear that we don’t really ‘see’ at such small scale: we just know ‘something’ happened.

Bert and Ernie

An easy piece: introducing quantum mechanics and the wave function

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.