Don’t blame Heisenberg

There was the time I discovered that a chemical compound I’d made is destroyed by the light of the spectrometer I was using to study it. The NYT just ran an article about how biologists have a new-tech problem studying animals in the field because a camera drone can scare the critters away (or provoke an attack).  A teacher can’t shut down an ongoing bullying campaign because student chatter stops when they see him coming.  What’s the common thread in these situations?

You probably thought “Heisenberg,” but please don’t dis the poor guy for them.  You may have seen the for-real Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action, but only if you’re a physicist or a music-reading percussionist.  Rather, the incidents in the first paragraph are all examples of the Observer Effect, which is completely separate from the work of Werner H.

Observer observedThe confusion arises because the Observer Effect is often used in classroom explanations of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (the HUP).  The Observer Effect could well apply pretty much anywhere there’s an observer and an observee (see photo), which is why research psychologists and police interrogators use one-way mirrors.

By contrast, the HUP is in play in only a few circumstances, chiefly audio and physics labs.  The key is that word uncertainty, because the HUP is all about the limits of our knowledge.  It says that there are certain pairs of quantities where we must trade off knowledge of one against knowledge of the other.  The more precisely we know the value of one, the more uncertain we are about the other one’s value.

drum notesLet’s start with sound.  Did you know that sheet music for a drummer doesn’t really use a “proper” staff with keys and all?  Oh, sure, they use a staff, sort of, but the “notes” indicate strokes rather than tones.  Here’s one variant of many notations out there.

Suppose an oboist plays a tone for you, that nice, long “A” that the orchestra tunes to.  (It’s generally the oboe playing that note, by the way, for two reasons.  First, the oboe uses very little air to produce its sound, so the oboist can hold that note much longer than a flautist or trumpeter could.  More important, though, is that the oboe simply isn’t adjustable — everyone else perforce has to re-tune to match up.)  The primary component of that “A” sound should be a wave of 440 cycles per second.

OboeNow suppose the oboist plays that “A” in shorter and shorter bursts — half-note, quarter-note, etc., down to where all that comes out is a blip.  His fingering and embouchure don’t change, so he’s still playing an “A.” However, when the emitted sound wave is very short we can no longer identify the pitch because there aren’t enough cycles there.  We need at least 2 cycles in a known time period to be able to say how many cycles per second the tone has.

Now the oboist switches up an octave (880 cycles per second) with the same burst length.  That gives us twice as many cycles in the blip and we can identify the new pitch.  However, if he cuts the note’s length in half once more, then again we don’t have enough cycles to count.  The shorter the note, the more precisely we know when it sounded, but the less precisely we know what note it was.

A cymbal crash is basically the limiting case.  It has no distinct pitch (or the physicist would say it has a huge number of pitches that all die away after a few cycles).  Rather than tell the percussionist to play an unidentifiably short note, the composer says, “T’heck with it!” and writes an “X” somewhere on the staff.

And vice-versa — at the start of the oboist’s note the sound contained an mixture of other frequencies.  The interlopers eventually died out as the note proceeded.  There will be another mixing when the oboist runs out of breath.  We can only have a really pure tone if the note never starts and never ends — the poor oboist plays that one note forever.

Thank to Heisenberg, we can be confident that even Bach’s well-tempered clavier was imprecise.

Next week — more fun with Heisenberg.

~~ Rich Olcott


3 thoughts on “Don’t blame Heisenberg

  1. Pingback: Heisenberg’s trade-offs | Hard Science Ain't Hard

  2. Hi there, just found your interesting article. What you stated isn’t quite true about the oboe – it’s actually quite adjustable, so the A can be a wide range of frequencies, depending on airspeed and embouchure pressure. Oboists have to work hard to learn to produce an accurate and stable A440 for the orchestra. The reason they tune the ensemble is historic (they were the first wind instrument that commonly played with the strings) and also because the tone can carry more clearly than some other instruments.


    • Hi, Stacey, thanks for the fill-in. I was just repeating what I’d heard from my HS band director. I guess he figured we were all just starting out so we weren’t up to the fine points.


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