Think globally, act locally. Electrons do.

“Watcha, Johnnie, you sure ‘at particle’s inna box?”
“O’course ’tis, Jennie!  Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Me Mam sez particles can tunnel outta boxes ’cause they’re waves.”

“Can’t be both, Jessie.”

Double slit experiment

The double-slit experiment.
An electron beam travels from the source at left to a display screen. In between there’s a barrier with two narrow slits.

Maybe it can.

Nobel-winning (1965) physicist Richard Feynman said the double-slit experiment (diagrammed here) embodies the “central mystery” of Quantum Mechanics.

When the bottom slit is covered the display screen shows just what you’d expect — a bright area  opposite the top slit.

When both slits are open, the screen shows a banded pattern you see with waves.  Where a peak in a top-slit wave meets a peak in the bottom-slit wave, the screen shines brightly.  Where a peak meets a trough the two waves cancel and the screen is dark.  Overall there’s a series of stripes.  So electrons are waves, right?

But wait.  If we throttle the beam current way down, the display shows individual speckles where each electron hits.  So the electrons are particles, right?

Now for the spooky part.  If both slits are open to a throttled beam those singleton speckles don’t cluster behind the slits as you’d expect particles to do.  A speckle may appear anywhere on the screen, even in an apparently blocked-off region.  What’s more, when you send out many electrons one-by-one their individual hits cluster exactly where the bright stripes were when the beam was running full-on.

It’s as though each electron becomes a wave that goes through both slits, interferes with itself, and then goes back to being a particle!

By the way, this experiment isn’t a freak observation.  It’s been repeated with the same results many times, not just with electrons but also with light (photons), atoms, and even massive molecules like buckyballs (fullerene spheres that contain 60 carbon atoms).  In each case, the results indicate that the whatevers have a dual character — as a localized particle AND as a wave that reacts to the global environment.

Physicists have been arguing the “Which is it?” question ever since Louis-Victor-Pierre-Raymond, the 7th Duc de Broglie, raised it in his 1924 PhD Thesis (for which he received a Nobel Prize in 1929 — not bad for a beginner).  He showed that any moving “particle” comes along with a “wave” whose peak-to-peak wavelength is inversely proportional to the particle’s mass times its velocity.  The longer the wavelength, the less well you know where the thing is.

I just had to put numbers to de Broglie’s equation.  With Newton in mind, I measured one of the apples in my kitchen.  To scale everything, I assumed each object moved by one of its diameters per second.  (OK, I cheated for the electron — modern physics says it’s just a point, so I used a not-really-valid classical calculation to get something to work with.)

“Particle” Mass, kilograms Diameter, meters Wavelength, meters Wavelength, diameters
Apple 0.2 0.07 7.1×10-33 1.0×10-31
Buckyball 1.2×10-24 1.0×10-9 0.083 8.3×10+7
Hydrogen atom 1.7×10-27 1.0×10-10 600 6.0×10+12
Electron 9.1×10-31 3.0×10-17 3.7×10+12 1.2×10+29

That apple has a wave far smaller than any of its hydrogen atoms so I’ll have no trouble grabbing it for a bite.  Anything tinier than a small virus is spread way out unless it’s moving pretty fast, as in a beam apparatus.  For instance, an electron going at 1% of light-speed has a wavelength only a nanometer wide.

Different physicists have taken different positions on the “particle or wave?” question.  Duc de Broglie claimed that both exist — particles are real and they travel where their waves tell them to.  Bohr and Heisenberg went the opposite route, saying that the wave’s not real, it’s only a mathematical device for calculating relative probabilities for measuring this or that value.  Furthermore, the particle doesn’t exist as such until a measurement determines its location or momentum.  Einstein and Schrödinger liked particles.  Feynman and Dirac just threw up their hands and calculated.

Which brings us to the other kind of quantum spookiness — “entanglement.”  In fact, Einstein actually used the word spukhafte (German for “spooky”) in a discussion of the notion.  He really didn’t like it and for good reason — entanglement rudely collides with his own Theory of Relativity.  But that’s another story.

~~ Rich Olcott


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