Bigger than you’d think

Al’s coffee shop, the usual mid-afternoon crowd of chatterers and laptop-tappers.  Al’s walking his refill rounds, but I notice he’s carrying a pitcher rather than his usual coffee pot.  “Hey, Al, what’s with the hardware?”

“Got iced coffee here, Sy.  It’s hot out, people want to cool down.  Besides, this is in honor of IceCube.”

“Didn’t realize you’re gangsta fan.”

“Nah, not the rapper, the cool experiment down in the Antarctic.  It was just in the news.”

“Oh?  What did they say about it?”

“It’s the biggest observatory in the world, set up to look for the tiniest particles we know of, and it uses a cubic mile of ice which I can’t think how you’d steer it.”

A new voice, or rather, a familiar one. “One doesn’t, Al.”
Neutrino swirl 1“Hello, Jennie.  Haven’t seen you for a while.”

“I flew home to England to see my folks.  Now I’m back here for the start of the Fall term.  I’ve already picked a research topic — neutrinos.  They’re weird.”

“Hey, Jennie, why are they so tiny?”

“It’s the other way to, Al.  They’re neutrinos because they’re so tiny.  Sy would say that for a long time they were simply an accounting gimmick to preserve the conservation laws.”

“I would?”

“Indeed.  People had noticed that when uranium atoms give off alpha particles to become thorium, the alpha particles always have about the same amount of energy.  The researchers accounted for that by supposing that each kind of nucleus has some certain quantized amount of internal energy.  When one kind downsizes to another, the alpha particle carries off the difference.”

“That worked well, did it?”

“Oh, yes, there are whole tables of nuclear binding energy for alpha radiation.  But when a carbon-14 atom emits a beta particle to become nitrogen-14, the particle can have pretty much any amount of energy up to a maximum.  It’s as though the nuclear quantum levels don’t exist for beta decay.  Physicists called it the continuous beta-spectrum problem and people brought out all sorts of bizarre theories to try to explain it.  Finally Pauli suggested maybe something we can’t see carries off energy and leaves less for the beta.  Something with no charge and undetectable mass and the opposite spin from what the beta has.”

“Yeah, that’d be an accounting gimmick, alright.  The mass disappears into the rounding error.”

“It might have done, but twenty years later they found a real particle.  Oh, I should mention that after Pauli made the suggestion Fermi came up with a serious theory to support it.  Being Italian, he gave the particle its neutrino name because it was neutral and small.”

“But how small?”

“We don’t really know, Al.  We know the neutrino’s mass has to be greater than zero because it doesn’t travel quite as fast as light does.  On the topside, though, it has to be lighter than than a hydrogen atom by at least a factor of a milliard.”

“Milliard?”

“Oh, sorry, I’m stateside, aren’t I?  I should have said a billion.  Ten-to-the-ninth, anyway.”

“That’s small.  I guess that’s why they can sneak past all the matter in Earth like the TV program said and never even notice.”

This gives me an idea.  I unholster Old Reliable and start to work.

“Be right with you… <pause> … Jennie, I noticed that you were being careful to say that neutrinos are light, rather than small.  Good careful, ’cause ‘size’ can get tricky at this scale.  In the early 1920s de Broglie wrote that every particle is associated with a wave whose wavelength depends on the particle’s momentum.  I used his formula, together with Jennie’s upper bound for the neutrino’s mass, to calculate a few wavelength lower bounds.Neutrino wavelength calcMomentum is velocity times mass.  These guys fly so close to lightspeed that for a long time scientists thought that neutrinos are massless like photons.  They’re not, so I used several different v/c ratios to see what the relativistic correction does.  Slow neutrinos are huge, by atom standards.  Even the fastest ones are hundreds of times wider than a nucleus.”

“With its neutrino-ness spread so thin, no wonder it’s so sneaky.”

“That may be part of it, Al.”

“But how do you steer IceCube?”

~~ Rich Olcott

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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