Heisenberg’s Area

Unlike politicians, scientists want to know what they’re talking about when they use a technical word like  “Uncertainty.”  When Heisenberg laid out his Uncertainty Principle, he wasn’t talking about doubt.  He was talking about how closely experimental results can cluster together, and he was putting that in numbers.

ArrowsThink of Robin Hood competing for the Golden Arrow.  For the showmanship of the thing, Robin wasn’t just trying to hit the target, he wanted his arrow to split the Sheriff’s.  If the Sheriff’s shot was in the second ring (moderate accuracy, from the target’s point of view), then Robin’s had to hit exactly the same off-center location (still moderate accuracy but great precision).  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP) is all about precision (a.k.a, range of variation).

We’ve all encountered exams that were graded “on the curve.”  But what curve is that?  I can say from personal experience that it’s extraordinarily difficult to create an exam where  the average grade is 75.  I want to give everyone the chance to show what they’ve learned.  Each student probably learned only part of what’s in the unit, but I won’t know which part until after the exam is graded.  The only way to be fair is to ask about everything in the unit.  Students complained that my tests were really hard because to get 100 they had to know it all.

Translating test scores to grades for a small class was straightforward.  I would plot how many papers got between 95 and 100, how many got 90-95, etc, and look at the graph.  Nearly always it looked like the top example.  TestsThere’s a few people who clearly have the material down pat; they clearly earned an “A.”  Then there’s a second group who didn’t do as well as the A’s but did significantly better than the rest of the class — they earned a “B.”  As the other end there’s a (hopefully small) group of students who are floundering.  Long-term I tried to give them extra help but short-term I had no choice but to give them an “F.”

With a large class those distinctions get blurred and all I saw (usually) was a single broad range of scores, the well-known “bell-shaped curve.”  If the test was easy the bell was centered around a high score.  If the test was hard that center was much lower.  What’s interesting, though, is that the width of that bell for a given class stayed pretty much the same.  The curve’s width is described by a number called the standard deviation (SD), proportional to the width at half-height.  If a student asked, “What’s my score?” I could look at the curve for that exam and say there’s a 66% chance that the score was within one SD of the average, and a 95% chance that it was within two SD’s.

The same bell-shape also shows up in research situations where a scientist wants to measure some real-world number, be it an asteroid’s weight or elephant gestation time.  He can’t know the true value, so instead he makes many replicate measurements or pays close attention to many pregnant elephants.  He summarizes his results by reporting the average of all the measurements and also the SD calculated from those measurements.  Just as for the exams, there’s a 95% chance that the true value is within two SD’s of the average.  The scientist would say that the SD represents the uncertainty of the measured average.

Which is what Heisenberg’s inequality is about.  Heisenberg area 1He wrote that the product of two paired uncertainties (like position and momentum) must be larger than that teeny “quantum of action,” h.  There’s a trade-off.  We can refine our measurement of one variable but we’ll lose precision on the other.  If we plot results for one member of the pair against results for the other, there’s no linkage between their average values.  However, there will be a rectangle in the middle representing the combined uncertainty.

Heisenberg tells us that the minimum area of that rectangle is a constant.

It’s a very small rectangle, area = h/4π = 0.5×10-34 Joule-sec, but it’s significant on the scale of atoms — and maybe on the scale of the Universe (see next week).

~~ Rich Olcott

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.

The 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.

Now 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