A kite floating on the breeze. Optimal work-life balance. Smoothly functioning free markets. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Why would an alien from another planet recognize the last one but maybe not the others?

The kite is a physical object, intentionally built by humans to human scale. The next two are idealized theoretical constructs, goals to be approached but rarely achieved. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP) is fundamental to how the Universe works.

The first three are each in a dynamic equilibrium that is constantly buffeted by competing forces. The HUP comes straight out of the deep math for where those forces come from. Kites and work stress and markets may be peculiar to Earth, but the HUP is in play on every planet and star.

In the last post we saw that thanks to the HUP we can precisely identify an oboe’s pitch if it plays forever. We can know precisely when a pitchless cymbal crashed. But it’s mathematically impossible to get both exact pitch and exact time for the same sound. Thank goodness, we can have imprecise knowledge of both quantities and actually play some music.

We determine a pitch (cycles per second) by counting sound waves passing during a given duration — and that limits our knowledge. We can’t know that a wave has passed unless we see at least two peaks. Our observation period must be at least long enough to see two peaks. To put it the other way, the pitch must be high enough to give us at least two peaks during the time we’re watching. This isn’t quantum mechanics, it’s just arithmetic, but it’s basic to physics.

Mathematically the HUP is as simple as Einstein’s *E=mc*^{2} equation, except the HUP is an ** in**equality:

[A-*uncertainty*] x [B-*uncertainty*] ≥ *h* / 4π

where *A* and *B* are two paired quantities like pitch and duration.

(That *h* is Planck’s constant, “the quantum of action,” 6.6×10^{-34} joule-sec. That’s a very small number indeed but it shows up everywhere in quantum physics. To put *h* in scale, one gram of TNT packs 4184 joules of explosive energy. TNT has a detonation velocity of 6900 meters/sec and density of 1.60 gram/cm^{3}, so we can figure a 1-gram cube of the stuff would burn for 1.2 microseconds and generate a total action of about 5×10^{-3} joule-sec. Divide that by Avagadro’s number to get that one molecule of TNT is good for 10^{-26} joule-sec. That’s about 10 million times *h*. So, yeah, *h* is small.)

Back to the HUP inequality. *A* and *B* are our paired quantities. The standard examples that everyone’s heard of are position and momentum, as in the old physicist joke, “I haven’t a clue where I’m going, but I know how fast I’m getting there.” For things that are tied to a central attractor like an atomic nucleus, *A* and *B* would be *angular* position and *angular* momentum. If you’re into solid-state physics you may have run into another example — the number of electrons in a superconducting current is paired with a metric that reflects the degree of order in the conducting medium. One more pair is energy and time, but that’s a story for another week.

But what’s in the HUP inequality isn’t *A* and *B*, but rather our uncertainty about each. A billiard ball might be on the lip of the near cup or it can be all the way across the table — HUP won’t care. What’s important to HUP is whether the ball is *here* plus/minus one inch, or *here* plus/minus a millionth of an inch. Similarly, HUP doesn’t care how fast the ball is going, but it does care whether the speed is plus/minus one inch per second or plus/minus one millionth of an inch per second. HUP tells us that we can know one of the pair precisely and the other not at all, or that we can know both imprecisely. Furthermore, even the imprecision has a limit.

We can’t simultaneously know both *A* and *B* more precisely than that little teeny *h*, but some physicists believe *h* may have been big enough to launch our Universe.

*Next week — HUP, two, three, four
*

~~ Rich Olcott