We’ve all seen recreations of the famous double-slit experiment, which showed that light can behave both as a wave and as a particle. Or rather, it’s likely that what we’ve seen is the results of the double-slit experiment, that barcode-looking pattern of light and dark stripes, accompanied by some handwaving about classical versus quantum mechanics. But if you’ve got 20 minutes to invest, this video of the whole double-slit experiment cuts through the handwaving and opens your eyes to the quantum world.
For anyone unfamiliar with the double-slit experiment, [Huygens Optics] actually doesn’t spend that much time explaining the background. Our explainer does a great job on the topic, but suffice it to say that when coherent light passes through two closely spaced, extremely fine openings, a characteristic pattern of alternating light and dark bands can be observed. On the one hand, this demonstrates the wave nature of light, just as waves on the ocean or sound waves interfere constructively and destructively. On the other hand, the varying intensity across the interference pattern suggests a particle nature to light.
To resolve this conundrum, [Huygens] jumps right into the experiment, which he claims can be done with simple, easily sourced equipment. This is belied a little by the fact that he used photolithography to create his slits, but it should still be possible to reproduce with slits made in more traditional ways. The most fascinating bit of this for us was the demonstration of single-photon self-interference using nothing but neutral density filters and a CCD camera. The explanation that follows of how it can be that a single photon can pass through both slits at the same time is one of the most approachable expositions on quantum mechanics we’ve ever heard.
Richard Feynmann noted more than once that complementarity is the central mystery that lies at the heart of quantum theory. Complementarity rules the world of the very small… the quantum world, and surmises that particles and waves are indistinguishable from one other. That they are one and the same. That it is nonsensical to think of something, or even try to visualize that something as an individual “particle” or a “wave.” That the particle/wave/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is in this sort of superposition, where it is neither particle nor wave. It is only the act of trying to measure what it is that disengages the cloaking device and the particle or wave nature is revealed. Look for a particle, and you’ll find a particle. Look for a wave instead, and instead you’ll find a wave.
Complementarity arises from the limits placed on measuring things in the quantum world with classical measuring devices. It turns out that when you try to measure things that are really really really small, some issues come up… some fundamental issues. For instance, you can’t really know exactly where a sub-atomic particle is located in space. You can only know where it is within a certain probability, and this probability is distributed through space in the form of a wave. Understanding uncertainty in measurement is key to avoiding the disbelief that hits you when thinking about complementarity.
This article is a continuation of the one linked above. I shall pick up where I left off, in that everyone agrees that measurement on the quantum scale presents some big problems. However, not everyone agrees what these problems mean. Some, such as Albert Einstein, say that just because something cannot be measured doesn’t mean it’s not there. Others, including most mainstream physicists, say the opposite — that if something cannot be measured, it for all practical purposes is not there. We shall continue on our journey by using modern technology to peer into the murky world of complementarity. But first, a quick review.
All these fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no nearer to the answer to the question, ‘What are light quanta?’ Nowadays every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he knows it, but he is mistaken.
Albert Einstein, 1954
As 1926 was coming to a close, the physics world lauded Erwin Schrodinger and his wave mechanics. Schrodinger’s purely mathematical tool was being used to probe the internal structure of the atom and to provide predictable experimental outcomes. However, some deep questions still remained – primarily with the idea of discontinuous movements of the electron within a hydrogen atom. Niels Bohr, champion of and chief spokesperson for quantum theory, had developed a model of the atom that explained spectral lines. This model required an electron to move to a higher energy level when absorbing a photon, and releasing a photon when it moved to a lower energy level. The point of contention is how the electron was moving. This quantum jumping, as Bohr called it was said to be instantaneous. And this did not sit well with classical minded physicists, including Schrodinger.
By the turn of the 19th century, most scientists were convinced that the natural world was composed of atoms. [Einstein’s] 1905 paper on Brownian motion, which links the behavior of tiny particles suspended in a liquid to the movement of atoms put the nail in the coffin of the anti-atom crowd. No one could actually see atoms, however. The typical size of a single atom ranges from 30 to 300 picometers. With the wavelength of visible light coming in at a whopping 400 – 700 nanometers, it is simply not possible to “see” an atom. Not possible with visible light, that is. It was the summer of 1982 when Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, two researchers at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory, show to the world the first ever visual image of an atomic structure. They would be awarded the Nobel prize in physics for their invention in 1986.
The Scanning Tunneling Microscope
IBM’s Scanning Tunneling Microscope, or STM for short, uses an atomically sharp needle that passes over the surface of an (electrically conductive) object – the distance between the tip and object being just a few hundred picometers, or the diameter of a large atom.
A small voltage is applied between the needle and the object. Electrons ‘move’ from the object to the needle tip. The needle scans the object, much like a CRT screen is scanned. A current from the object to the needed is measured. The tip of the needle is moved up and down so that this current value does not change, thus allowing the needle to perfectly contour the object as it scans. If one makes a visual image of the current values after the scan is complete, individual atoms become recognizable. Some of this might sound familiar, as we’ve seen a handful of people make electron microscopes from scratch. What we’re going to focus on in this article is how these electrons ‘move’ from the object to the needle. Unless you’re well versed in quantum mechanics, the answer might just leave your jaw in the same position as this image will from a home built STM machine.
While the official title of the 5th Solvay conference was “on Electrons and Photons”, it was abundantly clear amongst the guests that the presentations would center on the new theory of quantum mechanics. [Planck], [Einstein], [Bohr], [de Broglie], [Schrodinger], [Heisenberg] and many other giants of the time would be in attendance. Just a month earlier, [Niels Bohr] had revealed his idea of complementarity to fellow physicists at the Instituto Carducci, which lay just off the shores of Lake Como in Italy.
The theory suggested that subatomic particles and waves are actually two sides of a single ‘quantum’ coin. Whichever properties it would take on, be it wave or particle, would be dependent upon what the curious scientist was looking for. And asking what that “wave/particle” object is while not looking for it is meaningless. Not surprisingly, the theory was greeted with mixed reception by those who were there, but most were distracted by the bigwig who was not there – [Albert Einstein]. He couldn’t make it due to illness, but all were eager to hear his thoughts on [Bohr’s] somewhat radical theory. After all, it was he who introduced the particle nature of light in his 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect, revealing light could be thought of as particles called photons. [Bohr’s] theory reconciled [Einstein’s] photoelectric effect theory with the classical understanding of the wave nature of light. One would think he would be thrilled with it. [Einstein], however, would have no part of [Bohr’s] theory, and would spend the rest of his life trying to disprove it.
Complementarity – Wave , Particle or both?
For more than a century it was thought that light was a wave. In 1801, [Thomas Young] had discovered interference patterns when shining a light through two very close slits. Interference is a well known property of waves. This combined with [Maxwell’s] equations, which predicted the existence of electromagnetic radiation put little doubt into anyone’s mind that light was nothing more, or less, than a wave. There was a very odd issue, however, that puzzled physicists during the 18th century. When shining light upon a metallic surface, electrons would be ejected from that surface. Increasing the intensity of the light did not translate to an increase in speed of the expelled electrons, like classical mechanics says it should. Increasing the frequency of the light did increase the speed. The explanation of this phenomenon could not be had until 1900, when [Max Planck] realized that physical action could not be continuous, but must be a multiple of some small quantity. This quantity would lead to the “quantum of action”, which is now called [Planck’s] constant and birthed quantum physics. It would have been impossible for him to know that this simple idea, in less than two decades, would lead to a change in understanding of the nature of reality. It only took Einstein, however, a few years to use [Planck’s] quantum of action to explain that mind-boggling issue of electrons releasing from metal via light and not following classical law with the incredibly complex equation:
E = hv
Where E is the energy of the light quanta, h is Planck’s constant and v is the frequency of the light. The most important item to consider here is this light quanta, later to be called a photon. It is treated as a particle. Now, if you’re not scratching your head in confusion right about now, you haven’t been paying attention. How can light be a wave and a particle? Join me after the jump and we’ll travel further down this physics rabbit hole.