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Quantum Weirdness

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  • Quantum Weirdness

    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
    THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Brian Greene, 1999, 2003
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 4 - Microscopic Weirdness
    Quantum Weirdness
    By now you should have some sense of the dramatically new way that the universe works according to quantum mechanics. If you have not as yet fallen victim to Bohr's dizziness dictum, the quantum weirdness we now discuss should at least make you feel a bit lightheaded.

    Even more so than with the theories of relativity, it is hard to embrace quantum mechanics viscerally—to think like a miniature person born and raised in the microscopic realm. There is, though, one aspect of the theory that can act as a guidepost for your intuition, as it is the hallmark feature that fundamentally differentiates quantum from classical reasoning. It is the uncertainty principle, discovered by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg in 1927.

    This principle grows out of an objection that may have occurred to you earlier. We noted that the act of determining the slit through which each electron passes (its position) necessarily disturbs its subsequent motion (its velocity). But just as we can assure ourselves of someone's presence either by gently touching them or by giving them an overzealous slap on the back, why can't we determine the electron's position with an "ever gentler" light source in order to have an ever decreasing impact on its motion? From the standpoint of nineteenth-century physics we can. By using an ever dimmer lamp (and an ever more sensitive light detector) we can have a vanishingly small impact on the electron's motion. But quantum mechanics itself illuminates a flaw in this reasoning. As we turn down the intensity of the light source we now know that we are decreasing the number of photons it emits. Once we get down to emitting individual photons we cannot dim the light any further without actually turning it off. There is a fundamental quantum-mechanical limit to the "gentleness" of our probe. And hence, there is always a minimal disruption that we cause to the electron's velocity through our measurement of its position.

    Well, that's almost correct. Planck's law tells us that the energy of a single photon is proportional to its frequency (inversely proportional to its wavelength). By using light of lower and lower frequency (larger and larger wavelength) we can therefore produce ever gentler individual photons. But here's the catch. When we bounce a wave off of an object, the information we receive is only enough to determine the object's position to within a margin of error equal to the wave's wavelength. To get an intuitive feel for this important fact, imagine trying to pinpoint the location of a large, slightly submerged rock by the way it affects passing ocean waves. As the waves approach the rock, they form a nice orderly train of one up-and-down wave cycle followed by another. After passing by the rock, the individual wave cycles are distorted—the telltale sign of the submerged rock's presence. But like the finest set of tick marks on a ruler, the individual up-and-down wave cycles are the finest units making up the wave-train, and therefore by examining solely how they are disrupted we can determine the rock's location only to within a margin of error equal to the length of the wave cycles, that is, the wave's wavelength. In the case of light, the constituent photons are, roughly speaking, the individual wave cycles (with the height of the wave cycles being determined by the number of photons); a photon, therefore, can be used to pinpoint an object's location only to within a precision of one wavelength.

    And so we are faced with a quantum-mechanical balancing act. If we use high-frequency (short wavelength) light we can locate an electron with greater precision. But high-frequency photons are very energetic and therefore sharply disturb the electron's velocity. If we use low-frequency (long wavelength) light we minimize the impact on the electron's motion, since the constituent photons have comparatively low energy, but we sacrifice precision in determining the electron's position. Heisenberg quantified this competition and found a mathematical relationship between the precision with which one measures the electron's position and the precision with which one measures its velocity. He found—in line with our discussion—that each is inversely proportional to the other: Greater precision in a position measurement necessarily entails greater imprecision in a velocity measurement, and vice versa. And of utmost importance, although we have tied our discussion to one particular means for determining the electron's whereabouts, Heisenberg showed that the trade-off between the precision of position and velocity measurements is a fundamental fact that holds true regardless of the equipment used or the procedure employed. Unlike the framework of Newton or even of Einstein, in which the motion of a particle is described by giving its location and its velocity, quantum mechanics shows that at a microscopic level you cannot possibly know both of these features with total precision. Moreover, the more precisely you know one, the less precisely you know the other. And although we have described this for electrons, the ideas directly apply to all constituents of nature.

    Einstein tried to minimize this departure from classical physics by arguing that although quantum reasoning certainly does appear to limit one's knowledge of the position and velocity, the electron still has a definite position and velocity exactly as we have always thought. But during the last couple of decades theoretical progress spearheaded by the late Irish physicist John Bell and the experimental results of Alain Aspect and his collaborators have shown convincingly that Einstein was wrong. Electrons—and everything else for that matter—cannot be described as simultaneously being at such-and-such location and having such-and-such speed. Quantum mechanics shows that not only could such a statement never be experimentally verified—as explained above—but it directly contradicts other, more recently established experimental results.

    In fact, if you were to capture a single electron in a big, solid box and then slowly crush the sides to pinpoint its position with ever greater precision, you would find the electron getting more and more frantic. Almost as if it were overcome with claustrophobia, the electron will go increasingly haywire—bouncing off of the walls of the box with increasingly frenetic and unpredictable speed. Nature does not allow its constituents to be cornered. In the H-Bar, where we imagine to be much larger than in the real world, thereby making everyday objects directly subject to quantum effects, the ice cubes in George's and Gracie's drinks frantically rattle around as they too suffer from quantum claustrophobia. Although the H-Bar is a fantasyland—in reality, is terribly small—precisely this kind of quantum claustrophobia is a pervasive feature of the microscopic realm. The motion of microscopic particles becomes increasingly wild when they are examined and confined to ever smaller regions of space.

    The uncertainty principle also gives rise to a striking effect known as quantum tunneling. If you fire a plastic pellet against a ten-foot-thick concrete wall, classical physics confirms what your instincts tell you will happen: The pellet will bounce back at you. The reason is that the pellet simply does not have enough energy to penetrate such a formidable obstacle. But at the level of fundamental particles, quantum mechanics shows unequivocally that the wave functions—that is, the probability waves—of the particles making up the pellet all have a tiny piece that spills out through the wall. This means that there is a small—but not zero—chance that the pellet actually can penetrate the wall and emerge on the other side. How can this be? The reason comes down, once again, to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

    To see this, imagine that you are completely destitute and suddenly learn that a distant relative has passed on in a far-off land, leaving you a tremendous fortune to claim. The only problem is that you don't have the money to buy a plane ticket to get there. You explain the situation to your friends: if only they will allow you to surmount the barrier between you and your new fortune by temporarily lending you the money for a ticket, you can pay them back handsomely after your return. But no one has the money to lend. You remember, though, that an old friend of yours works for an airline and you implore him with the same request. Again, he cannot afford to lend you the money but he does offer a solution. The accounting system of the airline is such that if you wire the ticket payment within 24 hours of arrival at your destination, no one will ever know that it was not paid for prior to departure. In this way you are able to claim your inheritance.

    The accounting procedures of quantum mechanics are quite similar. Just as Heisenberg showed that there is a trade-off between the precision of measurements of position and velocity, he also showed that there is a similar trade-off in the precision of energy measurements and how long one takes to do the measurement. Quantum mechanics asserts that you can't say that a particle has precisely such-and-such energy at precisely such-and-such moment in time. Ever increasing precision of energy measurements require ever longer durations to carry them out. Roughly speaking, this means that the energy a particle has can wildly fluctuate so long as this fluctuation is over a short enough time scale. So, just as the accounting system of the airline "allows" you to "borrow" the money for a plane ticket provided you pay it back quickly enough, quantum mechanics allows a particle to "borrow" energy so long as it can relinquish it within a time frame determined by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

    The mathematics of quantum mechanics shows that the greater the energy barrier, the lower the probability that this creative microscopic accounting will actually occur. But for microscopic particles facing a concrete slab, they can and sometimes do borrow enough energy to do what is impossible from the standpoint of classical physics—momentarily penetrate and tunnel through a region that they do not initially have enough energy to enter. As the objects we study become increasingly complicated, consisting of more and more particle constituents, such quantum tunneling can still occur, but it becomes very unlikely since all of the individual particles must be lucky enough to tunnel together. But the shocking episodes of George's disappearing cigar, of an ice cube passing right through the wall of a glass, and of George and Gracie's passing right through a wall of the bar, can happen. In a fantasyland such as the H-Bar, in which we imagine that is large, such quantum tunneling is commonplace. But the probability rules of quantum mechanics—and, in particular, the actual smallness of in the real world—show that if you walked into a solid wall every second, you would have to wait longer than the current age of the universe to have a good chance of passing through it on one of your attempts. With eternal patience (and longevity), though, you could—sooner or later—emerge on the other side.

    The uncertainty principle captures the heart of quantum mechanics. Features that we normally think of as being so basic as to be beyond question—that objects have definite positions and speeds and that they have definite energies at definite moments—are now seen as mere arti-facts of Planck's constant being so tiny on the scales of the everyday world. Of prime importance is that when this quantum realization is applied to the fabric of spacetime, it shows fatal imperfections in the "stitches of gravity" and leads us to the third and primary conflict physics has faced during the past century.
    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe