Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Double-Slit Experiment and Particle / Wave Duality in Quantum Physics

One of the most important and mind-bending findings in quantum physics which has helped us to better understand the nature of matter was first demonstrated in what is known as the “double-slit” experiment.  This experiment involves projecting photons, electrons, or other quanta through a barrier with two small holes and measuring the way they are detected before, during, and after their travels.  Common sense suggests that if they begin as particles, they will travel as particles and end up as particles, but the evidence shows something quite different. 

Scientists have found that when an electron, for example, passes through the barrier with only one opening available, it behaves in just the way we’d expect it to: It begins and ends its journey as a particle.  In doing so, there are no surprises.  In contrast, when two slits are used, the same electron does something that sounds impossible.  Although it definitely begins its journey as a particle, a mysterious event happens along the way: The electron passes through both slits at the same time, as only a wave of energy can do, forming the kind of pattern on the target that only an energy wave can make.”  -Gregg Braden, “The Divine Matrix” (71-2)

In the classic double-slit experiment, a stream of photons (or electrons or any atomic-sized object) are shot at a screen with two tiny slits in it.  On the other side of the screen, a photographic plate or sensitive video camera records where each photon lands.  If one of the slits is closed, then the camera will see a smooth distribution of photons with the peak intensity directly opposite the open slit.  This is what common sense would predict if the photons were individual particles.  But if you open both slits, the camera sees a different pattern: an interference pattern with varying bands of high and low intensity.  That is consistent with the photons being a wave.”  -Dean Radin, “Entangled Minds” (215-6)

Furthermore, when physicists lower the light intensity to shoot only one photon at a time, somehow, they get the same results.  With one slit open, each photon shoots through and lands on the screen evenly distributed, peak intensity perfectly aligned.  So with two slits open, firing one photon at a time, you might likewise assume to see two even distributions perfectly aligned behind each slit.  However, just like when firing a flood of photons through, somehow the photons “know” the second slit is open, pass through both slits simultaneously, and end up on the screen as a wave-like interference pattern.  This experiment and many similar replications have produced the same results every single time: The quanta begin as single particles, shoot through the apparatus, register going through both slits simultaneously, and then show up interfered with themselves on the screen.  Each individual particle is somehow interfering or entangled with itself as a wave.  This phenomenon has come to be known as “particle-wave duality.”

The electron, like some shape-shifter out of folklore, can manifest as either a particle or a wave.  This chameleon-like ability is common to all subatomic particles.  It is also common to all things once thought to manifest exclusively as waves.  Light, gamma rays, radio waves, X rays – all can change from waves to particles and back again.  Today physicists believe that subatomic phenomena should not be classified solely as either waves or particles, but as a single category of somethings that are always somehow both.  These somethings are called quanta, and physicists believe they are the basic stuff from which the entire universe is made.”  -Michael Talbot, “The Holographic Universe” (33-4)

This particle-wave duality is a significant discovery because it shows that the basic “building blocks” of our physical reality, not only are they 99% empty space, but they constantly fluctuate between being precise, definable particles and unlimited probability waves.  Thus the philosophical questions arise: What determines whether they are particles or waves?  How can something be in two states at one time?  How can the building blocks of matter be so immaterial? 

With the development of quantum theory, physicists have found that even subatomic particles are far from solid. In fact, they are not much like matter at all – at least nothing like matter as we know it. They can’t be pinned down and measured precisely. Much of the time they seem more like waves than particles. They are like fuzzy clouds of potential existence, with no definite location. Whatever matter is, it has little, if any, substance.”  -Peter Russell, “From Science to God”

Matter at its most fundamental level can not be divided into independently existing units or even be fully described.  Subatomic particles aren’t solid little objects like billiard balls, but vibrating and indeterminate packets of energy that can not be precisely quantified or understood in themselves.  Instead they are schizophrenic, sometimes behaving as particles – a set thing confined to a small space – and sometimes like a wave – a vibrating and more diffuse thing spread out over a large region of space and time – and sometimes like both a wave and a particle at the same time.”  -Lynne McTaggart, “The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe,” (10)

Using the example of water, we see an illustration of how something can be both a particle and wave simultaneously.  If you separate a drop of water from the ocean then it is an independent, distinct particle with definite location.  However, put that same drop of water back in the ocean and it becomes part of an integral, undifferentiated wave with no definite location.  From the perspective of the individual H2O molecules, nothing changes regardless of whether they are a drop or an ocean wave.  The wave/particle distinction comes from us, the conscious observers, which brings us to another question: In the double-slit experiment, how does the particle “know” whether or not the second slit is open?  Why does it act like a particle when one slit is open, but act like a wave when two slits are open?

The only explanation here is that the second opening has somehow forced the electron to travel as if it were a wave … To do so, the electron has to somehow perceive that the second opening exists and has become available.  And this is where the role of consciousness comes in.  Because it’s assumed that the electron cannot really ‘know’ anything in the truest sense of the word, the only other source of awareness is the person watching the experiment.  The conclusion here is that somehow the knowledge that the electron has two possible paths to move through is in the mind of the observer, and that the onlooker’s consciousness is what determines how the electron travels.”  –Gregg Braden, “The Divine Matrix” (72-3)

It seems the particles themselves are somehow conscious of the slits, or the scientists’ consciousness is informing the particles.  Either way, two amazing things are happening here which rock the foundations of classical physics.  Firstly, photons, electrons, and all quanta are expressing the properties of both particles and waves simultaneously.  Secondly, the quanta are essentially conscious and/or reading our minds!

This rather simple experiment raises a central question about the role of the observer in quantum reality.  This is known as the quantum measurement problem: We infer that the photon acts like a wave when we’re not looking, but we never actually see those waves.  So what causes the photon to ‘collapse’ into a particle when we do decide to look at it?  In classical physics, objects are regarded as objectively real and independent of the observer.  In the quantum world, this is no longer the case.”  -Dean Radin, “Entangled Minds” (218)

The quantum pioneers discovered that our involvement with matter was crucial.  Subatomic particles exist in all possible states until disturbed by us – by observing or measuring – at which point, they settle down, at long last, into something real.  Our observation – our human consciousness – is utterly central to this process of subatomic flux actually becoming some set thing.”  -Lynne McTaggart, “The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe,” (XXVI)

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