Hey There Little Electron, Why Won’t You Tell Me Where You Came From?

plasma ball
Steve Jurvetson / Flickr

I want to tell you about one of the most beautiful ideas that I know.

It’s a physics experiment, and it’s beautiful because in one elegant stroke, it expands our consciousness, forcing us to realize that objects can behave in ways that are impossible for us to picture (but remarkably, possible for us to calculate). It’s beautiful because it calls into question the bedrock of logic on which we’ve built our understanding of the world. It’s beautiful because it’s deceivingly simple to understand, and yet its consequences are deeply unsettling. And it’s beautiful because I refused to accept it until I ran the experiment for myself, and I distinctly remember watching my worldview shatter as the picture slowly built up on the computer monitor.

This was eleven years ago. I was a college freshman, sitting in a physics lab with all the lights turned out, staring at a blank computer screen, and for reasons that I won’t go into here, listening to a best-of compilation of 80s pop hits.

Electrons enter the box from the left and strike the screen on the right
Electrons enter the box from the left and strike the screen on the right Aatish Bhatia

Here’s the setup. On the table in front of me there’s a box with two thin slit-like openings at one end. We’re shooting particles into this box through these slits. I did the experiment with photons, i.e. chunks of light, but others have done it with electrons and, in principle, it could be done with any kind of stuff. It’s even been done with buckyballs, which are soccer ball shaped arrangements of 60 carbon atoms that are positively ginormous compared to electrons. For convenience, I’m going to call the objects in this experiment electrons but think of that word as a stand-in for any kind of stuff that comes in chunks, really.

At the other end of the box is a CCD camera, that takes a snapshot of whatever hits it. Every time a particle makes it to the other side of the box, I see a dot light up at the corresponding point on my computer screen.

Just to be extra careful, we’ve set up the experiment so that there is only one particle inside the box at any given time. Picture, if you like, very tiny baseballs being flung into the box, one at a time. The 80s music plays on, and we sit and wait.

What would you expect to see on the other side of the box? Well, if electrons behaved like waves, you’d expect to see fringes of bright and dark bands, like ripples in a tank of water. That’s because waves can interfere with each other, canceling out when the peak of one wave meets the trough of another, and getting reinforced when the peaks line up.

Thomas Young's 1803 sketch showing how two waves interfere to form a pattern of fringes at the screen
Thomas Young’s 1803 sketch showing how two waves interfere to form a pattern of fringes at the screen. (Public Domain)
An animation showing the same phenomenon.  Lookang / Wikimedia Commons

But electrons aren’t waves – they come in chunks. I know this, because I can see them arriving at the screen one at a time, and they strike at a single place, like raindrops falling on dry pavement. And if electrons are chunk-like, then you’d expect to see them piling up behind the slits and nowhere else. In short, you’d expect them to behave like baseballs.

If electrons behaved like rocks or baseballs, you'd expect to see them pile up behind each slit.
If electrons behaved like baseballs, you’d expect to see them pile up behind each slit. Aatish Bhatia

And indeed, if you do this experiment with only one slit open, they behave just like baseballs, hitting the wall in a single band behind the open slit. A reasonable prediction, then, is that when we run the experiment with both slits open, we should see two bands – one behind each slit.

So what do the electrons do?

Continue reading Hey There Little Electron, Why Won’t You Tell Me Where You Came From?

Why a quantum particle is not like a water drop. A tale of two slits, part 1

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgI want to describe a certain beautiful experiment, perhaps the most beautiful experiment in science. This is an experiment that has captivated me from the time that I first heard about it in high school. That’s because it’s simple to understand, and yet it captures the essence of what is truly messed up about quantum mechanics. This is a tale of two slits. And it would be no exaggeration to say that through these slits, we encounter a word that is so strange, it is beyond our human capacity to imagine.

The story is about the nature of light and matter. And it is driven by a fervent battle of ideas between some of the greatest minds in science. It begins at the turn of the eighteenth century.

By then, Isaac Newton had already made a name for himself as the biggest badass in science. He invented calculus (edit: although the origins of calculus are somewhat mired in controversy), devised the law of gravity and formulated the laws that govern how things move. That’s pretty eventful for a few decades (in fact, he did much of this work in a single year), and it’s almost inhuman that all this came from a single person.

And things were just getting started. By the turn of the century, Newton had turned his considerable attention towards the problem of light. How does it work? What is it made of? Using a series of simple, methodical experiments, he argued that if you stripped light down to its tiniest constituents, you would end up with particles that he called corpuscles. This idea was widely adopted, and became the mainstream scientific opinion for over a hundred years.

There were always doubters to this idea, but they weren’t many of them, and they weren’t popular. It was another brilliant English scientist, Thomas Young, who would take the next step in understanding light.

Young was quite the Renaissance man. In addition to being a physicist, he made significant contributions to fields as diverse as music, language (he compared the vocabulary and grammar of 400 different languages), Egyptology (he partly deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics from the Rosetta stone) and the physiology of vision.

But what Young considered his greatest achievement (and he had a few) was overthrowing Newton’s century-old notions of light. In its place, he argued that light was not made up of particles, but was instead a wave, quite like the ripples on the surface of water.

At first, he met with huge resistance to his ideas. But in 1803, Young convinced his skeptics with a simple, game-changing experiment.

Continue reading Why a quantum particle is not like a water drop. A tale of two slits, part 1

Using flies to sniff out a new theory of smell

Our sense of smell is really quite incredible. Every time we take in a breath or taste food, countless molecules swarm into our nasal passages. As they move up the nasal tract, these visitors arrive at a patch of cells on which there are over 10,000 different kinds of docking stations. These cells are odor receptors, and each of them can register a different odor. Together they make up a chemical detector that is much more sensitive and versatile that anything we can come close to building.

In a paper published in the journal PNAS in February, the authors demonstrate through a series of ingenious experiments that smell can be sensitive enough to pick up on tiny differences in atomic vibrations.

The conventional theory of smell works somewhat like a lock and a key. The molecules are the key, and they ‘lock in’ to receptors that fit their exact shape and size. This is the shape theory of smell, and the basic idea had been suggested in the 1st century BCE by the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius. The idea has since garnered substantial evidence with the discovery of odor receptors, leading to the 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine for working out the overall picture of how smell works.

An alternative hypothesis is the vibration theory. This proposes that smell works not by detecting the shape of molecules, but by measuring how the atoms in a molecule are vibrating.

Molecules are groups of atoms that are held together by chemical bonds. These bonds are somewhat elastic, causing the atoms in the molecules to constantly jiggle about. This is analogous to what would happen if you were to connect balls together with springs (something that physicists love to do). But the analogy breaks down at this microscopic scale, and one needs to resort to the laws of quantum mechanics to understand what is happening. It turns out that, similar to the balls and springs, molecules have certain ways in which they prefer to jiggle. They can stretch, rock, wag and twist around.

So, which is it? Does smell work via shape or vibration? The authors set out to address this question with flies.

Continue reading Using flies to sniff out a new theory of smell