Home > Problems > Wave-Particle Duality Wave-Particle Duality Can something possibly be, at one and the same time, both a discrete particle (Werner Heisenberg) and a continuous wave (Erwin Schrödinger)? The information interpretation of quantum mechanics says unequivocally No. For the quantum physicist, it is always either a wave or a particle. The evolution of a quantum system, an electron or a photon, for example, goes in two stages. The first is a wave stage in which the wave function explores all the possibilities available, given the configuration of surrounding particles, especially those nearby, which represent the boundary conditions for the Schrödinger equation of motion for the wave function. Because the space where the possibilities are non-zero is large, we say that the wave function (or "possibilities function") is nonlocal. An observer can not gain any empirical knowledge unless new information has first been irreversibly recorded, e.g., a particle has been localized in the experimental apparatus The second stage is when the photon or electron interacts with one or more of the surrounding particles. One of the nonlocal possibilities may be "actualized" or localized. Information about the new interaction may be recorded. If the new information is irreversibly recorded, it may later be observed. When you hear or read that electrons are both waves and particles, think "either-or" - first a wave of possibilities, then an actual particle. That a light wave might actually be composed of quanta (later called photons) was first proposed by Albert Einstein as his "light-quantum hypothesis." He wrote in 1905: On the modern quantum view, what spreads out is a "nonlocal" wave of probability amplitude, the possibilities for absorption, followed by a whole photon actually being absorbed ("localized") somewhere. In accordance with the assumption to be considered here, the energy of a light ray spreading out from a point source is not continuously distributed over an increasing space but consists of a finite number of energy quanta which are localized at points in space, which move without dividing, and which can only be produced and absorbed as whole units. ("A Heuristic Viewpoint on the Production and Transformation of Light," Annalen der Physik, vol.17, p.133, English translation - American Journal of Physics, 33, 5, p.368) In 1909, Einstein speculated about the connection between wave and particle views: This is wave-particle duality fourteen years before Louis deBroglie's matter waves and Erwin Schrödinger's wave equation and wave mechanics When light was shown to exhibit interference and diffraction, it seemed almost certain that light should be considered a wave...A large body of facts shows undeniably that light has certain fundamental properties that are better explained by Newton's emission theory of light than by the oscillation theory. For this reason, I believe that the next phase in the development of theoretical physics will bring us a theory of light that can be considered a fusion of the oscillation and emission theories... Even without delving deeply into theory, one notices that our theory of light cannot explain certain fundamental properties of phenomena associated with light. Why does the color of light, and not its intensity, determine whether a certain photochemical reaction occurs? Why is light of short wavelength generally more effective chemically than light of longer wavelength? Why is the speed of photoelectrically produced cathode rays independent of the light's intensity? Why are higher temperatures (and, thus, higher molecular energies) required to add a short-wavelength component to the radiation emitted by an object? The fundamental property of the oscillation theory that engenders these difficulties seems to me the following. In the kinetic theory of molecules, for every process in which only a few elementary particles participate (e.g., molecular collisions), the inverse process also exists. But that is not the case for the elementary processes of radiation. Einstein's view since 1905 was that light quanta are emitted in particular directions. There are no outgoing spherical waves (except probability amplitude or "possibilities" waves). Even less likely are incoming spherical waves, never seen in nature According to our prevailing theory, an oscillating ion generates a spherical wave that propagates outwards. The inverse process does not exist as an elementary process. A converging spherical wave is mathematically possible, to be sure; but to approach its realization requires a vast number of emitting entities. The elementary process of emission is not invertible. In this, I believe, our oscillation theory does not hit the mark. Newton's emission theory of light seems to contain more truth with respect to this point than the oscillation theory since, first of all, the energy given to a light particle is not scattered over infinite space, but remains available for an elementary process of absorption. Dueling Wave and Particle Theories Not only do we have the problem of understanding wave-particle duality in a quantum system, we have a full-blown wave mechanical theory (deBroglie and Schrödinger) versus a particle mechanics theory (Heisenberg, Max Born, Pascual Jordan). Before either of these theories was developed in the mid-1920's, Einstein in 1916 showed how both wave-like and particle-like behaviors are seen in light quanta, and that the emission of light is done at random times and in random directions. This was the introduction of ontological chance (Zufall) into physics, over a decade before Heisenberg announced that quantum mechanics is acausal in his "uncertainty principle" paper of 1927. As late as 1917, Einstein felt very much alone in believing the reality (his emphasis) of light quanta: I do not doubt anymore the reality of radiation quanta, although I still stand quite alone in this conviction (Letter to Besso, quoted by Abraham Pais," "Subtle is the Lord...", p.411) Einstein in 1916 had just derived his A and B coefficients describing the absorption, spontaneous emission, and (his newly predicted) stimulated emission of radiation. In two papers, "Emission and Absorption of Radiation in Quantum Theory," and "On the Quantum Theory of Radiation," he derived the Planck law (for Planck it was mostly a guess at the formula), he derived Planck's postulate E = hν, and he derived Bohr's second postulate Em - En = hν. Einstein did this by exploiting the obvious relationship between the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution of gas particle velocities and the distribution of radiation in Planck's law.  Einstein wrote: The formal similarity between the chromatic distribution curve for thermal radiation and the Maxwell velocity-distribution law is too striking to have remained hidden for long. In fact, it was this similarity which led W. Wien, some time ago, to an extension of the radiation formula in his important theoretical paper, in which he derived his displacement law...Not long ago I discovered a derivation of Planck's formula which was closely related to Wien's original argument and which was based on the fundamental assumption of quantum theory. This derivation displays the relationship between Maxwell's curve and the chromatic distribution curve and deserves attention not only because of its simplicity, but especially because it seems to throw some light on the mechanism of emission and absorption of radiation by matter, a process which is still obscure to us. ("On the Quantum Theory of Radiation," Sources of Quantum Mechanics, B. L. van der Waerden, Dover, 1967, p.63; Physikalische Zeitschrift, 18, pp.121–128, 1917) But the introduction of Maxwell-Boltzmann statistical mechanical thinking to electromagnetic theory has produced what Einstein called a "weakness in the theory." It introduces the reality of an irreducible objective chance! If light quanta are particles with energy E = hν traveling at the velocity of light c, then they should have a momentum p = E/c = hν/c. When light is absorbed by material particles, this momentum will clearly be transferred to the particle. But when light is emitted by an atom or molecule, a problem appears. The "statistical interpretation" of Max Born tells us the outgoing wave is the probability amplitude wave function Ψ, whose absolute square is the probability of finding a light particle in an arbitrary direction. Conservation of momentum requires that the momentum of the emitted particle will cause an atom to recoil with momentum hν/c in the opposite direction. However, the standard theory of spontaneous emission of radiation is that it produces a spherical wave going out in all directions. A spherically symmetric wave has no preferred direction. In which direction does the atom recoil? Einstein asked: Does the molecule receive an impulse when it absorbs or emits the energy ε? For example, let us look at emission from the point of view of classical electrodynamics. When a body emits the radiation ε it suffers a recoil (momentum) ε/c if the entire amount of radiation energy is emitted in the same direction. If, however, the emission is a spatially symmetric process, e.g., a spherical wave, no recoil at all occurs. This alternative also plays a role in the quantum theory of radiation. When a molecule absorbs or emits the energy ε in the form of radiation during the transition between quantum theoretically possible states, then this elementary process can be viewed either as a completely or partially directed one in space, or also as a symmetrical (nondirected) one. It turns out that we arrive at a theory that is free of contradictions, only if we interpret those elementary processes as completely directed processes. ("On the Quantum Theory of Radiation, p.65) An outgoing light particle must impart momentum hν/c to the atom or molecule, but the direction of the momentum can not be predicted! Neither can the theory predict the time when the light quantum will be emitted. Such a random time was not unknown to physics. When Ernest Rutherford derived the law for radioactive decay of unstable atomic nuclei in 1900, he could only give the probability of decay time. Einstein saw the connection with radiation emission: It speaks in favor of the theory that the statistical law assumed for [spontaneous] emission is nothing but the Rutherford law of radioactive decay. (Pais," "Subtle is the Lord...", p.411) But the inability to predict both the time and direction of light particle emissions, said Einstein in 1917, is "a weakness in the theory..., that it leaves time and direction of elementary processes to chance (Zufall, ibid.)." It is only a weakness for Einstein, of course, because his God does not play dice. Einstein clearly saw, as none of his contemporaries did, that since spontaneous emission is a statistical process, it cannot possibly be described with classical physics. The properties of elementary processes required...make it seem almost inevitable to formulate a truly quantized theory of radiation. (Pais, ibid.) How Einstein Discovered Wave-Particle Duality Einstein was bothered by Planck's discovery of the blackbody radiation law. He said that it "rests on a seemingly monstrous assumption." Planck had assumed that energy levels were discrete (compare Bohr's stationary states in the old quantum theory). Einstein saw that transitions between those levels should be discrete quanta. When Bohr formulated his atom theory (and for the next dozen years), he ignored Einstein's light quanta Planck's theory leads to the following conjecture. If it is really true that a radiative resonator can only assume energy values that are multiples of hν, the obvious assumption is that the emission and absorption of light occurs only in these energy quantities. On the basis of this hypothesis, the light-quanta hypothesis, the questions raised above about the emission and absorption of light can be answered. As far as we know, the quantitative consequences of this light-quanta hypothesis are confirmed. This provokes the following question. Is it not thinkable that Planck's radiation formula is correct, but that another derivation could be found that does not rest on such a seemingly monstrous assumption as Planck's theory? Is it not possible to replace the light-quanta hypothesis with another assumption, with which one could do justice to known phenomena? If it is necessary to modify the theory's elements, couldn't one keep the propagation laws intact, and only change the conceptions of the elementary processes of emission and absorption? To arrive at a certain answer to this question, let us proceed in the opposite direction of Planck in his radiation theory. Let us view Planck's radiation formula as correct, and ask ourselves whether something concerning the composition of radiation can be derived from it. ("On the Development of Our Views Concerning the Nature and Constitution of Radiation", Physikalische Zeitschrift, 10, 817-825, 1909) Eight years later, in his paper on the A and B coefficients (transition probabilities) for the emission and absorption of radiation, Einstein carried through his attempt to understand the Planck law. He confirmed that light behaves sometimes like waves (notably when a great number of particles are present and for low energies), at other times like the particles of a gas (for few particles and high energies). Dirac on Wave-Particle Duality Quantum mechanics is able to effect a reconciliation of the wave and corpuscular properties of light. The essential point is the association of each of the translational states of a photon with one of the wave functions of ordinary wave optics. The nature of this association cannot be pictured on a basis of classical mechanics, but is something entirely new. It would be quite wrong to picture the photon and its associated wave as interacting in the way in which particles and waves can interact in classical mechanics. The association can be interpreted only statistically, the wave function giving us information about the probability of our finding the photon in any particular place when we make an observation of where it is. It was Einstein who first saw this connection, not Max Born, despite "Born's Rule." Note that the information about the possibility of a photon at a given point does not have to be "knowledge" for some conscious observer. It is statistical information about the photon, even if it is never observed Some time before the discovery of quantum mechanics people realized that the connexion between light waves and photons must be of a statistical character. What they did not clearly realize, however, was that the wave function gives information about the probability of one photon being in a particular place and not the probable number of photons in that place. (Principles of Quantum Mechanics, 4th ed., Chapter 1, p.9) Einstein, deBroglie, and Schrödinger had all argued that the light wave at some point might be the probable number of photons at that point. For Teachers To hide this material, click on the Normal link. For Scholars To hide this material, click on the Teacher or Normal link. Normal | Teacher | Scholar