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Description of the theory
There are a number of mathematically equivalent formulations of quantum mechanics. One of the oldest and most commonly used formulations is the transformation theory invented by Cambridge theoretical physicist Paul Dirac, which unifies and generalizes the two earliest formulations of quantum mechanics, matrix mechanics (invented by Werner Heisenberg) and wave mechanics (invented by Erwin Schrödinger).
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In this formulation, the instantaneous state of a quantum system encodes the probabilities of its measurable properties, or “observables”. Examples of observables include energy, position, momentum, and angular momentum. Observables can be either continuous (e.g., the position of a particle) or discrete (e.g., the energy of an electron bound to a hydrogen atom).
Generally, quantum mechanics does not assign definite values to observables. Instead, it makes predictions about probability distributions; that is, the probability of obtaining each of the possible outcomes from measuring an observable. Naturally, these probabilities will depend on the quantum state at the instant of the measurement. There are, however, certain states that are associated with a definite value of a particular observable.
These are known as “eigenstates” of the observable (“eigen” meaning “own” in German). In the everyday world, it is natural and intuitive to think of everything being in an eigenstate of every observable. Everything appears to have a definite position, a definite momentum, and a definite time of occurrence. However, Quantum Mechanics does not pinpoint the exact values for the position or momentum of a certain particle in a given space in a finite time, but, rather, it only provides a range of probabilities of where that particle might be. Therefore, it became necessary to use different words for a) the state of something having an uncertainty relation and b) a state that has a definite value. The latter is called the “eigenstate” of the property being measured.
A concrete example will be useful here. Let us consider a free particle. In quantum mechanics, there is wave-particle duality so the properties of the particle can be described as a wave. Therefore, its quantum state can be represented as a wave, of arbitrary shape and extending over all of space, called a wavefunction. The position and momentum of the particle are observables. The Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics states that both the position and the momentum cannot simultaneously be known with infinite precision at the same time. However, we can measure just the position alone of a moving free particle creating an eigenstate of position with a wavefunction that is very large at a particular position x, and zero everywhere else. If we perform a position measurement on such a wavefunction, we will obtain the result x with 100% probability. In other words, we will know the position of the free particle.
This is called an eigenstate of position. If the particle is in an eigenstate of position then its momentum is completely unknown. An eigenstate of momentum, on the other hand, has the form of a plane wave. It can be shown that the wavelength is equal to h/p, where h is Planck’s constant and p is the momentum of the eigenstate. If the particle is in an eigenstate of momentum then its position is completely blurred out.
Usually, a system will not be in an eigenstate of whatever observable we are interested in. However, if we measure the observable, the wavefunction will immediately become an eigenstate of that observable. This process is known as wavefunction collapse. If we know the wavefunction at the instant before the measurement, we will be able to compute the probability of collapsing into each of the possible eigenstates. For example, the free particle in our previous example will usually have a wavefunction that is a wave packet centred around some mean position x0, neither an eigenstate of position nor of momentum. When we measure the position of the particle, it is impossible for us to predict with certainty the result that we will obtain. It is probable, but not certain, that it will be near x0, where the amplitude of the wavefunction is large. After we perform the measurement, obtaining some result x, the wavefunction collapses into a position eigenstate centred at x.
Wave functions can change as time progresses. An equation known as the Schrödinger equation describes how wave functions change in time, a role similar to Newton’s second law in classical mechanics. The Schrödinger equation, applied to our free particle, predicts that the centre of a wave packet will move through space at a constant velocity, like a classical particle with no forces acting on it. However, the wave packet will also spread out as time progresses, which means that the position becomes more uncertain. This also has the effect of turning position eigenstates (which can be thought of as infinitely sharp wave packets) into broadened wave packets that are no longer position eigenstates.
Some wave functions produce probability distributions that are constant in time. Many systems that are treated dynamically in classical mechanics are described by such “static” wave functions. For example, a single electron in an unexcited atom is pictured classically as a particle moving in a circular trajectory around the atomic nucleus, whereas in quantum mechanics it is described by a static, spherically symmetric wavefunction surrounding the nucleus (Note that only the lowest angular momentum states, labelled s, are spherically symmetric).
The time evolution of wave functions is deterministic in the sense that, given a wavefunction at an initial time, it makes a definite prediction of what the wavefunction will be at any later time. During a measurement, the change of the wavefunction into another one is not deterministic, but rather unpredictable.
The probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics thus stems from the act of measurement. This is one of the most difficult aspects of quantum systems to understand. It was the central topic in the famous Bohr-Einstein debates, in which the two scientists attempted to clarify these fundamental principles by way of thought experiments.
In the decades after the formulation of quantum mechanics, the question of what constitutes a “measurement” has been extensively studied. Interpretations of quantum mechanics have been formulated to do away with the concept of “wavefunction collapse”; see, for example, the relative state interpretation. The basic idea is that when a quantum system interacts with a measuring apparatus, their respective wavefunctions become entangled so that the original quantum system ceases to exist as an independent entity.
Quantum mechanical effects
As mentioned in the introduction, there are several classes of phenomena that appear under quantum mechanics which have no analogue in classical physics. These are sometimes referred to as “quantum effects”.
The first type of quantum effect is the quantization of certain physical quantities. Quantization first arose in the mathematical formulae of Max Planck in 1900 as discussed in the introduction. Max Planck was analyzing how the radiation emitted from a body was related to its temperature, in other words, he was analyzing the energy of a wave. The energy of a wave could not be infinite, so Planck used the property of the wave we designate as the frequency to define energy.
Max Planck discovered a constant that when multiplied by the frequency of any wave gives the energy of the wave. This constant is referred to by the letter h in mathematical formulae. It is a cornerstone of physics. By measuring the energy in a discrete non-continuous portion of the wave, the wave took on the appearance of chunks or packets of energy. These chunks of energy resembled particles. So energy is said to be quantized because it only comes in discrete chunks instead of a continuous range of energies.
In the example we have given, of a free particle in empty space, both the position and the momentum are continuous observables. However, if we restrict the particle to a region of space (the so-called “particle in a box” problem), the momentum observable will become discrete; it will only take on the values, where L is the length of the box, his Planck’s constant, and n is an arbitrary nonnegative integer number. Such observables are said to be quantized, and they play an important role in many physical systems. Examples of quantized observables include angular momentum, the total energy of a sound system, and the energy contained in an electromagnetic wave of a given frequency.
Another quantum effect is the uncertainty principle, which is the phenomenon that consecutive measurements of two or more observables may possess a fundamental limitation on accuracy. In our free particle example, it turns out that it is impossible to find a wavefunction that is an eigenstate of both position and momentum. This implies that position and momentum can never be simultaneously measured with arbitrary precision, even in principle: as the precision of the position measurement improves, the maximum precision of the momentum measurement decreases, and vice versa. Those variables for which it holds (e.g., momentum and position, or energy and time) are canonically conjugate variables in classical physics.
Another quantum effect is wave-particle duality. It has been shown that, under certain experimental conditions, microscopic objects like atoms or electrons exhibit particle-like behaviour, such as scattering. (“Particle-like” in the sense of an object that can be localized to a particular region of space.) Under other conditions, the same type of objects exhibits wave-like behaviour, such as interference. We can observe only one type of property at a time, never both at the same time.
Another quantum effect is quantum entanglement. In some cases, the wave function of a system composed of many particles cannot be separated into independent wave functions, one for each particle. In that case, the particles are said to be “entangled”. If quantum mechanics is correct, entangled particles can display remarkable and counter-intuitive properties. For example, a measurement made on one particle can produce, through the collapse of the total wavefunction, an instantaneous effect on other particles with which it is entangled, even if they are far apart. (This does not conflict with special relativity because information cannot be transmitted in this way.)
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