— 1.6. The Uncertainty Principle —
Imagine that is holding a rope in one’s hand at that the rope is tied at the end to brick wall. If one suddenly jerks the rope it would cause a pulse formation that would travel along the rope until hitting the brick wall. At every instant of time you could fairly reasonably ascribe a position to this wave pulse but on the other hand if you would be asked to calculate its wavelength you wouldn’t know how to do it since this phenomenon isn’t periodic.
Imagine now that, instead of just producing one jerk, you continuously wave the rope so that you end up producing a standing wave. In this case the wavelength is perfectly defined, since this a phenomenon that is periodic, but the wave position loses its meaning.
Quantum mechanics, as we’ll see in later posts, asks for a particle description that is given in terms of wave packets. Roughly speaking, a wave packet is the result of summing an infinite number of waves (with different wave numbers and phases) that exhibit constructive interference in just a small region of space. An infinite number of waves with different momenta is needed to ensure constructive and destructive interference in the appropriate regions of space.
Hence we see that by summing more and more waves we are able to make the position of the particle more and more defined while simultaneously making its momentum less and less defined (remember that the waves that we are summing all have different momenta).
In a more formal language one would say that one is working in two different spaces. The position space and the momentum space. What we’re seeing is that in the wave packet formalism it is impossible to have a phenomenon that is perfectly localized in both spaces at the same time.
More physically speaking this means that for a particle its position and momentum have an inherent spread. One can theoretically make the spread of one of the quantities as small as one wants but that would cause the spread in the other quantity to get larger and larger. That is to say the more localized a particle is the more its momentum is spread and the more precise a particle’s momentum is the more fuzzy is its position.
This result is known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and one can make it a mathematically rigorous, but for now this handwaving argument is enough. With it we can already see that Quantum Mechanics needs a radical new way of confronting reality.
For now we’ll just put this result in a quantitative footing and leave its proof for a later post
One can interpret the uncertainty principle in the language of measurements being made on an ensemble of identically prepared systems. Imagine that you prepare an ensemble whose position measurements are very defined. That is to say that every time you measure the position of a particle the results are very much alike. Well, in this case if you were to also measure the momentum of each particle you would see that the values of momentum you’d end up measuring would be wildly different.
On the other hand you could possibly want to have an ensemble of particles whose momentum measurements would end up with values that have small differences between them. In this case the price to pay would be that the positions of the particles would be scattered all over the place.
Evidently that between those two extremes there is a plethora of possible results. The only limitation that the uncertainty principle stipulates is that the product of the spreads of the two quantities has to be bigger than .