February 21, 2019

Quantum Mechanics Is For All of Us

“Perhaps no other area of physics has enjoyed as much attention from scientists and non-scientists as quantum mechanics. The fame of quantum mechanics theories stands in juxtaposition to the physical “weirdness” they manifest – even some of the scientists who discovered these theories were set aback by the startling consequences. It’s no wonder Einstein remarked, “The more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it looks.” But as “silly” as it may seem, the physical implications of quantum mechanics are real, and not nearly as complicated nor inaccessible as they might seem.

We are all familiar with the way the burner of an electric stove goes from being faint red to flaming bright red as the temperature rises. If we could increase the temperature even higher, we would eventually see the burner shifting from its reddish glow to more of a bluish hue. In essence, what we are observing is a very specific relationship between the temperature of a hot object (e.g., stove burner) and the light (thermal radiation) it gives off: as the temperature increases, the light emitted from the burner shifts to a higher frequency. And although our eyes only see a particular color, it’s actually a range of colors, or a frequency spectrum, that’s emitted. This seemingly mundane physical phenomenon left twentieth-century physicists paralyzed for answers, and it would ultimately provide the very first peak into the bizarre world of quantum mechanics.

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In 1900, some six years of work had led Max Planck to the correct mathematical form of the frequency spectrum known as Planck’s Radiation Law. Indeed, it was an amazing accomplishment worthy of a Nobel Prize in and of itself. However, the law provided nothing in the way of actual physical insight. So the questioned remained: What’s it about the interaction of matter and radiation that results in the frequency spectrum? Planck needed to know, and so he pushed forward. What he found would change physics and our understanding of nature forever: matter can only emit or absorb energy in specific “chunks”! In other words, the energy values allowed are discrete rather than a continuous distribution. So, if an atom’s energy goes up or down during its interaction with light, it must do so in specific increments, no more, no less. Let me give you an analogy.

Imagine a big, empty box. Outside the box, there are balls of varying sizes. Now, let the box represent matter, and the balls represent energy. According to classical mechanics, matter can absorb energy in any amount, so we’re free to place balls of any size into the box until it’s completely full. That is, it doesn’t matter what balls I use to fill the box – I just need to fill it up. However, according to quantum mechanics, energy can only be absorbed in specific increments. Therefore, I’m restricted to a specific-sized ball – say a tennis ball – and the box can only be filled with this “energy quantum.””

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