The ebook FEEE - Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering and Electronics is based on material originally written by T.R. Kuphaldt and various co-authors. For more information please read the copyright pages.

Quantum Mechanics

De Broglie's hypothesis gave both mathematical support and a convenient physical analogy to account for the quantized states of electrons within an atom, but his atomic model was still incomplete. Within a few years, though, physicists Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger, working independently of each other, built upon de Broglie's concept of a matter-wave duality to create more mathematically rigorous models of subatomic particles.

This theoretical advance from de Broglie's primitive standing wave model to Heisenberg's matrix and Schrodinger's differential equation models was given the name quantum mechanics, and it introduced a rather shocking characteristic to the world of subatomic particles: the trait of probability, or uncertainty. According to the new quantum theory, it was impossible to determine the exact position and exact momentum of a particle at the same time. The popular explanations of this “uncertainty principle” was that it was a measurement usually error caused by the process of measurement (i.e. by attempting to precisely measure the position of an electron, you interfere with its momentum and thus cannot know what it was before the position measurement was taken, and vice versa). The startling implication of quantum mechanics is that particles do not actually have precise positions and momenta, but rather balance the two quantities in a such way that their combined uncertainties never diminish below a certain minimum value.

This form of “uncertainty” relationship exists in areas other than quantum mechanics. As discussed in the “Mixed-Frequency AC Signals” chapter in volume II of this book series, there is a mutually exclusive relationship between the certainty of a waveform's time-domain data and its frequency-domain data. In simple terms, the more precisely we know its constituent frequency(ies), the less precisely we know its amplitude in time, and vice versa. To quote myself:

A waveform of infinite duration (infinite number of cycles) can be analyzed with absolute precision, but the less cycles available to the computer for analysis, the less precise the analysis. . . The fewer times that a wave cycles, the less certain its frequency is. Taking this concept to its logical extreme, a short pulse -- a waveform that doesn't even complete a cycle -- actually has no frequency, but rather acts as an infinite range of frequencies. This principle is common to all wave-based phenomena, not just AC voltages and currents.

In order to precisely determine the amplitude of a varying signal, we must sample it over a very narrow span of time. However, doing this limits our view of the wave's frequency. Conversely, to determine a wave's frequency with great precision, we must sample it over many cycles, which means we lose view of its amplitude at any given moment. Thus, we cannot simultaneously know the instantaneous amplitude and the overall frequency of any wave with unlimited precision. Stranger yet, this uncertainty is much more than observer imprecision; it resides in the very nature of the wave. It is not as though it would be possible, given the proper technology, to obtain precise measurements of both instantaneous amplitude and frequency at once. Quite literally, a wave cannot have both a precise, instantaneous amplitude, and a precise frequency at the same time.

The minimum uncertainty of a particle's position and momentum expressed by Heisenberg and Schrodinger has nothing to do with limitation in measurement; rather it is an intrinsic property of the particle's matter-wave dual nature. Electrons, therefore, do not really exist in their “orbits” as precisely defined bits of matter, or even as precisely defined waveshapes, but rather as “clouds” -- the technical term is wavefunction -- of probability distribution, as if each electron were “spread” or “smeared” over a range of positions and momenta.

This radical view of electrons as imprecise clouds at first seems to contradict the original principle of quantized electron states: that electrons exist in discrete, defined “orbits” around atomic nuclei. It was, after all, this discovery that led to the formation of quantum theory to explain it. How odd it seems that a theory developed to explain the discrete behavior of electrons ends up declaring that electrons exist as “clouds” rather than as discrete pieces of matter. However, the quantized behavior of electrons does not depend on electrons having definite position and momentum values, but rather on other properties called quantum numbers. In essence, quantum mechanics dispenses with commonly held notions of absolute position and absolute momentum, and replaces them with absolute notions of a sort having no analogue in common experience.

Even though electrons are known to exist in ethereal, “cloud-like” forms of distributed probability rather than as discrete chunks of matter, those “clouds” have other characteristics that are discrete. Any electron in an atom can be described in terms of four numerical measures (the previously mentioned quantum numbers), called the Principal, Angular Momentum, Magnetic, and Spin quantum numbers.

Last Update: 2010-11-19