Sunday, June 10, 2007

The De Broglie Equation

Glimpsing Quantum Physics from physicists helps shed light on how it is so misunderstood

Understanding how complex natural systems interact and behave as global phenomena can be a daunting challenge. The body of information about our world is expanding exponentially as, for example the calculating capacity of computer CPUs continues to grow gathering ever more pieces of information. Getting bogged down and frustrated is not a hard thing to do for anyone trying to get some grasp of it all. Taking this information in slowly by small bits and pieces allows one, at least me, to better digest and grasp the world as we see it through careful study.

In this way, one can be guided by as true an image of things as they are verses how we might think they are. So it is with many of the basic concepts in physics where the mathematical language can quickly become a false, alien, and esoteric barrier to the nature of the truly strange and weird phenomena encountered in nature. Quantum physics has been broadly misconstrued and misunderstood precisely because of this “linguistic” communication barrier.

Fortunately, there are many physicists who have graciously spent precious time and effort in order to bridge this gap. Their goal is to reach the many of us who yearn to feel and actually comprehend the meaning of the incredible insights into the natural world that quantum physics has provided.

With this in mind, it is helpful to touch on key areas in quantum physics that may clarify some of the misunderstandings commonly associated with many beliefs, health philosophies, and therapeutic practices commonly encountered in today's world of "make believe." Additionally, we can also begin to understand what we don’t know and the magnitude of the mysteries yet to be unraveled.

The De Broglie Equation

Louise-Victor de Broglie introduced the apparently simple, yet sublime concept that there is a link between wave properties (wavelength) and particle properties (momentum) and expressed it in the following equation:

λ= h/p

The implications have the same impact as Einstein’s famous equation that revealed the mass/energy connection (E=mc2), only de Broglies equation involves actions at very small extremes. Here, the binding key between the wavelength and momentum is Planck’s constant meaning that the equation is measured as a quantum link. Even so, it provides a mechanism that allows a glimpse into the phenomena of wave-particle duality, a somewhat uncomfortable (for some) and difficult concept to grasp.

The familiar daily macroscopic world that we observe has a clean differentiation between particles and waves. Objects have a discreet presence and place in space. They are small features relative to the universe, having mass and a location at a given time, and may have momentum and energy. Waves, on the other hand, are not small- they are spread out and can’t be localized in one point. They have oscillating properties and can either propagate through space or vibrate in one region. When waves propagate, they do so at a speed independent of the energy they carry.

Here, in this world of the big, particles go from one place to another while waves propagate without “lugging” around any material. The more energy a particle has, the faster it can go where as waves propagate at the same speed regardless of the energy they have.

On the other hand, in the very tiny world of the small- the Planck level or the quantum micro universe- these two “different” phenomena are linked. Kenneth Ford (The Quantum World) states: “Particles can no longer be exactly localized…And waves become somewhat more “material”. The thing doing the vibrating is a “field”, an entity that possesses energy and momentum, unlike the immaterial “ether” referred to in the nineteenth century and before.”

De Broglie provided new insight into understanding nature by providing a link between two apparently different phenomena, synthesizing wavelength and momentum into a simple relation of proportionality. However, at the human level of experience, it is important to remember that these links do not reach our perception. As Ford notes: “Precisely because the fundamental constants of these theories are so far removed from ordinary human experience, there was little chance that the theories would have been formulated before experimental techniques available to the scientist had extended the range of observation far beyond the range of direct human perception.”

These fascinating observations are often erroneously associated with the concept of bioenergy fields, quantum consciousness, and “holistic” mechanisms of action in medicine which actually refer to the existence of an ethereal "connection" or holistic quality of the universe that can directly impact our lives and health- this is not what the de Broglie equation implies. That these phenomena occur at such extreme regions of nature that are far beyond our ability to sense them isn’t considered in these idealistic theories. The macroscopic classical behavior of matter are what we perceive and what we use to live our lives, though they do extend from and are related to these “far off” tiny interactions.

Again Ford summarizes: “What about people? Do we have wavelengths, too? Yes, but far too small to measure. The “fuzziness” of our size introduced by our wave nature is truly minuscule. A person strolling at a speed of 1 m/s has a wavelength smaller than the size of a single atomic nucleus. Why so tiny? Because a person has such enormous momentum…True, the person’s speed is small, but the mass, relative to the mass of a single particle is astronomical….So people and baseballs, and even bacteria, have sharply defined edges and no discernible wave effects. Yet it is the wave nature of the electron that gives bulk to every atom and prevents people, baseballs, and bacteria from collapsing.”

A recent analogy of how far physical phenomena can be misinterpreted is found in the publication of a now rather infamous book titled "The Secret." Its premise is based on the assumption that the mind can “attract positive or negative energies” and that one can in this way, create a reality. “The Secret” refers to a supposed mental capability that relates to the type of quantum phenomena we have been discussing; and succeeds in spectacularly misunderstanding it.

Michael Shermer, in an article in Discover magazine, eloquently expresses the absurdity and contorted interpretation of the physics in this book: “The brain does produce electrical activity from the ion currents flowing among neurons during synaptic transmission…and produces a magnetic field…But these fields are minuscule and can be measured only using an extremely sensitive superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID)…Plus, remember the inverse square law: the intensity of an energy wave radiating from a source is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from that source…The brains magnetic field of 10-15 telsa quickly dissipates from the skull and is promptly swamped by other magnetic sources, not to mention the earth’s magnetic field of 10-5 telsa, which overpowers it by 10 orders of magnitude!”

There are many other areas of quantum physics that need to be compared and contrasted with popular “holistic” assumptions. On occasion, in future posts, I will touch on what physicists actually know and what they can teach us regarding the true nature and mysteries of physical phenomena.


Ford,K. The Quantum World.Harvard Univ Press. Massachusetts.2004

Shermer,M The (other) Secret.Scientific American. June 2007 Vol 296 (6)


Maroon George, M.S. in Education said...

Thank you for your interesting post. Kenneth Ford, is one of my favorite writers.

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