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Totally Baffling

November 14, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve been thinking about wave-particle duality (as I’m sure we all have on occasions) and I have come to a conclusion which seems very obvious but which I don’t think I have seen expressed much elsewhere. Before I say what my conclusion is I should explain what wave-particle duality, because I always like to talk about cool scientific principles in this blog.

OK, so we know what a wave and a particle are, right? A wave is a periodic movement of something, like waves on the sea are a series of higher and lower areas of water a particular distance apart (the distance we call the wavelength) and which go past at a particular rate (the number of waves which go past in a certain time is called the frequency).

A particle is just a very small component of matter. Many particles, like the electron, are indivisible (they aren’t made of smaller particles) but others are made of even smaller particles (like the proton which is made from quarks).

So it’s usually fairly obvious which things are waves and which are particles. Or is it?

The problem is that as things get smaller it becomes difficult to say what they actually are. The most obvious example is light. It’s clearly a particle because it has energy and travels like a particle, but it is also clearly a wave because it shows interference effects (this is where two waves which cross can become higher and lower depending on whether the peaks coincide or a peak in is cancelled by the trough in the other).

So which is it? Well it depends on what type of experiment you do. If you do an experiment which is likely to show wave phenomena then it is a wave, but if you do one which shows particle phenomena then it will be a particle. Pretty weird, eh?

There’s one obvious explanation. It’s neither. Waves and particles are just two ideas human scientists, philosophers, and really just everyone (because everyone understands those two concepts) have invented which explain the macro (human size) world really well. But reality isn’t like that at all. Real matter/energy is actually something else which just happens to look a lot like waves and particles.

I wanted to present this “brilliant conclusion” here after reading an entry on the excellent “Quora” web site (www.quora.com) on a page titled “What can you not fathom, understand, or reconcile no matter how hard you try” where people presented ideas which were completely baffling to them.

Well if wave-particle duality is baffling I’m not sure if my explanation makes it more or less so. I suspect reality can only really be explained with maths and never with natural language. Yeah, that’s much less baffling!

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