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Collapse of the Wave Function
Why is it that more than half of the modern "interpretations of quantum mechanics Why are so many serious physicists and philosophers of science so unhappy with this concept, which was a fundamental part of the "orthodox" theory proposed in the late 1920's by the "founders" of quantum mechanics - Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Max Born, Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli, and Pascual Jordan.
We can give the simplest answer in a single word - The idea of the wave function in quantum mechanics and its indeterministic collapse during a measurement is without doubt the most controversial problem in physics today. Of the several “interpretations” of quantum mechanics, more than half deny the collapse of the wave function. Some of these deny quantum jumps and even the existence of particles!
So it is very important to understand the importance of what Dirac called the Although the collapse is historically thought to be caused by a measurement, and thus dependent on the role of the observer in preparing and running the experiment, collapses can occur whenever quantum systems interact (e.g., collisions between particles) or even spontaneously (in the decay of radioactive nuclei). The claim that an observer is needed to collapse the wave function has injected a severely anthropomorphic element into quantum theory, suggesting that nothing happens in the universe except when physicists are making measurements. An extreme example is Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds theory, which says that the universe splits into two nearly identical universes whenever a measurement is made.
What is the Wave Function?
Perhaps the best illustration of the wave function is to show it passing though the famous slits in a two-slit experiment. It has been known for centuries that water waves passing through a small opening creates circular waves radiating outward from that opening. If there are two openings, the waves from each opening interfere with those from the other, producing waves twice as tall at the crests (or deep in the troughs) and cancelling perfectly where a crest from one meets a trough from the other.
When we send light through tiny slits, we see a similar wave phenomenon. Despite the standard description, and although light energy is obviously moving, we will show that the wave is not moving and does not really "collapse." In the water example, there is actually very little, if any, water moving forward. A cork bobs up and down as waves pass it but water does not not pass the cork.
Most of the light that reaches light detectors in the screen at the back lands right behind the barrier between the two slits. At some places, no light appears in the interference pattern. If we look closely, the interference pattern is a kind of substructure inside an envelope that corresponds to the Fraunhofer diffraction pattern if the two slits were replaced by one large slit.
Today, thanks to the perseverance of Einstein, we know that light actually consists of large numbers of individual photons, quanta of light. Our experiment can turn down the amount of light so low that we know there is only a single photon, a single particle of light in the experiment at any time. What we see is the very slow accumulation of photons at the detectors, but with exactly the same interference pattern when a large number of photons has been detected. And this leads to what Richard Feynman called not just "a mystery,” but actually "the only mystery” in quantum mechanics. How can a single particle of light interfere with itself, without going through both slits? We can see what would happen if it went through only one slit by closing one of them. We get a completely different interference pattern. Information philosophy now lets us visualize this highly non-intuitive phenomenon, one that Dirac says is impossible in classical physics. If you can follow, you are well on your way to comprehending, though perhaps not fully “understanding," quantum mechanics.
From the time I first taught my students about the two-slit experiment in the late 1950's, I have always said that "something must be moving through both slits." But I am now questioning the idea that the wave function must be
The wave function in quantum mechanics is a solution to Erwin Schrödinger’s famous wave equation that describes the evolution in time of his wave function
In 1926, Max Born interpreted the wave function So the quantum wave going through the slits (and this probability amplitude wave ψ(x) does go through both slits) is an abstract number, neither material nor energy, just a probability. It is information about where particles of light (or particles of matter if we shoot electrons at the slits) will be found when we record a large number of them. If we imagine a single particle being sent from a great distance away toward the two slits, the wave function that describes its “time evolution” or motion through space looks like a plane wave - the straight lines of the wave crests approaching the slits from below in the figure to the left. We have no information about the exact position of the particle. It could be anywhere. Einstein said that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is “incomplete” because the particle has no definite position before a measurement. He was right. When the particle lands on one of the detectors at the screen in back, we can represent it by the dot in the figure below.
Animation of a wave function collapsing - click to restart
What happens to the small but finite probability that the particle might have been found at the left side of the screen? How has that probability instantaneously (at faster than light speed) been collected into the unit probability at the dot? To be clear, when Einstein first asked this question, he thought of the light wave as energy spread out everywhere in the wave. So it was energy that he thought might be traveling faster than light, violating his brand new principle of relativity (published two months after his light quantum paper). At the Solvay conference in Brussels in 1927, twenty-two years after Einstein first tried to understand what is happening when the wave collapses, he noted;
If | ψ |
Einstein came to call this Niels Bohr recalled Einstein’s description. He drew Einstein's figure on a blackboard, but he did not understand what Einstein was saying.
Einstein referred at one of the sessions to the simple example, illustrated by Fig. 1, of a particle (electron or photon) penetrating through a hole or a narrow slit in a diaphragm placed at some distance before a photographic plate.Bohr's point A is the dot in our animation where the particle is found. His point B is Einstein's concern about another point where there is/was a non-zero probability of finding the particle.
How Information Physics Explains the Two-Slit Experiment
Although we cannot say anything about the particle’s whereabouts, we can say clearly that what goes through the two slits and interferes with itself is information. The wave function tells us the abstract probability of finding the particle somewhere.
In our latest information interpretation of quantum mechanics, we ask where the information about the probabilities of finding a particle are really coming from?
Note that probability, like information, is neither matter nor energy. When a wave function “collapses” or “goes through both slits” in the dazzling two-slit experiment, nothing material is traveling faster than the speed of light or going through the slits. No messages or signals can be sent using this collapse of probability. Only the information has changed. This is similar to the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen experiments, where measurement of one particle transmits nothing physical (matter or energy) to the other “entangled” particle. Instead instantaneous information has come into the universe at the new particle positions. That information, together with conservation of angular momentum, makes the state of the coherently entangled second particle certain, however far away it might be after the measurement.
The standard “orthodox” interpretation of quantum mechanics includes the
The Just as in philosophy, where the language used can be the source of confusion, we find that thinking about the information involved clarifies the problem. Normal | Teacher | Scholar |