What Is Quantum Mechanics?
Quantum mechanics, also known as quantum physics or quantum theory, is a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particlelike and wavelike behavior and interactions of energy and matter. It departs from classical mechanics primarily at the atomic and subatomic scales, the socalled quantum realm. In advanced topics of quantum mechanics, some of these behaviors are macroscopic and only emerge at very low or very high energies or temperatures. The name, coined by Max Planck, derives from the observation that some physical quantities can be changed only by discrete amounts, or quanta, as multiples of the Planck constant, rather than being capable of varying continuously or by any arbitrary amount. For example, the angular momentum, or more generally the action, of an electron bound into an atom or molecule is quantized. While an unbound electron does not exhibit quantized energy levels, an electron bound in an atomic orbital has quantized values of angular momentum. In the context of quantum mechanics, the wave–particle duality of energy and matter and the uncertainty principle provide a unified view of the behavior of photons, electrons and other atomicscale objects.
The mathematical formulations of quantum mechanics are abstract. Similarly, the implications are often nonintuitive in terms of classic physics. The centerpiece of the mathematical system is the wavefunction. The wavefunction is a mathematical function providing information about the probability amplitude of position and momentum of a particle. Mathematical manipulations of the wavefunction usually involve the braket notation, which requires an understanding of complex numbers and linear functionals. The wavefunction treats the object as a quantum harmonic oscillator and the mathematics is akin to that of acoustic resonance. Many of the results of quantum mechanics do not have models that are easily visualized in terms of classical mechanics; for instance, the ground state in the quantum mechanical model is a nonzero energy state that is the lowest permitted energy state of a system, rather than a more traditional system that is thought of as simply being at rest with zero kinetic energy.
Historically, the earliest versions of quantum mechanics were formulated in the first decade of the 20th century at around the same time as the atomic theory and the corpuscular theory of light as updated by Einstein first came to be widely accepted as scientific fact; these latter theories can be viewed as quantum theories of matter and electromagnetic radiation. Quantum theory was significantly reformulated in the mid1920s away from the old quantum theory towards the quantum mechanics formulated by Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli and their associates, accompanied by the acceptance of the Copenhagen interpretation of Niels Bohr. By 1930, quantum mechanics had been further unified and formalized by the work of Paul Dirac and John von Neumann, with a greater emphasis placed on measurement in quantum mechanics, the statistical nature of our knowledge of reality and philosophical speculation about the role of the observer. Quantum mechanics has since branched out into almost every aspect of 20th century physics and other disciplines such as quantum chemistry, quantum electronics, quantum optics and quantum information science. Much 19th century physics has been reevaluated as the classical limit of quantum mechanics, and its more advanced developments in terms of quantum field theory, string theory, and speculative quantum gravity theories.
History of quantum mechanics
The history of quantum mechanics dates back to the 1838 discovery of cathode rays by Michael Faraday. This was followed by the 1859 statement of the black body radiation problem by Gustav Kirchhoff, the 1877 suggestion by Ludwig Boltzmann that the energy states of a physical system can be discrete, and the 1900 quantum hypothesis of Max Planck. Planck's hypothesis that energy is radiated and absorbed in discrete "quanta", or "energy elements", enabled the correct derivation of the observed patterns of black body radiation. According to Planck, each energy element E is proportional to its frequency. Planck cautiously insisted that this was simply an aspect of the processes of absorption and emission of radiation and had nothing to do with the physical reality of the radiation itself.However, in 1905 Albert Einstein interpreted Planck's quantum hypothesis realistically and used it to explain the photoelectric effect, in which shining light on certain materials can eject electrons from the material. Einstein postulated that light itself consists of individual quanta of energy, later called photons.
The foundations of quantum mechanics were established during the first half of the twentieth century by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, Louis de Broglie, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Born, John von Neumann, Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli, David Hilbert, and others. In the mid1920s, developments in quantum mechanics quickly led to its becoming the standard formulation for atomic physics. In the summer of 1925, Bohr and Heisenberg published results that closed the "Old Quantum Theory". Out of deference to their dual state as particles, light quanta came to be called photons (1926). From Einstein's simple postulation was born a flurry of debating, theorizing and testing. Thus, the entire field of quantum physics emerged leading to its wider acceptance at the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927.
The other exemplar that led to quantum mechanics was the study of electromagnetic waves such as light. When it was found in 1900 by Max Planck that the energy of waves could be described as consisting of small packets or quanta, Albert Einstein further developed this idea to show that an electromagnetic wave such as light could be described by a particle called the photon with a discrete energy dependent on its frequency. This led to a theory of unity between subatomic particles and electromagnetic waves called wave–particle duality in which particles and waves were neither one nor the other, but had certain properties of both. While quantum mechanics describes the world of the very small, it also is needed to explain certain macroscopic quantum systems such as superconductors and superfluids.
The word quantum derives from Latin meaning "how great" or "how much". In quantum mechanics, it refers to a discrete unit that quantum theory assigns to certain physical quantities, such as the energy of an atom at rest. The discovery that particles are discrete packets of energy with wavelike properties led to the branch of physics that deals with atomic and subatomic systems which is today called quantum mechanics. It is the underlying mathematical framework of many fields of physics and chemistry, including condensed matter physics, solidstate physics, atomic physics, molecular physics, computational physics, computational chemistry, quantum chemistry, particle physics, nuclear chemistry, and nuclear physics. Some fundamental aspects of the theory are still actively studied. Quantum mechanics is essential to understand the behavior of systems at atomic length scales and smaller. For example, if classical mechanics governed the workings of an atom, electrons would rapidly travel towards and collide with the nucleus, making stable atoms impossible. However, in the natural world the electrons normally remain in an uncertain, nondeterministic "smeared" (wave–particle wave function) orbital path around or through the nucleus, defying classical electromagnetism. Quantum mechanics was initially developed to provide a better explanation of the atom, especially the spectra of light emitted by different atomic species. The quantum theory of the atom was developed as an explanation for the electron's staying in its orbital, which could not be explained by Newton's laws of motion and by Maxwell's laws of classical electromagnetism. Broadly speaking, quantum mechanics incorporates four classes of phenomena for which classical physics cannot account:
The quantization (discretization) of certain physical quantities
wave–particle duality
uncertainty principle
quantum entanglement
Mathematical formulations
In the mathematically rigorous formulation of quantum mechanics developed by Paul Dirac and John von Neumann, the possible states of a quantum mechanical system are represented by unit vectors (called "state vectors"). Formally, these reside in a complex separable Hilbert space (variously called the "state space" or the "associated Hilbert space" of the system) well defined up to a complex number of norm 1 (the phase factor). In other words, the possible states are points in the projectivization of a Hilbert space, usually called the complex projective space. The exact nature of this Hilbert space is dependent on the system; for example, the state space for position and momentum states is the space of squareintegrable functions, while the state space for the spin of a single proton is just the product of two complex planes. Each observable is represented by a maximally Hermitian (precisely: by a selfadjoint) linear operator acting on the state space. Each eigenstate of an observable corresponds to an eigenvector of the operator, and the associated eigenvalue corresponds to the value of the observable in that eigenstate. If the operator's spectrum is discrete, the observable can only attain those discrete eigenvalues.
In the formalism of quantum mechanics, the state of a system at a given time is described by a complex wave function, also referred to as state vector in a complex vector space. This abstract mathematical object allows for the calculation of probabilities of outcomes of concrete experiments. For example, it allows one to compute the probability of finding an electron in a particular region around the nucleus at a particular time. Contrary to classical mechanics, one can never make simultaneous predictions of conjugate variables, such as position and momentum, with accuracy. For instance, electrons may be considered to be located somewhere within a region of space, but with their exact positions being unknown. Contours of constant probability, often referred to as "clouds", may be drawn around the nucleus of an atom to conceptualize where the electron might be located with the most probability. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle quantifies the inability to precisely locate the particle given its conjugate momentum.
As the result of a measurement, the wave function containing the probability information for a system collapses from a given initial state to a particular eigenstate of the observable. The possible results of a measurement are the eigenvalues of the operator representing the observable — which explains the choice of Hermitian operators, for which all the eigenvalues are real. We can find the probability distribution of an observable in a given state by computing the spectral decomposition of the corresponding operator. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is represented by the statement that the operators corresponding to certain observables do not commute.
The probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics thus stems from the act of measurement. This is one of the most difficult aspects of quantum systems to understand. It was the central topic in the famous BohrEinstein debates, in which the two scientists attempted to clarify these fundamental principles by way of thought experiments. In the decades after the formulation of quantum mechanics, the question of what constitutes a "measurement" has been extensively studied. Interpretations of quantum mechanics have been formulated to do away with the concept of "wavefunction collapse"; see, for example, the relative state interpretation. The basic idea is that when a quantum system interacts with a measuring apparatus, their respective wavefunctions become entangled, so that the original quantum system ceases to exist as an independent entity. Generally, quantum mechanics does not assign definite values to observables. Instead, it makes predictions using probability distributions; that is, the probability of obtaining possible outcomes from measuring an observable. Often these results are skewed by many causes, such as dense probability clouds or quantum state nuclear attraction. Naturally, these probabilities will depend on the quantum state at the "instant" of the measurement. Hence, uncertainty is involved in the value. There are, however, certain states that are associated with a definite value of a particular observable. These are known as eigenstates of the observable ("eigen" can be translated from German as inherent or as a characteristic).
In the everyday world, it is natural and intuitive to think of everything (every observable) as being in an eigenstate. Everything appears to have a definite position, a definite momentum, a definite energy, and a definite time of occurrence. However, quantum mechanics does not pinpoint the exact values of a particle for its position and momentum (since they are conjugate pairs) or its energy and time (since they too are conjugate pairs); rather, it only provides a range of probabilities of where that particle might be given its momentum and momentum probability. Therefore, it is helpful to use different words to describe states having uncertain values and states having definite values (eigenstate). Usually, a system will not be in an eigenstate of the observable we are interested in. However, if one measures the observable, the wavefunction will instantaneously be an eigenstate (or generalized eigenstate) of that observable. This process is known as wavefunction collapse, a debatable process. It involves expanding the system under study to include the measurement device. If one knows the corresponding wave function at the instant before the measurement, one will be able to compute the probability of collapsing into each of the possible eigenstates. For example, the free particle in the previous example will usually have a wavefunction that is a wave packet centered around some mean position x0, neither an eigenstate of position nor of momentum. When one measures the position of the particle, it is impossible to predict with certainty the result. It is probable, but not certain, that it will be near x0, where the amplitude of the wave function is large. After the measurement is performed, having obtained some result x, the wave function collapses into a position eigenstate centered at x.
The time evolution of a quantum state is described by the Schrödinger equation, in which the Hamiltonian, the operator corresponding to the total energy of the system, generates time evolution. The time evolution of wave functions is deterministic in the sense that, given a wavefunction at an initial time, it makes a definite prediction of what the wavefunction will be at any later time.
During a measurement, on the other hand, the change of the wavefunction into another one is not deterministic, but rather unpredictable, i.e., random. A timeevolution simulation can be seen here. Wave functions can change as time progresses. An equation known as the Schrödinger equation describes how wave functions change in time, a role similar to Newton's second law in classical mechanics. The Schrödinger equation, applied to the aforementioned example of the free particle, predicts that the center of a wave packet will move through space at a constant velocity, like a classical particle with no forces acting on it. However, the wave packet will also spread out as time progresses, which means that the position becomes more uncertain. This also has the effect of turning position eigenstates (which can be thought of as infinitely sharp wave packets) into broadened wave packets that are no longer position eigenstates.
Some wave functions produce probability distributions that are constant, or independent of time, such as when in a stationary state of constant energy, time drops out of the absolute square of the wave function. Many systems that are treated dynamically in classical mechanics are described by such "static" wave functions. For example, a single electron in an unexcited atom is pictured classically as a particle moving in a circular trajectory around the atomic nucleus, whereas in quantum mechanics it is described by a static, spherically symmetric wavefunction surrounding the nucleus.
The Schrödinger equation acts on the entire probability amplitude, not merely its absolute value. Whereas the absolute value of the probability amplitude encodes information about probabilities, its phase encodes information about the interference between quantum states. This gives rise to the wavelike behavior of quantum states. It turns out that analytic solutions of Schrödinger's equation are only available for a small number of model Hamiltonians, of which the quantum harmonic oscillator, the particle in a box, the hydrogen molecular ion and the hydrogen atom are the most important representatives. Even the helium atom, which contains just one more electron than hydrogen, defies all attempts at a fully analytic treatment. There exist several techniques for generating approximate solutions. For instance, in the method known as perturbation theory one uses the analytic results for a simple quantum mechanical model to generate results for a more complicated model related to the simple model by, for example, the addition of a weak potential energy. Another method is the "semiclassical equation of motion" approach, which applies to systems for which quantum mechanics produces weak deviations from classical behavior. The deviations can be calculated based on the classical motion. This approach is important for the field of quantum chaos.
There are numerous mathematically equivalent formulations of quantum mechanics. One of the oldest and most commonly used formulations is the transformation theory proposed by Cambridge theoretical physicist Paul Dirac, which unifies and generalizes the two earliest formulations of quantum mechanics, matrix mechanics (invented by Werner Heisenberg)and wave mechanics (invented by Erwin Schrödinger). In this formulation, the instantaneous state of a quantum system encodes the probabilities of its measurable properties, or "observables". Examples of observables include energy, position, momentum, and angular momentum. Observables can be either continuous (e.g., the position of a particle) or discrete (e.g., the energy of an electron bound to a hydrogen atom). An alternative formulation of quantum mechanics is Feynman's path integral formulation, in which a quantummechanical amplitude is considered as a sum over histories between initial and final states; this is the quantummechanical counterpart of action principles in classical mechanics.
Interactions with other scientific theories
The fundamental rules of quantum mechanics are very deep. They assert that the state space of a system is a Hilbert space and the observables are Hermitian operators acting on that space, but do not tell us which Hilbert space or which operators, or if it even exists. These must be chosen appropriately in order to obtain a quantitative description of a quantum system. An important guide for making these choices is the correspondence principle, which states that the predictions of quantum mechanics reduce to those of classical physics when a system moves to higher energies or equivalently, larger quantum numbers. In other words, classical mechanics is simply a quantum mechanics of large systems. This "high energy" limit is known as the classical or correspondence limit. One can therefore start from an established classical model of a particular system, and attempt to guess the underlying quantum model that gives rise to the classical model in the correspondence limit.
Unsolved problems in physics
In the correspondence limit of quantum mechanics: Is there a preferred interpretation of quantum mechanics? How does the quantum description of reality, which includes elements such as the "superposition of states" and "wavefunction collapse", give rise to the reality we perceive?
When quantum mechanics was originally formulated, it was applied to models whose correspondence limit was nonrelativistic classical mechanics. For instance, the wellknown model of the quantum harmonic oscillator uses an explicitly nonrelativistic expression for the kinetic energy of the oscillator, and is thus a quantum version of the classical harmonic oscillator.
Early attempts to merge quantum mechanics with special relativity involved the replacement of the Schrödinger equation with a covariant equation such as the KleinGordon equation or the Dirac equation. While these theories were successful in explaining many experimental results, they had certain unsatisfactory qualities stemming from their neglect of the relativistic creation and annihilation of particles. A fully relativistic quantum theory required the development of quantum field theory, which applies quantization to a field rather than a fixed set of particles. The first complete quantum field theory, quantum electrodynamics, provides a fully quantum description of the electromagnetic interaction. The full apparatus of quantum field theory is often unnecessary for describing electrodynamic systems. A simpler approach, one employed since the inception of quantum mechanics, is to treat charged particles as quantum mechanical objects being acted on by a classical electromagnetic field. For example, the elementary quantum model of the hydrogen atom describes the electric field of the hydrogen atom using a classical Coulomb potential. This "semiclassical" approach fails if quantum fluctuations in the electromagnetic field play an important role, such as in the emission of photons by charged particles. Quantum field theories for the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force have been developed. The quantum field theory of the strong nuclear force is called quantum chromodynamics, and describes the interactions of the subnuclear particles: quarks and gluons. The weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force were unified, in their quantized forms, into a single quantum field theory known as electroweak theory, by the physicists Abdus Salam, Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg. These three men shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for this work.
It has proven difficult to construct quantum models of gravity, the remaining fundamental force. Semiclassical approximations are workable, and have led to predictions such as Hawking radiation. However, the formulation of a complete theory of quantum gravity is hindered by apparent incompatibilities between general relativity, the most accurate theory of gravity currently known, and some of the fundamental assumptions of quantum theory. The resolution of these incompatibilities is an area of active research, and theories such as string theory are among the possible candidates for a future theory of quantum gravity. Classical mechanics has been extended into the complex domain and complex classical mechanics exhibits behaviours similar to quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics and classical physics
Predictions of quantum mechanics have been verified experimentally to a very high degree of accuracy. According to the correspondence principle between classical and quantum mechanics, all objects obey the laws of quantum mechanics, and classical mechanics is just an approximation for large systems (or a statistical quantum mechanics of a large collection of particles). The laws of classical mechanics thus follow from the laws of quantum mechanics as a statistical average at the limit of large systems or large quantum numbers. However, chaotic systems do not have good quantum numbers, and quantum chaos studies the relationship between classical and quantum descriptions in these systems.
Quantum coherence is an essential difference between classical and quantum theories, and is illustrated by the EinsteinPodolskyRosen paradox. Quantum interference involves the addition of probability amplitudes, whereas when classical waves interfere there is an addition of intensities. For microscopic bodies, the extension of the system is much smaller than the coherence length, which gives rise to longrange entanglement and other nonlocal phenomena characteristic of quantum systems. Quantum coherence is not typically evident at macroscopic scales, although an exception to this rule can occur at extremely low temperatures, when quantum behavior can manifest itself on more macroscopic scales (see BoseEinstein condensate). This is in accordance with the following observations:
Many macroscopic properties of a classical system are a direct consequences of the quantum behavior of its parts. For example, the stability of bulk matter (which consists of atoms and molecules which would quickly collapse under electric forces alone), the rigidity of solids, and the mechanical, thermal, chemical, optical and magnetic properties of matter are all results of the interaction of electric charges under the rules of quantum mechanics.
While the seemingly exotic behavior of matter posited by quantum mechanics and relativity theory become more apparent when dealing with extremely fastmoving or extremely tiny particles, the laws of classical Newtonian physics remain accurate in predicting the behavior of large objects—of the order of the size of large molecules and bigger—at velocities much smaller than the velocity of light.
Relativity and quantum mechanics
Even with the defining postulates of both Einstein's theory of general relativity and quantum theory being indisputably supported by rigorous and repeated empirical evidence and while they do not directly contradict each other theoretically (at least with regard to primary claims), they are resistant to being incorporated within one cohesive model.
Einstein himself is well known for rejecting some of the claims of quantum mechanics. While clearly contributing to the field, he did not accept the more philosophical consequences and interpretations of quantum mechanics, such as the lack of deterministic causality and the assertion that a single subatomic particle can occupy numerous areas of space at one time. He also was the first to notice some of the apparently exotic consequences of entanglement and used them to formulate the EinsteinPodolskyRosen paradox, in the hope of showing that quantum mechanics had unacceptable implications. This was 1935, but in 1964 it was shown by John Bell that, although Einstein was correct in identifying seemingly paradoxical implications of quantum mechanical nonlocality, these implications could be experimentally tested. Alain Aspect's initial experiments in 1982, and many subsequent experiements since, have verified quantum entanglement.
According to the paper of J. Bell and the Copenhagen interpretation (the common interpretation of quantum mechanics by physicists since 1927), and contrary to Einstein's ideas, quantum mechanics was not at the same time
a "realistic" theory and a local theory.
The EinsteinPodolskyRosen paradox shows in any case that there exist experiments by which one can measure the state of one particle and instantaneously change the state of its entangled partner, although the two particles can be an arbitrary distance apart; however, this effect does not violate causality, since no transfer of information happens. Quantum entanglement is at the basis of quantum cryptography, with highsecurity commercial applications in banking and government.
Gravity is negligible in many areas of particle physics, so that unification between general relativity and quantum mechanics is not an urgent issue in those applications. However, the lack of a correct theory of quantum gravity is an important issue in cosmology and physicists' search for an elegant "theory of everything". Thus, resolving the inconsistencies between both theories has been a major goal of twentieth and twentyfirstcentury physics. Many prominent physicists, including Stephen Hawking, have labored in the attempt to discover a theory underlying everything, combining not only different models of subatomic physics, but also deriving the universe's four forces —the strong force, electromagnetism, weak force, and gravity— from a single force or phenomenon. One of the leaders in this field is Edward Witten, a theoretical physicist who formulated the groundbreaking Mtheory, which is an attempt at describing the supersymmetrical based string theory.
Attempts at a unified field theory
As of 2010 the quest for unifying the fundamental forces through quantum mechanics is still ongoing. Quantum electrodynamics (or "quantum electromagnetism"), which is currently (in the perturbative regime at least) the most accurately tested physical theory, has been successfully merged with the weak nuclear force into the electroweak force and work is currently being done to merge the electroweak and strong force into the electrostrong force. Current predictions state that at around 1014 GeV the three aforementioned forces are fused into a single unified field. Beyond this "grand unification," it is speculated that it may be possible to merge gravity with the other three gauge symmetries, expected to occur at roughly 1019 GeV. However — and while special relativity is parsimoniously incorporated into quantum electrodynamics — the expanded general relativity, currently the best theory describing the gravitation force, has not been fully incorporated into quantum theory.
Philosophical implications
Since its inception, the many counterintuitive results of quantum mechanics have provoked strong philosophical debate and many interpretations. Even fundamental issues such as Max Born's basic rules concerning probability amplitudes and probability distributions took decades to be appreciated.
Richard Feynman said, "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."
The Copenhagen interpretation, due largely to the Danish theoretical physicist Niels Bohr, is the interpretation of the quantum mechanical formalism most widely accepted amongst physicists. According to it, the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics is not a temporary feature which will eventually be replaced by a deterministic theory, but instead must be considered to be a final renunciation of the classical ideal of causality. In this interpretation, it is believed that any welldefined application of the quantum mechanical formalism must always make reference to the experimental arrangement, due to the complementarity nature of evidence obtained under different experimental situations.
Albert Einstein, himself one of the founders of quantum theory, disliked this loss of determinism in measurement. (This dislike is the source of his famous quote, "God does not play dice with the universe.") Einstein held that there should be a local hidden variable theory underlying quantum mechanics and that, consequently, the present theory was incomplete. He produced a series of objections to the theory, the most famous of which has become known as the EinsteinPodolskyRosen paradox. John Bell showed that the EPR paradox led to experimentally testable differences between quantum mechanics and local realistic theories. Experiments have been performed confirming the accuracy of quantum mechanics, thus demonstrating that the physical world cannot be described by local realistic theories. The BohrEinstein debates provide a vibrant critique of the Copenhagen Interpretation from an epistemological point of view.
The Everett manyworlds interpretation, formulated in 1956, holds that all the possibilities described by quantum theory simultaneously occur in a multiverse composed of mostly independent parallel universes. This is not accomplished by introducing some new axiom to quantum mechanics, but on the contrary by removing the axiom of the collapse of the wave packet: All the possible consistent states of the measured system and the measuring apparatus (including the observer) are present in a real physical (not just formally mathematical, as in other interpretations) quantum superposition. Such a superposition of consistent state combinations of different systems is called an entangled state. While the multiverse is deterministic, we perceive nondeterministic behavior governed by probabilities, because we can observe only the universe, i.e. the consistent state contribution to the mentioned superposition, we inhabit. Everett's interpretation is perfectly consistent with John Bell's experiments and makes them intuitively understandable. However, according to the theory of quantum decoherence, the parallel universes will never be accessible to us. This inaccessibility can be understood as follows: Once a measurement is done, the measured system becomes entangled with both the physicist who measured it and a huge number of other particles, some of which are photons flying away towards the other end of the universe; in order to prove that the wave function did not collapse one would have to bring all these particles back and measure them again, together with the system that was measured originally. This is completely impractical, but even if one could theoretically do this, it would destroy any evidence that the original measurement took place (including the physicist's memory).
Applications
Quantum mechanics had enormous success in explaining many of the features of our world. The individual behaviour of the subatomic particles that make up all forms of matter—electrons, protons, neutrons, photons and others—can often only be satisfactorily described using quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics has strongly influenced string theory, a candidate for a theory of everything (see reductionism) and the multiverse hypothesis.
Quantum mechanics is important for understanding how individual atoms combine covalently to form chemicals or molecules. The application of quantum mechanics to chemistry is known as quantum chemistry. (Relativistic) quantum mechanics can in principle mathematically describe most of chemistry. Quantum mechanics can provide quantitative insight into ionic and covalent bonding processes by explicitly showing which molecules are energetically favorable to which others, and by approximately how much. Most of the calculations performed in computational chemistry rely on quantum mechanics.
Much of modern technology operates at a scale where quantum effects are significant. Examples include the laser, the transistor (and thus the microchip), the electron microscope, and magnetic resonance imaging. The study of semiconductors led to the invention of the diode and the transistor, which are indispensable for modern electronics.
Researchers are currently seeking robust methods of directly manipulating quantum states. Efforts are being made to develop quantum cryptography, which will allow guaranteed secure transmission of information. A more distant goal is the development of quantum computers, which are expected to perform certain computational tasks exponentially faster than classical computers. Another active research topic is quantum teleportation, which deals with techniques to transmit quantum information over arbitrary distances.
Quantum tunneling is vital in many devices, even in the simple light switch, as otherwise the electrons in the electric current could not penetrate the potential barrier made up of a layer of oxide. Flash memory chips found in USB drives use quantum tunneling to erase their memory cells.
Quantum mechanics primarily applies to the atomic regimes of matter and energy, but some systems exhibit quantum mechanical effects on a large scale; superfluidity (the frictionless flow of a liquid at temperatures near absolute zero) is one wellknown example. Quantum theory also provides accurate descriptions for many previously unexplained phenomena such as black body radiation and the stability of electron orbitals. It has also given insight into the workings of many different biological systems, including smell receptors and protein structures. Recent work on photosynthesis has provided evidence that quantum correlations play an essential role in this most fundamental process of the plant kingdom. Even so, classical physics often can be a good approximation to results otherwise obtained by quantum physics, typically in circumstances with large numbers of particles or large quantum numbers. (However, some open questions remain in the field of quantum chaos.)
Examples
Particle in a box
The particle in a 1dimensional potential energy box is the most simple example where restraints lead to the quantization of energy levels. The box is defined as having zero potential energy inside a certain region and infinite potential energy everywhere outside that region.
Free particle
In quantum mechanics, there is waveparticle duality so the properties of the particle can be described as the properties of a wave. Therefore, its quantum state can be represented as a wave of arbitrary shape and extending over space as a wave function. The position and momentum of the particle are observables. The Uncertainty Principle states that both the position and the momentum cannot simultaneously be measured with full precision at the same time. However, one can measure the position alone of a moving free particle creating an eigenstate of position with a wavefunction that is very large (a Dirac delta) at a particular position x and zero everywhere else. If one performs a position measurement on such a wavefunction, the result x will be obtained with 100% probability (full certainty). This is called an eigenstate of position (mathematically more precise: a generalized position eigenstate (eigendistribution)). If the particle is in an eigenstate of position then its momentum is completely unknown. On the other hand, if the particle is in an eigenstate of momentum then its position is completely unknown. In an eigenstate of momentum having a plane wave form, it can be shown that the wavelength is equal to h/p, where h is Planck's constant and p is the momentum of the eigenstate.
Elementary Particles
What is a Proton?
What is a Neutron?
What is a Black Hole?
What is a Particle Accelerator?
What is Quantum Theory?
What is the Standard Model?
What is the Schrödinger's Cat Paradox?
What is Quantum Entanglement?
What is the Higgs Boson?
What is String Theory?
What is Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle?
What is a Photon?
What is a Antimatter?
What is the Big Bang Theory?
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