Saturday, November 28, 2020

Magnetic Resonance Imaging

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below. Some of the text may not make sense without the animations in the video.]

Magnetic Resonance Imaging is one of the most widely used imaging methods in medicine. A lot of you have probably had one taken. I have had one too. But how does it work? This is what we will talk about today.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI for short, used to be called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, but it was renamed out of fear that people would think the word “nuclear” has something to do with nuclear decay or radioactivity. But the reason it was called “nuclear magnetic resonance” has nothing to do with radioactivity, it is just that the thing which resonates is the atomic nucleus, or more precisely, the spin of the atomic nucleus.

Nuclear magnetic resonance was discovered already in the nineteen-forties by Felix Bloch and Edward Purcell. They received a Nobel Prize for their discovery in nineteen-fifty-two. The first human body scan using this technology was done in New York in nineteen-seventy-seven. Before I tell you how the physics of Magnetic Resonance Imaging works in detail, I first want to give you a simplified summary.

If you put an atomic nucleus into a time-independent magnetic field, it can spin. And if does spin, it spins with a very specific frequency, called the Larmor frequency, named after Joseph Larmor. This frequency depends on the type of nucleus. Usually the nucleus does not spin, it just sits there. But if you, in addition to the time-independent magnetic field, let an electromagnetic wave pass by the nucleus at just exactly the right resonance frequency, then the nucleus will extract energy from the electromagnetic wave and start spinning.

After the electromagnetic wave has travelled through, the nucleus will slowly stop spinning and release the energy it extracted from the wave, which you can measure. How much energy you measure depends on how many nuclei resonated with the electromagnetic wave. So, you can use the strength of the signal to tell how many nuclei of a particular type were in your sample.

For magnetic resonance imaging in the human body one typically targets hydrogen nuclei, of which there are a lot in water and fat. How bright the image is then tells you basically the amount of fat and water. Though one can also target other nuclei and measure other quantities, so some magnetic resonsnce images work differently. Magnetic Resonance Imaging is particularly good for examining soft tissue, whereas for a broken bone you’d normally use an X-ray.

In more detail, the physics works as follows. Atomic nuclei are made of neutrons and protons, and the neutrons and protons are each made of three quarks. Quarks have spin one half each and their spins combine to give the neutrons and protons also spin one half. The neutrons and protons then combine their spins to give a total spin to atomic nuclei, which may or may not be zero, depending on the number of neutrons and protons in the nucleus.

If the spin is nonzero, then the atomic nucleus has a magnetic moment, which means it will spin in a magnetic field at a frequency that depends on the composition of the nucleus and the strength of the magnetic field. This is the Larmor frequency that nuclear spin resonance works with. If you have atomic nuclei with spin in a strong magnetic field, then their spins will align with the magnetic field. Suppose we have a constant and homogeneous magnetic field pointing into direction z, then the nuclear spins will preferably also point in direction z. They will not all do that, because there is always some thermal motion. So, some of them will align in the opposite direction, though this is not energetically the most favorable state. Just how many point in each direction depends on the temperature. The net magnetic moment of all the nuclei is then called the magnetization, and it will point in direction z.

In an MRI machine, the z-direction points into the direction of the tube, so usually that’s from head to toe.

Now, if the magnetization does for whatever reason not point into direction z, then it will circle around the z direction, or precess, as the physicists say, in the transverse directions, which I have called x and y. And it will do that with a very specific frequency, which is the previously mentioned Larmor frequency. The Larmor frequency depends on a constant which itself depends on the type of nucleus, and is proportional to the strength of the magnetic field. Keep this in mind because it will become important later.

The key feature of magnetic resonance imaging is now that if you have a magnetization that points in direction z because of the homogenous magnetic field, and you apply an additional, transverse magnetic field that oscillates at the resonance frequency, then the magnetization will turn away from the z axis. You can calculate this with the Bloch-equation, named after the same Bloch who discovered nuclear magnetic resonance in the first place. For the following I have just integrated this differential equation. For more about differential equations, please check my earlier video.

What you see here is the magnetization that points in the z-direction, so that’s the direction of the time-independent magnetic field. And now a pulse of an electromagnetic wave come through. This pulse is not at the resonance frequency. As you can see, it doesn’t do much. And here is a pulse that is at the resonance frequency. As you see, the magnetization spirals down. How far it spirals down depends on how long you apply the transverse magnetic field. Now watch what happens after this. The magnetization slowly returns to its original direction.

Why does this happen? There are two things going on. One is that the nuclear spins interact with their environment, this is called spin-lattice relaxation and brings the z-direction of the magnetization back up. The other thing that happens is that the spins interact with each other, which is called spin-spin relaxation and it brings the transverse magnetization, the one in x and y direction, back to zero.

Each of these processes has a characteristic decay time, usually called T_1 and T_2. For soft tissue, these decay times are typically in the range of ten milliseconds to one second. What you measure in an MRI scan is then roughly speaking the energy that is released in the return of the nuclear spins to the z-direction and the time that takes. Somewhat less roughly speaking, you measure what’s called the free induction decay.

Another way to look at this process of resonance and decay is to look at the curve which the tip of the magnetization vector traces out in three dimensions. I have plotted this here for the resonant case. Again you see it spirals down during the pulse, and then relaxes back into the z-direction.

So, to summarize, for magnetic resonance imaging you have a constant magnetic field in one direction, and then you have a transverse electromagnetic wave, which oscillates at the resonance frequency. For this transverse field, you only use a short pulse which makes the nuclear spins point in the transverse direction. Then they turn back to the z-direction, and you can measure this.

I have left out one important thing, which is how do you manage to get a spatially resolved image and not just a count of all the nuclei. You do this by using a magnetic field with a strength that slightly changes from one place to another. Remember that I pointed out the resonance frequency is proportional to the magnetic field. Because of this, if you use a magnetic field that changes from one place to another, you can selectively target certain nuclei at a particular position. Usually one does that by using a gradient for the magnetic field, so then the images you get are slices through the body.

The magnetic fields used in MRI scanners for medical purposes are incredibly strong, typically a few Tesla. For comparison, that’s about a hundred thousand times stronger than the magnetic field of planet earth, and only a factor two or three below the strength of the magnets used at the Large Hadron Collider.

These strong magnetic fields do not harm the body, you just have to make sure to not take magnetic materials with you in the scanner. The resonance frequencies that fit to these strong magnetic fields are in the range of fifty to three-hundred Megahertz. These energies are far too small to break chemical bonds, which is why the electromagnetic waves used in Magnetic Resonance Imaging do not damage cells. There is however a small amount of energy deposited into the tissue by thermal motion, which can warm the tissue, especially at the higher frequency end. So one has to take care to not do these scans for a too long time.

So if you have an MRI taken, remember that it literally makes your atomic nuclei spin.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Warp Drive News. Seriously!

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below.]

As many others, I became interested in physics by reading too much science fiction. Teleportation, levitation, wormholes, time-travel, warp drives, and all that, I thought was super-fascinating. But of course the depressing part of science fiction is that you know it’s not real. So, to some extent, I became a physicist to find out which science fiction technologies have a chance to one day become real technologies. Today I want to talk about warp drives because I think on the spectrum from fiction to science, warp drives are on the more scientific end. And just a few weeks ago, a new paper appeared about warp drives that puts the idea on a much more solid basis.

But first of all, what is a warp drive? In the science fiction literature, a warp drive is a technology that allows you to travel faster than the speed of light or “superluminally” by “warping” or deforming space-time. The idea is that by warping space-time, you can beat the speed of light barrier. This is not entirely crazy, for the following reason.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity says you cannot accelerate objects from below to above the speed of light because that would take an infinite amount of energy. However, this restriction applies to objects in space-time, not to space-time itself. Space-time can bend, expand, or warp at any speed. Indeed, physicists think that the universe expanded faster than the speed of light in its very early phase. General Relativity does not forbid this.

There are two points I want to highlight here: First, it is a really common misunderstanding, but Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity do NOT forbid faster-than-light motion. You can very well have objects in these theories that move faster than the speed of light. Neither does this faster-than light travel necessarily lead to causality paradoxes. I explained this in an earlier video. Instead, the problem is that, according to Einstein, you cannot accelerate from below to above the speed of light. So the problem is really crossing the speed of light barrier, not being above it.

The second point I want to emphasize is that the term “warp drive” refers to a propulsion system that relies on the warping of space-time, but just because you are using a warp drive does not mean you have to go faster than light. You can also have slower-than-light warp drives. I know that sounds somewhat disappointing, but I think it would be pretty cool to move around by warping spacetime at any speed.

Warp drives were a fairly vague idea until in 1994, Miguel Alcubierre found a way to make them work in General Relativity. His idea is now called the Alcubierre Drive. The explanation that you usually get for how the Alcubierre Drive works, is that you contract space-time in front of you and expand it behind you, which moves you forward.

That didn’t make sense to you? Just among us, it never made sense to me either. Because why would this allow you to break the speed of light barrier? Indeed, if you look at Alcubierre’s mathematics, it does not explain how this is supposed to work. Instead, his equations say that this warp drive requires large amounts of negative energy.

This is bad. It’s bad because, well, there isn’t any such thing as negative energy. And even if you had this negative energy that would not explain how you break the speed of light barrier. So how does it work? A few weeks ago, someone sent me a paper that beautifully sorts out the confusion surrounding warp drives.

To understand my problem with the Alcubierre Drive, I have to tell you briefly how General Relativity works. General Relativity works by solving Einstein’s field equations. Here they are. I know this looks somewhat intimidating, but the overall structure is fairly easy to understand. It helps if you try to ignore all these small Greek indices, because they really just say that there is an equation for each combination of directions in space-time. More important is that on the left side you have these R’s. The R’s quantify the curvature of space-time. And on the right side you have T. T is called the stress-energy tensor and it collects all kinds of energy densities and mass densities. That includes pressure and momentum flux and so on. Einstein’s equations then tell you that the distribution of different types of energy determines the curvature, and the curvature in return determines the how the distribution of the stress-energy changes.

The way you normally solve these equations is to use a distribution of energies and masses at some initial time. Then you can calculate what the curvature is at that initial time, and you can calculate how the energies and masses will move around and how the curvature changes with that.

So this is what physicists usually mean by a solution of General Relativity. It is a solution for a distribution of mass and energy.

But. You can instead just take any space-time, put it into the left side of Einstein’s equations, and then the equations will tell you what the distribution of mass and energy would have to be to create this space-time.

On a purely technical level, these space-times will then indeed be “solutions” to the equations for whatever is the stress energy tensor you get. The problem is that in this case, the energy distribution which is required to get a particular space-time is in general entirely unphysical.

And that’s the problem with the Alcubierre Drive. It is a solution to a General Relativity, but in and by itself, this is a completely meaningless statement. Any space-time will solve the equations of General Relativity, provided you assume that you have a suitable distribution of masses and energies to create it. The real question is therefore not whether a space-time solves Einstein’s equations, but whether the distribution of mass and energy required to make it a solution to the equations is physically reasonable.

And for the Alcubierre drive the answer is multiple no’s. First, as I already said, it requires negative energy. Second, it requires a huge amount of that. Third, the energy is not conserved. Instead, what you actually do when you write down the Alcubierre space-time, is that you just assume you have something that accelerates it beyond the speed of light barrier. That it’s beyond the barrier is why you need negative energies. And that it accelerates is why you need to feed energy into the system. Please check the info below the video for a technical comment about just what I mean by “energy conservation” here.

Let me then get to the new paper. The new paper is titled “Introducing Physical Warp Drives” and was written by Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martire. I have to warn you that this paper has not yet been peer reviewed. But I have read it and I am pretty confident it will make it through peer review.

In this paper, Bobrick and Martire describe the geometry of a general warp-drive space time. The warp-drive geometry is basically a bubble. It has an inside region, which they call the “passenger area”. In the passenger area, space-time is flat, so there are no gravitational forces. Then the warp drive has a wall of some sort of material that surrounds the passenger area. And then it has an outside region. This outside region has the gravitational field of the warp-drive itself, but the gravitational field falls off and in the far distance one has normal, flat space-time. This is important so you can embed this solution into our actual universe.

What makes this fairly general construction a warp drive is that the passage of time inside of the passenger area can be different from that outside of it. That’s what you need if you have normal objects, like your warp drive passengers, and want to move them faster than the speed of light. You cannot break the speed of light barrier for the passengers themselves relative to space-time. So instead, you keep them moving normally in the bubble, but then you move the bubble itself superluminally.

As I explained earlier, the relevant question is then, what does the wall of the passenger area have to be made of? Is this a physically possible distribution of mass and energy? Bobrick and Martire explain that if you want superluminal motion, you need negative energy densities. If you want acceleration, you need to feed energy and momentum into the system. And the only reason the Alcubierre Drive moves faster than the speed of light is that one simply assumed it does. Suddenly it all makes sense!

I really like this new paper because to me it has really demystified warp drives. Now, you may find this somewhat of a downer because really it says that we still do not know how to accelerate to superluminal speeds. But I think this is a big step forward because now we have a much better mathematical basis to study warp drives.

For example, once you know how the warped space-time looks like, the question comes down to how much energy do you need to achieve a certain acceleration. Bobrick and Martire show that for the Alcubiere drive you can decrease the amount of energy by seating passengers next to each other instead of behind each other, because the amount of energy required depends on the shape of the bubble. The flatter it is in the direction of travel, the less energy you need. For other warp-drives, other geometries may work better. This is the kind of question you can really only address if you have the mathematics in place.

Another reason I find this exciting is that, while it may look now like you can’t do superluminal warp drives, this is only correct if General Relativity is correct. And maybe it is not. Astrophysicists have introduced dark matter and dark energy to explain what they observe, but it is also possible that General Relativity is ultimately not the correct theory for space-time. What does this mean for warp drives? We don’t know. But now we know we have the mathematics to study this question.

So, I think this is a really neat paper, but it also shows that research is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, if you look closer at a really exciting idea, it turns out to be not so exciting. And maybe you’d rather not have known. But I think the only way to make progress is to not be afraid of learning more. 

Note: This paper has not appeared yet. I will post a link here once I have a reference.

You can join the chat on this video on Saturday 11/21 at 12PM EST / 6PM CET or on Sunday 11/22 at 2PM EST / 8PM CET.

We will also have a chat on Black Hole Information loss on Tuesday 11/24 at 8PM EST / 2AM CET and on Wednesday 11/25 at 2PM EST / 8PM CET.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Black Hole information loss problem is unsolved. Because it’s unsolvable.

Hi everybody, welcome and welcome back to science without the gobbledygook. I put in a Wednesday video because last week I came across a particularly bombastically nonsensical claim that I want to debunk for you. The claim is that the black hole information loss problem is “nearing its end”. So today I am here to explain why the black hole information loss problem is not only unsolved but will remain unsolved because it’s for all practical purposes unsolvable.

First of all, what is the black hole information loss problem, or paradox, as it’s sometimes called. It’s an inconsistency in physicists’ currently most fundamental laws of nature, that’s quantum theory and general relativity.

Stephen Hawking showed in the early nineteen-seventies that if you combine these two theories, you find that black holes emit radiation. This radiation is thermal, which means besides the temperature, that determines the average energy of the particles, the radiation is entirely random.

This black hole radiation is now called Hawking Radiation and it carries away mass from the black hole. But the radius of the black hole is proportional to its mass, so if the black hole radiates, it shrinks. And the temperature is inversely proportional to the black hole mass. So, as the black hole shrinks, it gets hotter, and it shrinks even faster. Eventually, it’s completely gone. Physicists refer to this as “black hole evaporation.”

When the black hole has entirely evaporated, all that’s left is this thermal radiation, which only depends on the initial mass, angular momentum, and electric charge of the black hole. This means that besides these three quantities, it does not matter what you formed the black hole from, or what fell in later, the result is the same thermal radiation.

Black hole evaporation, therefore, is irreversible. You cannot tell from the final state – that’s the outcome of the evaporation – what the initial state was that formed the black holes. There are many different initial states that will give the same final state.

The problem is now that this cannot happen in quantum theory. Processes in quantum theory are always time-reversible. There are certainly processes that are in practice irreversible. For example, if you mix dough. You are not going to unmix it, ever. But. According to quantum mechanics, this process is reversible, in principle.

In principle, one initial state of your dough leads to exactly one final state, and using the laws of quantum mechanics you could reverse it, if only you tried hard enough, for ten to the five-hundred billion years or so. It’s the same if you burn paper, or if you die. All these processes are for all practical purposes irreversible. But according to quantum theory, they are not fundamentally irreversible, which means a particular initial state will give you one, and only one, final state. The final state, therefore, tells you what the initial state was, if you have the correct differential equation. For more about differential equations, please check my earlier video.

So you set out to combine quantum theory with gravity, but you get some something that contradicts what you started with. That’s inconsistent. Something is wrong about this. But what? That’s the black hole information loss problem.

Now, four points I want to emphasize here. First, the black hole information loss problem has actually nothing to do with information. John, are you listening? Really the issue is not loss of information, which is an extremely vague phrase, the issue is time irreversibility. General Relativity forces a process on you which cannot be reversed in time, and that is inconsistent with quantum theory.

So it would better be called the black hole time irreversibility problem, but you know how it goes with nomenclature, it doesn’t always make sense. Peanuts aren’t nuts, vacuum cleaners don’t clean the vacuum. Dark energy is neither dark nor energy. And black hole information loss is not about information.

Second, black hole evaporation is not an effect of quantum gravity. You do not need to quantize gravity to do Hawking’s calculation. It merely uses quantum mechanics in the curved background of non-quantized general relativity. Yes, it’s something with quantum and something with gravity. No, it’s not quantum gravity.

The third point is that the measurement process in quantum mechanics does not resolve the black hole information loss problem. Yes, according to the Copenhagen interpretation a quantum measurement is irreversible. But the inconsistency in black hole evaporation occurs before you make a measurement.

And related to this is the fourth point, it does not matter whether you believe time-irreversibility is wrong even leaving aside the measurement. It’s a mathematical inconsistency. Saying that you do not believe one or the other property of the existing theories does not explain how to get rid of the problem.

So, how do you get rid of the black hole information loss problem. Well, the problem comes from combining a certain set of assumptions, doing a calculation, and arriving at a contradiction. This means any solution of the problem will come down to removing or replacing at least one of the assumptions.

Mathematically there are many ways to do that. Even if you do not know anything about black holes or quantum mechanics, that much should be obvious. If you have a set of inconsistent axioms, there are many ways to fix that. It will therefore not come as a surprise to you that physicists have spent the past forty years coming up with always new “solutions” to the black hole information loss problem, yet they can’t agree which one is right.

I have already made a video about possible solutions to the black hole information loss problem, so let me just summarize this really quickly. For details, please check the earlier video.

The simplest solution to the black hole information loss problem is that the disagreement is resolved when the effects of quantum gravity become large, which happens when the black hole has shrunk to a very small size. This simple solution is incredibly unpopular among physicists. Why is that? It’s because we do not have a theory of quantum gravity, so one cannot write papers about it.

Another option is that the black holes do not entirely evaporate and the information is kept in what’s left, usually called a black hole remnant. Yet another way to solve the problem is to simply accept that information is lost and then modify quantum mechanics accordingly. You can also put information on the singularity, because then the evaporation becomes time-reversible.

Or you can modify the topology of space-time. Or you can claim that information is only lost in our universe but it’s preserved somewhere in the multiverse. Or you can claim that black holes are actually fuzzballs made of strings and information creeps out slowly. Or, you can do ‘t Hooft’s antipodal identification and claim what goes in one side comes out the other side, fourier transformed. Or you can invent non-local effects, or superluminal information exchange, or baby universes, and that’s not an exhaustive list.

These solutions are all mathematically consistent. We just don’t know which one of them is correct. And why is that? It’s because we cannot observe black hole evaporation. For the black holes that we know exist the temperature is way, way too small to be observable. It’s below even the temperature of the cosmic microwave background. And even if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be able to catch all that comes out of a black hole, so we couldn’t conclude anything from it.

And without data, the question is not which solution to the problem is correct, but which one you like best. Of course everybody likes their own solution best, so physicists will not agree on a solution, not now, and not in 100 years. This is why the headline that the black hole information loss problem is “coming to an end” is ridiculous. Though, let me mention that I know the author of the piece, George Musser, and he’s a decent guy and, the way this often goes, he didn’t choose the title.

What’s the essay actually about? Well, it’s about yet another proposed solution to the black hole information problem. This one is claiming that if you do Hawking’s calculation thoroughly enough then the evaporation is actually reversible. Is this right? Well, depends on whether you believe the assumptions that they made for this calculation. Similar claims have been made several times before and of course they did not solve the problem.

The real problem here is that too many theoretical physicists don’t understand or do not want to understand that physics is not mathematics. Physics is science. A theory of nature needs to be consistent, yes, but consistency alone is not sufficient. You still need to go and test your theory against observations.

The black hole information loss problem is not a math problem. It’s not like trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis. You cannot solve the black hole information loss problem with math alone. You need data, there is no data, and there won’t be any data. Which is why the black hole information loss problem is for all practical purposes unsolvable.

The next time you read about a supposed solution to the black hole information loss problem, do not ask whether the math is right. Because it probably is, but that isn’t the point. Ask what reason do we have to think that this particular piece of math correctly describes nature. In my opinion, the black hole information loss problem is the most overhyped problem in all of science, and I say that as someone who has published several papers about it.

On Saturday we’ll be talking about warp drives, so don’t forget to subscribe.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Understanding Quantum Mechanics #8: The Tunnel Effect

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below. Parts of the text will not make sense without the graphics in the video.]

Have you heard that quantum mechanics is impossible to understand? You know what, that’s what I was told, too, when I was a student. But twenty years later, I think the reason so many people believe one cannot understand quantum mechanics is because they are constantly being told they can’t understand it. But if you spend some time with quantum mechanics, it’s not remotely as strange and weird as they say. The strangeness only comes in when you try to interpret what it all means. And there’s no better way to illustrate this than the tunnel effect, which is what we will talk about today.

Before we can talk about tunneling, I want to quickly remind you of some general properties of wave-functions, because otherwise nothing I say will make sense. The key feature of quantum mechanics is that we cannot predict the outcome of a measurement. We can only predict the probability of getting a particular outcome. For this, we describe the system we are observing – for example a particle – by a wave-function, usually denoted by the Greek letter Psi. The wave-function takes on complex values, and probabilities can be calculated from it by taking the absolute square.

But how to calculate probabilities is only part of what it takes to do quantum mechanics. We also need to know how the wave-function changes in time. And we calculate this with the Schrödinger equation. To use the Schrödinger equation, you need to know what kind of particle you want to describe, and what the particle interacts with. This information goes into this thing labeled H here, which physicists call the “Hamiltonian”.

To give you an idea for how this works, let us look at the simplest possible case, that’s a massive particle, without spin, that moves in one dimension, without any interaction. In this case, the Hamiltonian merely has a kinetic part which is just the second derivative in the direction the particle travels, divided by twice the mass of the particle. I have called the direction x and the mass m. If you had a particle without quantum behavior – a “classical” particle, as physicists say – that didn’t interact with anything, it would simply move at constant velocity. What happens for a quantum particle? Suppose that initially you know the position of the particle fairly well, so the probability distribution is peaked. I have plotted here an example. Now if you solve the Schrödinger equation for this initial distribution, what happens is the following.

The peak of the probability distribution is moving at constant velocity, that’s the same as for the classical particle. But the width of the distribution is increasing. It’s smearing out. Why is that?

That’s the uncertainty principle. You initially knew the position of the particle quite well. But because of the uncertainty principle, this means you did not know its momentum very well. So there are parts of this wave-function that have a somewhat larger momentum than the average, and therefore a larger velocity, and they run ahead. And then there are some which have a somewhat lower momentum, and a smaller velocity, and they lag behind. So the distribution runs apart. This behavior is called “dispersion”.

Now, the tunnel effect describes what happens if a quantum particle hits an obstacle. Again, let us first look at what happens with a non-quantum particle. Suppose you shoot a ball in the direction of a wall, at a fixed angle. If the kinetic energy, or the initial velocity, is large enough, it will make it to the other side. But if the kinetic energy is too small, the ball will bounce off and come back. And there is a threshold energy that separates the two possibilities.

What happens if you do the same with a quantum particle? This problem is commonly described by using a “potential wall.” I have to warn you that a potential wall is in general not actually a wall, in the sense that it is not made of bricks or something. It is instead just generally a barrier for which a classical particle would have to have an energy above a certain threshold.

So it’s kind of like in the example I just showed with the classical particle crossing over an actual wall, but that’s really just an analogy that I have used for the purpose of visualization.

Mathematically, a potential wall is just a step function that’s zero everywhere except in a finite interval. You then add this potential wall as a function to the Hamiltonian of the Schrödinger equation. Now that we have the equation in place, let us look at what the quantum particle does when it hits the wall. For this, I have numerically integrated the Schrödinger equation I just showed you.

The following animations are slow-motion compared to the earlier one, which is why you cannot see that the wave-function smears out. It still does, it’s just so little that you have to look very closely to see it. It did this because it makes it easier to see what else is happening. Again, what I have plotted here is the probability distribution for the position of the particle.

We will first look at the case when the energy of the quantum particle is much higher than the potential wall. As you can see, not much happens. The quantum particle goes through the barrier. It just gets a few ripples.

Next we look at the case where the energy barrier of the potential wall is much, much higher than the energy of the particle. As you can see, it bounces off and comes back. This is very similar to the classical case.

The most interesting case is when the energy of the particle is smaller than the potential wall but the potential wall is not extremely much higher. In this case, a classical particle would just bounce back. In the quantum case, what happens is this. As you can see, part of the wave-function makes it through to the other side, even though it’s energetically forbidden. And there is a remaining part that bounces back. Let me show you this again.

Now remember that the wave-function tells you what the probability is for something to happen. So what this means is that if you shoot a particle at a wall, then quantum effects allow the particle to sometimes make it to the other side, when this should actually be impossible. The particle “tunnels” through the wall. That’s the tunnel effect.

I hope that these little animations have convinced you that if you actually do the calculation, then tunneling is half as weird as they say it is. It just means that a quantum particle can do some things that a classical particle can’t do. But, wait, I forgot to tell you something...

Here you see the solutions to the Schrödinger equation with and without the potential wall, but for otherwise identical particles with identical energy and momentum. Let us stop this here. If you compare the position of the two peaks, the one that tunneled and the one that never saw a wall, then the peak of the tunneled part of the wave-function has traveled a larger distance in the same time.

If the particle was travelling at or very close by the speed of light, then the peak of the tunneled part of the wave-function seems to have moved faster than the speed of light. Oops.

What is happening? Well, this is where the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics comes to haunt you. If you look at where the faster-than light particles came from in the initial wave-function, then you find that they were the ones which had a head-start at the beginning. Because, remember, the particles did not all start from exactly the same place. They had an uncertainty in the distribution.

Then again, if the wave-function really describes single particles, as most physicists today believe it does, then this explanation makes no sense. Because then only looking at parts of the wave-function is just not an allowed way to define the particle’s time of travel. So then, how do you define the time it takes a particle to travel through a wall? And can the particle really travel faster than the speed of light? That’s a question which physicists still argue about today.

This video was sponsored by Brilliant which is a website that offers interactive courses on a large variety of topics in science and mathematics. I hope this video has given you an idea how quantum mechanics works. But if you really want to understand the tunnel effect, then you have to actively engage with the subject. Brilliant is a great starting point to do exactly this. To get more background on this video’s content, I recommend you look at their courses on quantum objects, differential equations, and probabilities.

To support this channel and learn more about Brilliant, go to and sign up for free. The first 200 subscribers using this link will get 20 percent off their annual premium subscription.

You can join the chat on this week’s video here:
  • Saturday at 12PM EST / 6PM CET (link)
  • Sunday at 2PM EST / 8PM CET (link)

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Understanding Quantum Mechanics #7: Energy Levels

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below. Parts of the text will not make sense without the graphics in the video.]

Today I want to tell you what these plots show. Has anybody seen them before? Yes? Atomic energy levels, right! It’s one of the most important applications of quantum mechanics. And I mean important both historically and scientifically. Today’s topic also a good opportunity to answer a question one of you asked on a previous video “Why do some equations even actually need calculating, as the answer will always be the same?” That’s a really good question. I just love it, because it would never have occurred to me.

Okay, so we want to calculate what electrons do in an atom. Why is this interesting? Because what the electrons do determines the chemical properties of the elements. Basically, the behavior of the electrons explains the whole periodic table: Why do atoms come in particular groups, why do some make good magnets, why are some of them good conductors? The electrons tell you.

How do you find out what the electrons do? You use quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, as we discussed previously, works with wave-functions, usually denoted Psi. Here is Psi. And you calculate what the wave-function does with the Schrödinger equation. Here is the Schrödinger equation.

Now, the way I have written this equation here, it’s completely useless. We know what Psi is, that’s the thing we want to calculate, and we know how to take a time-derivative, but what is H? H is called the “Hamiltonian” and it contains the details about the system you want to describe. The Hamiltonian consists of two parts. The one part tells you what the particles do when you leave them alone and they don’t know anything of each other. So that would be in empty space, with no force acting on them, with no interaction. This is usually called the “kinetic” part of the Hamiltonian, or sometimes the “free” part. Then you have a second part that tells you how the particle, or particles if there are several, interact.
In the simplest case, this interaction term can be written as a potential, usually denoted V. And for an electron near an atomic nucleus, the potential is just the Coulomb potential. So that’s proportional to the charge of the nucleus, and falls with one over r, where r is the distance to the center of the nucleus. There is a constant in front of this term that I have called alpha, but just what it quantifies doesn’t matter for us today. And the kinetic term, for a slow-moving particle is just the square of the spatial derivatives, up to constants.

So, now we have a linear, partial differential equation that we need to solve. I don’t want to go through this calculation, because it’s not so relevant here just how to solve it, let me just say there is no magic involved. It’s pretty straight forward. But there some interesting things to learn from it.

The first interesting thing you find when you solve the Schrödinger equation for electrons in a Coulomb potential is that the solutions fall apart in two different classes. The one type of solution is a wave that can propagate through all of space. We call these the “unbound states”. And the other type of solution is a localized wave, stuck in the potential of the nucleus. It just sits there while oscillating. We call these the “bound states”. The bound states have a negative energy. That’s because you need to put energy in to rip these electrons off the atom.

The next interesting thing you find is that the bound states can be numbered, so you can count them. To count these states, one commonly uses, not one, but three numbers. These numbers are all integers and are usually called n, l, and m.

“n” starts at 1 and then increases, and is commonly called the “principal” quantum number. “l” labels the angular momentum. It starts at zero, but it has to be smaller than n.

So for n equal to one, you have only l equal to zero. For n equal to 2, l can be 0 or 1. For n equal to three, l can be zero, one or two, and so on.

The third number “m” tells you what the electron does in a magnetic field, which is why it’s called the magnetic quantum number. It takes on values from minus l to l. And these three numbers, n l m, together uniquely identify the state of the electron.

Let me then show you how the solutions to the Schrödinger equation look like in this case, because there are more interesting things to learn from it. The wave-functions give you a complex value for each location, and the absolute value tells you the probability of finding the electron. While the wave-function oscillates in time, the probability does not depend on time.

I have here plotted the probability as a function of the radius, so I have integrated over all angular directions. This is for different principal quantum numbers n, but with l and m equal to zero.

You can see that the wave-function has various maxima and minima, but with increasing n, the biggest maximum, so that’s the place you are most likely to find the electron, moves away from the center of the atom. That’s where the idea of electron “shells” comes from. It’s not wrong, but also somewhat misleading. As you can see here, the actual distribution is more complicated.

A super interesting property of these probability distributions is that they are perfectly well-behaved at r equals zero. That’s interesting because, if you remember, we used a Coulomb potential that goes as 1 over r. This potential actually diverges at r equal zero. Nevertheless, the wave-functions avoids this divergence. Some people have argued that actually something similar can avoid that a singularity forms in black holes. Please check the information below the video for a reference.

But these curves show only the radial direction, what about the angular direction? To show you how this looks like, I will plot the probability of finding the electron with a color code for slices through the sphere.

And I will start with showing you the slices for the cases of which you just saw the curves in the radial direction, that is, different n, but with the other numbers at zero.

The more red-white the color, the more likely you are to find the electron. I have kept the radius fix, so this is why the orbitals with small n only make a small blip when we scan through the middle. Here you see it again. Note how the location of the highest probability moves to a larger radius with increasing n.

Then let us look at a case where l is nonzero. This is for example for n=3, l=1 and m equals plus minus 1. As you can see, the distribution splits up in several areas of high probability and now has an orientation. Here is the same for n=4, l=2, m equals plus minus 2. It may appear as if this is no longer spherically symmetric. But actually if you combine all the quantum numbers, you get back spherical symmetry, as it has to be.

Another way to look at the electron probability distributions is to plot them in three dimensions. Personally I prefer the two-dimensional cuts because the color shading contains more information about the probability distribution. But since some people prefer the 3-dimensional plots, let me show you some examples. The surface you see here is the surface inside of which you will find the electron with a probability of 90%. Again you see that thinking of the electrons as sitting on “shells” doesn’t capture very well what is going on.

Now that you have an idea how we calculate atomic energy levels and what they look like, let me then get to the question: Why do we calculate the same things over and over again?

So, this particular calculation of the atomic energy levels was frontier research a century ago. Today students do it as an exercise. The calculations physicists now do in research in atomic physics are considerably more advanced than this example, because we have made a lot of simplifications here.

First, we have neglected that the electron has a spin, though this is fairly easy to integrate. More seriously, we have assumed that the nucleus is a point. It is not. The nucleus has a finite size and it is neither perfectly spherically symmetric, nor does it have a homogeneous charge distribution, which makes the potential much more complicated. Worse, nuclei themselves have energy levels and can wobble. Then the electrons on the outer levels actually interact with the electrons in the inner levels, which we have ignored. There are further corrections from quantum field theory, which we have also ignored. Yet another thing we have ignored is that electrons in the outer shells of large atoms get corrections from special relativity. Indeed, fun fact: without special relativity, gold would not look gold.

And then, for most applications it’s not energy levels of atoms that we want to know, but energy levels of molecules. This is a huge complication. The complication is not that we don’t know the equation. It’s still the Schrödinger equation. It’s also not that we don’t know how to solve it. The problem is, with the methods we currently use, doing these calculations for even moderately sized molecules, takes too long, even on supercomputers.

And that’s an important problem. Because the energy levels of molecules tell you whether a substance is solid or brittle, what its color is, how good it conducts electricity, how it reacts with other molecules, and so on. This is all information you want to have. Indeed, there’s a whole research area devoted to this question, which is called “quantum chemistry”. It also one of the calculations physicists hope to speed up with quantum computers.

So, why do we continue solving the same equation? Because we are improving how good the calculation is, we are developing new methods to solve it more accurately and faster, and we are applying it to new problems. Calculating the energy levels of electrons is not yesterday’s physics, it’s still cutting edge physics today.

If you really want to understand how quantum mechanics works, I recommend you check out Brilliant, who have been sponsoring this video. Brilliant is a website that offers a large variety of interactive courses in mathematics and science, including quantum mechanics, and it’s a great starting point to dig deeper into the topic. For more background on what I just talked about, have a look for example at their courses on quantum objects, differential equations, and linear algebra.  

To support this channel and learn more about Brilliant go to and sign up for free. The first 200 subscribers using this link will get twenty percent off the annual premium subscription.

Thanks for watching, see you next week.

You can join the chat about this video today (Saturday, Nov 7) at 6pm CET or tomorrow at the same time.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Guestpost: "Launch of the Initiative 'For a Smarter Science'" by Daniel Moreno

[This post was written by Daniel Moreno]

I remember when I first told a professor at my home University that I wanted to do a PhD and become a researcher. I was expecting him to react with enthusiasm and excitement, yet his response was a warning. That was the first clue I received about the academic world's inefficiencies, although I did not realize to what extent until many years later.

I was a postdoctoral researcher for six years after finishing my PhD in 2013, working on areas such as holographic QCD, numerical General Relativity and gravity dualities. It all came to an end last year, and I decided to rekindle an idea I developed with Sabine back in 2016, one that never came to fruition, but which has now turned into my current project, under the name 'For a Smarter Science'.

The precariousness of our scientific system is a topic of common discussion among informal circles in academic events and institutions. It should be familiar to readers of this blog, as well as it is to researchers from the many fields of Science. During lunch with colleagues, dinners with invited speakers, conference coffee breaks… conversation commonly drifts toward some version of it.

Increasing numbers of publications of decreasing relevance. Increasing numbers of temporary contracts of decreasing stability. Acceptance of bad scientific practice to the benefit of bare productivity. These are some of the criticisms and complaints, prompting warnings to young researchers.

Our initiative brings no original solution to any of these problems. It actually brings questions: What would happen if there existed a formal platform to discuss the current state of academic culture? What if there was a scientific method to approach issues about the way Science is done today?

If unsupervised, human structures tend to evolve in a predictable way. Issues such as the ones mentioned above are sociological issues, they form a sociological trend. This can be, and is, studied by experts who have been writing on the topic for decades. Educated analyses published in peer-reviewed journals.

These studies largely go unnoticed and/or dismissed by the people involved in the very scientific fields they talk about, for a variety of reasons. The assumption that social topics are naturally subjects of informal conversation only, the belief that intelligent people are not affected by cognitive biases, or the selection of like-minded people by the academic system itself, leading to communal reinforcement.

And so, the academic wheel continues running along the railway already set in front of it, with no one there to steer its course. Short-term thinking permeates research. Researchers go from one application deadline to the next. Academic metrics go unquestioned.

Our proposal is simple. One conference. One formal event bringing together experts from a specific subfield of Science (high energy theoretical physics) and from Sociology of Science, to elevate these questions to well-informed discussion. We trust that such an event has the potential to trigger a positive change in the historical development of all of Science.

Of course, not everyone necessarily agrees with the idea that scientific progress is being discouraged by the current peculiarities of the academic culture. This is why we find it fitting to fund the event by means of a crowd-funding call. Its success will be an effective measure of how worthy of consideration the scientific community considers these discussions. Are they just light topics for chit-chat during coffee breaks, or is it time to pause and actually examine the social evolution that scientific careers have been following?

This initiative is for all those who have been waiting for a chance to do something about the state of modern scientific research. Writing posts and discussing with our colleagues can only take us so far. If you believe in the place of Science as a shining light for human progress, make your voice be heard. #ForaSmarterScience