Back in 1905, Albert Einstein, who was just 26 years old, proposed something quite extraordinary: that light could exist as both a wave and a particle. This idea may seem peculiar, as particles are small and confined to a tiny space, while waves spread out. Particles hit one another and scatter about, while waves refract and diffract, adding on or canceling each other out in superpositions.
These behaviors are vastly different. However, the problem with this wave-particle duality is that language struggles to accommodate both behaviors from the same object. Language is constructed from our experiences, emotions, and the things we see and feel. We are not able to directly perceive or sense photons. Instead, we have to explore their nature using experimental set-ups and collect information through monitors, counters, and other tools.
The behavior of photons depends on how we conduct our experiment. If light passes through narrow slits, it behaves like a wave, while colliding with electrons causes it to scatter like a particle. Therefore, the physical nature of light is determined by the experiment and the question being asked.
This adds a new element to physics, as the observer’s interaction with the observed affects the results. In some interpretations, the experimenter’s intention determines the physical reality being observed, but we can say for sure that light responds differently depending on the question being asked. Light is both a wave and a particle, yet it is neither.
In the year 1924, a noteworthy physicist by the name of Louis de Broglie, who had previously worked as a historian, made a groundbreaking discovery.
He proposed that the electron’s orbits, which were depicted as step-like in Bohr’s atomic model, could be explained by imagining the electron as a collection of standing waves that envelop the nucleus. The waves have a similar appearance to those that we observe when we shake a rope that is anchored at one end.
The standing wave pattern
The standing wave pattern comes about for the rope due to the constructive and destructive interference between the waves that move back and forth along the rope.
In the case of the electron, the standing waves emerge for the same reason, but the electron wave closes in on itself like an ouroboros, the mythical serpent that swallows its own tail. When the rope is shaken more vigorously, the pattern of standing waves displays more peaks. Similarly, an electron in higher orbits corresponds to a standing wave with more peaks. This concept revolutionized the field of physics by providing a new way of understanding the behavior of electrons in atoms.
As FreeThink.com notes, with Einstein’s enthusiastic support, de Broglie boldly extended the notion of wave-particle duality from light to electrons and, “by extension, to every moving material object. Not only light, but matter of any kind was associated with waves.”
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