Infinite Wavelength of Stationary Particle

A particle does not have a wave function with respect to itself; but for any observer, the uncertainty principle tells us that if a particle could be known to have any exact velocity (and in particular if it is known to be in the observer’s rest frame with a velocity of zero) then its position would be completely unknown – and in the case of zero velocity this would make the wave function constant. (Of course, in practice we never know either the position or the momentum exactly, and this corresponds to the mathematical fact that the constant amplitude wave-function is not normalizable.)

A typical realistic position space wave function is in the form of a wave packet which has an amplitude representing the probability density multiplied by a complex phase factor which oscillates (or more precisely rotates around the unit circle in the complex plane) at a frequency corresponding to the average observed velocity. As the velocity goes to zero, the wavelength of those phase oscillations goes to infinity and the wavefunction just looks like a bump of almost constant phase. But this infinite wavelength does not mean that the wavefunction is constant, and the shape of its amplitude envelope means that its fourier transform includes contributions from frequencies other than that corresponding to the average observed velocity (and so the momentum space wave function is also a bump with width related to that in position space by the uncertainty principle).

wave-particle duality

The concept of wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics is just a way of expressing the fact that many of the physical phenomena we observe (such as the interaction of light with matter and the propagation of electrons through a crystal) are not well predicted by intuitive classical models (eg of light as waves or of electrons as discrete particles), and that in some cases it looks more as if light is made up of discrete particles and electrons propagate as waves. Quantum mechanics is a mathematical model which always predicts what we do see in all situations, with the classical wave-like and particle-like behaviour being limiting cases predicted in exactly the situations that we do see them (which for light is usually more wave-like as the scale or strength of the signals is increased and more particle-like for small scale and/or very faint signals and for matter more the other way around).

“Basis Vector” Confusion

A Quora question asks: “The wave function is contained in a Hilbert space while its basis vectors aren’t because plane waves are not square-integrable functions. Is this true for all Hilbert spaces or only for the square-integrable sub-space?”

My response: There are a number of ways you are misusing the language here, and I thought at first that your main misunderstanding may be to think that an element of a Hilbert space has its own set of basis vectors – while in quantum theories the choice of a relevant basis is more often related to an observable than to a state. But perhaps you are not associating the “basis” with a particular wave function, and rather thinking of it as associated with the position space representation as a whole. That makes more sense so let’s go back and try to describe the situation more clearly.

A wave function is a representation of an element of the Hilbert space of quantum states by a square integrable function (but the space of such functions is actually isomorphic to the entire state space as a whole and not just a proper sub-space). There are many such representations, sometimes with associated ways of identifying bases and sometimes not. In particular for any observable with purely discrete spectrum (such as the Hamiltonian of a harmonic oscillator) there is a basis of eigenvectors, and every state is represented by a square summable sequence corresponding to its spectral decomposition. Unfortunately the position and momentum observables have pure continuous spectrum and no eigenvectors, so the corresponding representations involve elements from some larger space. The usual “position space” wave function corresponds to the spectral decomposition of the position operator, and the analogue of basis vectors are actually not functions at all but rather distributions (in particular delta functions). The plane waves on the other hand are (position-space representations of) eigenfunctions of the momentum operator (but again not eigenvectors since not in the Hilbert space).

So in the end I might answer your question by saying that there is only one Hilbert space of states but that any complete set of observables can be used to represent it in terms of square integrable functions (or sequences); and that it is only in the case of pure point spectrum that the resulting spectral decomposition can be described in terms of an actual basis, while observables with continuous spectrum generally require some kind of generalized basis involving functions or distributions that do not actually correspond to normalizable states.

Waves vs Particles

A Quora question asks: Can we measure wave properties of particles or is my contention that ‘waves travel but particles are detected’ correct?

You are right that the actual values of the quantum “wave function” are not generally observable and that the things we can actually measure are usually more like properties of particles.

But there are some ways of getting partial information about the wave function itself. For example chemistry and molecular structure gives us a way of learning about the squared magnitude of the wave function when it is a “standing wave” and a scanning tunneling microscope even gives us a more direct picture of that. And the relationships between phases at different points sometimes lead to observable effects in solid state theory and in the Aharonov-Bohm effect.

Chemistry

The Pauli exclusion principle allows us to approximate the wave functions of valence electrons by treating the inner electrons and nucleus together as a single source of potential; and then by treating the ionic cores as fixed we can solve the Schrodinger equation for the valence electrons and calculate its lowest energy level as a function of the relative coordinates of the cores. Minimizing that function then allows us to determine the optimal bond lengths and their relative orientations.

Why do people have different definitions of quantum? Is quantum mechanics a logically consistent, self-consistent theory?

Quantum Mechanics is not a single theory. In the past there have been other attempts to describe the fundamental aspects of physics which used the word “quantum” in various different senses, but to most physicists nowadays it is a class of theories characterized by the property of having the “pure states” of an isolated system represented by rank one projectors (or equivalently rays or unit vectors) in a complex Hilbert space – and by a rule for predicting the probability distributions of outcomes for various possible experimental observations. Each such theory is internally consistent, but that doesn’t mean either that they are necessarily correct in their predictions or consistent with either one another or with other theories about the physical world.

Wigner’s Friend

If we define both the observer and the “observed” as both being part of say an even bigger system, would the wave function still collapse in this system?

This conundrum is known as the Wigner’s Friend problem, though it is also often asked with reference to Schrodinger’s cat.

In my opinion its best resolution is in the understanding that the wave function or quantum state is not a property of the system itself but of its relationship to an observer, and I think this view is a better reading of what Hugh Everett was describing in his “Relative State” interpretation of quantum mechanics [which was re-presented later (mostly by others) as a “Many Worlds” interpretation where observations (and other interactions) continually cause the creation of new “branches” (in a way that Everett himself apparently once described as “bullshit” in a marginal note on someone else’s elaboration of the MWI)].

Is observation required for collapse?

Whether or not observation is the only way in which a wave function can collapse depends on what you mean by “collapse”, and that word is used by various people in reference to different aspects of the measurement and observation process – which can be considered as happening in two stages.

The setting involves a system in a pure quantum state which may have been prepared as an eigenstate of some observable (such as spin relative to a particular direction), and so is a nontrivial superposition of eigenstates of some other observable (such as spin relative to a different axis) which we now want to measure.

In the first stage, the system of interest interacts with a larger more complex system which is not fully known and so is in a statistical mixture of pure states (represented by a density matrix rather than a single state vector). If the larger system is suitably designed as a measuring apparatus, then the interaction leads to the state of the combined system approaching a statistical mixture of states in which the subsystem of interest is in an eigenstate of the observable and the measurement apparatus is in a related state which involves some macroscopic feature (such as a pointer, a readout panel, or a bright spot on a phosphor screen) which has a corresponding humanly visible value. Henceforth the system acts as if it is in just one eigenstate which is not yet known but is subject to classical probabilities. This process eliminates the possibility of future interference between the eigenstates that was possible while the state of the system was in a pure state (represented by a coherent wave function) and so is often called “decoherence”; and since it reduces the system to being effectively in just one eigenstate it is often identified with “collapse of the wave function”. It actually happens in almost any interaction with a complex system (even when there is no humanly visible related macroscopic property of the system). So, for those who identify decoherence as collapse, it is indeed possible for collapse to occur without observation.

But after this kind of “collapse” we still don’t know what the measured value actually is, even though we can think of it as having just one of several precise values – each with some known probability.

The second stage of the observation process is where the conscious observer notices which value is present. Some people think of this as where the “collapse” happens, but here it is not really collapse of the wave function but rather of the classical probability distribution (similar to the case of a coin toss which starts of in a stochastically mixed state and collapses to just one case when we see the result).

The difference from a coin toss is that in that case we assume that all along the system was really in whatever particular state we eventually observe, and that state could have been determined with certainty just by making more observations at the start; whereas in the quantum situation the uncertainty seems to be essential until we actually experience the result. This leads to a philosophical problem for those who think that the quantum state is a property of the system itself rather than of its relation to the observer as it seems to imply that the experience of a conscious observer has some physical effect on the universe and raises the problem of Wigner’s friend who watches an experiment before Wigner does and seems to collapse the wave function even though the friend is himself just a complex quantum system who Wigner sees with a wave function that does not collapse until the information reaches his (Wigner’s) own mind.

To my mind this is resolved by seeing the quantum state as a description not of the universe but of its relationship to the observer; and I think this view is a better reading of what Hugh Everett was describing in his “Relative State” interpretation of quantum mechanics which was re-presented later (mostly by others) as a “Many Worlds” interpretation where observations (and other interactions) continually cause the creation of new “branches” (in a way that Everett himself apparently once described as “bullshit” in a marginal note on someone else’s elaboration of the MWI).

Does an observer modify the observed?

What many people misunderstand is that in quantum theories the “state” of a system is not a property of the system itself but rather of how it appears to an observer.

There are actually at least two stages to the observation process. One is when the system of interest interacts with the much more complex system of a measurement apparatus whose precise quantum state is too complex for the observer to keep track of and so has to be expressed as a statistical mixture. This can have the effect of causing the combined system, in which the observed subsystem was initially in a pure “coherent” superposition state (with interference still being possible between different possible observed eigenvalues), to end up very close to a statistical mixture in which each possible measured value of the observed quantity has a well defined value with no interference between them. This “decoherence” process can be caused by interaction with any sufficiently complex system (even, as Viktor Toth notes, just a brick) and it does modify the observed (as does any interaction with anything – even just another simple quantum system). But it still leaves the actual value of the observation unspecified. The “collapse” process, which identifies which particular value has occurred, only happens in the mind of the observer whose conscious experience corresponds to just one of many possible histories of the universe. But this doesn’t modify the observed – at least no more than it modifies everything in the universe that is dependent on that observed value. (For example if we are in a room together and I see a red flash then the you that I see will also see a red flash, but if you see a blue flash then the I that you see will also have seen a blue flash.)

In QM, how can all people see something and all report the same thing? Wouldn’t 1 person’s observation cause their reality to branch off?

Quantum physics, without any additional “interpretation”, is just a tool for predicting the probabilities of various possible future observations from knowledge of other observations we have made in the past. To do so, it summarizes the observer’s previous observations (up to the point of the observer’s last interaction with the system) in what is called the “state” of the system relative to that observer. Any new observation ends the period of isolation of the system from the observer and so requires that a new relative state be defined taking into account the result of the most recent observation.

(Actually the “observer” of the system here doesn’t have to be a person or any other conscious entity. Any other physical system that it could interact with will do – with observations just corresponding to changes of the state of the observing system relative to any other “external” observer.)

It turns out that all observers who are isolated from the system during an experiment, and who start with the same information about the system, can use the same mathematical object to represent its relative state and for making predictions about the outcome; and this has led to the idea that the state is somehow completely independent of the observer – with various convoluted “interpretations” being added to “explain” what is “really” going on. But none of these adds anything in the way of useful predictions, and they all lead to various kinds of seeming paradox which get seriously multiplied if you mix different “interpretations” (as pointed out in Johann Holzel’s answer ).

Actually, if some friend, or other observers, (or just other physical systems) observe (or just interact with) the system before you do, then the states of the system relative to them “collapse” in the sense that after the observation (or other interaction) the probabilities of future observations are changed (with some becoming no longer possible and others more likely). But the state of the system relative to you does not collapse until you interact with it – either directly (eg by observing it yourself), or indirectly (eg by observing or communicating with your friend).

Usually it is quite hard to keep things isolated, and so just by being in the same room and sharing contact with the same air and ambient radiation you are effectively always interacting with your friend; so even without consciously learning what the friend has observed you have access to that information and so the collapse occurs for you too at the same time as for the friend. But if we were to keep the friend completely isolated in a pure quantum state (which is not possible for a real person, or even a cat, but might be possible for another microscopic system as the “observer”), then the combination of experimental system and “friend” could be in a pure state relative to you which remains uncollapsed until you actually learn the outcome (either by observing the system directly or by checking with your friend).

But as soon as we have been in contact with one another, the you that I see will agree with me about the experiment, and the me that you see will agree with you.