This is the first part in my series on parapsychological double-slit experiments. However, this post contains just straightforward mainstream science. This tells you the minimum about quantum physics that you need to know to make sense of the parapsychological adaptation.
In a double-slit experiment, particles are shot at a barrier with two slits or holes in it. The particles are usually electrons or photons but large molecules, such as C70 bucky balls, have also been used.
Behind the barrier, there is a detector. In the case of photons, aka light, you can simply put a piece of cardboard there and see a special pattern projected onto it.
The interference pattern indicates that a wave is passing through the double-slits.
In a nutshell, when a wave crest encounters another wave crest, their heights will add. When a crest encounters a trough, they will cancel out. That is called interference. This can be seen when throwing two stones into a pond. It will look like this:
The simple and obvious explanation for what can be seen in the double-slit experiment is that there are waves coming from either slit and interfering, as can be seen in this diagram:
This is curious since we thought we were shooting particles at the slits. Particles shouldn’t show interference. Think of kicking a ball at two windows. Have you ever noticed an interference pattern in such a situation? Or in any?
So how can it be that a particle behaves like a wave? The answer is given by quantum mechanics.
Quantum means ‘amount’ and there’s quite a story behind ‘amount mechanics’ and how it was discovered and why it is so named. It involves Einstein but this is not the place to tell it.
For one, in order to get an interference pattern, the size of the slits needs to match the wavelength of the particles. Just in case you were wondering why kicking a ball at two windows does not produce interference.
We think of as particles having a definite state. They have a location and a momentum.
However, it turns out that location and momentum, and a couple other properties, can’t be known with arbitrary precision. Not because of some technological limitation but because of the very laws of physics.
Going even further, it is so that the very state of a particle, or even many particles together, can only be known in terms of probabilities. A quantum mechanical description of something is known as a wavefunction and allows you to predict with what probability you will observe a certain outcome.
As the name wavefunction implies, these probabilities behave mathematically like waves.
When you shoot a particle at the double-slits, it might go through either slit. There is a probability of finding it at or behind either slit. The probabilities of finding it in some place spread from both slits like waves. The probability waves from both slit interfering is what causes the interference pattern.
Note that this pattern only emerges when you have a sufficient number of particles. One particle leaves behind only one blip on the screen behind the double slits. But even when you shoot one particle at a time, the pattern will eventually emerge. Where it is more likely to find a particle, more particles will be found.
Now we have the basics down. This is how double-slit experiment works.
Now we need to ask, what happens if we try to determine through which slit the particle went?
The simple answer is that if the particle has to have come from either slit, then the probability wave only spreads from that one slit. And that means no interference.
Whenever such ‘which-way information’ exists then there is no interference pattern. In fact, how much contrast there is in the pattern depends on how much information there is. (see Wootters and Zurek 1979)
In an experiment with C70 bucky balls, these molecules were heated as they went through the slits. They were made so hot that they glowed, they gave off thermal photons. These photons carried which-way information from the bucky balls to the environment. The hotter they were, the more photons they gave off and the less pronounced the interference pattern was.
Here you can see the interference patterns obtained when different intensities of heating were applied (given in Watts).
Collisions with air molecules play the same role. The higher the pressure is, the less pronounced the interference pattern.
Warning! Philosophy ahead!
Now we must head into the somewhat murkier waters of philosophy.
In quantum mechanics everything is all about probabilities. And as the interference pattern shows, in some way these probabilities are real. If they weren’t real, the probability waves could hardly interfere.
And yet, on the screen we get a single blip for each particle. Not a ‘maybe here, maybe there’.
At first, you have a wavefunction that goes through both slits, and then, on the detector, you have a single definite location (within in the limits of the uncertainty principle).
That is known as the measurement problem.
Obviously, interactions with the environment play some role to explain this. We have seen that in the experiment with the bucky balls. Such processes cause so-called decoherence which causes interference phenomena to be suppressed in everyday situations.
However, this, most say, cannot be the entire solution. Even if there is no interference, the particle is still described only in terms of probabilities, as a wavefunction. So why do we perceive a seemingly definite outcome?
One answer to this is taking the math at face value. The wavefunction is all there is and all that matters. In that view, all possibilities are equally real. You perceiving the blip on one end of the screen or on the other, both happens. In a way, the universe splits up into different versions for each outcome. Of course, there is really just one wavefunction describing it all, so that’s more what it appears to us than reality.
This view is known as the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI).
Another answer is that the wavefunction collapses on measurement. That means that when we perceive a definite outcome, then this outcome is really all there is. Something happened to reduce the probabilities down to one actuality.
That means that another physical process must be assumed. And it is absolutely unknown when or why or how it happens. Not to mention if.
That view is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation.
So far this is just philosophy. Both these views are interpretations of the same experiments and the same theories. The math and the predictions stay the same, whether you think that all possibilities are true or just the one you experience. There are many variants of these views, especially of the Copenhagen Interpretation.
One particular variant of the Copenhagen Interpretation holds that the collapse takes place when consciousness gets involved. This view was held by some big names like Von Neumann or Wigner but is decidedly a minority opinion now. In my opinion that’s because no one has figured out a way in which a conscious observer should be different from any old measurement device. But I’ll just leave it at pointing out that there is no evidence for this view, just like there is no evidence that collapse is real or not.
It has also been argued that this view is incompatible with experimental evidence. Though I think most physicist would rather regard the view as being unfalsifiable philosophy. Eventually all experiments we know of came into the awareness of at least one conscious being (That’s you, my dear reader. Not humble me.).
Put that way, consciousness causes collapse is awfully close to solipsism.