A shocking new study on quantum mechanics is igniting discussion in the scientific community as it found that breaking and trapping the pieces of electrons’ wave functions may change quantum mechanics forever. A team of scientists from Brown University has looked more closely at electrons trapped in liquid helium cooled to near absolute zero. They found the bubbles caused by the electrons within the helium varied in size. They theorized that the wave function of the electron had broken apart. More exciting, they think, is that one of the pieces, or helium bubbles, must contain the actual electron. The study has been published in the Journal of Low Temperature Physics.
Quantum mechanics consists of extremely complicated mathematical formulas that describe the position, energy and momentum of particles. Electrons, the smallest particles of an atom, only exist as oscillations. They are never still and their position can never be truly determined. It is just as appropriate to ask when is an electron as where. Because they do not have distinct positions in space, they exist as a wave function, or a probability distribution. Electrons move really fast – so fast they cannot be caught, but scientists can isolate the tiny area an electron is likely to be in. Depending on the shape of its movements, there is a higher probability it will be in some places inside that region than others.
Now scientists believe they can go farther and isolate parts of the area of distribution and cordon them off from one another. Researchers have been curious about the behavior of electrons within liquid helium since the 1960s. When electrons are injected into a tube of extremely cold helium they repel the helium atoms and form bubbles approximately 3.6 nanometers across. Or at least they should. If the electrons formed uniform bubbles they would all sink to the bottom of the tube at the same rate, but some bubbles move faster than others. Decades ago scientists identified 14 distinct objects of varying size that sank more quickly than others. They hypothesized that these bubbles had picked up some impurities or were affected by ions within the helium.
Then Humphrey Maris, a professor of physics at Brown University, and his colleagues, including Nobel Laureate Leon Cooper, performed the electron mobility tests with an increased sensitivity. They identified 18 distinct objects that sank faster. In addition, they found other bubbles that moved even more rarely. They discovered that there were an infinite number of objects with a continuous distribution of sizes. Their discoveries about wave function may forever change the understanding of quantum mechanics.
Maris and Cooper realized they were looking not at the complete wave functions of electrons, but at the results of a fission of the wave functions. The wave functions broke into pieces, with smaller pieces forming smaller bubbles and moving through the helium faster. When electrons were injected into the helium it was assumed that some passed through the helium and some bounced off the surface of the liquid. The new tests suggest that some of the areas of probable distribution of electrons break apart. The size and speed of the bubbles depends on the size of the piece of wave function.
If the physicists are correct, then some of the wave function pieces must actually hold the electron and others do not. It may be possible in the future to narrow down the location of an electron. Dividing and trapping pieces of the wave function can increase the likelihood of finding the electron. Maris compares it to lottery tickets. There are many tickets sold for one game, but one is a guaranteed winner.
Quantum mechanics moves easily into theoretical physics. If the electron is found, the wave function should break down because something cannot exist as a probability and a fact at the same time. Everything is energy and motion at the quantum level. If that motion is stopped then matter as scientists understand it may break down.
The new study does not purport to locate electrons, but the idea that the wave function can be broken and exist in pieces whether they hold the electron or not is fascinating. It furthers human understanding of what the universe is made up of. Breaking and trapping the pieces of electrons’ wave functions may change some core principles of quantum mechanics forever.
By: Rebecca Savastio