In a First, Physicists Glimpse a Quantum Ghost
Artist’s impression of electrons within a semiconductor being accelerated and energized by laser pulses. At the end of the process, the electrons release a burst of light carrying information about their quantum wave function. Credit: Brian Long
The wave function—an abstract concept used to predict the behavior of quantum particles—is the bedrock on which physicists have built their understanding of quantum mechanics. But this bedrock itself is not something physicists have a perfect grasp of, literally or philosophically. A wave function is not something one can hold in their hand or put under a microscope. And confusingly, some of its properties simply seem not to be real. In fact, mathematicians would openly label them as imaginary: so-called imaginary numbers—which arise from seemingly nonsensical feats such as taking the square roots of negative integers—are an important ingredient of a wave function’s well-proved power to forecast the results of real-world experiments. In short, if a wave function can be said to “exist” at all, it does so at the hazy crossroads between metaphysical mathematics and physical reality.
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