Thursday, November 14, 2013

Duality Duel

I've pretended a couple of times that I know enough about physics to describe something called "wave-particle duality." It's the phenomenon where a single subatomic particle, like an electron, sometimes behaves like a particle and sometimes like a wave, and is one of the central weirdnesses of what's called "quantum behavior."

The quirk is that any experiment designed to measure electrons if they're waves will find them to be waves, but an experiment designed to measure them if they're particles will find them to be particles. In essence, as near as we can tell, they're both things at the same time. Mathematical formulas can express this duality, but plain old language can't handle it quite so well.

Of course, once you conglomerate electrons along with other little subatomic whatsits and get atoms and molecules and platypi, they lose this duality. A platypus is pretty much a solid object -- which means it's a small, furry, web-footed "particle," so to speak. It's not a wave.

However, some scientists at the University of Vienna have gotten a large molecule to behave like the electron and exhibit wavelike characteristics when measured as a wave and particle-like characteristics when measured as a particle. The molecule, which goes by the designation C284H190F320N4S12, has 800 atoms and is made up of Carbon, Hydrogen, Fluorine, Nitrogen and Sulfur. By comparison, water has three atoms, goes by the designation H2O and is made up of Hydrogen and Oxygen.

Now, a molecule with 800 atoms, though gigantic by quantum standards, is still smaller than a virus. But it's not a huge amount smaller, which leads researchers to wonder if they can create quantum behavior in still larger objects.

Rumors that wave-particle duality is at the root of the age-old philosophical observation that "sometimes you feel like a nut...and sometimes you don't" are, as yet, unfounded.

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