What’s Behind the Science in Science Fiction – Part 4: Light Behaving Badly

Last time covered how sometimes light behaves like a particle and others like a wave along with how the double-slit experiment was used to demonstrate these properties. For example, if a steady light comprised of numerous individual photons hit a plate with one tiny slit to allow them through, rather than getting a line that matched the slit on the opposing wall it would be spread out in a pattern that was concentrated toward the center and fuzzy around the edges. (See picture below.)


When they used a plate that had two slits a single photon would leave a dot, as expected, but by continuing to release them one at a time they would eventually form an interference pattern, the same as what resulted from a steady light source. It was as if each photon had a mind of its own yet collectively they would arrange themselves in a certain pattern. While exactly where each photon would arrive couldn’t be predicted, the pattern itself could be, based on the wavelength of the light. Thus there was a certain probability that a photon would arrive in a certain place, some more than others, but which exact one would go where was unknown.

It was apparent they couldn’t predict exactly where a single photon would land but if it was a discrete particle of light then it followed that it would go through one slit or the other. (Remember that the interference pattern resulted because there were two slits so the waves could overlap.) Thus, scientists, the first of whom was Thomas Young (1773-1829), decided to find out which slit of the two choices each photon went through. To do so they polarized the light going through each slit in a different way with the detector on the other side capable of telling the difference. The photon could still theoretically “choose” which slit (or both) it would go through, but they would be able to tell which one by its polarization when it arrived on the detector.

Sneaky. But outsmarting Mother Nature is not an easy task.

Much to their surprise, when they sent one photon at a time toward the slits where it was polarized the interference pattern did not emerge!


Instead, they got random spots of light which indicated individual particles. Polarizing the light did not destroy its ability to build interference patterns so this didn’t make sense. The results implied that when they set things up so that they’d know whether the photon went through one slit or the other that the individual photons lost their right to choose and behaved like a particle. In other words, the probability wave function had collapsed when the final result would be determined.

In other words, the photon can change from a wave to a particle when someone is trying to figure out exactly what it’s going to do. When someone is watching, it behaves like a particle that not only goes through one opening or the other but loses its wave properties as well.

Say what?

Back then the expression WTF? didn’t exist yet, but something along those lines was definitely what was going through numerous scientific minds. By all appearances, if someone was watching, i.e. measuring the outcome, then the probability wave collapsed and the photons acted like particles.

Thinking perhaps this was because they were polarizing the photons before they went through one slit or the other, even though they knew that didn’t stop the light from forming an interference pattern, they rigged things up to determine which slit it had gone through afterwards. Much to their surprise they got the same result as before, a rain of itinerant particles, as if each photon had either known in advance or perhaps even went back in time, deciding how to behave.

This introduced the concept of an observer affecting the outcome. Suddenly consciousness was part of the mix, or at least seemed to be since there was no other explanation. Of course physicists who deal exclusively with the physical world were less than enchanted by all this woo-woo stuff. Thus began the philosophical notion of whether or not a tree that fell in the forest made a sound if no one was there to hear it. May I remind you that these are very intelligent people we’re dealing with here and while some of them may not be wrapped to tight as they walk the genius-insanity interface; nonetheless, they are a whole lot smarter than the rest of us.


Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance” and didn’t believe it, even though he was the one who theorized that energy and matter were essentially the same as expressed by his famous equation E=mc2. To this day people are still arguing about this aspect of quantum theory with different conclusions. Is it possible that an observer or some form of consciousness can influence physical matter? Do we, indeed, create our own reality?

What do you think?

(Diagrams courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

What’s Behind the Science in Science Fiction? Part Two – Atomic Theory


I know you’re anxious to get to the good stuff like other dimensions and time travel, but you need to be patient just a little longer. After all, this blog is about what’s behind the science in science fiction, not the final result. Think of it as similar to those documentaries you see on TV which explain how they do the special effects in your favorite movies. I don’t know about you, but knowing how they do that makes me appreciate the movie even more. If you couldn’t care less, then you’re probably reading the wrong blog and need to just go back to reading sci-fi novels. Those who are left need to just bear with me a little longer as I explain the basics of atomic theory which is more relevant than you may think. Ready? Okay, here we go.

As far back as 400 BC or so early Greek philosophers pondered what constituted matter and decided that it could only be divided down so far, from which atomic theory was born. The term “atom” even originated with their adjective atomos, which means indivisible. Back then the elements were believed to be water, air, earth and fire. Clearly they are all important, particularly to life, but not a one of them is an actual element in the chemical sense.

However, proving it was another story and it wasn’t until the 18th – 19th century that scientists gradually discovered that water was comprised of hydrogen and oxygen; air is mostly nitrogen with hydrogen, oxygen and various others in the mix; earth is made up of too many elements to count; and fire is a process that involves oxygen and thus called oxidation but isn’t an element in and of itself. As they confirmed that certain chemicals could only be broken down so far the Periodic Table of the Elements was born. Periodically more are added (pun intended) though in most cases they are manmade.


By the early 20th century experiments involving electromagnetism and radioactivity revealed that, would the truth be known, the atom was not indivisible after all, but consisted of other particles which were identified as protons, neutrons and electrons. These were suitably dubbed subatomic or elementary particles and scientists conveniently ignored the fact that the etymology of the word “atom” no longer applied, figuring most people didn’t know Greek, anyway.

How these subatomic particles were arranged was a matter of debate that went through numerous speculations. J. J. Thomson’s idea was sometimes referred to the “plum pudding” model where protons and electrons were lumped together in a glob of positively charged fluid. After that, Ernest Rutherford decided that the positive charge as well as most of the mass were concentrated in the center with the electrons surrounding it in some unknown way.

In 1913 Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, proposed his version of the hydrogen atom which remains the mental image many retain today, i.e., a nucleus in the center with electrons revolving around it much as the planets orbit the Sun as shown at the beginning of this blog. Bohr still believed that electrons orbited the nucleus but he placed restrictions on them to certain discrete distances or allowed orbits so that it would agree with what experiments thus far had revealed. At this point they considered the electrons to be itty-bitty particles that orbited the nucleus according to the laws of classical mechanics, in other words like the planets orbit the Sun.

The electrons would change orbits based on either emitting or absorbing a photon, as shown in the animation. This was getting closer, but still had problems.

Nonetheless, the idea of specific orbits was a definite step toward quantum theory and the fact that only specific energy states were allowed. The real problem was thinking of electrons as tiny specks of matter which behaved according to Newton’s Laws pertaining to gravitation. WRONG!


In 1924 a scientist named Louis de Broglie (pronounced de-broy) proposed that all moving particles could exhibit wave-like behavior. Erwin Schrodinger liked this idea and developed it further, into a probability wave. This theory helped explain behaviors that previous ones couldn’t but still didn’t cover everything. This was ultimately solved by Max Born (no relation to Jason Bourne) who theorized that Schrodinger’s equation represented all possible positions where the electron might possibly be. This conveniently reconciled the two ideas and the wave/particle duality of electrons was born (pun intended).

However, trying to figure out the atom was not taking place in the proverbial vacuum (though admittedly some experiments were). During this same time numerous other scientists were hard at work investigating what interested them most and ultimately led to so many different scientific disciplines. Things were getting too complicated for any one person to have a firm grip on everything anymore.

Light was also under scrutiny since it was apparent that atoms and electromagnetic radiation (a.k.a. light) were related. If you’re scratching your head on where that came from, it derived from having established that atoms emit a photon when they change states, like that cute little animation shows. And in case you’re wondering, yes, even the Sun, our greatest source of energy and light, is no more than a giant glob comprised mostly of hydrogen atoms which bond with each other under pressure to become helium at which time a photon is emitted. Lots of them, true, but that’s the process. Simple.

Most people think of light as what we can see which is conveniently broken down into its various colors by a prism or in some cases a rainstorm that occurs when the Sun is out and thus produces a rainbow. Visible light, however, is but one small portion of what is known as the “Electromagnetic Spectrum.” It also includes various other wavelengths that span a vast variety of wavelengths and energies ranging from radio waves and infrared (heat) on one side to ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma radiation on the other. In the picture you can see the rather small portion of visible light in the middle where it looks like a rainbow.


Albert Einstein theorized that similar to matter, light could also only be broken down so far, the smallest unit of which was ultimately called a photon. He even proved it and received the Nobel Prize for his paper on the photoelectric effect, which stated that a photon could change an atom’s energy state and that principle is used widely today with all those automatic doors you encounter everywhere from the grocery store to Wal*Mart.

Physicists conducted numerous experiments with light which revealed that it, too, had both wave and particle characteristics. Since photons originate with atoms the fact that they share some of the same characteristics shouldn’t be any more surprising than the fact your have your father’s nose or your mother’s smile. True, photons are massless, but electrons aren’t. Nonetheless, they also show wave and particle traits.

This is a good place to ponder Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC2, which states energy is equal to mass times the square of the speed of light. If you rearrange it algebraically you have energy divided by the square of the speed of light is equal to mass, which essentially declares that mass and energy are the same thing.

Now we’re getting into the good stuff. So give that some thought until next time when I introduce you to the true beginnings of weird science which originated with something called the double-slit experiment.

See you then.

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