Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You - Marcus Chown (2007)




Passing farther through the quantum land our travelers met quite a lot of other interesting phenomena, such as quantum mosquitoes, which could scarcely be located at all, owing to their small mass.

George Gamow

He must be going mad. Only moments before he had parked his shiny red Ferrari in the garage. He had even stood there on the driveway, admiring his pride and joy until the last possible moment, as the automatic door swung shut. But then as he crunched across the gravel to his front door there had been a curious rustling of the air, a faint tremor of the ground. He had wheeled round. And there, squatting back on his driveway, in front of the still-locked garage doors, was his beautiful red Ferrari!

Such Houdini-like feats of escapology are never of course seen in the everyday world. In the realm of the ultrasmall, however, they are a common occurrence. One instant an atom can be locked up in a microscopic prison; the next it has shed its shackles and slipped away silently into the night.

This miraculous ability to escape escape-proof prisons is entirely due to the wavelike face of microscopic particles, which enables atoms and their constituents to do all the things that waves can do. And one of the many things waves can do is penetrate apparently impenetrable barriers. This is not an obvious or well-known wave property. But it can be demonstrated by a light beam travelling through a block of glass and trying to escape into the air beyond.

The key thing is what happens at the edge of the glass block, the boundary where the glass meets the air. If the light happens to strike the boundary at a shallow angle, it gets reflected back into the glass block and fails to escape into the air beyond. In effect, it is imprisoned in the glass. However, something radically different happens if another block of glass is brought close to the boundary, leaving a small gap of air between the two blocks. Just as before, some of the light is reflected back into the glass. But—and this is the crucial thing—some of the light now leaps the air gap and travels into the second glass block.

The parallel between the Ferrari escaping its garage and the light escaping the block of glass may not be very obvious. However, for all intents and purposes, the air gap should be just as impenetrable a barrier to the light as the garage walls are to the Ferrari.

The reason the light wave can penetrate the barrier and escape from the block of glass is that a wave is not a localised thing but something spread out through space. So when the light waves strike the glass-air boundary and are reflected back into the glass, they are not actually reflected from the exact boundary of the glass. Instead, they penetrate a short distance into the air beyond. Consequently, if they encounter another block of glass before they can turn back, they can continue on their way. Place a second glass block within a hair’s breadth of the first and, hey presto, the light jumps the air gap and escapes its prison.

This ability to penetrate an apparently impenetrable barrier is common to all types of waves, from light waves to sound waves to the probability waves associated with atoms. It therefore manifests itself in the microscopic world. Arguably, the most striking example is the phenomenon of alpha decay in which an alpha particle breaks out of the apparently escape-proof prison of an atomic nucleus.


An alpha particle is the nucleus of a helium atom. An unstable, or radioactive, nucleus sometimes spits out an alpha particle in a desperate attempt to turn itself into a lighter and more stable nucleus. The process poses a big puzzle, however. By rights, an alpha particle should not be able to get out of a nucleus.

Think of an Olympic high jumper penned in by a 5-metre-high metal fence. Even though he is one of the best high jumpers in the world, there is no way he can jump over a fence that high. No human being alive has sufficient strength in their legs. Well, an alpha particle inside an atomic nucleus finds itself in a similar position. The barrier that pens it in is created by the nuclear forces that operate inside a nucleus, but it is just as impenetrable a barrier to the alpha particle as the solid metal fence is to the high jumper.

Contrary to all expectations, however, alpha particles do escape from atomic nuclei. And their escape is entirely due to their wavelike face. Like light waves trapped in a glass block, they can penetrate an apparently impenetrable barrier and slip away quietly into the outside world.

This process is called quantum tunnelling and alpha particles are said to “tunnel” out of an atomic nucleus. Tunnelling is actually an instance of a more general phenomenon known as uncertainty, which puts a fundamental limit on what we can and cannot know about the microscopic world. The double slit experiment is an excellent demonstration of uncertainty.


The reason a microscopic particle like an electron can go through both slits in the screen simultaneously is that it can exist as a superposition of two waves—one wave corresponding to the particle going through one slit and the other to the particle going through the other slit. But that is not sufficient to guarantee that its schizophrenic behaviour will be noticed. For that to happen, an interference pattern must appear on the second screen. But this, of course, requires the individual waves in the superposition to interfere. The fact that interference is a crucial ingredient for the electron to exhibit weird quantum behaviour turns out to have profound implications for what nature permits us to know about the electron.

Say in the double slit experiment we try to locate the slit each electron goes through. If we succeed, the interference pattern on the second screen disappears. After all, interference requires that two things mingle. If the electron and its associated probability wave go through only one slit, there is only one thing.

How, in practice, could we locate which slit an electron goes through? Well, to make the double slit experiment a bit easier to visualise, think of an electron as a bullet from a machine gun and the screen as a thick metal sheet with two vertical parallel slits. When bullets are fired at the screen, some enter the slits and go through. Think of the slits as deep channels cut through the thick metal. The bullets ricochet off the internal walls of the channels and by this means reach the second screen. They can obviously hit any point on the second screen. But, for simplicity, imagine they end up at the midpoint of the second screen. Also for simplicity, say that at this point the probability waves associated with the bullets interfere constructively, so it is a place that gets peppered with lots of bullets.

Now, when a bullet ricochets off the inside of a slit, it causes the metal screen to recoil in the opposite direction. It’s the same if you are playing tennis and a fast serve ricochets off your racquet. Your racquet recoils in the opposite direction. Crucially, the recoil of the screen can be used to deduce which slit a bullet goes through. After all, if the screen moves to the left, the bullet must have gone through the left-hand slit; if it moves to the right, it must have been the right-hand slit.

However, we know that if we locate which slit a bullet goes through, it destroys the interference pattern on the second screen. This is straightforward to understand from the wave point of view. We are as unlikely to see one thing interfere with itself as we are to hear the sound of one hand clapping. But how do we make sense of things from the equally valid particle point of view?

Remember that the interference pattern on the second screen is like a supermarket bar code. It consists of vertical “stripes” where no bullets hit, alternating with vertical stripes where lots of bullets hit. For simplicity, think of the stripes as black and white. The key question therefore is: From the bullet’s point of view, what would it take to destroy the interference pattern?

The answer is a little bit of sideways jitter. If each bullet, instead of flying unerringly towards a black stripe, possesses a little sideways jitter in its trajectory so that it can hit either the black stripe or an adjacent white stripe, this will be sufficient to “smear out” the interference pattern. Stripes that were formerly white will become blacker, and stripes that were formerly black will become whiter. The net result will be a uniform gray. The interference pattern will be smeared out.

Because it must be impossible to tell whether a given bullet will hit a black stripe or an adjacent white stripe (or vice versa), the jittery sideways motion of each bullet must be entirely unpredictable. And all this must come to pass for no other reason than that we are locating which slit each bullet goes through by the recoil of the screen.

In other words, the very act of pinning down the location of a particle like an electron adds unpredictable jitter, making its velocity uncertain. And the opposite is true as well. The act of pinning down the velocity of a particle makes its location uncertain. The first person to recognise and quantify this effect was the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, and it is called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in his honour.

According to the uncertainty principle, it is impossible to know both the location and the velocity of a microscopic particle with complete certainty. There is a trade-off, however. The more precisely its location is pinned down, the more uncertain is its velocity. And the more precisely its velocity is pinned down, the more uncertain its location.

Imagine if this constraint also applied to what we could know about the everyday world. If we had precise knowledge of the speed of a jet aeroplane, we would not be able to tell whether it was over London or New York. And if we had precise knowledge of the location of the aeroplane, we would be unable to tell whether it was cruising at 1,000 kilometres per hour or 1 kilometre per hour—and about to plummet out of the sky.

The uncertainty principle exists to protect quantum theory. If you could measure the properties of atoms and their like better than the uncertainty principle permits, you would destroy their wave behaviour—specifically, interference. And without interference, quantum theory would be impossible. Measuring the position and velocity of a particle with greater accuracy than the uncertainty principle dictates must therefore be impossible. Because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, when we try to look closely at the microscopic world, it starts to get fuzzy, like a newspaper picture that has been overmagnified. Infuriatingly, nature does not permit us to measure precisely all we would like to measure. There is a limit to our knowledge.

This limit is not simply a quirk of the double slit experiment. It is fundamental. As Richard Feynman remarked: “No one has ever found (or even thought of) a way around the uncertainty principle. Nor are they ever likely to.”

It is because alpha particles have a wavelike character that they can escape the apparently escape-proof prison of an atomic nucleus.

However, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle makes it possible to understand the phenomenon from the particle point of view.


Recall that an alpha particle in a nucleus is like an Olympic high jumper corralled by a 5-metre-high fence. Common sense says that it is moving about inside the nucleus with insufficient speed to launch itself over the barrier. But common sense applies only to the everyday world, not to the microscopic world. Ensnared in its nuclear prison, the alpha particle is very localised in space—that is, its position is pinned down with great accuracy. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, then, its velocity must necessarily be very uncertain. It could, in other words, be much greater than we think. And if it is greater, then, contrary to all expectations, the alpha particle can leap out of the nucleus—a feat comparable to the Olympic high jumper jumping the 5-metre fence.

Alpha particles emerge into the world outside their prison as surprisingly as the Ferrari emerged into the world outside its garage. And this “tunnelling” is due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. But tunnelling is a two-way process. Not only can subatomic particles like alpha particles tunnel out of a nucleus, they can tunnel into it too. In fact, such tunnelling in reverse helps explain a great mystery: why the Sun shines.


The Sun generates heat by gluing together protons—the nuclei of hydrogen atoms—to make the nuclei of helium atoms.1 This nuclear fusion produces as a by-product a dam burst of nuclear binding energy, which ultimately emerges from the Sun as sunlight.

But hydrogen fusion has a problem. The force of attraction that glues together protons—the “strong nuclear force”—has an extremely short range. For two protons in the Sun to come under its influence and be snapped together, they must pass extremely close to each other. But two protons, by virtue of their similar electric charge, repel each other ferociously. To overcome this fierce repulsion, the protons must collide at enormous speed. In practice, this requires the core of the Sun, where nuclear fusion goes on, to be at an extremely high temperature.

Physicists calculated the necessary temperature in the 1920s, just as soon as it was suspected that the Sun was running on hydrogen fusion. It turned out to be roughly 10 billion degrees. This, however, posed a problem. The temperature at the heart of the Sun was known to be only about 15 million degrees—roughly a thousand times lower. By rights, the Sun should not be shining at all. Enter the German physicist Fritz Houtermans and the English astronomer Robert Atkinson.

When a proton in the core of the Sun approaches another proton and is pushed back by its fierce repulsion, it is just as if it encounters a high brick wall surrounding the second proton. At the 15 million degrees temperature in the heart of the Sun, the proton would appear to be moving far too slowly to jump the wall. However, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle changes everything.

In 1929, Houtermans and Atkinson carried out the relevant calculations. They discovered that the first proton can tunnel through the apparently impenetrable barrier around the second proton and successfully fuse with it even at the ultralow temperature of 15 million degrees. What is more, this explains perfectly the observed heat output of the Sun.

The night after Houtermans and Atkinson did the calculation, Houtermans reportedly tried to impress his girlfriend with a line that nobody in history had used before. As they stood beneath a perfect moonless sky, he boasted that he was the only person in the world who knew why the stars were shining. It must have worked. Two years later, Charlotte Riefenstahl agreed to marry him. (Actually, she married him twice, but that’s another story.)

Sunlight apart, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle explains something much closer to home: the very existence of the atoms in our bodies.


By 1911 the Cambridge experiments of New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford had revealed the atom as resembling a miniature solar system. Tiny electrons flitted about a compact atomic nucleus much like planets around the Sun. However, according to Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, an orbiting electron should radiate light energy and, within a mere hundred-millionth of a second, spiral into the nucleus. “Atoms,” as Richard Feynman pointed out, “are completely impossible from the classical point of view.” But atoms do exist. And the explanation comes from quantum theory.

An electron cannot get too close to a nucleus because, if it did, its location in space would be very precisely known. But according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, this would mean that its velocity would be very uncertain. It could become enormously huge.

Imagine an angry bee in a shrinking box. The smaller the box gets, the angrier the bee and the more violently it batters itself against the walls of its prison. This is pretty much the way an electron behaves in an atom. If it were squeezed into the nucleus itself, it would acquire an enormous speed—far too great to stay confined in the nucleus.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which explains why electrons do not spiral into their nuclei, is therefore the ultimate reason why the ground beneath our feet is solid. But the principle does more than simply explain the existence of atoms and the solidity of matter. It explains why atoms are so big—or at least so much bigger than the nuclei at their cores.


Recall that a typical atom is about 100,000 times bigger than the nucleus at its centre. Understanding why there is such a fantastic amount of empty space in atoms requires being a bit more precise about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Strictly speaking, it says that it is a particle’s position and momentum—rather than just its velocity—that cannot simultaneously be determined with 100 per cent certainty.

The momentum of a particle is the product of its mass and velocity. It’s really just a measure of how difficult it is to stop something that is moving. A train, for instance, has a lot of momentum compared to a car, even if the car is going faster. A proton in an atomic nucleus is about 2,000 times more massive than an electron. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, then, if a proton and an electron are confined in the same volume of space, the electron will be moving about 2,000 times faster.

Already, we get an inkling of why the electrons in an atom must have a far bigger volume to fly about in than the protons and neutrons in the nucleus. But atoms are not just 2,000 times bigger than their nuclei; they are more like 100,000 times bigger. Why?

The answer is that an electron in an atom and a proton in a nucleus are not in the grip of the same force. While the nuclear particles are held by the powerful “strong nuclear” force, the electrons are held by the much weaker electric force. Think of the electrons flying about the nucleus attached to gossamer threads of elastic while the protons and the neutrons are constrained by elastic 50 times thicker. Here is the explanation for why the atom is a whopping 100,000 times bigger than the nucleus.

But the electrons in an atom do not orbit at one particular distance from the nucleus. They are permitted to orbit at a range of distances. Explaining this requires resorting to yet another wave picture—this one involving organ pipes!


There are always many different ways of looking at things in the quantum world, each a glimpse of a truth that is frustratingly elusive. One way is to think of the probability waves associated with an atom’s electrons as being like sound waves confined to an organ pipe. It is not possible to make just any note with the organ pipe. The sound can vibrate in only a limited number of different ways, each with a definite pitch, or frequency.

This turns out to be a general property of waves, not just sound waves. In a confined space they can exist only at particular, definite frequencies.

Now think of an electron in an atom. It behaves like a wave. And it is gripped tightly by the electrical force of the atomic nucleus. This may not be exactly the same as being trapped in a physical container. However, it confines the electron wave as surely as the wall of an organ pipe confines a sound wave. The electron wave can therefore exist at only certain frequencies.

The frequencies of the sound waves in an organ pipe and of the electron waves in an atom depend on the characteristics of the organ pipe—a small organ pipe, for instance, produces higher-pitched notes than a big organ pipe—and on the characteristics of the electrical force of the atomic nucleus. In general, though, there is lowest, or fundamental, frequency and a series of higher-frequency “overtones.”

A higher-frequency wave has more peaks and troughs in a given space. It is choppier, more violent. In the case of an atom, such a wave corresponds to a faster-moving, more energetic electron. And a faster-moving, more energetic electron is able to defy the electrical attraction of the nucleus and orbit farther away.

The picture that emerges is of an electron that is permitted to orbit at only certain special distances from the nucleus. This is quite unlike our solar system where a planet such as Earth could, in principle, orbit at any distance whatsoever from the Sun.

This property highlights another important difference between the microscopic world of atoms and the everyday world. In the everyday world, all things are continuous—a planet can orbit the Sun anywhere it likes, people can be any weight they like—whereas things in the microscopic world are discontinuous—an electron can exist in only certain orbits around a nucleus, light and matter can come in only certain indivisible chunks. Physicists call the chunks quanta—which is why the physics of the microscopic world is known as quantum theory.

The innermost orbit of an electron in an atom is determined by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle—by its hornetlike resistance to being confined in a small space. But the Heisenberg uncertainty principle does not simply prevent small things like atoms from shrinking without limit—ultimately explaining the solidity of matter. It also prevents far bigger things from shrinking without limit. The far bigger things in question are stars.


A star is a giant ball of gas held together by the gravitational pull of its own matter. That pull is constantly trying to shrink the star and, if unopposed, would very quickly collapse it down to the merest speck—a black hole. For the Sun this would take less than half an hour. Since the Sun is very definitely not shrinking down to a speck, there must be another force counteracting gravity. There is. It comes from the hot matter inside. The Sun—along with every other normal star—is in a delicate state of balance, with the inward force of gravity exactly matched by the outward force of its hot interior.

This balance, however, is temporary. The outward force can be maintained only while there is fuel to burn and keep the star hot. Sooner or later, the fuel will run out. For the Sun this will occur in about another 5 billion years. When this happens, gravity will be king. Unopposed, it will crush the star, shrinking it ever smaller.

But all is not lost. In the dense, hot environment inside a star, frequent and violent collisions between high-speed atoms strip them of their electrons, creating a plasma, a gas of atomic nuclei mixed in with a gas of electrons. It is the tiny electrons that unexpectedly come to the rescue of the fast-shrinking star. As the electrons in the star’s matter are jammed ever closer together, they buzz about ever more violently because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. They batter anything trying to confine them, and this collective battering results in a tremendous outward force. Eventually, it is enough to slow and halt the shrinkage of the star.

A new balance is struck with the inward pull of gravity balanced not by the outward force of the star’s hot matter but by the naked force of its electrons. Physicists call it degeneracy pressure. But it’s just a fancy term for the resistance of electrons to being squeezed too close together. A star supported against gravity by electron pressure is known as a white dwarf. Little more than the size of Earth and occupying about a millionth of the star’s former volume, a white dwarf is an enormously dense object. A sugarcube of its matter weighs as much as a car!

One day the Sun will become a white dwarf. Such stars have no means of replenishing their lost heat. They are nothing more than stellar embers, cooling inexorably and gradually fading from view. But the electron pressure that prevents white dwarfs from shrinking under their own gravity has its limits. The more massive a star, the stronger its self-gravity. If the star is massive enough, its gravity will be powerful enough to overcome even the stiff resistance of the star’s electrons.

In fact, the star is sabotaged from both outside and inside. The stronger the gravity of a star, the more it squeezes the gas inside. And the more a gas is squeezed, the hotter it gets, as anyone who has used a bicycle pump knows. Since heat is nothing more than the microscopic jiggling of matter, the electrons inside the star fly about ever faster—so fast, in fact, that the effects of relativity become important.2 The electrons get more massive rather than much faster, which means they are less effective at battering the walls of their prison.

The star suffers a double whammy—crushed by stronger gravity and simultaneously robbed of the ability to fight back. The two effects combine to ensure that the heaviest a white dwarf can be is a mere 40 per cent more massive than the Sun. If a star is heavier than this “Chandrasekhar limit”, electron pressure is powerless to halt its headlong collapse and it just goes on shrinking.

But, once again, all is not lost. Eventually, the star shrinks so much that its electrons, despite their tremendous aversion to being confined in a small volume, are actually squeezed into the atomic nuclei. There they react with protons to form neutrons, so that the whole star becomes one giant mass of neutrons.

Recall that all particles of matter—not just electrons—resist being confined because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Neutrons are thousands of times more massive than electrons. They therefore have to be squeezed into a volume thousands of times smaller to begin to put up significant resistance. In fact, they have to be squeezed together until they are virtually touching before they finally halt the shrinkage of the star.

A star supported against gravity by neutron degeneracy pressure is known as a neutron star. In effect, it is a huge atomic nucleus with all the empty space squeezed out of its matter. Since atoms are mostly empty space, with their nuclei 100,000 times smaller than their surrounding cloud of orbiting electrons, neutron stars are 100,000 times smaller than a normal star. This makes them only about 15 kilometres across, not much bigger than Mount Everest. So dense is a neutron star that a sugarcube of its matter weighs as much as the entire human race. (This, of course, is an illustration of just how much empty space there is in all of us. Squeeze it all out and humanity would fit in your hand.)

Such stars are thought to form violently in supernova explosions. While the outer regions of a star are blown into space, the inner core shrinks to form a neutron star. Neutron stars, being tiny and cold, ought to be difficult to spot. However, they are born spinning very fast and produce lighthouse beams of radio waves that flash around the sky. Such pulsating neutron stars, or simply pulsars, semaphore their existence to astronomers.


White dwarfs and neutron stars apart, perhaps the most remarkable consequence of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is the modern picture of empty space. It simply cannot be empty!

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle can be reformulated to say that it is impossible to simultaneously measure the energy of a particle and the interval of time for which it has been in existence. Consequently, if we consider what happens in a region of empty space in a very tiny interval of time, there will be a large uncertainty in the energy content of that region. In other words, energy can appear out of nothing!

Now, mass is a form of energy.3 This means that mass too can appear out of nothing. The proviso is that it can appear only for a mere split second before disappearing again. The laws of nature, which usually prevent things from appearing out of nothing, appear to turn a blind eye to events that happen too quickly. It’s rather like a teenager’s dad not noticing his son has borrowed the car for the night as long as it gets put back in the garage before daybreak.

In practice, mass is conjured out of empty space in the form of microscopic particles of matter. The quantum vacuum is actually a seething morass of microscopic particles such as electrons popping into existence and then vanishing again.4 And this is no mere theory. It actually has observable consequences. The roiling sea of the quantum vacuum actually buffets the outer electrons in atoms, very slightly changing the energy of the light they give out.5

The fact that the laws of nature permit something to come out of nothing has not escaped cosmologists, people who think about the origin of the Universe. Could it be, they wonder, that the entire Universe is nothing more than a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum? It’s an extraordinary thought.

1 See Chapter 8, “E = mc2 and the Weight of Sunshine.”

2 See Chapter 7, “The Death of Space and Time.”

3 See Chapter 8, “E = mc2 and the Weight of Sunlight.”

4 Actually, every particle created is created alongside its antiparticle, a particle with opposite properties. So a negatively charged electron is always created with a positively charged positron.

5 This effect is called the Lamb shift.