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Young's Double Slit Experiment

Quantum Version of the Double Slit Experiment


Young's Double Slit Experiment

A depiction of Thomas Young's double slit experiment, with particle and wave predictions.

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In the early 1900s, the question remained how light - which was now recognized to travel in particle-like "bundles" of quantized energy, called photons - could also exhibit the behavior of waves. Certainly, a bunch of water atoms (particles) when acting together form waves. Maybe this was something similar.

One Photon at a Time

It became possible to have a light source that was set up so that it emitted one photon at a time. This would be, literally, like hurling microscopic ball bearings through the slits. By setting up a screen that was sensitive enough to detect a single photon, you could determine whether there were or were not interference patterns in this case.

One way to do this is to have a sensitive film set up and run the experiment over a period of time, then look at the film to see what the pattern of light on the screen is. Just such an experiment was performed and, in fact, it matched Young's version identically - alternating light and dark bands, seemingly resulting from wave interference.

This result both confirms and bewilders the wave theory. In this case, photons are being emitted individually. There is literally no way for wave interference to take place, because each photon can only go through a single slit at a time. But the wave interference is observed. How is this possible? Well, the attempt to answer that question has spawned many intriguing interpretations of quantum physics, from the Copenhagen interpretation to the many-worlds interpretation.

It Gets Even Stranger

Now assume that you conduct the same experiment, with one change. You place a detector that can tell whether or not the photon passes through a given slit. If we know the photon passes through one slit, then it cannot pass through the other slit to interfere with itself.

It turns out that when you add the detector, the bands disappear! You perform the exact same experiment, but only add a simple measurement at an earlier phase, and the result of the experiment changes drastically.

Something about the act of measuring which slit is used removed the wave element completely. At this point, the photons acted exactly as we'd expect a particle to behave. The very uncertainty in position is related, somehow, to the manifestation of wave effects.

More Particles

Over the years, the experiment has been conducted in a number of different ways. In 1961, Claus Jonsson performed the experiment with electrons, and it conformed with Young's behavior, creating interference patterns on the observation screen. Jonsson's version of the experiment was voted "the most beautiful experiment" by Physics World readers in 2002.

In 1974, technology became able to perform the experiment by releasing a single electron at a time. Again, the interference patterns showed up. But when a detector is placed at the slit, the interference once again disappears. The experiment was again performed in 1989 by a Japanese team that was able to use much more refined equipment.

The experiment has been performed with photons, electrons, and atoms, and each time the same result becomes obvious - something about measuring the position of the particle at the slit removes the wave behavior. Many theories exist to explain why, but so far much of it is still conjecture.

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