Why does quantum mechanics seem so strange?

The answer is that the amount of energy in a quantum is minuscule compared to that of an everyday object, macroscopic. So small is this energy that objects of ordinary size, those that behave according to human intuition, act as if the energy were exchanged continuously, not by how much. In other words: macroscopic objects move very differently from very small ones, those that are the size of atoms, nucleons or electrons. The root of the understanding problem that quantum mechanics suffers from is that the movement of very small bodies is so different from that of macroscopic ones that it is incomprehensible to us human beings.

The description, both scientific and intuitive, of the movement of everyday objects is based on a vital concept: that of trajectory. This is defined as the curve in space that a body travels when moving. Each point of a trajectory can be assigned a time instant and a speed. It is such a logical way of describing the movement that no one thinks that it could be done in another way.

Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, is a mechanics without trajectories and that is the fundamental reason why it is difficult to understand. An electron does not move around an atomic nucleus following a circumference, an ellipse or another type of curve, since to define a trajectory it is necessary to know, at the same time, the exact position and speed of the electron, something that prohibits one of the the pillars of quantum mechanics: the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If the position of a particle were fixed with complete precision, the speed would be completely indeterminate. If it is the speed that is known precisely, the particle is completely delocalized. Surprising as it may be, experiments demonstrate the validity of this behavior.

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In macroscopic objects, this principle is apparently meaningless. It would be as if when measuring the speed of a car with a traffic radar, the position of the vehicle remains indeterminate. The more precise the radar measurement, the more dislocated the vehicle would be and could be several kilometers from the measurement point just because a radar has determined its speed. However, analogous things do happen to an electron.

In fact, the rare ones are the macroscopic objects, which do not seem to be affected by a fundamental law of motion, such as that energy is transmitted in terms of how much. The strange thing is that macroscopic objects move along paths, not that very small objects don’t. Due to their large size, everyday objects hide the true nature of the movement.

Actually, quantum mechanics is one more example of physical theories having scopes. Classical mechanics and its trajectories are a valid description when the energies exchanged are gigantic compared to the value of a quantum. A car drifts when its speed is measured, but the accuracy with which a speed camera measures its speed is so poor that the drift will also be minimal, so small that it could be millionths of a millimeter or less, so it is not noticeable .

A typical example, which gives a clue as to how this works, is the idea that, to see an object, you have to illuminate it, that is, send light to it so that it is reflected and returns to the eyes or to the detector. Light can be understood as a stream of photons, particles that carry quanta of energy. When a two-ton car is illuminated, the vehicle is not disturbed by impacts. If you want to see an electron by having a photon hit it, the collision will send the electron well away from where it was. Measuring a position alters the motion of a body. When it is a macroscopic one, the alteration is negligible, but that is because it is a gigantic object compared to the value of a quantum, not because that is normal.

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The universe is not strange. What happens is that human intuition is only an approximate way of understanding its laws.



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