Sunday, October 24, 2010

Explaining electron spin and Pauli exclusion principle to children

Fundamental particles are the building blocks of nature, of which the photon and the electron have the most visible impact on our everyday life. Photons are all pervasive. If they have the right energy, they can stimulate your eyes' photoreceptor cells. At other energies they will warm you up because they radiate from a warm object. Electrons are more energetic than the photons. They can either be free in space, or bound in atoms. Through their motion, they transmit motion to photons, which in turn can excite other electrons at distant places. This phenomenon, known as electromagnetism, is used in all wireless transmissions. Photons are the electromagnetic force carriers and electrons are the electromagnetic force sources.

In order to understand the behavior of photons and electrons, it is important to have analogies that help us keeping track of them. In previous posts, I mentioned some helpful analogies for photons (for example at this post on polarization). Although electrons also show wave behavior, they act a bit differently from photons. You can not stack electrons near to one another, except if they have compatible spinning motions. For spinning motions to be compatible means that the electrons must:
  • either spin at rates whose proportions are expressed with integers: for example one electron spins twice as fast as the other electron,
  • or spin in different directions, if they spin with the same velocity.
I sometimes come across situations that remind me of electrons. If you're standing in the bus or in the metro, you grip a pole to keep equilibrium. In the metro-train in my Paris suburb, the poles occur in pairs, like in the picture aside. When my children were younger, one of their favorite games was to spin around those poles. For parents, if you let your kids spin around the poles disorderedly, this game can be quite stressful, ending with fighting or crying. I used to explain to them that they had to spin like electrons in atoms. If one kid spins in one direction, the other kid needs to spin in opposite direction, in order to avoid hard clashes. I recently asked them if they could do it again so that I could put it on movie and post it to illustrate this electron analogy. But they've grown up and are now ashamed to play such games:-) So I decided to create the following simple animations that illustrate the electron spin and the Pauli exclusion principle.

Right-hand grip ruleA kid spinning around the pole is alike an electron spinning around a proton in its state of minimum energy, see Figure 1. Physicists designate the spinning direction with the help of the right hand rule. The kid of Figure 1 therefore has its spin down.

If your second kid spins in the same direction around the other pole, you can be sure that this game won't last for long. Their motions are incompatible and it ends up with a clash, see Figure 2.

If you want them to play peacefully, you need to instruct them to follow a natural rule: the Pauli exclusion principle, illustrated in Figure 3. Electrons with same spinning velocity and sharing the same space can only occur if their spins are opposite. Very useful rule to keep harmony in the family!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Volume of a bead vs. volume of a sphere

Imagine you drill a hole through the center of a sphere. The remaining object (a bead, if we think of a little pearl with a hole) has an interesting property as pointed out by Pat Ballew on his blog at the end of this post. Whatever the radius of the initial sphere, the volume of the bead depends only on its height h (see following figure taken from Pat's blog). More precisely, its volume is the same as the volume of a sphere with diameter h. A proof of this property has been given by Pat in a later post.

As I was thinking about it, I thought about another way to prove it, inspired by Mamikon's visual calculus method.

If we think of a plane parallel to the axis of the bead and tangent to its inner cylindrical surface, the intersection of the bead and the plane is a disk of diameter h. If we now rotate the plane around the axis for a whole turn such that it remains tangent to the inner surface, the disk will also rotate a whole turn, as if it sweeps the volume of a sphere of diameter h.

Post scriptum. Afterwards I found a drawing of such a bead in Mamikon's original notes (see second page of his drawings).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

In memoriam: Georges Charpak and Maurice Allais

Time goes by and people die. And so do great scientists. There is Benoit Mandelbrot (November 20, 1924 – October 14, 2010) who developed the study of fractals, because he "decided to go into fields where mathematicians would never go because problems were badly stated". Two others, less known in the English speaking world and who are an example to me have also left us recently. I name: Georges Charpak and Maurice Allais.

Georges Charpak (March 8, 1924 – September 29, 2010) was born in the little town Dubrovytsia located in a region where the political and social situation was very complicated at that time. The region was essentially populated with Ukrainian and Yiddish speaking people. It had suffered the post-WW1 Polish-Russian war and belonged to Poland at the time of his birth. Charpak's family had the opportunity to flee to France, which saved him from later WW2 exterminations of Jews in his natal country. In France, the situation was much better, Georges calling it even "paradise". During the 1920-30s, there was a tolerant spirit in France, allowing him to make friends with people of all origin. The Nazi occupation of France during WW2 brought new dangers for him. He had to change his name to George Charpentier, entered the French Resistance, he was imprisoned, participated to mutiny in the prison, escaped the punishment fusillade for the mutineers (he heard the ball flying around his ears). He was deported to the concentration camp of Dachau and was saved from extermination again because the Nazis could use his young guy's force in Dachau instead of sending him to more severe camps. His career as an experimental physicist started after the war with a thesis on particle detectors in Frédéric Joliot-Curie's group. He excelled in building simple detectors. His wire-detectors slightly replaced the historical bubble and ionization-chambers. He further worked at CERN and one of his detectors, the multi wire proportional chamber ("not the most elegant" in his words), earned him the Nobel in 1992. He also lectured at the ESPCI, where I'm currently PhD student. Apart from this exceptional course, after his Nobel, he had the nobility of mind to start a hands-on program for elementary school students "La Main à la Pâte" (literally Hand in the dough). I am fond of such initiatives because it brings experimental physics nearer to us. It is always preferable to first discover by ourselves how Nature works before learning how to formulate its laws through math. Too often, we learn the formula of a physical law before having experimented it personally.
"If there's one thing to do, it's to engage in education." ~ Georges Charpak.

Maurice Allais (May 31, 1911 – October 9, 2010) was born earlier, before WW1. His father died in a German prison during WW1. Early loss of his father left a profound mark on the rest of his life. He devoted his life to the comprehension of all things he encountered. His passions were history, science, economics, physics. He excelled in all disciplines during his education. He had the opportunity to visit the United States in 1933 and was so impressed by the Great Depression and the inability to solve the crisis, that he studied by himself the principles that would secure economic wealth. The life-long product of this work earned him the Nobel Economics in 1988. I'm not a specialist in Economics, but as far as I understand, one of his findings (before other economists) is the Golden rule of savings rate, which states that the rate of interest a banker applies should be equal to the rate of economic growth: an equilibrium law applied to economics. At the beginning of his professional career, Maurice Allais taught economics at the Ecole des Mines. I suppose Georges Charpak, student at that same school, must have followed some of his lectures (*footnote). While Georges Charpak engaged in "normal" physics, Maurice Allais pondered over the foundations of physics. He wasn't satisfied about the interpretation of relativity and quantum theories. As a physicist, he needed to find it out for himself. In the 19th century tradition, against mainstream, he began to conduct experiments on a pendulum of his invention in order to investigate periodical fluctuations in gravity and electromagnetism and their influence by planetary motion. The interesting thing is that he found unexplained effects, among which the most famous is the "Allais effect", a deviation of the oscillatory plane of the pendulum during solar eclipses. Maurice Allais published some books in French where he details the results of his investigations. These effects remain unexplained today, likewise the Pioneer anomaly. I have no settled idea about these effects. I think that such effects suffer from capricious cosmological (photon, graviton, muon or whatever other particles) weather. One can find some seasonal regularities though. Further investigation is left to us, curious experimenters, satisfied only by what Nature teaches us.

*Update November 20, 2010: This was confirmed to me by close relatives to Maurice Allais and Georges Charpak.

Credit of the portraits of both Nobel Prize winners by Studio Harcourt Paris.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Follow-up of my FQXi essay: Ordinary analogues for Quantum Mechanics

Today I had the good surprise to discover the article "Quantum mechanics writ large" written by John W. M. Bush, Professor of Applied Mathematics at MIT, promoting the work of Couder, Fort et al. on the bouncing droplets. John Bush writes: "At the time that pilot wave theory was developed and then overtaken by the Copenhagen interpretation as the standard view of quantum mechanics, there was no macroscopic pilot wave analog to draw upon. Now there is."

I'm totally in line with this opinion. Quantum mechanics has macroscopic analogues which have so far nearly never been discussed and from which we would learn a lot. There has already been some discussion along with my 2009 FQXi essay. In the abstract, I wrote something similar to John Bush: "Classical physics was not sufficiently advanced to deal with macroscopic particle-wave systems at the birth of quantum mechanics. Physicists therefore lacked references to compare quantum with analogous macroscopic behaviour. After consideration of some recent experiments with droplets steered by waves, we examine possibilities to give some intuitive meaning to the rules governing the quantum world."

So, I hope this new article will gain much attention and foster discussion about macroscopic analogues for quantum behavior.