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2.2: The Uncertainty Principle

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  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

    Because a wave is a disturbance that travels in space, it has no fixed position. One might therefore expect that it would also be hard to specify the exact position of a particle that exhibits wavelike behavior. A characteristic of light is that is can be bent or spread out by passing through a narrow slit. You can literally see this by half closing your eyes and looking through your eye lashes. This reduces the brightness of what you are seeing and somewhat fuzzes out the image, but the light bends around your lashes to provide a complete image rather than a bunch of bars across the image. This is called diffraction.

    This behavior of waves is captured in Maxwell's equations (1870 or so) for electromagnetic waves and was and is well understood. An "uncertainty principle" for light is, if you will, merely a conclusion about the nature of electromagnetic waves and nothing new. De Broglie's idea of wave-particle duality means that particles such as electrons which exhibit wavelike characteristics will also undergo diffraction from slits whose size is on the order of the electron wavelength.

    This situation was described mathematically by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976; Nobel Prize in Physics, 1932), who related the position of a particle to its momentum. Referring to the electron, Heisenberg stated that “at every moment the electron has only an inaccurate position and an inaccurate velocity, and between these two inaccuracies there is this uncertainty relation.” Mathematically, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that the uncertainty in the position of a particle (Δx) multiplied by the uncertainty in its momentum [Δ(mv)] is greater than or equal to Planck’s constant divided by 4π:

    \[ \left ( \Delta x \right )\left ( \Delta \left [ mv \right ] \right )\ge \dfrac{h}{4\pi } \label{6.4.7} \]

    Because Planck’s constant is a very small number, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is important only for particles such as electrons that have very low masses. These are the same particles predicted by de Broglie’s equation to have measurable wavelengths.

    If the precise position \(x\) of a particle is known absolutely (Δx = 0), then the uncertainty in its momentum must be infinite:

    \[ \left ( \Delta \left [ mv \right ] \right )= \dfrac{h}{4\pi \left ( \Delta x \right ) }=\dfrac{h}{4\pi \left ( 0 \right ) }=\infty \label{6.4.8} \]

    Because the mass of the electron at rest (\(m\)) is both constant and accurately known, the uncertainty in \(Δ(mv)\) must be due to the \(Δv\) term, which would have to be infinitely large for \(Δ(mv)\) to equal infinity. That is, according to Equation \(\ref{6.4.8}\), the more accurately we know the exact position of the electron (as \(Δx → 0\)), the less accurately we know the speed and the kinetic energy of the electron (1/2 mv2) because \(Δ(mv) → ∞\). Conversely, the more accurately we know the precise momentum (and the energy) of the electron [as \(Δ(mv) → 0\)], then \(Δx → ∞\) and we have no idea where the electron is.

    Bohr’s model of the hydrogen atom violated the Heisenberg uncertainty principle by trying to specify simultaneously both the position (an orbit of a particular radius) and the energy (a quantity related to the momentum) of the electron. Moreover, given its mass and wavelike nature, the electron in the hydrogen atom could not possibly orbit the nucleus in a well-defined circular path as predicted by Bohr. You will see, however, that the most probable radius of the electron in the hydrogen atom is exactly the one predicted by Bohr’s model.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\): Quantum Nature of Baseballs

    Calculate the minimum uncertainty in the position of a pitched baseball that has a mass of exactly 149 g and a speed of 100 ± 1 mi/h.

    Given: mass and speed of object

    Asked for: minimum uncertainty in its position


    1. Rearrange the inequality that describes the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (Equation \(\ref{6.4.7}\)) to solve for the minimum uncertainty in the position of an object (Δx).
    2. Find Δv by converting the velocity of the baseball to the appropriate SI units: meters per second.
    3. Substitute the appropriate values into the expression for the inequality and solve for Δx.


    A The Heisenberg uncertainty principle (Equation \ref{6.4.7}) tells us that \[(Δx)(Δ(mv)) = h/4π\]. Rearranging the inequality gives

    \( \Delta x \ge \left( {\dfrac{h}{4\pi }} \right)\left( {\dfrac{1}{\Delta (mv)}} \right)\)

    B We know that h = 6.626 × 10−34 J•s and m = 0.149 kg. Because there is no uncertainty in the mass of the baseball, Δ(mv) = mΔv and Δv = ±1 mi/h. We have

    \[ \Delta u =\left ( \dfrac{1\; \cancel{mi}}{\cancel{h}} \right )\left ( \dfrac{1\; \cancel{h}}{60\; \cancel{min}} \right )\left ( \dfrac{1\; \cancel{min}}{60\; s} \right )\left ( \dfrac{1.609\; \cancel{km}}{\cancel{mi}} \right )\left ( \dfrac{1000\; m}{\cancel{km}} \right )=0.4469\; m/s \]

    C Therefore,

    \[ \Delta x \ge \left ( \dfrac{6.626\times 10^{-34}\; J\cdot s}{4\left ( 3.1416 \right )} \right ) \left ( \dfrac{1}{\left ( 0.149\; kg \right )\left ( 0.4469\; m\cdot s^{-1} \right )} \right ) \]

    Inserting the definition of a joule (1 J = 1 kg•m2/s2) gives

    \[ \Delta x \ge \left ( \dfrac{6.626\times 10^{-34}\; \cancel{kg} \cdot m^{\cancel{2}} \cdot s}{4\left ( 3.1416 \right )\left ( \cancel{s^{2}} \right )} \right ) \left ( \dfrac{1\; \cancel{s}}{\left ( 0.149\; \cancel{kg} \right )\left ( 0.4469\; \cancel{m} \right )} \right ) \]

    \[ \Delta x \ge 7.92 \pm \times 10^{-34}\; m \]

    This is equal to \(3.12 \times 10^{−32}\) inches. We can safely say that if a batter misjudges the speed of a fastball by 1 mi/h (about 1%), he will not be able to blame Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle for striking out.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Calculate the minimum uncertainty in the position of an electron traveling at one-third the speed of light, if the uncertainty in its speed is ±0.1%. Assume its mass to be equal to its mass at rest.


    6 × 10−10 m, or 0.6 nm (about the diameter of a benzene molecule)


    Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that it is impossible to precisely describe both the location and the speed of particles that exhibit wavelike behavior.

    \[ \left ( \Delta x \right )\left ( \Delta \left [ mv \right ] \right )\geqslant \dfrac{h}{4\pi } \nonumber\]

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