The Uncertainty Principle

In order to predict the future position and velocity of a particle, one has to be able to measure its present position and velocity accurately. The obvious way to do this is to shine light on the particle. Some of the waves of light will be scattered by the particle and this will indicate its position. However, one will not be able to determine the position of the particle more accurately than the distance between the wave crests of light, so one needs to use light of a short wavelength in order to measure the position of the particle precisely. One cannot use an arbitrarily small amount of light; one has to use at least one quantum. This quantum will disturb the particle and change its velocity in a way that cannot be predicted. moreover, the more accurately one measures the position, the shorter the wavelength of the light that one needs and hence the higher the energy of a single quantum. So the velocity of the particle will be disturbed by a larger amount.

In other words, the more accurately you try to measure the position of the particle, the less accurately you can measure its speed, and vice versa. Heisenberg showed that the uncertainty in the position of the particle times the uncertainty in its velocity times the mass of the particle can never be smaller than a certain quantity, which is known as Planck’s constant. Moreover, this limit does not depend on the way in which one tries to measure the position or velocity of the particle, or on the type of particle: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is a fundamental, inescapable property of the world.

The uncertainty principle had profound implications for the way in which we view the world. Even after more than eighty years they have not been fully appreciated by many philosophers, and are still the subject of much controversy. The uncertainty principle signaled an end to a model of the universe that would be completely deterministic: one certainly cannot predict future events exactly if one cannot even measure the present state of the universe precisely!

In general, quantum mechanics does not predict a single definite result for an observation. Instead, it predicts a number of different possible outcomes and tells us how likely each of these is. That is to say, if one made the same measurement on a large number of similar systems, each of which started off in the same way, one would find that the result of the measurement would be A in a certain number of cases, B in a different number, and so on. One could predict the approximate number of times that the result would be A or B, but one could not predict the specific result of an individual measurement. Quantum mechanics therefore introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science.

Stephen W. Hawking – A Brief History of Time 