The Wave Particle Duality – A Deadly Divide

A particle and its associated wave function.

The curious fact that matter can exhibit wave-like properties (or should this rather be waves acting like particles?) is now referred to as the wave particle duality.  In old times it was often believed that there was some magic in giving something a name, and that it will take some of the christened's power. Here is to hoping that there may be some truth to this, as this obvious incompatibility has claimed at least one prominent life.

It was Einstein who first made this two-faced character of matter explicit when publishing on the photo electric effect, assigning particle-like characteristics to light that up to this point was firmly understood to be an electromagnetic wave phenomenon.

But just like the question of the true nature of reality, the source of this dychotomy is almost as old as science itself, and arguably already inherent in the very idea of atomism as the other extrem of an all encompassing holism. The latter is often regarded as the philosophical consequence of Schroedinger's wave mechanics, since a wave phenomenon has no sharp and clear boundaries, and in this sense is often presented as connecting the entirety of the material world. Taken to the extreme, this holistic view finds its perfect expression in Everett's universal wavefunction (an interpretation happily  embraced by Quantum Hippies of all ages) which gave rise to the now quite popular many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

While atomism proved to be extremely fruitful in the development of physics, it was never popular with religious authorities.  You can find echoes of this to this day if you look up this term at the Catholic Encyclopaedia:

Scholastic philosophy finds nothing in the scientific theory of atomism which it cannot harmonize with its principles, though it must reject the mechanical explanation, often proposed in the name of science, ...

Or at this site of religious physicists:

Atomism is incompatible with Judeo-Christian principles because atomism views matter as independent of God, ...

Religion of course really doesn't have a choice in the matter as it can hardly maintain doctrine without some holistic principle.  It is no coincidence that physics only progressed after the cultural revolution of the Renaissance loosened the church's dominance over the sheeple's  minds. But history never moves in a straight line.  For instance, with Romanticism the pendulum swung back with a vengeance. It was at the height of this period that Ludwig Boltzmann achieved the greatest scientific breakthrough of atomism when developing statistical mechanics as the proper foundation of thermodynamics. It was not received well. With James Clerk Maxwell having seemingly established a holistic ether that explained all radiation as a wave phenomenon, atomism had thoroughly fallen out of favour.  Boltzmann vigorously defended his work and was no stranger to polemic exchanges to make his point, yet he was beset by clinical depression and feared in the end that his life's work was for naught. He committed suicide while on a summer retreat that was supposed to help his ailing health.

He must have missed the significance of Einstein's publication on Brownian Motion just a year early.  It is the least famous of his Annus Mirabelis papers, but it lay the foundation for experimentalists to once and for all settle the debate in Boltzmann's favor, just a few years after his tragic death.

Thermodynamics made no sense to me before I learned statistical mechanics, and it is befitting that his most elegant equation for the entropy of a system graces the memorial at his grave site (the k denoting the Boltzmann constant).

A physicist can't ask for more to be remembered by than his most fundamental equation.
Ludwig Boltzmann Tombstone in Vienna.

8 thoughts on “The Wave Particle Duality – A Deadly Divide

  1. In the HBM holds the following:
    In flat space the pair of fields that constitute an elementary particle at rest have both the same form. The form approaches a 3D Gaussian form. The fields only differ in their discrete symmetries. The coupled fields keep each other at the same place. One of the fields acts as quantum state function. In the terminology of statistical mechanics, the fields are micro states. Coupled fields are compact in configuration space. Free fields are compact in the canonical conjugated space.

    1. Hans, one of the things on my to do list is to give a review and introduction to your HBM work, hope I’ll find the time to do this at some point this year.

  2. Interesting. Readers may like to view an animation of wave/particle duality, at:

    The Photon Hoop Model for light: A new model to aid analysis and computation of light reflection and refraction phenomena, and towards a resolution of the dichotomy between wave models and particle models for light

    1. Creative idea. But I don’t see how the excellent match of coherent laser interferometry with the description of it as harmonic electromagnetic waves, leaves much room for your model. The latter would have to be able to reproduce this more accurately than what is shown in the last animation.

  3. NS Agarwal • The Mystery of Wave Particle Duality has been already solved.

    Photon is a Particle and always travels as Sinusoidal Wave.

    This is explained in NEW QUANTUM THEORY in detail.

    The New theory is based on similarity with Atoms and our Solar System.

    The Book is published recently.


    Author – Narendra Agarwal

    Publisher – Lambert Academic Publishing, Germany

    ISBN – 978-3-659-34139-7

    The Book explains in detail the followings for the first time in world:

    * Mystery of Wave Particle Duality

    * Formation of 3-D Electromagnetic Wave by a Photon.

    * How Diffraction and Interference actually take place.

    * Why light bends at boundary in Refraction.

    After reading the New Quantum Theory, this problem may be solved for ever.

    1. You should have left a link to some of the openly accessible papers describing your ideas.

      Again a superbly creative semi classical idea, something like this could have very much garnered quite some attention in the early Bohr Sommerfeld QM days.

      Don’t see how any semi-classical local model like this can possibly capture all aspects of QM though.

  4. Just to comment on atomism’s unpopularity with religious authorities. Religious authorities mostly misunderstand / misinterpret the Bible. Partly because they do not believe in the spiritual inerrency of the Bible. Just like those who believed the earth is flat while the Bible clearly states that it is spheroid (Isaiah 40:22) The Bible also states that “things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Hebrews 11:3) which could be interpreted that the elements (things seen) are made of atoms / waves (which cannot be seen with the nakes eye or even an powerfull microscope) I cannot yet derive that all things (the universe) are made of sound waves (i.e. God’s word) but we do know that the fabric of the universe correlates with the fabric of God’s word. If you disobey God’s word you do reap the consequences. (Galatians 6:7).

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