Physics in a minute: The double slit experiment

One of the most famous experiments in physics is the double slit experiment. It demonstrates, with unparalleled strangeness, that little particles of matter have something of a wave about them, and suggests that the very act of observing a particle has a dramatic effect on its behaviour.

To start off, imagine a wall with two slits in it. Imagine throwing tennis balls at the wall. Some will bounce off the wall, but some will travel through the slits. If there's another wall behind the first, the tennis balls that have travelled through the slits will hit it. If you mark all the spots where a ball has hit the second wall, what do you expect to see? That's right. Two strips of marks roughly the same shape as the slits.

In the image below, the first wall is shown from the top, and the second wall is shown from the front.

Double slit

The pattern you get from particles.

Now imagine shining a light (of a single colour, that is, of a single wavelength) at a wall with two slits (where the distance between the slits is roughly the same as the light's wavelength). In the image below, we show the light wave and the wall from the top. The blue lines represent the peaks of the wave. As the wave passes though both slits, it essentially splits into two new waves, each spreading out from one of the slits. These two waves then interfere with each other. At some points, where a peak meets a trough, they will cancel each other out. And at others, where peak meets peak (that's where the blue curves cross in the diagram), they will reinforce each other. Places where the waves reinforce each other give the brightest light. When the light meets a second wall placed behind the first, you will see a stripy pattern, called an interference pattern. The bright stripes come from the waves reinforcing each other.

Double slit

An interference pattern.

Here is a picture of a real interference pattern. There are more stripes because the picture captures more detail than our diagram. (For the sake of correctness, we should say that the image also shows a diffraction pattern, which you would get from a single slit, but we won't go into this here, and you don't need to think about it.)

Now let's go into the quantum realm. Imagine firing electrons at our wall with the two slits, but block one of those slits off for the moment. You'll find that some of the electrons will pass through the open slit and strike the second wall just as tennis balls would: the spots they arrive at form a strip roughly the same shape as the slit.

Now open the second slit. You'd expect two rectangular strips on the second wall, as with the tennis balls, but what you actually see is very different: the spots where electrons hit build up to replicate the interference pattern from a wave.

Double slit

Here is an image of a real double slit experiment with electrons. The individual pictures show the pattern you get on the second wall as more and more electrons are fired. The result is a stripy interference pattern.

How can this be?

One possibility might be that the electrons somehow interfere with each other, so they don't arrive in the same places they would if they were alone. However, the interference pattern remains even when you fire the electrons one by one, so that they have no chance of interfering. Strangely, each individual electron contributes one dot to an overall pattern that looks like the interference pattern of a wave.

Could it be that each electrons somehow splits, passes through both slits at once, interferes with itself, and then recombines to meet the second screen as a single, localised particle?

To find out, you might place a detector by the slits, to see which slit an electron passes through. And that's the really weird bit. If you do that, then the pattern on the detector screen turns into the particle pattern of two strips, as seen in the first picture above! The interference pattern disappears. Somehow, the very act of looking makes sure that the electrons travel like well-behaved little tennis balls. It's as if they knew they were being spied on and decided not to be caught in the act of performing weird quantum shenanigans.

What does the experiment tell us? It suggests that what we call "particles", such as electrons, somehow combine characteristics of particles and characteristics of waves. That's the famous wave particle duality of quantum mechanics. It also suggests that the act of observing, of measuring, a quantum system has a profound effect on the system. The question of exactly how that happens constitutes the measurement problem of quantum mechanics.

Further reading


The scientist at Washington University found that quasimeasurements cause the zeno effect possibly explaining why the particles do not form a interference pattern if one detects which slit they pass through.

Seem to be leaving out the fact that the difference occurs when being actively observed.

Everything we see is our brain "interpreting" the photons of light reflected off a object. Just like our brains turns 30 FPS and up into a smooth video image. Any experiment that has the word "Observation" in it is flawed. A human used as test equipment for the observation part of a experiment can never be accurate.

It has nothing to do with a human observing anything. It has to do with how one observes things at the atomic and quantum scale. We make these observations by bouncing other particles off of the particles we're interested in examining. At the macro-scale this is not a problem as the particles were bounce off of things are much smaller and have little no affects at the macro.

But at the atomic and smaller scales, the particles we bounce off of things to observe them are similar in "size" (this is a stand in for mass, charge, etc.) to the particles we are trying to observe.

You can think of it like trying to figure out where a billiard ball is by bouncing a golf ball it. That will change the position, spin, etc. of the billiard ball.

I agree with you. Yet, seemingly, the rest of the world either believes - when they do not believe what you've just said - humans have a psychic grip on subatomic particles, or this proves a God exists.

This isn't actually true either. Experiments have shown that even if the photon used to make an observation is of low enough energy that it doesn't alter a large molecules trajectory much, the interference pattern still disappears.

Also, null interaction experiments have been done in which there is no contact between particles at all. But if info about which slit can be found, the interference pattern disappears.

Objective observation, unlike subjective observation, is very much allowed in conducting data in experiments.

Plus, unless you have robots conducting the experiment ans/or collecting the data, humans are going to be involved.

This word is used for convenience, but no conscious observer is required. You can also say “detected”. And by detected what is meant is that information exists that is, in principal, detectable even if not yet technically feasible. Look up “The World’s Smallest Double-Slit Experiment” (2007) and you will find that a single low-energy electron can be an “observer” and collapse the quantum interference pattern of a high-energy electron exiting a single hydrogen molecule.

This is BS. When being observed by a sensor, electrons behave as particles. You lack sufficient understanding of the double slit experiment.

"Seem to be leaving out the fact that the difference occurs when being actively observed" EXACTLY!! This experiment shows that matter is not what we think it is. Scientists have known this for a century yet scientific materialism for some reason still prevails. Matter is a product of Mind. NOT the other way around. For more information read "Ontological Mathematics"

That is not what comes out this. "Observer" is a misleading term. It does not specifically refer to humans, nor even conscious creatures, although they can be.

I do agree with you

What if the light is reacting to the material the slits were cut out from. Maybe electromagnetism causing the light particles to bend and change their direction just like how planets and comets change their orbits when passing near something with mass.

The double slits, are on the both sides of the direction of the flow of light. Also, the slit will be more massive on the two outer edges of the double slits. If it were to be hindered due to presence of slits, wouldn't the effect be more on the outer edges and not on the inner edges, i.e. in the middle.

Such is the problem. Particles don't bend when acted upon by electromagnetic fields. They simply form a trajectory. Bending or warping is the property of a wave. Their trajectory could be altered but I'm sure the material is neutral in all aspects to avoid interference.

Electrons have almost no mass and therefore almost no gravity. Atoms of the slit have a huge mass compared to the electrons. As the electrons passes the slit the gravity of the atoms cause some of the closest electrons to start to spin, the same way water spins when shot through a slit. This spin then sends some of the electrons out of their normal straight line trajectory which causes the apparent wave effect.

If that were the case it would happen if there was only one slit. But it doesn't.

Electrons always have a spin of 1/2. This is a fundemental property of electrons and all fermions.
Even if electrons were pushed off their trajectory, how do electrons shot one at a time form an interference pattern?

I also thought the materials used may have properties that interfere, and the detector might too.

How does the detector itself work? Does it not rely on an intrinsic property of electrons to function? Connecting the detector to that property then necessarily interferes with the experiment. That interference is then to be expected and can be explained rationally rather than through a spooky effect, quantum effect.

Agree with you. Details of double/single slit experiments should give more information on the slits material, their dimensions (gap width and distance between slits) and the probability of these materials influencing the path/direction of WAVICLES (waves-cum-particles!). This topic needs to discussed and debated.

The Buddha mentioned the observer effect 2,600 years ago.

"Mind is the forerunner of all things....."

Could you please submit a detailed testable theory, with an internally consistent mathematical formulation, of how the Buddha arrived at this conclusion.

Didnt the above experiment just provide a testable theory, with internal consistent mathematical formulation? Budha may not have had the math, but perhaps the insight. Or, he got it right for the wrong reason.

Hypothesis: Human consciousness in the form of measurement alters the behavior of photons. Hmm, seems like that has been already published.

So are you then hypothesizing that the quantum realm is interactive with consciousness? What if two separate, distinct observers isolated from one another choose each option. Will they observe different results?

Im no larry bird but it's intresting to read the comments here each one has a reply stating how the previous comment is incorrect. Now im starting to wonder is it physics thats hard to understand or is it more like physics is hard to explain maybe we need to assign words more meanings then we can just make everything make sense a great example is the dollar - we all know the dollar isnt worth shit or hasnt when our genious money people decided to stop backing it with gold so in essense they said the dollar is worth this much because we said and no matter how many equations and big words you want to use to try and prove me wrong it dont matter because when it comes down to it paper is paper. I had a pretty good generic understanding of the double slit thingamabob until i decided to read the comments here now i cant hit a three pointer unless nobody is watching.... I never miss when nobody is watching....... Here is something you all can discuss - why is it that the english language has one word that means two different things? For example the word watch why not take the definition that came second and give it its own word? Seriously

It is not Buddha. It is Vedanta -end part of the Vedas - that define - consciousness -as Consciousness is infinite - prajnaanam brahma. the mind reflects the all-pervading consciousness and by reflecting it acts as though a local conscious entity -just like moon by reflecting sunlight appears as though a luminous entity in the sky. Any observation involves this activated mind. Hence the observer is the local mind + the reflected consciousness that makes the mind as though a conscious entity. Any objective knowledge involves mind interacting with the information provides by sense input -here measurement itself. Interference happens due to Hysenburg uncertainty at these small scales. Hene observation can affect the observed at such a small scale. For more info listen to my talks on youtube or I have written few books on it available on Amazon. I am a material scientist.

So how can you pass an electron through the slit? We all know that electrons constantly revolve around the nucleus. They can get excited and change their orbits but still they rotate around the nucleus, right? We all know that they don't walk in a straight line. So how can you collect these electrons and send them through the slits in such a straight line?

Electrons do not need to be bound to a nucleus, they can also be free.

Of course you can separate an electron from an atomic nucleus. That’s how cathode ray tubes work on the old TVs. A series of magnets propel the electron on to a phosphorus screen. Even static electricity is the release of free electrons that dart about the air without a nucleus until they find a positive charged partial to cling to.

Actually, the positive Anode attracts the negative electrons that are boiled off of the heated Cathode. The magnetic coils above and below the stream of electrons are used to deflect the electrons horizontally at a rate of about 16KHz, while the magnetic coils to the right and left of the stream of electrons are used to deflect the electrons vertically at a rate of about 30Hz.

Electrons can be "ripped" away from their atom with the application of energy in one of many forms. One method that was common in every home for years, was in vacuum tubes. Also called electronic valves in some countries. Also, in CRT's, like television picture tubes. In this application, heat was applied to a little piece of tungsten, containing a bit of thorium. Electrons jump off of their atoms, many into the vacuum in the tube, where they are used to amplify signals, or used to bombard the phosphorus screen on a television tube, forming the TV image.

Electrons are not tennis balls, but what if their spin causes them to travel in a helical pattern like a spun ball; like a bottom-right spun tennis ball or ping-pong ball, a curve-ball or a sliced golf ball? Would this not give their trajectory path a particular wavelength and amplitude? Would that not produce the pattern?

I think all y'all skeptics are forgetting that this test, while performed with particles, demonstrates the properties of a WAVE. The spin of the electron, amplitude or lambda of any ridiculousness some of you are suggesting, or anything else is affecting the pattern created when the experiment was left unobserved. What we see is the product of wave-interference - which is a physically observable pattern that you can create in a home environment by bouncing two balls next to each other on the surface of water. And yes, the very act of observation IS what changes the results; Erwin Schrodinger was able to demonstrate this with his thought experiment. ALL quantum particles behave the way that the electrons did, which is the basis of qunatum uncertainty and wave-particle duality.

A helical path viewed from the side IS a waveform. Such a trajectory is a three-dimensional wave. (Unlike the two-dimensional ripples in a pond). It could therefore be expected to produce the interference pattern. No duality required. Unlike EMR, electrons are fermions, of known mass.

What it does not explain is why the effect disappears when measured or, similarly, the distribution pattern through a single slit presented here.

But then again, neither does particle-wave duality, which really tells us nothing of substance. (Joke). It merely describes observed phenomena; it doesn't explain the cause or the principles at work or describe anything about what is actually happening. It merely describes what we have reason to believe isn't happening.

I've thought exactly the same as you that a helical spin would explain this phenomena. Now if the spins were randomly gaussian distributed you would see constructive and destructive interference but the net result would be zero (which is what the waveform summation is). Having bother positive helical and negative helical spins would explain the double slit experiment phenomena. Observation may remove the helicality (X/Y components but not Z) but the spin is maintained. Since the quantum particle is ballistic it would still pass through the slots or bounce back and show 2 amplitude peaks without the interference pattern. ie particle mode vs wave mode.

The quantum uncertainty just introduces conjecture into science and is the closest thing to metaphysics that one can postulate while looking scientific. It just affirms to me that we are incapable of fathoming our universe at a minute level even as much as on a scale of galaxies. Yet somehow we applaud when someone says we emanated from a random inexplicable event and evolved from a single celled micro-organism into the the complex life forms we are. A cycle of silliness, if we are loathe to believe in a divine creator not subject to these sacred laws of physics that the electrons seem to violate willy-nilly in the double slit expperiment.

If you haven't read about this you should.
In an interview with Nautilus's Steve Paulson, Penrose uses an example from quantum computing to explain that qubits of information remain in multiple states until coming together into an instantaneous calculation, called “quantum coherence," making a large number of things act together in one quantum state.

Here's where Penrose's theory draws upon the work of Hameroff by saying that this quantum coherence takes place in protein structures called “microtubules". These microtubules reside inside the neurons in our brains and can store and process information and memory. Penrose and Hameroff think that microtubules are quantum devices that are orchestrating our conscious awareness.

This theory is not appreciated by everyone in the scientific community, with many critics saying the brain is too “warm, wet, and noisy" and cannot sustain a quantum process. Another physicist, Max Tegmark, even calculated that the brain cannot possibly think as fast as this idea requires. Hawking is also not on board, suggesting Penrose should stick with his field of expertise.

Yet, a 2013 study by Japanese scientists added some proof to the theory by Penrose and Hameroff as researchers detected vibrations in the microtubules. Penrose and Hameroff then proposed that by focusing brain stimulation on these vibrations one could conceivably “benefit a host of mental, neurological, and cognitive conditions."

This effect is happening because particles are segmented aspects of waves. If you shoot one particle or a few particles and you only see a portion of that particular wave. A wave in nature is not on an 2d x y axis but a 3d cyclone spiral. So you should think of particles on invisible 3d wave tracks or "guard rails". This is also why you look at a "wave" it turns into a particle that retroactivity forms back to the source. You see the particle tracks of that particular wave.

Assume that each particle is actually an object of unlimited size, with a gradient per property. Also assume that a slit allows part of the object (again per property) to pass faster than a part thats get hindered by the wall. The object reforms (back to an efficient form) after passing the slit, before/while it hits the observant.

The whole universe being changed by the act of observation and forced to split into multiple world lines is ridiculous. It seems evident to me that the universe already exists across all those world lines, as a wave, and the only thing that is being divided into multiple world lines is the observer's state of awareness (what we sometimes refer to as its state of consciousness or, simply, consciousness).

But only the state of awareness is split. The observer still encompasses all states of awareness in those world-lines where it still extends (exists). Further, if any two of those states of awareness should ever become identical, then they are once again the SAME state of awareness. This is why the wave behavior reasserts itself as soon as the observer is not focused precisely on where the "particle" is (it's not really a particle at all, if anything the observer "particalized" their state of awareness).

You may get some understanding with a very rough metaphor by looking out at a vast forest of identical trees, then focusing on a specific tree, then looking back at the forest. Chances are when you again focus on a specific, random selected tree, it won't be the same one you had previously focused on. Ooh, quantum uncertainty!

The basis gist of all this is the observer is not changing the universe by the act of observation, the observer is changing the observer's state of awareness of the universe, and in a way relative only to the observer. This seems to explain all of it much more reasonably than anything I have ever read, and my attempts at the math (alas, I studied the wrong subjects in college) appear to support me thus far.

The reason there are multiple interpretations of the double slit experiment is because there are pros and cons in all of them. You seem to be describing a version of the Many Worlds Interpretation similar to the arguments of Sean Carroll.

The idea that the state of awareness of the observer collapses, but not the waveform, fails because the which-path information can be recorded but not yet observed by anyone. In this case nobody's state of awareness has changed in the least, yet the wave has collapsed or appears to have collapsed.

If the waveform is really multiple full universes, that raises more questions than it answers. What creates universes? Why don't these other full universes impact us in any way as they affect unobserved particles? Just how many of these alleged universes are there?

So, at a theme park there are 15 lasers each running through a diffraction grating, displaying a clear interference pattern for the entertainment of the audience. Are you claiming that each photon within one laser beam is in the same universe (not ours?) as one photon on another and so forth?

All MWI versions fail to explain how mere information existing can lock us in to one of those alleged universes. To be fair, though, all explanations are counterintuitive or seemingly impossible.

This is probably why some people remember Saturday morning cartoons as being 'Looney Toons" whilst the accepted way according to Wikipedia and that the other half remembers it as is "Looney Tunes"....

I haven't a clue about any of this but what I caught was the electrons ,which are particles, act like waves when not observed. I seen your responce about human observation and to my tiny brain it seems you are saying it's the mind that's altering the image but in the expierment cameras were used so doesn't that take the human observation element out of it? Also when the humans were watching did the waves..only when there was a device with the ability to observe did it change to particles ...or That's how my little uneducated brain understood it. Please elaborate further. I really want to try to understand this as best as an average Jane can.

What happens if the detectors are there but aren't turned on?

What would happen if you electrostatically charged the slit material to a high negative potential and increased the electron velocity? In my mind, you could decrease the effective slit diameter to an almost one dimensional gap removing the chance we are looking at secondary emissions from the gap material (and maybe a kind of newtons cradle effect).

Why if the particles used are sand rather than atoms do you end up with a uniform and identical result regardless of whether individually observed or not? Seems the accuracy and impact of the selected mediums and observing equipment influence the result. I don’t know anything about the equipment used or physics of atoms but for this to be valid it would need to be replicable for infinite different materials and equipment with different states of vacuum, no vacuum, gravity, electromagnetivity etc. and the observor(observing equipment) to be physically separated as well as all forces ( friction, gravity, electomagneticivity etc.) to be measured/monitored.

Does polarization of the light have any affect on the slit experiment.