This week in my art studio I thought I would learn some theoretical physics and finally wrap my brain around what’s known as the uncertainty principle. Also? Hummingbirds.
The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that there is a fundamental limit on the accuracy with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, such as position and momentum, can be simultaneously known.
In layman’s terms: the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be controlled, determined, or known. Thanks Wikipedia, you have a lot of information to share but I think we need a way to help us visualize this principle.
Lucky for us, I stumbled across what may be the best analogy I have heard that helps to explains this principle in Brian Greene’s book, The Hidden Reality. In the book he tells you to imagine you are taking a photograph. If you take a photo of a moving object with a slow shutter speed the image you get back of that object will be blurred. Therefor, the image is giving you some information about the movement through space or speed of the object but not its exact location.
If you instead turn up the shutter speed you can get a photo of the object in focus and seemingly frozen in place. That photo can give you information on the exact location of the object but no information as to how fast it was moving. Much in the same way you that you can’t determine the exact speed and location of a particle, you can’t capture both movement and exact location in a photo. Because of how you view an object you can only clearly capture one bit of information or the other.
I thought it would be fun to go outside and take some photos to try and recreate this analogy. I decided to snap some photos of the fastest things I could find in my yard and found some hummingbirds more than ready to demonstrate their wing speed and the uncertainty principle for us!
Of course please remember that when physicists are talking about the uncertainty principle they are actually talking about tiny particles and the quantum realm. So please do keep in mind that these hummingbirds photos are just a way to try and help us visualize what happens on super-small scales and is obviously not an accurate representation of particle physics.
Hummingbirds in motion.
Hummingbirds in space.
This was a fun way to visualize the fundamental problems in capturing both the speed and location of a particle. If only the rest of theoretical physics was as easy to visualize!
I also made some art with the mathematical representation of uncertainty principle!