Correspondence principle

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In physics, the correspondence principle states that the behavior of systems described by the theory of quantum mechanics (or by the old quantum theory) reproduces classical physics in the limit of large quantum numbers.

The principle was formulated by Niels Bohr in 1920[1], though he had previously made use of it as early as 1913 in developing his model of the atom[2].

The term is also used more generally, to represent the idea that a new theory should reproduce the results of older well-established theories in those domains where the old theories work.


Quantum mechanics

The rules of quantum mechanics are highly successful in describing microscopic objects, atoms and elementary particles. But macroscopic systems like springs and capacitors are accurately described by classical theories like classical mechanics and classical electrodynamics. If quantum mechanics should be applicable to macroscopic objects there must be some limit in which quantum mechanics reduces to classical mechanics. Bohr's correspondence principle demands that classical physics and quantum physics give the same answer when the systems become large.

The conditions under which quantum and classical physics agree are referred to as the correspondence limit, or the classical limit. Bohr provided a rough prescription for the correspondence limit: it occurs when the quantum numbers describing the system are large. A more elaborated analysis of quantum-classical correspondence (QCC) in wavepacket spreading leads to the distinction between robust "restricted QCC" and fragile "detailed QCC". See Stotland & Cohen (2006) and references therein. "Restricted QCC" refers to the first two moments of the probability distribution and is true even when the wave packets diffract, while "detailed QCC" requires smooth potentials which vary over scales much larger than the wavelength, which is what Bohr considered.

The post-1925 new quantum theory came in two different formulations. In matrix mechanics, the correspondence principle was built in and was used to construct the theory. In the Schrödinger approach classical behavior is not clear because the waves spread out as they move. Once the Schrödinger equation was given a probabilistic interpretation, Ehrenfest showed that Newton's laws hold on average: the quantum statistical expectation value of the position and momentum obey Newton's laws.

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