Quantum mechanics

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Quantum mechanics, also known as quantum physics or quantum theory, is a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter. It departs from classical mechanics primarily at the atomic and subatomic scales, the so-called quantum realm. In advanced topics of quantum mechanics, some of these behaviors are macroscopic and only emerge at very low or very high energies or temperatures. The name, coined by Max Planck, derives from the observation that some physical quantities can be changed only by discrete amounts, or quanta, as multiples of the Planck constant, rather than being capable of varying continuously or by any arbitrary amount. For example, the angular momentum, or more generally the action, of an electron bound into an atom or molecule is quantized. While an unbound electron does not exhibit quantized energy levels, an electron bound in an atomic orbital has quantized values of angular momentum. In the context of quantum mechanics, the wave–particle duality of energy and matter and the uncertainty principle provide a unified view of the behavior of photons, electrons and other atomic-scale objects.

The mathematical formulations of quantum mechanics are abstract. Similarly, the implications are often non-intuitive in terms of classic physics. The centerpiece of the mathematical system is the wavefunction. The wavefunction is a mathematical function providing information about the probability amplitude of position and momentum of a particle. Mathematical manipulations of the wavefunction usually involve the bra-ket notation, which requires an understanding of complex numbers and linear functionals. The wavefunction treats the object as a quantum harmonic oscillator and the mathematics is akin to that of acoustic resonance. Many of the results of quantum mechanics do not have models that are easily visualized in terms of classical mechanics; for instance, the ground state in the quantum mechanical model is a non-zero energy state that is the lowest permitted energy state of a system, rather than a more traditional system that is thought of as simply being at rest with zero kinetic energy.

Historically, the earliest versions of quantum mechanics were formulated in the first decade of the 20th century at around the same time as the atomic theory and the corpuscular theory of light as updated by Einstein first came to be widely accepted as scientific fact; these latter theories can be viewed as quantum theories of matter and electromagnetic radiation. Quantum theory was significantly reformulated in the mid-1920s away from the old quantum theory towards the quantum mechanics formulated by Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli and their associates, accompanied by the acceptance of the Copenhagen interpretation of Niels Bohr. By 1930, quantum mechanics had been further unified and formalized by the work of Paul Dirac and John von Neumann, with a greater emphasis placed on measurement in quantum mechanics, the statistical nature of our knowledge of reality and philosophical speculation about the role of the observer. Quantum mechanics has since branched out into almost every aspect of 20th century physics and other disciplines such as quantum chemistry, quantum electronics, quantum optics and quantum information science. Much 19th century physics has been re-evaluated as the classical limit of quantum mechanics, and its more advanced developments in terms of quantum field theory, string theory, and speculative quantum gravity theories.

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