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  • Print publication year: 1997
  • Online publication date: June 2012

20 - Quantum optical tests of complementarity


Complementarity, e.g., the wave–particle duality of nature, lies at the heart of quantum mechanics. It distinguishes the world of quantum phenomena from the reality of classical physics. In the 1920s, quantum theory as we know it today was still new, and examples used to illustrate complementarity emphasized the position (particle-like) and momentum (wave-like) attributes of a quantum mechanical object, be it a photon or a massive particle. This is the historical reason why complementarity is often superficially identified with the so-called wave-particle duality of matter.

Complementarity, however, is a more general concept. We say that two observables are complementary if precise knowledge of one of them implies that all possible outcomes of measuring the other one are equally probable. We may illustrate this by two extreme examples. The first example consists of the position and momentum (along one direction) of a particle: if, say, the position is predetermined then the result of a momentum measurement cannot be predicted, all momentum values are equally probable (in a large range). The second extreme involves two orthogonal spin components of a spin- 1/2 particle: if, say, the vertical spin component has a definite value (up or down) then upon measuring a horizontal component both values (left or right, for instance) are found, each with a probability of 50%. Thus, in the microcosmos complete knowledge in the sense of classical physics is not available. The classic example of the merger of wave and particle behavior is provided by Young's double-slit experiment.