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Monday, July 18, 2016

Why Does Squaring a Wave Amplitude Yield a Probability?

Perhaps you heard the story (that's code for unsubstantiated rumor) where Paul Dirac, a legend in the field of quantum physics, woke up one morning, put on his trousers, put on his shirt, put on his socks and shoes. He then stepped into the shower, forgetting he had already dressed. His mind was elsewhere, but the brisk chill of cascading water drenching his clothes brought him back. "That's it!" he said. "Square the amplitude and you get the probability!"

He was, of course, referring to the fact that you can take the inner product of an eigenvector (or ket) with its complex conjugate (bra) and get a probability of a particle's position, momentum, or whatever. It's a pretty cool trick and it works. The question is why? Why does squaring a wave amplitude yield a probability? Below is a mathematical equation that I thought up while I was taking a shower (with my clothes on):

In the numerator you may recognize Euler's identity. Basically, the numerator is the sum of all possible wave amplitudes. The denominator is a normalization factor: it ensures that when you calculate the inner product of the equation's right-side expression with its complex conjugate you get one. One is a good number to get, since it is the sum of all probabilities. Most importantly, the equation shows the connection between wave amplitudes and probabilities.

Below is a visual aid that I hope will clarify the connection. It is a well-known fact in the subject of trigonometry that sine squared plus cosine squared always equals one. This fact can be used to model not only waves, but probabilities as well, since the sum of all probabilities also equals one. However, to reach a total of one, one must divide the wave amplitude by X1 in the case below where n is equal to one, i.e., where there is only the sum of one Euler's identity multiplied by a coefficient X1.

The lower part of the visual aid shows the inner product between the bra and ket vectors.

As you can see in the diagram below, the sum of squared wave amplitudes equals one, and probabilities P(A), P(B) add up to one.

This system works well if you have only two probabilities: cosine squared can represent one probability and sine squared can represent the other, but what if there are three or more probabilities? Well, that's why I put together the equation we started with. Let's say there are three probabilities, and they must add up to one. In such a case we need to raise n to 2:

There are now three wave amplitudes. When you square them, add them, and divide by the normalization factor (x1^2 + x2^2), you get one. You also get one when you calculate the inner product of the bra-ket vectors:

And, of course, the probabilities also add up to one:

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