In the description of a neutron interferometer here, it says:

In an interferometer the incident beam is split into two (or more) separate beams. The beams travel along different paths where they are exposed to different potentials (which results in different phases). At some point the beams are brought together again and allowed to interfere. The resulting beam is the superposition of the separated beams: $$ \psi = \psi_I + \psi_{II} $$

I am interested in why the total wavefunction is not written as $\psi=\psi_I\otimes \psi_{II}$? Because when they are separated, they should be considered in two physical systems and we should use tensor product to describe them, even they are later combined together, right?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Found an interesting table here suchideas.com/articles/maths/math-phys/… it seems the choice would depend on whether the possible resulting state is one or the other, or dependent on both. Perhaps you could complete the question with how the physics work? Is it one or the other or something like that? $\endgroup$
    – Emil
    Feb 13 '18 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Emil Thanks for you link. I think it is because I don't understand the physics that I don't know why we should use superposition. $\endgroup$
    – taper
    Feb 13 '18 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Emil Can I say there is some possibilities/configurations of the beams before split, and we do not know these possibilities at the end. So in the end it is a superposition of them? $\endgroup$
    – taper
    Feb 13 '18 at 20:56

In a nutshell: these are not two different systems, but the probability amplitudes of the two different states of the same system.

I do agree that simple discussions of two interfering waves (electromagnetic or particle waves) are in practice only complicating the matter, as opposed to thinking of a single wave in a multiply connected geometry. They however make the math manageable.


The confusion comes from "and allowed to interfere". Superposition is not interaction, and they are describing a superposition of two beams of neutrons.

It is similar to the superposition of two laser beams split from the same original, which show interference fringes due to the superposition of the two beams, and it is well known that photons do not interact except in high orders with very low probabilities.

The whole neutron interferometer is considered one physical system where the neutrons are not interacting with each other , it is only the potentials that change in too complicated a way to really solve the total system wavefunction, but the addition of the two partial ones at the end is a good approximation.

Tensor products would have been used in the density matrix formalism where individual neutrons are considered. The psis in your quote are the beam psis , not the individual neutron ones.

  • $\begingroup$ Are you saying that the $\psi_I+\psi_{II}$ is an approximation? Can you give an argument (except the analogy with photon interference) for why is this a good approximation? $\endgroup$
    – taper
    Feb 13 '18 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ Because one is describing a quantum mechanical ensemble of neutrons making up a beam with one psi, a meta level to single neutrons. The mathematics would be the same as with the two laser beams. $\endgroup$
    – anna v
    Feb 13 '18 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, what is "a meta level"? $\endgroup$
    – taper
    Feb 13 '18 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ thermodynamics is a meta level of statistical mechanics ( emerges), written language is a meta level on the alphabet. The lower level is necessary for describing the meta level, but not sufficient because collective behavior appears not apparent in the lower level. Crystal structure is a meta level on the atomic level. $\endgroup$
    – anna v
    Feb 14 '18 at 4:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.