Wave-Particle Duality and Hamilton’s Physics

Wave-particle duality was one of the greatest early challenges to quantum physics, partially clarified by Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity, but never easily grasped even today.  Yet long before Einstein proposed the indivisible quantum  of light (later to be called the photon by the chemist Gilbert Lewis), wave-particle duality was firmly embedded in the foundations of the classical physics of mechanics.

Light led the way to mechanics more than once in the history of physics.


Willebrord Snel van Royen

The Dutch physicist Willebrord Snel van Royen in 1621 derived an accurate mathematical description of the refraction of beams of light at a material interface in terms of sine functions, but he did not publish.  Fifteen years later, as Descartes was looking for an example to illustrate his new method of analytic geometry, he discovered the same law, unaware of Snel’s prior work.  In France the law is known as the Law of Descartes.  In the Netherlands (and much of the rest of the world) it is known as Snell’s Law.  Both Snell and Descartes based their work on Newton’s corpuscles of light.  The brilliant Fermat adopted corpuscles when he developed his principle of least time to explain the law of Descartes in 1662.  Yet Fermat was forced to assume that the corpuscles traveled slower in the denser material even though it was generally accepted that light should travel faster in denser media, just as sound did.  Seventy-five years later, Maupertuis continued the tradition when he developed his principle of least action and applied it to light corpuscles traveling faster through denser media, just as Descartes had prescribed.


The wave view of Snell’s Law (on the left). The source resides in the medium with higher speed. As the wave fronts impinge on the interface to a medium with lower speed, the wave fronts in the slower medium flatten out, causing the ray perpendicular to the wave fronts to tilt downwards. The particle view of Snell’s Law (on the right). The momentum of the particle in the second medium is larger than in the first, but the transverse components of the momentum (the x-components) are conserved, causing a tilt downwards of the particle’s direction as it crosses the interface. [i]

Maupertuis’ paper applying the principle of least action to the law of Descartes was a critical juncture in the development of dynamics.  His assumption of faster speeds in denser material was wrong, but he got the right answer because of the way he defined action for light.  Encouraged by the success of his (incorrect) theory, Maupertuis extended the principle of least action to mechanical systems, and this time used the right theory to get the right answers.  Despite Maupertuis’ misguided aspirations to become a physicist of equal stature to Newton, he was no mathematician, and he welcomed (and  somewhat appropriated) the contributions of Leonid Euler on the topic, who established the mathematical foundations for the principle of least action.  This work, in turn, attracted the attention of the Italian mathematician Lagrange, who developed a general new approach (Lagrangian mechanics) to mechanical systems that included the principle of least action as a direct consequence of his equations of motion.  This was the first time that light led the way to classical mechanics.  A hundred years after Maupertuis, it was time again for light to lead to the way to a deeper mechanics known as Hamiltonian mechanics.

Young Hamilton

William Rowland Hamilton (1805—1865) was a prodigy as a boy who knew parts of thirteen languages by the time he was thirteen years old. These were Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Hindoostanee, Malay, French, Italian, Spanish, and German. In 1823 he entered Trinity College of Dublin University to study science. In his second and third years, he won the University’s top prizes for Greek and for mathematical physics, a run which may have extended to his fourth year—but he was offered the position of Andrew’s Professor of Astronomy at Dublin and Royal Astronomer of Ireland—not to be turned down at the early age of 21.


Title of Hamilton’s first paper on his characteristic function as a new method that applied his theory from optics to the theory of mechanics, including Lagrangian mechanics as a special case.

His research into mathematical physics  concentrated on the theory of rays of light. Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788—1827) had recently passed away, leaving behind a wave theory of light that provided a starting point for many effects in optical science, but which lacked broader generality. Hamilton developed a rigorous mathematical framework that could be applied to optical phenomena of the most general nature. This led to his theory of the Characteristic Function, based on principles of the variational calculus of Euler and Lagrange, that predicted the refraction of rays of light, like trajectories, as they passed through different media or across boundaries. In 1832 Hamilton predicted a phenomenon called conical refraction, which would cause a single ray of light entering a biaxial crystal to refract into a luminous cone.

Mathematical physics of that day typically followed experimental science. There were so many observed phenomena in so many fields that demanded explanation, that the general task of the mathematical physicist was to explain phenomena using basic principles followed by mathematical analysis. It was rare for the process to work the other way, for a theorist to predict a phenomenon never before observed. Today we take this as very normal. Einstein’s fame was primed by his prediction of the bending of light by gravity—but only after the observation of the effect by Eddington four years later was Einstein thrust onto the world stage. The same thing happened to Hamilton when his friend Humphrey Lloyd observed conical refraction, just as Hamilton had predicted. After that, Hamilton was revered as one of the most ingenious scientists of his day.

Following the success of conical refraction, Hamilton turned from optics to pursue a striking correspondence he had noted in his Characteristic Function that applied to mechanical trajectories as well as it did to rays of light. In 1834 and 1835 he published two papers On a General Method in Mechanics( I and II)[ii], in which he reworked the theory of Lagrange by beginning with the principle of varying action, which is now known as Hamilton’s Principle. Hamilton’s principle is related to Maupertuis’ principle of least action, but it was more rigorous and a more general approach to derive the Euler-Lagrange equations.  Hamilton’s Principal Function allowed the trajectories of particles to be calculated in complicated situations that were challenging for a direct solution by Lagrange’s equations.

The importance that these two papers had on the future development of physics would not be clear until 1842 when Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi helped to interpret them and augment them, turning them into a methodology for solving dynamical problems. Today, the Hamiltonian approach to dynamics is central to all of physics, and thousands of physicists around the world mention his name every day, possibly more often than they mention Einstein’s.

[i] Reprinted from D. D. Nolte, Galileo Unbound: A Path Across Life, the Universe and Everything (Oxford, 2018)

[ii] W. R. Hamilton, “On a general method in dynamics I,” Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc., pp. 247-308, 1834; W. R. Hamilton, “On a general method in dynamics II,” Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc., pp. 95-144, 1835.

Huygens’ Tautochrone

In February of 1662, Pierre de Fermat wrote a paper Synthesis ad refractiones that explained Descartes-Snell’s Law of light refraction by finding the least time it took for light to travel between two points. This famous approach is now known as Fermat’s principle, and it motivated other searches for minimum principles. A few years earlier, in 1656, Christiaan Huygens had invented the pendulum clock [1], and he began a ten-year study of the physics of the pendulum. He was well aware that the pendulum clock does not keep exact time—as the pendulum swings wider, the period of oscillation slows down. He began to search for a path of the pendular mass that would keep the period the same (and make pendulum clocks more accurate), and he discovered a trajectory along which a mass would arrive at the same position in the same time no matter where it was released on the curve. That such a curve could exist was truly remarkable, and it promised to make highly accurate time pieces.

It made minimization problems a familiar part of physics—they became part of the mindset, leading ultimately to the principle of least action.

This curve is known as a tautochrone (literally: same or equal time) and Huygens provided a geometric proof in his Horologium Oscillatorium sive de motu pendulorum (1673) that the curve was a cycloid. A cycloid is the curve traced by a point on the rim of a circular wheel as the wheel rolls without slipping along a straight line. Huygens invented such a pendulum in which the mass executed a cycloid curve. It was a mass on a flexible yet inelastic string that partially wrapped itself around a solid bumper on each half swing. In principle, whether the pendulum swung gently, or through large displacements, the time would be the same. Unfortunately, friction along the contact of the string with the bumper prevented the pendulum from achieving this goal, and the tautochronic pendulum did not catch on.


Fig. 1 Huygens’ isochronous pendulum.  The time it takes the pendulum bob to follow the cycloid arc is independent of the pendulum’s amplitude, unlike for the circular arc, as the pendulum slows down for larger excursions.

The solution of the tautochrone curve of equal time led naturally to a search for the curve of least time, known as the brachistochrone curve for a particle subject to gravity, like a bead sliding on a frictionless wire between two points. Johann Bernoulli published a challenge to find the brachistochrone in 1696 in the scientific journal Acta Eruditorum that had been founded in 1682 by Leibniz in Germany in collaboration with Otto Mencke. Leibniz envisioned the journal to be a place where new ideas in the natural sciences and mathematics could be published and disseminated rapidly, and it included letters and commentaries, acting as a communication hub to help establish a community of scholars across Europe. In reality, it was the continental response to the Proceedings of the Royal Society in England.  Naturally, the Acta and the Proceedings would later take partisan sides in the priority dispute between Leibniz and Newton for the development of the calculus.

When Bernoulli published his brachistochrone challenge in the June issue of 1696, it was read immediately by the leading mathematicians of the day, many of whom took up the challenge and replied. The problem was solved and published in the May 1697 issue of the Acta by no less than five correspondents, including Johann Bernoulli, Jakob Bernoulli (Johann’s brother), Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz and Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus. Each of them varied in their approaches, but all found the same solution. Johann and Jakob each considered the problem as the path of a light beam in a medium whose speed varied with depth. Just as in the tautochrone, the solved curve was a cycloid. The path of fastest time always started with a vertical path that allowed the fastest acceleration, and the point of greatest depth always was at the point of greatest horizontal speed.

The brachistrochrone problem led to the invention of the variational calculus, with first steps by Jakob Bernoulli and later more rigorous approaches by Euler.  However, its real importance is that it made minimization problems a familiar part of physics—they became part of the mindset, leading ultimately to the principle of least action.

[1] Galileo conceived of a pendulum clock in 1641, and his son Vincenzo started construction, but it was never finished.  Huygens submitted and received a patent in 1657 for a practical escape mechanism on pendulum clocks that is still used today.




A Wealth of Motions: Six Generations in the History of the Physics of Motion


Since Galileo launched his trajectory, there have been six broad generations that have traced the continuing development of concepts of motion. These are: 1) Universal Motion; 2) Phase Space; 3) Space-Time; 4) Geometric Dynamics; 5) Quantum Coherence; and 6) Complex Systems. These six generations were not all sequential, many evolving in parallel over the centuries, borrowing from each other, and there surely are other ways one could divide up the story of dynamics. But these six generations capture the grand concepts and the crucial paradigm shifts that are Galileo’s legacy, taking us from Galileo’s trajectory to the broad expanses across which physicists practice physics today.

Universal Motion emerged as a new concept when Isaac Newton proposed his theory of universal gravitation by which the force that causes apples to drop from trees is the same force that keeps the Moon in motion around the Earth, and the Earth in motion around the Sun. This was a bold step because even in Newton’s day, some still believed that celestial objects obeyed different laws. For instance, it was only through the work of Edmund Halley, a contemporary and friend of Newton’s, that comets were understood to travel in elliptical orbits obeying the same laws as the planets. Universal Motion included ideas of momentum from the start, while concepts of energy and potential, which fill out this first generation, took nearly a century to develop in the hands of many others, like Leibniz and Euler and the Bernoullis. This first generation was concluded by the masterwork of the Italian-French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who also planted the seed of the second generation.

The second generation, culminating in the powerful and useful Phase Space, also took more than a century to mature. It began when Lagrange divorced dynamics from geometry, establishing generalized coordinates as surrogates to directions in space. Ironically, by discarding geometry, Lagrange laid the foundation for generalized spaces, because generalized coordinates could be anything, coming in any units and in any number, each coordinate having its companion velocity, doubling the dimension for every freedom. The Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann expanded the number of dimensions to the scale of Avogadro’s number of particles, and he discovered the conservation of phase space volume, an invariance of phase space that stays the same even as 1023 atoms (Avogadro’s number) in ideal gases follow their random trajectories. The idea of phase space set the stage for statistical mechanics and for a new probabilistic viewpoint of mechanics that would extend into chaotic motions.

The French mathematician Henri Poincaré got a glimpse of chaotic motion in 1890 as he rushed to correct an embarrassing mistake in his manuscript that had just won a major international prize. The mistake was mathematical, but the consequences were profoundly physical, beginning the long road to a theory of chaos that simmered, without boiling, for nearly seventy years until computers became common lab equipment. Edward Lorenz of MIT, working on models of the atmosphere in the late 1960s, used one of the earliest scientific computers to expose the beauty and the complexity of chaotic systems. He discovered that the computer simulations were exponentially sensitive to the initial conditions, and the joke became that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could cause hurricanes in the Atlantic. In his computer simulations, Lorenz discovered what today is known as the Lorenz butterfly, an example of something called a “strange attractor”. But the term chaos is a bit of a misnomer, because chaos theory is primarily about finding what things are shared in common, or are invariant, among seemingly random-acting systems.

The third generation in concepts of motion, Space-Time, is indelibly linked with Einstein’s special theory of relativity, but Einstein was not its originator. Space-time was the brain child of the gifted but short-lived Prussian mathematician Hermann Minkowski, who had been attracted from Königsberg to the mathematical powerhouse at the University in Göttingen, Germany around the turn of the 20th Century by David Hilbert. Minkowski was an expert in invariant theory, and when Einstein published his special theory of relativity in 1905 to explain the Lorentz transformations, Minkowski recognized a subtle structure buried inside the theory. This structure was related to Riemann’s metric theory of geometry, but it had the radical feature that time appeared as one of the geometric dimensions. This was a drastic departure from all former theories of motion that had always separated space and time: trajectories had been points in space that traced out a continuous curve as a function of time. But in Minkowski’s mind, trajectories were invariant curves, and although their mathematical representation changed with changing point of view (relative motion of observers), the trajectories existed in a separate unchanging reality, not mere functions of time, but eternal. He called these trajectories world lines. They were static structures in a geometry that is today called Minkowski space. Einstein at first was highly antagonistic to this new view, but he relented, and later he so completely adopted space-time in his general theory that today Minkowski is almost forgotten, his echo heard softly in expressions of the Minkowski metric that is the background to Einstein’s warped geometry that bends light and captures errant space craft.

The fourth generation in the development of concepts of motion, Geometric Dynamics, began when an ambitious French physicist with delusions of grandeur, the historically ambiguous Pierre Louis Maupertuis, returned from a scientific boondoggle to Lapland where he measured the flatness of the Earth in defense of Newtonian physics over Cartesian. Skyrocketed to fame by the success of the expedition, he began his second act by proposing the Principle of Least Action, a principle by which all motion seeks to be most efficient by taking a geometric path that minimizes a physical quantity called action. In this principle, Maupertuis saw both a universal law that could explain all of physical motion, as well as a path for himself to gain eternal fame in the company of Galileo and Newton. Unfortunately, his high hopes were dashed through personal conceit and nasty intrigue, and most physicists today don’t even recognize his name. But the idea of least action struck a deep chord that reverberates throughout physics. It is the first and fundamental example of a minimum principle, of which there are many. For instance, minimum potential energy identifies points of system equilibrium, and paths of minimum distances are geodesic paths. In dynamics, minimization of the difference between potential and kinetic energies identifies the dynamical paths of trajectories, and minimization of distance through space-time warped by mass and energy density identifies the paths of falling objects.

Maupertuis’ fundamentally important idea was picked up by Euler and Lagrange, expanding it through the language of differential geometry. This was the language of Bernhard Riemann, a gifted and shy German mathematician whose mathematical language was adopted by physicists to describe motion as a geodesic, the shortest path like a great-circle route on the Earth, in an abstract dynamical space defined by kinetic energy and potentials. In this view, it is the geometry of the abstract dynamical space that imposes Galileo’s simple parabolic form on freely falling objects. Einstein took this viewpoint farther than any before him, showing how mass and energy warped space and how free objects near gravitating bodies move along geodesic curves defined by the shape of space. This brought trajectories to a new level of abstraction, as space itself became the cause of motion. Prior to general relativity, motion occurred in space. Afterwards, motion was caused by space. In this sense, gravity is not a force, but is like a path down which everything falls.

The fifth generation of concepts of motion, Quantum Coherence, increased abstraction yet again in the comprehension of trajectories, ushering in difficult concepts like wave-particle duality and quantum interference. Quantum interference underlies many of the counter-intuitive properties of quantum systems, including the possibility for quantum systems to be in two or more states at the same time, and for quantum computers to crack unbreakable codes. But this new perspective came with a cost, introducing fundamental uncertainties that are locked in a battle of trade-offs as one measurement becomes more certain and others becomes more uncertain.

Einstein distrusted Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, not that he disagreed with its veracity, but he felt it was more a statement of ignorance than a statement of fundamental unknowability. In support of Einstein, Schrödinger devised a thought experiment that was meant to be a reduction to absurdity in which a cat is placed in a box with a vial of poison that would be broken if a quantum particle decays. The cruel fate of Schrödinger’s cat, who might or might not be poisoned, hinges on whether or not someone opens the lid and looks inside. Once the box is opened, there is one world in which the cat is alive and another world in which the cat is dead. These two worlds spring into existence when the box is opened—a bizarre state of affairs from the point of view of a pragmatist. This is where Richard Feynman jumped into the fray and redefined the idea of a trajectory in a radically new way by showing that a quantum trajectory is not a single path, like Galileo’s parabola, but the combined effect of the quantum particle taking all possible paths simultaneously. Feynman established this new view of quantum trajectories in his thesis dissertation under the direction of John Archibald Wheeler at Princeton. By adapting Maupertuis’ Principle of Least Action to quantum mechanics, Feynman showed how every particle takes every possible path—simultaneously—every path interfering in such as way that only the path with the most constructive interference is observed. In the quantum view, the deterministic trajectory of the cannon ball evaporates into a cloud of probable trajectories.

In our current complex times, the sixth generation in the evolution of concepts of motion explores Complex Systems. Lorenz’s Butterfly has more to it than butterflies, because Life is the greatest complex system of our experience and our existence. We are the end result of a cascade of self-organizing events that began half a billion years after Earth coalesced out of the nebula, leading to the emergence of consciousness only about 100,000 years ago—a fact that lets us sit here now and wonder about it all. That we are conscious is perhaps no accident. Once the first amino acids coagulated in a muddy pool, we have been marching steadily uphill, up a high mountain peak in a fitness landscape. Every advantage a species gained over its environment and over its competitors exerted a type of pressure on all the other species in the ecosystem that caused them to gain their own advantage.

The modern field of evolutionary dynamics spans a wide range of scales across a wide range of abstractions. It treats genes and mutations on DNA in much the same way it treats the slow drift of languages and the emergence of new dialects. It treats games and social interactions the same way it does the evolution of cancer. Evolutionary dynamics is the direct descendant of chaos theory that turned butterflies into hurricanes, but the topics it treats are special to us as evolved species, and as potential victims of disease. The theory has evolved its own visualizations, such as the branches in the tree of life and the high mountain tops in fitness landscapes separated by deep valleys. Evolutionary dynamics draws, in a fundamental way, on dynamic processes in high dimensions, without which it would be impossible to explain how something as complex as human beings could have arisen from random mutations.

These six generations in the development of dynamics are not likely to stop, and future generations may arise as physicists pursue the eternal quest for the truth behind the structure of reality.