Cover image for Through two doors at once : the elegant experiment that captures the enigma of our quantum reality / Anil Ananthaswamy.
Through two doors at once : the elegant experiment that captures the enigma of our quantum reality / Anil Ananthaswamy.
Title Variants:
Through 2 doors at once
Publication Information:
New York, New York : Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, [2018]

Physical Description:
x, 290 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Prologue: The story of nature taunting us -- The case of the experiment with two holes : Richard Feynman explains the central mystery -- What does it mean "to be"? : the road to reality, from Copenhagen to Brussels -- Between reality and perception : doing the double slit, one photon at a time -- From sacred texts : revelations about spooky action at a distance -- To erase or not to erase : mountaintop experiments take us to the edge -- Bohmian rhapsody : obvious ontology evolving the obvious way -- Gravity kills the quantum cat? : the case for bringing spacetime into the mix -- Healing an ugly scar : the many worlds medicine -- Epilogue: Ways of looking at the same thing?
"It's the story of quantum mechanics told through the lens of the 'double-slit' experiment, showing how light passing through two slits cut into a cardboard sheet first challenged our understanding of light and the nature of reality almost two hundred years ago--and continues to do so"-- Provided by publisher.


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
530.12 ANA Book Adult General Collection

On Order



Some of the greatest scientific minds have grappled with this experiment. Thomas Young devised it in the early 1800s to show that light behaves like a wave, and in doing so opposed Isaac Newton's view that light is made of particles. But then quantum mechanics was born and Albert Einstein showed that light comes in quanta, or particles. Einstein and Niels Bohr-two of the formidable founders of quantum mechanics-then debated over the nature of reality as revealed by the double-slit experiment.

When done with single particles of light or particles of matter such as electrons or even molecules, the double-slit experiment becomes a conundrum to behold. How can a single particle behave both like a particle and a wave? Does a particle, or indeed reality, exist before we look at it, or does looking create reality, as claimed by some adherents of the orthodox Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics? Richard Feynman said the double-slit experiment embodies the central mystery of the quantum world. But even he underestimated the experiment's power. Decade after decade, hypothesis after hypothesis, scientists have returned to it to help them answer more and more profound questions about quantum reality.

With his extraordinarily gifted eloquence, Ananthaswamy takes the reader on an exploration of the past, present, and future implications of the double-slit experiment. Thomas Young's simple contraption-which began as a pinhole punched into a window shutter to let through a sunbeam-has surpassed its humble (yet paradigm-shifting) origins. The redoubtable experiment, reimagined and redesigned, yet untainted in its conceptual simplicity, has been used to explore all aspects of the quantum world that make it so mysterious, such as wave-particle duality, quantum superposition and entanglement (which Einstein called "spooky action at a distance"). The experiment is asking profound questions about our descriptions of reality. Do our theories represent what's actually out there, or do they represent our best knowledge of the quantum world? Is there a quantum-classical divide, where the quantum world ends and the familiar classical world of our daily lives begins, and if so, can we find it?

The double-slit experiment is even being used by physicists to question the Copenhagen interpretation. Is there a real world of particles and waves out there, as David Bohm said? Or are new worlds being created each time something goes through a double-slit, a quantum fork in the road, if you will? And what's gravity got to do with all this?

Through Two Doors at Once simultaneously celebrates the elegant simplicity of an iconic experiment and its profound reach. Anil Ananthaswamy travels around the world and through history, introducing readers to revolutionaries like Einstein and Bohr and Heisenberg and Schr dinger, as well as visionary contemporary physicists such as Roger Penrose, Alain Aspect, and Anton Zeilinger, who have all grappled with this experiment, whether in the lab or in thought. It's an unforgettable journey.

Author Notes

Anil Ananthaswamy is a consultant for the London-based New Scientist magazine, a guest editor in science journalism at UC Santa Cruz's renowned science writing program, and teaches in the science journalism workshop at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India. He has worked at New Scientist in various capacities since 2000, including as a staff writer and a deputy news editor. He is a freelance feature editor for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science's Front Matter . He has also written for National Geographic, Discover , The Times, and The Independent and is a columnist for PBS NOVA's The Nature of Reality blog. His first book The Edge of Physics was voted book of the year in 2010 by Physics World , and his latest title, The Man Who Wasn't There , won a Nautilus Book Award in 2015.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Science writer Ananthaswamy (The Man Who Wasn't There) guides readers through the odd byways and revelations of one of modern physics's most groundbreaking experiments. The tale begins some 200 years ago when Thomas Young, a youthful member of the Royal Society of London, challenged Isaac Newton's assertion that light is made of tiny particles. Young's experiment-shining light through a barrier with two slits cut into it and a screen beyond-showed the light beams recombined beyond the slits to create a row of alternating bright and dark stripes, or interference fringes, "created when two waves overlap." But that wasn't the end of the matter, and the particle versus wave question raised new hackles with the early 20th-century breakthroughs of Albert Einstein and the rise of quantum theory. Over the course of this intellectual journey, Ananthaswamy introduces a fascinating array of ideas, e.g., that quantum mechanics means humans should "give up notions of locality in 3-D space [and] our notions of time too," and characters, e.g., "quantum cowboy" Marlan Scully, famed for "pioneering research on the nature of reality and beef cattle production." This accessible, illuminating book shows that no matter how sophisticated the lab setup, the double-slit experiment still challenges physicists. (Aug.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

In his latest work, journalist -Ananthaswamy (The Man Who Wasn't There) explores the famous "double-slit" experiment. Although simple, the investigation is profound as it defies classical, Newtonian physics as well as the way human beings intuitively perceive reality. It was first performed in 1801, when physicist Thomas Young directed sunlight through a tiny pinhole in a window shutter and then around each side of a paper card. The resulting -interference -pattern convinced Young that light is made of waves rather than particles. Further double-slit experiments, however, would reveal more perplexing results by showing that light (and electrons) display characteristics of both waves and particles. Throughout, Ananthaswamy depicts the various ways the experiment has been performed and also describes its impact on the greatest scientists of the 20th century, shedding light on how they have interpreted the findings. -VERDICT An engaging and accessible history of a fascinating and baffling experiment that remains inconclusive to this day. -Recommended for those interested in the subject or anyone wishing to delve further into the double-slit experiment.-Dave Pugl, Ela Area P.L., Lake Zurich, IL © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1   THE CASE OF THE EXPERIMENT WITH TWO HOLES   Richard Feynman Explains the Central Mystery   There is nothing more surreal, nothing more abstract than reality.   -Giorgio Morandi   Richard Feynman was still a year away from winning his Nobel Prize. And two decades away from publishing an endearing autobiographical book that introduced him to non-physicists as a straight-talking scientist interested in everything from cracking safes to playing drums. But in November 1964, to students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, he was already a star and they received him as such. Feynman came to deliver a series of lectures. Strains of "Far above Cayuga's Waters" rang out from the Cornell Chimes. The provost introduced Feynman as an instructor and physicist par excellence, but also, of course, as an accomplished bongo drummer. Feynman strode onto the stage to the kind of applause reserved for performing artists, and opened his lecture with this observation: "It's odd, but in the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics."   By his sixth lecture, Feynman dispensed with any preamble, even a token "Hello" to the clapping students, and jumped straight into how our intuition, which is suited to dealing with everyday things that we can see and hear and touch, fails when it comes to understanding nature at very small scales.   And often, he said, it's experiments that challenge our intuitive view of the world. "Then we see unexpected things," said Feynman. "We see things that are very far from what we could have imagined. And so our imagination is stretched to the utmost-not, as in fiction, to imagine things which aren't really there. But our imagination is stretched to the utmost just to comprehend those things which are there. And it's this kind of a situation that I want to talk about."   The lecture was about quantum mechanics, the physics of the very small things; in particular, it was about the nature of light and subatomic bits of matter such as electrons. In other words, it was about the nature of reality. Do light and electrons show wavelike behavior (like water does)? Or do they act like particles (like grains of sand do)? Turns out that saying yes or no would be both correct and incorrect. Any attempt to visualize the behavior of the microscopic, subatomic entities makes a mockery of our intuition.   "They behave in their own inimitable way," said Feynman. "Which, technically, could be called the 'quantum-mechanical' way. They behave in a way that is like nothing that you have ever seen before. Your experience with things that you have seen before is inadequate-is incomplete. The behavior of things on a very tiny scale is simply different. They do not behave just like particles. They do not behave just like waves."   But at least light and electrons behave in "exactly the same" way, said Feynman. "That is, they're both screwy."   Feynman cautioned the audience that the lecture was going to be difficult because it would challenge their widely held views about how nature works: "But the difficulty, really, is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself 'But how can it be like that?' Which really is a reflection of an uncontrolled, but I say utterly vain, desire to see it in terms of some analogy with something familiar. I will not describe it in terms of an analogy with something familiar. I'll simply describe it."   And so, to make his point over the course of an hour of spellbinding oratory, Feynman focused on the "one experiment which has been designed to contain all of the mystery of quantum mechanics, to put you up against the paradoxes and mysteries and peculiarities of nature."   It was the double-slit experiment. It's difficult to imagine a simpler experiment-or, as we'll discover over the course of this book, one more confounding. We start with a source of light. Place in front of the source a sheet of opaque material with two narrow, closely spaced slits or openings. This creates two paths for the light to go through. On the other side of the opaque sheet is a screen. What would you expect to see on the screen?   The answer, at least in the context of the world we are familiar with, depends on what one thinks is the nature of light. In the late seventeenth century and all of the eighteenth century, Isaac Newton's ideas dominated our view of light. He argued that light was made of tiny particles, or "corpuscles," as he called them. Newton's "corpuscular theory of light" was partly formulated to explain why light, unlike sound, cannot bend around corners. Light must be made of particles, Newton argued, since particles don't curve or bend in the absence of external forces.   In his lecture, when Feynman analyzed the double-slit experiment, he first considered the case of a source firing particles at the two slits. To accentuate the particle nature of the source, he urged the audience to imagine that instead of subatomic particles (of which electrons and particles of light would be examples), we were to fire bullets from a gun-which "come in lumps." To avoid too much violent imagery (what with bombs in the prologue, and a thought experiment with gunpowder to come), let's imagine a source that spews particles of sand rather than bullets; we know that sand comes in lumps, though the lumps are much, much smaller than bullets.   First, let's do the experiment with either the left slit or the right slit closed. Let's take it that the source is firing grains of sand at high enough speeds that they have straight trajectories. When we do this, the grains of sand that get through the slits mostly hit the region of the screen directly behind the open slit, with the numbers tapering off on either side. The higher the height of the graph, the more the number of grains of sand reaching that location on the screen.   Now, what should we see if both slits are open? As expected, each grain of sand passes through one or the other opening and reaches the other side. The distribution of the grains of sand on the far screen is simply the sum of what goes through each slit. It's a demonstration of the intuitive and sensible behavior of the non-quantum world of everyday experience, the classical world described so well by Newton's laws of motion.   To be convinced that this is indeed what happens with particles of sand, let's orient the device such that the sand is now falling down onto the barrier with two slits. Our intuition clearly tells us that two mounds should form beneath the two openings.   Turning the experiment back to its original position, let's dispense with the sand and consider a source that's emitting light, and assume that light's made of Newtonian corpuscles. Informed by our experiment with sand particles, we'd expect to see two strips of light on the screen, one behind the right slit and one behind the left slit, each strip of light fading off to the sides, leading to a distribution of light that is simply the sum of the light you'd get passing through each slit.   Well, that's not what happens. Light, it seems, does not behave as if it's made of particles.   Even before Newton's time, there were observations that challenged his theory of the particle nature of light. For example, light changes course when going from one medium to another-say, from air to glass and back into air (this phenomenon, called refraction, is what allows us to make optical lenses). Refraction can't be easily explained if you think of light as particles traveling through air and glass, because it requires positing an external force to change the direction of light when it goes from air to glass and from glass to air. But refraction can be explained if light is thought of as a wave (the speed of the wave would be different in air than in glass, explaining the change in direction as light goes from one type of material to another). This is exactly what Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens proposed in the 1600s. Huygens argued that light is a wave much like a sound wave, and since sound waves are essentially vibrations of the medium in which they are traveling, Huygens argued that light too is made of vibrations of a medium called ether that pervades the space around us.   This was a serious theory put forth by an enormously gifted scientist. Huygens was a physicist, astronomer, and mathematician. He made telescopes by grinding lenses himself, and discovered Saturn's moon Titan (the first probe to land on Titan, in 2005, was named Huygens in his honor). He independently discovered the Orion nebula. In 1690, he published his TraitZ de la Lumire (Treatise on Light), in which he expounded his wave theory of light.   Newton and Huygens were contemporaries, but Newton's star shone brighter. After all, he had come up with the laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation, which explained everything from the arc of a ball thrown across a field to the movement of planets around the sun. Besides, Newton was a polymath of considerable renown (as a mathematician, he gave us calculus, and even ventured into chemistry, theology, and writing biblical commentaries, not to mention all his work in physics). It was no wonder that his corpuscular theory of light, despite its shortcomings, overshadowed Huygens's ideas of light being wavelike. It'd take another polymath to show up Newton when it came to understanding light.     Thomas Young has been called ÒThe Last Man Who Knew Everything.Ó In 1793, barely twenty years of age, he explained how our eyes focus upon objects at different distances, based partly on his own dissection of an oxÕs eyes. A year later, on the strength of that work, Young was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1796 he became Òdoctor of physic, surgery, and midwifery.Ó When he was in his forties, Young helped Egyptologists decipher the Rosetta stone (which had inscriptions in three scripts: Greek, hieroglyphics, and something unknown). And in between becoming a medical doctor, getting steeped in Egyptology, and even studying Indo-European languages, Young delivered one of the most intriguing lectures in the history of physics. The venue was the Royal Society of London, and the date, November 24, 1803. Young stood in front of that august audience, this time as a physicist describing a simple and elegant homespun experiment, which, in his mind, had unambiguously established the true nature of light and proved Newton wrong.   "The experiments I am about to relate . . . may be repeated with great ease, whenever the sun shines," Young told the audience.   Whenever the sun shines. Young wasn't overstating the simplicity of his experiment. "I made a small hole in a window-shutter, and covered it with a piece of thick paper, which I perforated with a fine needle," he said. The pinhole let through a ray of light, a sunbeam. "I brought into the sunbeam a slip of card, about one-thirtieth of an inch in breadth, and observed its shadow, either on the wall, or on other cards held at different distances."   If light is made of particles, Young's "slip of card" would have cast a sharp shadow on the wall in front, because the card would have blocked some of the particles. And if so, Newton would have been proved right.   If, however, light is made of waves, as Huygens claimed, then the card would have merely impeded the waves, like a rock impedes flowing water, and the wave would have gone around the card, taking two paths, one on either side of the card. The two paths of light would eventually recombine at the wall opposite the window shutter to create a characteristic pattern: a row of alternating bright and dark stripes. Such stripes, also known as interference fringes, are created when two waves overlap. Crucially, the central fringe would be bright, exactly where you'd expect a dark shadow if light were made of particles.   We know about interference from our everyday experience of waves of water. Think of an ocean wave hitting two openings in a coastal breakwall. New waves emerge from each opening (a process called diffraction) and travel onward, where they overlap and interfere with each other. In regions where the crests of both waves arrive at the same time, there's constructive interference and the water is at its highest (analogous to bright fringes of light); and in regions where the crest from one wave arrives at the same time as the trough of the other, there's destructive interference and the water is at its lowest (corresponding to dark fringes).   Young saw such optical interference fringes. Specifically, since he was working with sunlight, which contains light of all colors, he saw a central region that was flanked by fringes of colors. The central region, upon closer inspection, was seen to be made of light and dark fringes. The numbers of these fringes and their widths depended on how far away the pinhole in the window shutter was from the screen or wall. And the middle of the central region was always white (a bright fringe). He had shown that light is wavelike.   There must have been disbelief in the audience, for Young was going against Newton's ideas. Even before Young's lecture, articles written anonymously in the Edinburgh Review had been heavily critical of his work. The author, who turned out to be a barrister named Henry Brougham (he became Lord Chancellor of England in 1830), was scathing, calling Young's work "destitute of every species of merit" and "the unmanly and unfruitful pleasure of a boyish and prurient imagination."   It was anything but. Soon enough, Young's ideas got further support from other physicists. His experiment led to what's now called the double-slit experiment and was in fact the first formulation of it-the very same experiment whose virtues Feynman extolled during his lecture at Cornell. In the more standard double-slit experiment, Young's sunbeam is replaced by a source of light. And instead of a "slip of card" placed in the sunbeam's path to create two paths for the light, the double-slit experiment creates two paths of light by letting the light fall on an opaque barrier with two narrow slits or openings through which the light can pass. And on the screen on the far side, you see an interference pattern, essentially fringes similar to what Young saw on the wall opposite the window shutter (if the screen is a photographic plate, or a piece of glass coated with photosensitive material, then the image can be thought of as a film negative: dark regions will form where the film is being exposed to light). You don't see just two strips tapering away, which you'd expect if light behaved as if it came in lumps. It's behaving like a wave. Excerpted from Through Two Doors at Once: The Elegant Experiment That Captures the Enigma of Our Quantum Reality by Anil Ananthaswamy All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 1
The Story of Nature Taunting Us
1 The Case Of The Experiment With Two Holes: Richard Feynman Explains the Central Mysteryp. 5
2 What Does It Mean "To Be"?: :The Road to Reality, from Copenhagen to Brusselsp. 23
3 Between Reality And Perception: :Doing the Double Slit, One Photon at a Timep. 59
4 From Sacred Texts: :Revelations about Spooky Action at a Distancep. 93
5 To Erase Or Not To Erase: :Mountaintop Experiments Take Us to the Edgep. 109
1 Bohmian Rhapsody: :Obvious Ontology Evolving the Obvious Wayp. 147
7 Gravity Kills The Quantum Cat?: :The Case for Adding Spacetime into the Mixp. 187
8 Healing An Ugly Scar: :The Many Worlds Medicinep. 217
Epiloguep. 255
Ways of Looking at the Same Thing?
Notesp. 267
Acknowledgmentsp. 281
Indexp. 283