De Broglie Hypothesis

Does All Matter Exhibit Wave-like Properties?

Abstract waves
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The De Broglie hypothesis proposes that all matter exhibits wave-like properties and relates the observed wavelength of matter to its momentum. After Albert Einstein's photon theory became accepted, the question became whether this was true only for light or whether material objects also exhibited wave-like behavior. Here is how the De Broglie hypothesis was developed.

De Broglie's Thesis

In his 1923 (or 1924, depending on the source) doctoral dissertation, the French physicist Louis de Broglie made a bold assertion. Considering Einstein's relationship of wavelength lambda to momentum p, de Broglie proposed that this relationship would determine the wavelength of any matter, in the relationship:

lambda = h / p
recall that h is Planck's constant

This wavelength is called the de Broglie wavelength. The reason he chose the momentum equation over the energy equation is that it was unclear, with matter, whether E should be total energy, kinetic energy, or total relativistic energy. For photons, they are all the same, but not so for matter.

Assuming the momentum relationship, however, allowed the derivation of a similar de Broglie relationship for frequency f using the kinetic energy Ek:

f = Ek / h

Alternate Formulations

De Broglie's relationships are sometimes expressed in terms of Dirac's constant, h-bar = h / (2pi), and the angular frequency w and wavenumber k:

p = h-bar * kEk
= h-bar * w

Experimental Confirmation

In 1927, physicists Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer, of Bell Labs, performed an experiment where they fired electrons at a crystalline nickel target. The resulting diffraction pattern matched the predictions of the de Broglie wavelength. De Broglie received the 1929 Nobel Prize for his theory (the first time it was ever awarded for a Ph.D. thesis) and Davisson/Germer jointly won it in 1937 for the experimental discovery of electron diffraction (and thus the proving of de Broglie's hypothesis).

Further experiments have held de Broglie's hypothesis to be true, including the quantum variants of the double slit experiment. Diffraction experiments in 1999 confirmed the de Broglie wavelength for the behavior of molecules as large as buckyballs, which are complex molecules made up of 60 or more carbon atoms.

Significance of the de Broglie Hypothesis

The de Broglie hypothesis showed that wave-particle duality was not merely an aberrant behavior of light, but rather was a fundamental principle exhibited by both radiation and matter. As such, it becomes possible to use wave equations to describe material behavior, so long as one properly applies the de Broglie wavelength. This would prove crucial to the development of quantum mechanics. It is now an integral part of the theory of atomic structure and particle physics.

Macroscopic Objects and Wavelength

Though de Broglie's hypothesis predicts wavelengths for ​matter of any size, there are realistic limits on when it's useful. A baseball thrown at a pitcher has a de Broglie wavelength that is smaller than the diameter of a proton by about 20 orders of magnitude. The wave aspects of a macroscopic object are so tiny as to be unobservable in any useful sense, although interesting to muse about.

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Your Citation
Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. "De Broglie Hypothesis." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. (2020, August 27). De Broglie Hypothesis. Retrieved from Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. "De Broglie Hypothesis." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).