The square root of the probability

Probability amplitude in Layman’s Terms

What I understood is that probability amplitude is the square root of the probability … but the square root of the probability does not mean anything in the physical sense.

Can any please explain the physical significance of the probability amplitude in quantum mechanics?

edited Mar 1 at 16:31

asked Mar 21 ’13 at 15:36


Part of you problem is

“Probability amplitude is the square root of the probability […]”

The amplitude is a complex number whose amplitude is the probability. That is \psi^* \psi = P where the asterisk superscript means the complex conjugate.{}^{[1]} It may seem a little pedantic to make this distinction because so far the “complex phase” of the amplitudes has no effect on the observables at all: we could always rotate any given amplitude onto the positive real line and then “the square root” would be fine.

But we can’t guarantee to be able to rotate more than one amplitude that way at the same time.

More over, there are two ways to combine amplitudes to find probabilities for observation of combined events.


When the final states are distinguishable you add probabilities:

P_{dis} = P_1 + P_2 = \psi_1^* \psi_1 + \psi_2^* \psi_2


When the final state are indistinguishable,{}^{[2]} you add amplitudes:

\Psi_{1,2} = \psi_1 + \psi_2


P_{ind} = \Psi_{1,2}^*\Psi_{1,2} = \psi_1^*\psi_1 + \psi_1^*\psi_2 + \psi_2^*\psi_1 + \psi_2^* \psi_2


The terms that mix the amplitudes labeled 1 and 2 are the “interference terms”. The interference terms are why we can’t ignore the complex nature of the amplitudes and they cause many kinds of quantum weirdness.

{}^1 Here I’m using a notation reminiscent of a Schrödinger-like formulation, but that interpretation is not required. Just accept \psi as a complex number representing the amplitude for some observation.

{}^2 This is not precise, the states need to be “coherent”, but you don’t want to hear about that today.

edited Mar 21 ’13 at 17:04
answered Mar 21 ’13 at 16:58


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