‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogroves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.’

Lewis Carroll, 1872

The whimsical prose of Jabberwocky has more to do with quantum physics than you may at first think.  Alice’s own impression was that: ‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are!’  A similar confusion is felt by anyone grappling to comprehend the sub-atomic world, for it is a peculiar place governed by entangled uncertainty where physical laws and reality, as we know them, cease to exist.

Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock

Classical physics is intuitive.  It is derived from cause and effect of the direct observation of the world around us.  You can (literally) see an apple falling from a tree or the movement of stars and planets in the night sky, but you can’t see the happenings in the quantum world. Our understanding and expectations are so deeply engrained within experience that it is hard to imagine something that does not fit in with our expectations.

If you are vaguely familiar with quantum physics you will have heard of the term wave-particle duality, but an electron, or a photon, doesn’t suffer from schizophrenia.  The British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington expressed this succinctly by likening an elementary particle to Jabberwockian verse: ‘Something unknown that is doing we don’t know what.’  By adding numbers to the first stanza he proffered an excellent description of electrons as: ‘Eight slithy toves gyre and gimble in the oxygen wabe[1].’  For it is far better to break away from our misconception of electrons as particles whizzing around a nucleus and consider them as toves, gyring and gimbling.

Tenniel’s illustration of the cheese-loving badger-lizard-corkscrew toves

Wave-particle duality is not a paradox.  An electron is not a wave.  An electron is not a particle.  It is something else altogether.


[1] An oxygen atom has eight electrons.  Quotation from Nature of the Physical world.