Surfing and quantum mechanics

Surfing and quantum mechanics

posted in: Science, Surf | 0

Quantum mechanics is not something I know much about, other than that it’s the study of energy and interactions at the atomic and sub atomic level, and that things in quantum mechanics behave very differently to how things behave in classical physics, which is probably the way that most of us think about the world.

Recently, I was watching a video outlining one of the problems of quantum mechanics where an electron can be both a wave or a particle, depending on how you observe it (I was trying to improve my very meagre understanding). One of the diagrams that flashed up instantly reminded me of something – the ‘chevron’ effect of a strong wind blowing across water. You see this effect at Fistral Beach on a northerly, or from aeroplane windows when you’re soaring above the trade winds.

With a bit more height this photo would have been great…but you can still make out the chevron patter on the water to the left of the image


In the above photo, the wind is blowing from right to left. I was going to reverse the image so it matched up with the following, but I think you can probably get the idea. The image below is a computer representation of the Double Slit experiment where electrons are fired through two slits to create a wave interference pattern. A and B shows the location of the slits where the electrons are passing through as two separate waves before they interfere with each other. Where they meet you get a peak+peak pattern creating a higher peak, a peak+trough pattern cancelling each other out, and a trough+trough creating a deeper trough. This matches up very closely with one of the theories I’ve read about the creation of set waves, but I can’t find it to link to right now…

Look at this image above, and starting from the left, it’s not difficult to imagine the first third as the start of a low pressure blowing across the ocean agitating the surface, the middle bit showing propagation of the waves under their own momentum, and the final third showing their ultimate organisation and arrival at the shore. It’s a bit like a computer representation of the making of the perfect swell.

But does it look anything like this in real life?

This is a satellite image of Mavericks in Northern California.


The image above is a satellite photograph of Maverick’s on a pumping swell. Look at the lattice effect on the ocean’s surface on the left hand side of the image (notice also how the waves shoal up as they reach shallower water). To me, this satellite image and the electron wave interference pattern above aren’t that dissimilar. Would this lattice-peak effect provide another reason for shifting peaks and wide sets, as well as the effect of shifting sandbars? Well you can definitely sense the peak-trough pattern if you ever go on a downwinder on a sup board or kayak.

If you’d like to see a more close-up localised representation of swells behaving like electron waves then take a look at this image below of Sea Palling in the far east of Norfolk. The gaps between the breakwaters act exactly like the gaps in the Double Slit experiment and as the swells hit the sea walls square on in a howling NE wind, just like the electrons, they create a wave dispersal and interference pattern when they pass through the gaps.

OK. so you might well be saying, ‘very good, but how is the double slit effect represented in the middle of the ocean where we don’t have sea walls for swell to push through?’. I’d say it is down to the tracking of low pressures across the ocean – the swell generator of the low doesn’t stay spinning in one place, they track east and north, whipping swells into life at varying points of origin, not just one place.

A much larger scale double slit experiment at Sea Palling. Norfolk. Look at the wave interference pattern as swells pass through the gaps.


So what happens to this energy when it arrives at its destination? Well, if you’re a surfer you’ll know that a coastline facing into the brunt of the swell will receive the biggest waves, whilst coastlines, as they become angled more away from the swell will receive smaller waves. Think Sennen on a west swell vs just about every other beach in Cornwall. And of course, that’s what happens to our electrons when they strike the back plate; most of them end up directly between the two slits. Look at the back wall on the image below; the wavey white line represents the distribution of where the electrons hit the back wall.

Sennen Cove is represented by the peak in the middle of the back wall. Towan Beach somewhere on the outer edge.


I think that it’s pretty interesting that surfers, kites, sailors and paddlers would be used to seeing the patterns that electrons make writ large across the canvass of the ocean. Does our interaction with these elegant laws of the universe somehow make our sports feel more profound than more mainstream sports? I remember Laird Hamilton once said to me in an interview that stand up paddling in the wind felt ‘thorough’…Of course, this post is mostly for fun, I’m not a scientist, and I’m not going to attempt to relate the part when an electron suddenly collapses from a wave into a particle depending on how you observe it.

Unless of course that would explain why if you look at perfect surf via a webcam when you get to the beach it turns into blown out mush…