A quantum particle in a gravitational field

Consider a particle of mass $m$ moving in a constant gravitational field such that its potential energy at a height $z$ above a surface is $mgz$. If the particle bounces elastically on the surface, the classical probability density corresponding to its position is $$ P_\mathrm{cl}(z) = \frac{1}{\sqrt{z_\mathrm{max}(z_\mathrm{max}-z)}}, $$ where $z_\mathrm{max}$ is the maximum height it reaches.

The quantum mechanical behaviour of this system may described by the solution to the time-independent Schrödinger equation, $$ -\frac{\hbar^2}{2m}\frac{\mathrm{d}^2\psi}{\mathrm{d}z^2} + mgz\psi = E\psi $$ which is simplified by the coordinate rescaling $q = z/\alpha$ where $\alpha =(\hbar^2 / 2m^2g)^{1/3}$: $$ \frac{\mathrm{d}^2\psi}{\mathrm{d}q^2} - (q-q_E)\psi = 0, \quad \mathrm{where}\; q_E = \frac{E}{mg\alpha}. $$ The solutions to this differential equation are the Airy functions. The boundary condition $\psi(z)\rightarrow 0$ as $z\rightarrow \infty$ specifically gives: $$ \psi(q) = N_E\mathrm{Ai}(q-q_E), $$ where $N_E$ is a normalization constant.

The second boundary condition, $\psi(q=0) = 0$, leads to quantization in terms of a quantum number $n=1,2,3,\cdots$, with scaled energy values $q_E$ found from the zeros of the Airy function: $\mathrm{Ai}(-q_E) = 0$.

The following program plots the classical and quantum probability distributions, $P_\mathrm{cl}(z)$ and $|\psi(z)|^2$, for $n=1$ and $n=16$.

import numpy as np
from scipy.special import airy, ai_zeros
import pylab

nmax = 16

# Find the first nmax zeros of Ai(x)
a, _, _, _ = ai_zeros(nmax)
# The actual boundary condition is Ai(-qE) = 0 at q=0, so:
qE = -a

def prob_qm(n, dq):
    Return the quantum mechanical probability density for a particle moving
    in a uniform gravitational field.

    # The quantum mechanical wavefunction is proportional to Ai(q-qE) where
    # the qE corresponding to quantum number n is indexed at n-1
    psi, _, _, _ = airy(q-qE[n-1])
    # Return the probability density, after rough-and-ready normalization
    P = psi**2
    return P / (sum(P) * dq)

def prob_cl(n):
    Return the classical probability density for a particle bouncing
    elastically in a uniform gravitational field.

    # The classical probability density is already normalized
    return 0.5/np.sqrt(qE[n-1]*(qE[n-1]-q))

# The ground state, n=1
q, dq = np.linspace(0, 4, 1000, retstep=True)
pylab.plot(q, prob_cl(1), label='Classical')
pylab.plot(q, prob_qm(1, dq), label='Quantum')

# An excited state, n=16
q, dq = np.linspace(0, 20, 1000, retstep=True)
pylab.plot(q, prob_cl(16), label='Classical')
pylab.plot(q, prob_qm(16, dq), label='Quantum')
pylab.legend(loc='upper left')
  • We use scipy.special.ai_zeros to retrieve the $n=1$ and $n=16$ eigenvalues.

  • scipy.special.airy finds the corresponding wavefunctions and hence probability densities.

  • For the sake of illustration, these are normalized approximately by a very simple numerical integration.

The ground state, $n=1$:

Ground state of a particle in a gravitational field

The excited state $n=16$:

The n=16 state of a particle in a gravitational field