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One of the striking differences between quantum theory and classical physics is that quantum theory describes energy and matter both as waves and as particles. The type of energy physicists study most often with quantum theory is light. Classical physics considers light to be only a wave, and it treats matter strictly as particles. Quantum theory acknowledges that both light and matter can behave like waves and like particles.

It is important to understand how scientists describe the properties of waves in order to understand how waves fit into quantum theory. A familiar type of wave occurs when a rope is tied to a solid object and someone moves the free end up and down. Waves travel along the rope. The highest points on the rope are called the crests of the waves. The lowest points are called troughs. One full wave consists of a crest and trough. The distance from crest to crest or from trough to trough—or from any point on one wave to the identical point on the next wave—is called the wavelength. The frequency of the waves is the number of waves per second that pass by a given point along the rope.

If waves traveling down the rope hit the stationary end and bounce back, like water waves bouncing against a wall, two waves on the rope may meet each other, hitting the same place on the rope at the same time. These two waves will interfere, or combine. If the two waves exactly line up—that is, if the crests and troughs of the waves line up—the waves interfere constructively. This means that the trough of the combined wave is deeper and the crest is higher than those of the waves before they combined. If the two waves are offset by exactly half of a wavelength, the trough of one wave lines up with the crest of the other. This alignment creates destructive interference—the two waves cancel each other out and a momentary flat spot appears on the rope.