Pandemic panic!

It barely allows thinking about — a world in the grips of a decease. I’ve developed an addiction for the statistical information given on wikipedia on the progress of COVID-19 infections. Looking at those exponentially growing curves, one does not know whether one should ran around screaming or hiding underneath the bed. The positive thing is that China has more or less gotten through this thing. Some other countries like South Korea also seems to have things under control. However, most countries, including highly advanced countries like the USA, simply don’t have it under control yet. Before this pandemic, one might have wondered whether one should start learning Chinese. Don’t bother. After this pandemic, everybody that got through this will already be speaking Chinese. … Just joking.

don’t panic, don’t panic

Actually there are some silver linings. The air pollution has dropped significantly. So earth is getting a break. Perhaps this is earth’s way for trying to shed some other decease it picked up called humanity. I can already tell you, it is not going to work. In fact, it probably won’t even make a dent in the overpopulation of this planet. To do that, the number of fatalities would have to be within an order of magnitude of the entire population of the world.

Earth our beloved planet

There is another aspect that may be much more severe. The socio-economic impact of this decease is going to be quite severe. The worst case scenario is a complete break-down of civilization. Not long ago Elon Musk has given a grim warning about the possibility of the fall of civilization. The problem is that such a process is so slow that you don’t see that it is happening. So, I’ve asked myself, how would one know that civilization is in the process of falling? The two things I identified were: when the airplanes are not flying anymore and when the internet does not work anymore, it signals the fall of civilization. Well, we now have the situation where the airplanes stopped flying. Hopefully we’ll get through this thing and then they’ll fly again. Or will they? The internet is still working. Will it stop working at some point because people cannot maintain it any more due to the decease? That would be very bad.

don’t panic, don’t panic

Well, let’s assume we are going to get through this thing without all these bad things happening. But, I don’t see us getting through this thing without some lingering effect. Let’s just hope that lingering effect is going be a positive effect. Perhaps it will teach us to be more careful with this world. Perhaps we’ll also appreciate each other more, care for those that need more care, be less self-centered and less obsessed with material wealth.

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The origin of Heisenberg uncertainty

Demystifying quantum mechanics II

Perhaps the one thing that everyone thinks about when they hear talk about quantum mechanics is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It may even sometimes be considered as the essence of quantum mechanics. Now what would you say if I tell you that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is not a fundamental principle and that the origin of this principle is not found in quantum mechanics? The fundamental origin of this uncertainty is a purely mathematical property and the reason that quantum mechanics inherited this principle is simply a result of the Planck relationship.

Werner Heisenberg

I have discussed this issue to some extent before. However, it forms an important part of the knowledge that would help to demystify quantum mechanics. Therefore, it deserves more attention.

Before the advent of quantum mechanics, the state of a particle was considered to be completely described by its position and velocity (momentum). The dynamics of a system could then be represented by a diagram showing position and velocity of the particle as a function of time. For historical reasons, the domain of such a diagram is called phase space. For a one-dimensional system (such as a harmonic oscillator), it would give a two-dimensional graph with position on one axis and velocity on the other. The state of the system is a point on the two-dimensional plane that moves along some trajectory as a function of time. For a harmonic oscillator, this trajectory is a circle.

A mathematical property (in Fourier analysis), which may have seemed to be complete unrelated at the time, is that the width of the spectrum of a function has a lower limit that is proportional to the inverse of the width of the function. This property has nothing to do with physical reality. It is a purely logical fact that can be proven with the aid of mathematics. If the function is, for instance, interpreted as the probability distribution of the position of a particle, the width of the function would represent the uncertainty in its location.

This mathematical uncertainty property was transferred to phase space by Planck’s relation, which links the independent variable of the spectrum (the wave number) with the momentum or velocity of the particle. The implication is that one cannot represent the state of a quantum particle with a single dimensionless point on phase space in quantum mechanics. Hence, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

So, the uncertainty associated with Heisenberg’s principle is inevitable due to Planck’s relation. And it is founded on pure logic in terms of which mathematics is based. Planck’s relation is the only physics that enters the picture. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is therefore not a separate principle that is independent of Planck’s relationship as far as the physics is concerned.

Now, there are a few subtleties that we can address. There are also some interesting consequences based in this understanding, but I’ll leave these for later.

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Demystifying quantum mechanics I

Feynman’s statement

In one of his books, The Character of Physical Law (MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995), Richard Feynman stated: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”¬†Apparently, he also said “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”¬†in a talk with the same title as the book.

Richard Feynman

So it is quite clear that Feynman strongly believed that quantum mechanics is fundamentally incomprehensible. Who can argue with Feynman? He was a genius. If he said nobody can understand it, then nobody can understand it, right?

Genius or not, Feynman was just a human being. One should not elevate any person to such a level that their statements are considered to be cast in stone.

I don’t think that quantum mechanics is fundamentally incomprehensible. It is just that we don’t like what we learn. The way nature behaves at the fundamental level seems to contradict our intuition because it is so different from what we experience in our daily lives.

To be sure, there are things about the micro world that we simply cannot know. We know that atoms radiate photons, and that the atoms change their states when this happens. But we don’t know the exact mechanism by which such a photon is created.

The amazing thing about quantum mechanics is that it allows us to make reliable calculations without knowing these details. It is a way to encapsulate our ignorance and renders it innocuous, allowing us to use the little that we can know to make useful predictions.

Quantum mechanics is not the only scientific approach that allows one to make useful calculations amidst ignorance. Statistical analysis does the same. It also ignores the ignorance about the details and allows useful calculations exploiting the little that we do know.

What makes quantum mechanics more mysterious is that the part that we can know includes aspects that are strange to say the least. This strangeness has many manifestations, variously referred to as “the wave-particle duality,” “quantum uncertainty,” “quantum tunneling,” “quantum entanglement,” and many others.

A thorough understanding of these various aspects of quantum mechanics removes some of the strangeness. One can often identify the mechanisms with similar mechanisms in non-quantum scenarios without any strangeness.

However, within this understanding there usually remains an aspect that does not have any equivalent aspect in non-quantum scenarios. Distilling out this one aspect that makes things seem weird, one can refer to it as the notion of multiple realities.

People don’t like this idea of multiple realities. So they invented the idea of quantum collapse. However, there is no observable confirmation of quantum collapse. One can even argue that it is in principle impossible to observe quantum collapse, because it would have to be intrinsically involved in the process of observations. So this led to the so-called “measurement problem.”

The very fact the there are people that try to solve the measurement problem shows that they don’t buy into Feynman’s statement. They invest a significant amount of time and effort to understand something that Feynman believed could not be understood.

I don’t think the idea of multiple realities needs more understanding. It is the way it is, even if we don’t like it. I intend to say a bit more about it later.

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Beach holidays

On occasion, the situation at work may prevent you from taking leave as regularly as you would have liked. It then happens that you get to a point where you are so tired within the core of your soul that you absolutely need a holiday. When you’ve reach this point, what you need is not just any holiday. No, you absolutely have to get the kind of holiday that would be able to cleanse you soul of all the clutter that it has accumulated.

What kind of holiday would that be for you? Some people want to go on expensive overseas trips. Others prefer sea cruises. One can have those sight seeing tours where you come back with a thousand photographs. Perhaps you like to go on a safari in a game reserve.

Rocks at Margate

For me, it needs to include the seaside. So typically, when I’ve reached this level of exhaustion, I book myself a place close to a beach. I don’t need to lie on the beach for hour getting tanned to a crisp. I just need to see the surf and look at the constant activity of the sea. Perhaps I’ll sit on the beach for an hour reading a book. I may take a swim, but that’s not a requirement. In fact, I don’t even care whether it is sunny or rainy. It doesn’t really matter, as long as there is surf. At night you fall asleep to the sound of surf breaking on the rocks. Everywhere you can smell the sea.

For some reason, my soul needs that activity of the water to get itself cleanse of all the knots and clutter that has accumulated from all the stress and frustration that the work situation tends to produce. After I’ve spent a few days near or at the beach, I can feel that my soul starts to relax. Then eventually, I have the energy to go back again and face those challenges.

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Bookmarks

When you like to read then chances are that you have quite a number of bookmarks. One tends to collect them. I have a fairly large collection, accumulated over a lifetime of reading.

Perhaps some of your bookmarks are just a scrap of paper. Or perhaps it is a receipt. Or it could be a piece of cardboard.

I like decorate my bookmarks. At least I use to. There use to be pieces of cardboard inside the boxes in which I bought my Earl Grey tea. They are just the right size for a bookmark. So I would collect them and then decorate them with abstract designs. In the figure below is one of favorites.

My current favorite

It has become a bit of a ritual to select a bookmark from my collection when I start reading a new book. However, lately I tend to select the same one over and over again.

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Transcending the impasse, part VIII

… or not?

In this final posting in the series on transcending the impasse in fundamental physics, we need to consider the possibility that we may never be able to transcend the impasse. Perhaps this is it as far as our scientific understanding of fundamental physics in concerned. Perhaps our ability to probe deeper into the unknown ends here.

Why would that be? Perhaps the theory that would correctly explain what happens above the electroweak scale would need observations at an energy scale that is too high to reach with conceivable colliders. Without such observations, the theory may remain in the status of a hypothesis and never become part of our scientifically established knowledge.

It seems that collider physics has run its course. The contributions to our scientific knowledge made with the aid of colliders are truly remarkable. But, at increasing higher energies, it runs into a number of serious challenges. At such high energies, a collider needs to be very large and extremely expensive. As a result, it becomes impractical and financially unjustifiable.

Even if such a large expensive collider does become a reality, the challenges do not end there. The scattering events produced in such a collider become increasingly complex. Already at the Large Hadron Collider, the scattering events look more like the hair on a drag queen’s wig. The amount of data produced in such events is formidable. The rate at which the data is generated become unmanageable.

Even if one can handle that much data, then one finds that the signal is swamped by background noise. At those high energies, particles are more unstable. It means that their peaks are very broad and relatively low. So it becomes that much harder to see a new particle popping up in the scattering data.

There are suggestions of how scientific observations can be made to support high-energy physics without the use of colliders. One such suggestion is based on astronomical observations. There are high energies generated in some astronomical events. However, such events are unpredictable and the information that can be extracted from these event is very limited compared to what is possible with the detectors of colliders.

Another suggestion is to use high precision measurements at lower energies. It becomes a metrology challenge to measure properties of matter increasingly more accurate and use that to infer what happens at high energies.

Whether any of these suggestions will eventually be able to increase our knowledge of fundamental physics remains to be seen. But I would not be holding my breath.

Perhaps it sounds like that old story about those 19th century physicists that predicted the end of physics even before the discoveries of relativity and quantum mechanics. Well, I think the idea that a steady increase in our physical understanding in perpetuity is equally ludicrous. At some point, we will see a slow-down in the increase of our understanding of fundamental physics, and even in physics in general. However, applied physics and engineering can proceed unabated.

We are already seeing a slow-down in the increase of our understanding of fundamental physics. Many fields of physics are already mostly devoted to applied physics. Very little is added in terms of new fundamental understanding of our physical universe. So, perhaps the impasse is simply an inevitable stage in the development of human culture, heralding to maturity of our knowledge about the universe in which we live.

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Transcending the impasse, part VII

Vanity in physics

In this penultimate posting in the series on transcending the impasse in fundamental physics, I’ll address an issue that I consider to be one of the major reasons for the impasse, if the main reason. It is a topic that I feel very passionate about and one that I’ve written about in my book. It is a very broad topic with various aspects that can be addressed. So, I can see this topic becoming a spin-off series on its own.

Stating it briefly, without ranting too much, one can bring this issue into the context of the scientific method itself. As remarkable as the scientific method is with all the successes associated with it, if the very foundation on which it is based starts to erode, the whole edifice in all its glory will come tumbling down.

Now what is this foundation of the scientific method that could be eroded away? Well, the scientific method shares the property with capitalism and democracy in that it is a self-regulating feedback system. Each of these mechanisms is based on a property, a driving force, found in human nature that makes it work. For democracy, it is the reaction to the conditions one finds oneself in as provided by the authorities. For capitalism, it is basically greed and the need for material possessions. For the scientific method it is curiosity and need for knowledge and understanding.

So, the basic assumption is that those that are involved in the scientific process, the scientists, are driven by their curiosity. It has to a large extent been the case for centuries, and we have the accumulated scientific knowledge obtain through this process thanks to this curiosity.

However, during the past century, things started to change. It some point, due to some key event or perhaps as a result of various minor events, the fundamental driving force for scientists started to change. Instead of being internally motivated by their curiosity, they became externally motivated by … vanity!

Today, one gets the impression that researchers are far more concerned about egos than the knowledge they create. To support this statement, I can provide numerous examples. But instead of doing that, I’ll focus on only aspect: how this vanity issue impacts and causes the current impasse. Perhaps I’ll provide and discuss those examples in followup posts.

In the aftermath of the disappointing lack of results from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), some people blamed other prominent researchers for their ludicrously exotic proposals and predictions. None of which survived the observations of the LHC.

Why would highly respected physicists make such ludicrous predictions? The way I see it, is as a gamble with high stakes. Chances were that these predictions would not have panned out. But if one of them did receive confirmation from the LHC, the return on investment would have been extremely high. The person that made the prediction would have become extremely famous not only among physicists, but probably also among the general public. It would probably have ensured that the person receives a Nobel prize. Hence, all the needs for vanity would have been satisfied instantly.

What about knowledge? Surely, if the prediction turned out to be correct, then it must imply a significant increase in our knowledge. True, but now one should look at the reality. None of these exotic predictions succeeded. This situation is not really surprising, probably not even to the people that made these predictions, because they probably knew the probability for their success to be extremely low. In that context, the motivation for making the predictions was never about the increase in knowledge. It was purely aimed at vanity.

An extreme example is this one physicists, who shall remain unnamed. He is known for making random predictions at a remarkable rate. It is obvious to everybody that he is not making these predictions because he expects them to work out. It is simply an attempt to be the first to have made a specific prediction in the off-chance that one of them came true. Then he’ll probably hope to receive all the vanity rewards that he so desperately craves.

It might have been amusing, were it not for the fact that this deplorable situation is adversely affecting progress in physics, and probably in science in general, albeit I don’t have such extensive experience in other fields of science. The observable effect in fundamental physics is a significant slowdown in progress that is stretching over several decades.

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