Einstein, Podolski, Rosen

Demystifying quantum mechanics VI

When one says that one wants to demystify quantum mechanics, then it may create the false impression that there is nothing strange about quantum mechanics. Well, that would be a misleading notion. Quantum mechanics does have a counterintuitive aspect (perhaps even more than one). However, that does not mean that quantum mechanics need to be mysterious. We can still understand this aspect, and accept its counterintuitive aspect as part of nature, even though we don’t experience it in everyday life.

The counterintuitive aspect of quantum mechanics is perhaps best revealed by the phenomenon of quantum entanglement. But before I discuss quantum entanglement, it may be helpful to discuss some of the historical development of this concept. Therefore, I’ll focus on an apparent paradox that Einstein, Podolski and Rosen (EPR) presented.

They proposed a simple experiment to challenge the idea that one cannot measure position and momentum of a particle with arbitrary accuracy, due to the Heisenberg uncertainty. In the experiment, an unstable particle would be allowed to decay into two particles. Then, one would measure the momentum of one of the particles and the position of the other particle. Due to the conservation momentum, one can then relate the momentum of the one particle to that of the other. The idea is now that one should be able to make the respective measurements as accurately as possible so that the combined information would then give one the position and momentum of one particle more accurately than what Heisenberg uncertainty should allow.

Previously, I explained that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle has a perfectly understandable foundation, which has nothing to do with quantum mechanics apart from the de Broglie relationship, which links momentum to the wave number. However, what the EPR trio revealed in their hypothetical experiment is a concept which, at the time, was quite shocking, even for those people that thought they understood quantum mechanics. This concept eventually led to the notion of quantum entanglement. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

John Bell

The next development came from John Bell, who also did not quite buy into all this quantum mechanics. So, to try and understand what would happen in the EPR experiment, he made a derivation of the statistics that one can expect to observe in such an experiment. The result was an inequality, which shows that, under some apparently innocuous assumptions, the measurement results when combine in a particular way must always give a value smaller than a certain maximum value. These “innocuous” assumptions were: (a) that there is a unique reality, (b) that there are no nonlocal interactions (“spooky action at a distance”) .

It took a while before an actual experiment that tested the EPR paradox could be perform. However, eventually such experiments were performed, notably by Alain Aspect in 1982. He used polarization of light instead of position and momentum, but the same principle applies. And guess what? When he combined the measurement result as proposed for the Bell inequality, he found that it violated the Bell inequality!

So, what does this imply? It means that at least one of the assumption made by Bell must be wrong. Either, the physical universe does not have a unique reality, or there are nonlocal interactions allowed. The problem with the latter is that it would then also contradict special relativity. So, then we have to conclude that there is no unique reality.

It is this lack of a unique reality that lies at the heart of an understand of the concept of quantum entanglement. More about that later.

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Partiteness

Demystifying quantum mechanics IV

Yes I know, it is not a word, at least not yet. We tend to do that in physics sometimes. When one wants to introduce a new concept, one needs to give it a name. Often, that name would be a word that does not exist yet.

What does it mean? The word “partiteness” indicates the property of nature that it can be represented in terms of parties or partites. It is the intrinsic capability of a system to incorporate an arbitrary number of partites. In my previous post, I mentioned partites as a replacement for the notion of particles. The idea of partites is not new. People often consider quantum systems consisting of multiple partites.

What are these partites then? They represent an abstraction of the concept of a particle. Usually the concept is used rather vaguely, since it is not intended to carry more significance than what is necessary to describe the quantum system. I don’t think anybody has ever considered it to be a defining property that nature possesses at the fundamental level. However, I feel that we may need to consider the idea of partiteness more seriously.

Classical optics diffraction pattern

Let’s see if we can make the concept of a partite a little more precise. It is after all the key property that allows nature to transcend its classical nature. It is indeed an abstraction of the concept of a particle, retaining only those aspects of particles that we can confirm experimentally. Essentially, they can carry a full compliment of all the degrees of freedom associated with a certain type of particle. But, unlike particles, they are not dimensionless points traveling on world lines. In that sense, they are not localized. Usually, one can think of a single partite in the same way one would think of a single particle such as a photon, provided one does not think of it as a single point moving around in space. A single photon can have a wave function described by any complex function that satisfies the equations of motion. (See for instance the diffraction pattern in the figure above.) The same is true for a partite. As a result, a single partite behaves in the same way as a classical field. So, we can switch it around and say that a classical field represents just one partite.

The situation becomes more complicated with multiple partites. The wave function for such a system can become rather complex. It allows the possibility for quantum entanglement. We’ll postpone a better discussion of quantum entanglement for another time.

Multiple photons can behave in a coherent fashion so that they all essentially share the same state in terms of the degrees of freedom. All these photons can then be viewed collectively as just one partite. This situation is what a coherent classical optical field would represent. Once again we see that such a classical field behaves as just one partite.

The important difference between a particle and a partite is that the latter is not localized in the way a particle is localized. A partite is delocalized in a way that is described by its wave function. This wave function describes all the properties of the partite in terms of all the degrees of freedom associated with it, including the spatiotemporal degrees of freedom and the internal degrees of freedom such as spin.

The wave function must satisfy all the constraints imposed by the dynamics associated with the type of field. It includes interactions, either with itself (such as gluons in quantum chromodynamics) or with other types of fields (such as photons with charges particles).

All observations involve interactions of the field with whatever device is used for the observation. The notion of particles comes from the fact that these observations tend to be localized. However, on careful consideration, such a localization of an observation only tells us that the interactions are localized and not that the observed field must consist of localized particles. So, we will relax the idea that fields must be consisting of localized particle and only say that, for some reason that we perhaps don’t understand yet, the interaction among fields are localized. That leaves us free to consider the field as consisting of nonlocal partites (thus avoiding all sort of conceptual pitfalls such as the particle-wave duality).

Hopefully I have succeeded to convey the idea that I have in my mind of the concept of a partite. If not, please let me know. I would love to discuss it.

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What particle?

Demystifying quantum mechanics III

The notion of a particle played an important role in our understanding of fundamental physics. It also lies at the core of understanding quantum mechanics. However, there are some issues with the notion of a particle that can complicate things. Before addressing the role that particles play in the understanding of quantum mechanics, we first need to look at these issues.

Particle trajectories detected in a high energy experiment

So what is this issue about particles? The problem is that we don’t really know whether there really are particles. What?!!! Perhaps you may think that what I’m referring to has something to do with the wave-particle duality. No, this issue about the actual existence of particles goes a little deeper than that.

It may seem like a nonsense issue, when one considers all the experimental observation of particles. The problem is that, while the idea of a particle provides a convenient explanation for what we see in those experiments, none of them actually confirms that what we see must be particles. Even when one obtains a trajectory as in a cloud chamber or in the more sophisticated particle detectors that are used in high energy particle experiments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, such a trajectory can be explained as a sequence of localized observations each of which projects the state onto a localize pointer state, thus forcing the state to remain localized through a kind of Zeno effect. It all this sounds a little too esoteric, don’t worry. The only point I’m trying to make is that the case for the existence of actual particles is far from being closed.

Just to be on the same page, let’s first agree what we mean when we talk about a particle. I think it was Eugene Wigner that defined a particle as a dimensionless point traveling on a world line. Such a particle would explain those observed trajectories, provided one allows for a limited resolution in the observation. However, this definition runs into problems with quantum mechanics.

Consider for example Young’s double slit experiment. Here the notion of a particle on a world line encounters a problem, because somehow the particle needs to pass through both slits to produce the interference pattern that is observed. This leads to the particle-wave duality. To solve this problem, one can introduce the idea of a superposition of trajectories. By itself this idea does not solve the problem, because these trajectories must produce an interference pattern. So one can add the notion (thanks to Richard Feynman) of a little clock that accompanies each of the trajectories, representing the evolution of the phase along the trajectory. Then when the particle arrives at the screen along these different trajectories the superposition together with the different phase values will determine the interference at that point.

Although the construction thus obtained can explain what is being seen, it remains a hypothesis. We run into the frustrating situation that nature does not allow us any means to determine whether this picture is correct. Every observation that we make just gives us the same localized interaction and there is no way to probe deeper to see what happens beyond that localize interaction.

So, we arrive at the situation where our scientific knowledge of the micro-world will always remain incomplete. We can build strange convoluted constructs to provide potential explanations, but we can never establish their veracity.

This situation may seem like a very depressing conclusion, but if we can accept that there are things we can never know, then we may develop a different approach to our understanding. It helps to realize that our ignorance exactly coincides with the irrelevance of the issue. In other words, that which we cannot know is precise that which would never be useful. This conclusion follows from the fact that, if it could have been useful, we would have had the means to study it and uncover a true understanding of it.

So, let’s introduce at a more pragmatic approach to our understanding of the micro-world. Instead of trying to describe the exact nature of the physical entities (such as particles) that we encounter, let’s rather focus on the properties of these entities that would produce the phenomena that we can observe. Instead of particles, we focus of the properties that make things look like particles. This brings us to the notion of a party or a partite.

But now the discussion is becoming too long. More about that next time.

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Diversity of ideas

The prevailing “crisis in physics” has lead some people to suggest that physicists should only follow a specific path in their research. It creates the impression that one person is trying to tell the entire physics community what they are allowed to do and what not. Speculative ideas are not to be encouraged. The entire physics research methodology need to be reviewed.

Unfortunately, it does not work like that. One of the key underlying principles of the scientific method is the freedom that all people involved in it have to do whatever they like. It is the agreement between these ideas and what nature says that determines which ideas work and which do not. How one comes up with the ideas should not be restricted in any way.

This freedom is important, because nature is resourceful. From the history of science we learn that the ways people got those ideas that turned out to be right differ in all sorts of ways. If one starts to restrict the way these ideas are generated, one may end up empty handed.

Due to this diversity in the ways nature works, we need a diversity in perspectives to find the solutions. It is like a search algorithm in a vast energy landscape. One needs numerous diverse starting points to have any hope to find the global minimum.

Having said that, one does find that there are some guiding principles that have proven useful in selecting among various ideas. One is Occam’s razor. It suggests that one starts with the simplest explanation first. Nature seems to be minimalist. If we are trying to find an underlying system to explain a certain phenomenology, then the underlying system needs to be rich enough to be able to produce the level of complexity that one observes in the phenomenology. However, it should not be too rich, leading to too much complexity. As an example, conjuring up extra dimensions to explain what we see, we produce too much complexity. Therefore, chances are that we don’t need this.

Another principle, which is perhaps less well-known is the minimum disturbance principle. It suggests that when we find that something is wrong with our current understanding, it does not make sense to through everything away and build up the whole understanding from scratch. Just fix that which is wrong.

Now, there are examples in the history of science where the entire edifice of existing theory in a particular field is changed to solve a problem. However, this only happens when the observations that contradict the current theory start to accumulate. In other words, when there is a crisis.

Do we have such a kind of crisis at the moment? I don’t think so. The problem is not that the existing standard model of particle physics have all these predictions that contradict observations. The problem is precisely the opposite. It is very good at making predictions that agree with what we can observe. We don’t seem to see anything that can tell us what to do next. So, the effort to see what we can improve may well be beyond our capability.

The current crisis in physics may be because we are nearing the end of observable advances in our fundamental understanding. We may come up with new ideas, but we may be unable to get any more hints from experimental observation. In the end we not even be able to test these new ideas. This problem starts to enter the domain of what we see as the scientific method. Can we compromise it?

That is a topic for another day.