The deceptive lure of a final theory

There has been this nagging feeling that something is not quite right with the current flavor of fundamental physics theories. I’m not just talking about string theory. All the attempts that are currently being pursued share this salient property, which, until recently, I could not quite put my figure on. One thing that is quite obvious is that the level of mathematics that they entail are of a extremely sophisticated nature. That in itself is not quite where the problem lies, although it does have something to do with it.

Then, recently I looked at a 48 page write-up of somebody’s ideas concerning a fundamental theory to unify gravity and quantum physics. (It identifies the need for the “analytic continuation of spinors” and I thought it may be related to something that I’ve worked on recently.) It was while I read through the introductory parts of this manuscript that it struck me what the problem is.

If we take the standard model of particle physics as a case in point. It is a collection of theories (quantum chromodynamics or QCD, and the electro-weak theory) formulated in the language of quantum field theory. So, there is a separation between the formalism (quantum field theory) and the physics (QCD, etc.). The formalism was originally developed for quantum electro-dynamics. It contains some physics principles that have previous been established as scientific principles. In other words, those principles which are regarded as established scientific knowledge are built into the formalism. The speculative parts are all the models that can be modeled in terms of the formalism. They are not cast in stone, but the formalism is powerful enough to allow different models. Eventually some of these models passed various experimental tests and thus became established theories, which we now call the standard model.

What the formalism of quantum field theory does not allow is the incorporation of general relativity or some equivalent that would allow us to formulate models for quantum theories of gravity. So it is natural to think that what fundamental physicists should be spending their efforts on, would be an even more powerful formalism that would allow model building that addresses the question of gravity. However, when you take a critical look at the theoretical attempts that are currently being worked on, then we see that this is not the case. Instead, the models and the formalisms are the same thing. The established scientific knowledge and the speculative stuff are mixed together in highly complex mathematical theories. Does such an approach have any hope of success?

Why do people do that? I think it is because they are aiming high. They have the hope that what they come up with will be the last word in fundamental physics. It is the ambitious dream of a final theory. They don’t want to be bothering with models that are built on some general formalism in terms of which one can formulate various different models, and which may eventually be referred to as “the standard model.” That is just too modest.

Another reason is the view that seems to exist among those working on fundamental physics that nature dictates the mathematics that needs to be used to model it. In other words, they seem to think that the correct theory can only have one possible mathematical formalism. If that were true the chances that we have already invented that formalism or that we may by chance select the correct approach is extremely small.

But can it work? I don’t think there is any reasonable chance that some random venture into theory space could miraculously turn out to be the right guess. Theory space is just too big. In the manuscript I read, one can see that the author makes various ad hoc decisions in terms of the mathematical modeling. Some of these guesses seem to produce familiar aspects that resemble something about the physical world as we understand it, which them gives some indication that it is the “right path” to follow. However, mathematics is an extremely versatile and diverse language. One can easily be mislead by something that looked like the “right path” at some point. String theory is an excellent example in this regard.

So what would be a better approach? We need a powerful formalism in terms of which we can formulate various different quantum theories that incorporate gravity. The formalism can have, incorporate into it, as much of the established scientific principles as possible. That will make it easier to present models that already satisfy those principles. The speculations are then left for the modeling part.

The benefit of such an approach is that it unifies the different attempts in that such a common formalism makes it easier to use ideas from other attempts that seemed to have worked. In this way, the community of fundamental physics can work together to make progress. Hopefully the theories thus formulated will be able to make predictions that can be tested with physical experiments or perhaps astronomical observations that would allow such theories to become scientific theories. Chances are that a successful theory that incorporates gravity and at the same time covers all of particle physics as we understand it today will still not be the “final theory.” It may still be just a “standard model.” But it will represent progress in understanding which is more than what we can say for what is currently going on in fundamental physics.

Those quirky fermions

All of the matter in the universe is made of fermions. They are for this reason one of the most abundant things in the universe. Fermions have been the topic of investigation for a long time. We have learned much about them. However, what we do know about them is encapsulated in the formalisms with which we deal with them in our theories. Does that mean we understand them?

Let’s think about the way we treat fermions in our theories. Basically, we represent them in terms of creation and annihilation operators, which are used to formulate the interactions in which they take part. These operators are distinguished from those for bosons by the anti-commutation relations that they obey.

To the uninitiated, all this must sound like a bunch of gobbledygook. What are the physical manifestations of all these operators? There are none! These operators are just mathematical entities in the formalism for our theories. Although these theories are quite successful, it does not reveal the physical machinery at work on the inside. Or does it?

Although a creation operator does not by itself represent any physical process, it distinguishes different scenarios with different arrangements of fermions. Starting with a given scenario, I can apply a fermion creation operator to introduce a new scenario which contains one additional fermion. Then I can apply the operator again, provided that I am not trying to add another fermion with the same degrees of freedom, it will produce another new scenario.

Here is the strange thing. If I change the order in which I added the two additional fermions, I get a scenario that is different from the one with the previous order. I can contrast this to the situation with bosons. Provided that I don’t try to add bosons with the same degrees of freedom, the order in which I add them doesn’t matter. What it tells us is that bosons with different degrees of freedom don’t effect each other. (We need to be careful about the concepts of time-like or space-like separations, but for the sake of this argument, we’ll assume all bosons or fermions are space-like separated.)

The fact that the order in which we place fermions in our scenario (even when they are space-like separated) makes a difference tells us something physical about fermions. They must be global entities. The entire universe seems to “know” about the existence of each and every fermion in it.

How can that be possible? I can think of one way: topological defects. This is not a new idea. It pops up quite often in various fields of physics.

Topological defect

Why would a topological defect explain the apparent global nature of fermions? It is because all kinds of topological defects can be identified with the aid of an integral that computes the winding number of the topological defect. This type of integral is evaluated over a (hyper)surface that encloses the topological defect. In other words, the field values far away from the defect are included in the integral and not the field value at the defect. Therefore, knowledge about the defect in encoded in the entire field. It therefore suggest that fermions can behave as global entities if they topological defect. This is just a hypothesis. It needs more careful investigation.

Vanity and formalism

During my series on Transcending the impasse, I wrote about Vanity in Physics. I also addressed the issue of Physics vs Formalism in a previous post. Neither of these two aspects are conducive to advances in physics. So, when one encounters the confluence of these aspects, things are really turning inimical. Recently, I heard of such a situation.

In an attempt to make advances in fundamental physics, the physics community has turned to mathematics, or at least something that looks like mathematics. It seems to be the believe that some exceptional mathematical formalism will lead us to a unique understanding of the fundamentals of nature.

Obviously, based on what I’ve written before, this approach is not ideal. However, we need to understand that the challenges in fundamental physics is different from those in other fields of physics. For the latter, there are always some well-established underlying theory in terms of which the new phenomena are studied. The underlying theory usually comes with a thoroughly developed formalism. The new phenomena may require a refinement in formalism, but one can always check that any improvements or additions are consistent with the underlying theory.

With fundamental physics, the situation is different. There is no underlying theory. So, the whole thing needs to be invented from scratch. How does one do that?

Albert Einstein

We can take a leave out of the book of previous examples from the history of physics. A good example is the development of general relativity. Today there are well established formalisms for general relativity. (Note the use of the plural. It will become important later.) How did Einstein know what formalism to use for the development of general relativity? He realized that spacetime is curved and therefore need a formalism that can handle curved spacetime metrics. How did he know that spacetime is curved? He figured it out with the aid of some simple heuristic arguments. These arguments led him to conceive of a fundamental principle that would guide him in the development of the theory.

That is a success story. Now compare it with what is going on today. There are different formalisms being developed. The “fundamental principle” is simply to get a formalism that can handle curved spacetime in the context of a quantum field theory so that the curvature of spacetime can somehow be represented be the exchange of particles. As such, it goes back to the old notions existing before general relativity that regarded gravity as a force. According to our understanding of general relativity, gravity is not a force. But let’s leave that for now.

There does not seem to be any new physics principles that guide the development of these new formalisms. Here I exclude all those so called “postulates” that have been presented for quantum mechanics, because those postulates are of a mathematical nature. They may provide a basis for quantum mechanics as a mathematical formalism but not for the physics associated with quantum phenomena.

So, if there is no fundamental principle driving the current effort to develop new formalisms for fundamental physics, then what is driving it? What motivates people to spend all the effort in this formidable exercise?

Recent revelations gave me a clue. There was some name-calling going on among some of the most prominent researcher in the field. The proponents of one formalism would denounce some other formalism. It is as if we are watching a game show to see which formalism would “win” at the end of the day. However, the fact that there are different approaches should be seen as a good thing. It provides the diversity that improves the chances for success. More than one of these approaches may turn out to be successful. Here again an example from the history of science can be provided. The formalisms of Heisenberg and Schroedinger both turned out to be correct descriptions for quantum physics. Moreover, there are more than one formalism in terms of which general relativity can be expressed.

So what then is really the reason for this name-calling among proponents of the different approaches to develop formalisms for fundamental physics? It seems to be that deviant new motivation for doing physics: vanity! It is not about gaining a new understanding. That is secondary. It is all about being the one that comes up with the successful theory and then reaping in all the fame and glory.

The problem with vanity is that it does not directly address the goal. Vanity is a reward that can be acquired without achieving the goal. Therefore, it is not the optimal motivation for uncovering an understanding of fundamental physics. I see this as one of the main reasons for the lack of progress in fundamental physics.

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Transcending the impasse, part II

Classical vs quantum

It is a strange thing. Why the obsession with something that in the end comes down to a rather artificial distinction. Nature is the way it is. There is no dualism in nature. The distinction we make between classical and quantum is just an artifact of the theoretical model we build to understand nature. Or is it?

Well there is a history. It started with Einstein’s skepticism about quantum mechanics. Together with some co-workers, he eventually came up with a very good argument to justify the idea that quantum mechanics must be incomplete. At least, it seemed like a good argument until it was eventually shown to be wrong. It was found that the idea that quantum mechanics is incomplete and needs some extra hidden variables does not agree with experimental observations. The obsession with the distinction between what is classical and what is quantum is a remnant of this debate that originated with Einstein.

Today, we have a very successful formalism, which is simply called quantum mechanics, and can be used to model quantum phenomena. Strictly speaking, there are different versions of the quantum mechanics formalism, but they are all equivalent. The choice of specific formalism is usually based on convenience and personal taste.

Though Einstein’s issues with quantum mechanics may have been resolved, the mystery of what it really means remains. Therefore, many people are trying to probe deeper to find out why quantum mechanics works the way it does. However, despite all the probing, nothing seems to be discovered that disagrees with the quantum mechanics formalism, which is by now almost a hundred years old. The strange concepts, such as entanglement, discord, and contextuality, that have been distilled from quantum physics, turn out to be aspects that are already built into the quantum mechanics formalism. So, in effect all the probing merely comes down to an attempt to understand the implications of the formalism. We do not uncover any new physics.

But now a new understanding is rearing it ugly head. It turns out that the quantum mechanics formalism is not only successful for situation where we are clearly dealing with quantum physics. It is equally successful in situations where the physical phenomena are clearly classical. The consequence is that many of the so-called quintessential quantum properties, are actually properties of the formalism and are for that reason also present in cases where one can apply the formalism to classical scenarios.

I’ll give two examples. The one is the celebrated concept of entanglement. It has been shown now that the non-separability, which signals entanglement, is also present in classical optical fields. The difference is, in classical field it is restricted to local properties and cannot be separated over a distance as in the quantum case. This classical non-separability display many of the features that were traditionally associated with quantum entanglement. Many people now impose a dogmatic restriction on the use of the term entanglement, reserving it for those cases where it is clearly associated with quantum phenomena.

It does not serve the scientific community well to be dogmatic. It reminds us of the dogmatism that prevailed shortly after the advent of quantum mechanics. For a long while, any questioning of this dogma was simply not tolerated. It has led to a stagnation in progress in the understanding of quantum physics. Eventually, through the work of dissidents such as J. S. Bell, this stagnation was overthrown.

The other example is where certain properties of quasi-probability distributions are used as an indication of the quantum nature of a state. For instance, in the case of the Wigner distribution, any presence of negative values in the function is used as such an indication of it quantum nature. Nothing prevents one from using the Wigner distribution for classical fields. One can for instance consider the mode profiles of classical optical beams. Some of these mode profiles produce Wigner distributions that take on negative values at certain points. Obviously, it would be misleading to use this as a indication of a quantum nature. So, to avoid this situation, one needs to impose the dogmatic restriction that one can only used this indication in those cases where the Wigner distribution is computed for quantum state. But then the indication becomes somewhat circular, doesn’t it?

It occurs to me that the fact that we can use the quantum mechanics formalism in classical scenarios provides us with an opportunity to question our understanding of what it truly means to be quantum. What are the fundamental properties of nature that indicates scenarios that can be unambiguously identified as quantum phenomena? Through a process of elimination we may be able to arrive at such unambiguous properties. That may help us to see that the difference between the quantum nature of things and the classical nature of things is perhaps not as big as we thought.

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Physics vs formalism

This is something I just have to get off my chest. It’s been bugging me for a while now.

Physics is the endeavour to understand the physical world. Mathematics is a powerful tool employed in this endeavour. It often happens that specific mathematical procedures are developed for specific scenarios found in physics. These developments then often lead to dedicated mathematical methods, even special notations, that we call formalisms.

The idea of a formalism is that it makes life easier for us to investigate physical phenomena belonging to a specific field. An example is quantum mechanics. The basic formalism has been developed almost a hundred years ago. Since then, many people have investigated various sophisticated aspects of this formalism and placed it on a firm foundation. Books are dedicated to it and university courses are designed to teach students all the intricate details.

One can think of it almost like a kitchen appliance with a place to put in some ingredients, a handle to crank, and a slot at the bottom where the finished product will emerge once the process is completed. Beautiful!

So does this mean that we don’t need to understand what we are doing anymore? We simply need to put the initial conditions into the appropriate slot, the appropriate Hamiltonian into its special slot and crank away. The output should then be guaranteed to be the answer that we are looking for.

Well, it is like the old saying: garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t know what you are doing, you may be putting the wrong things in. The result would be a mess from which one cannot learn anything.

Actually, the situation is even more serious than this. For all the effort that has gone into developing the formalism (and I’m not only talking about quantum mechanics), it remains a human construct of what is happening in the real physical world. It inevitably still contains certain prejudices, left over as a legacy of the perspectives of the people that initially came up with it.

Take the example of quantum mechanics again. It is largely based on an operator called the Hamiltonian. As such, it displays a particular prejudice. It is manifestly non-relativistic. Moreover, it assumes that we know the initial state at a given time, for all space. We then use the Hamiltonian approach to evolve the state in time to see what one would get at some later point in time. But what if we know the initial state for all time, but not for all space and we want to know what the state looks like at other regions in space? An example of such a situation is found in the propagation of a quantum state through a random medium.

Those that are dead sold on the standard formal quantum mechanics procedure would try to convince you that the Hamiltonian formalism would still give you the right answer. Perhaps one can use some fancy manipulations of the input state in special cases to get situations where the Hamiltonian approach would work for this problem. However, even in such cases, the process becomes awkward and far from efficient. The result would also be difficult to interpret. But why would you want to do it this way, in the first place? Is it so important that we always use the established formalism?

Perhaps you think we have no choice, but that is not true. We understand enough of the fundamental physics to come up with an efficient mathematical model for the problem, even though the result would not be recognizable as the standard formalism. Did we become so lazy in our thoughts that we don’t want to employ our understanding of the fundamental physics anymore? Or did we lose our understanding of the basics to the point that we cannot do calculations unless we use the established formalism?

What would you rather sacrifice: the precise physical understanding or the established mathematical formalism? If you choose to sacrifice the former rather than the latter, then you are not a physicist, then you are a formalist! In physics, the physical understanding should always be paramount! The formalism is merely a tool with which we strive to increase our understanding. If the formalism is not appropriate for the problem, or does not present us with the most efficient way to do the computation, then by all means cast it aside without a second thought.

Focus on the physics, not on the formalism! There I’ve said it.