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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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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Transcending the impasse, part VI

A little bit of meta-physics

Anyone that has read some of my previous posts may know that I’m not a big fan of philosophy. However, I admit that philosophy can sometimes have some benefits. It occurs to me that, if we want to transcend the impasse in fundamental physics, we may need to take one step back; stand outside the realm of science and view our activities a bit more critically.

Yeah well flippiefanus, what do you think all the philosophers of science are doing? OK, maybe I’m not going to be jumping so deeply into the fray. Only a tiny little step, just enough to say something about the meta-physics of those aspects most pertinent to the problem.

So what is most pertinent to the problem? Someone said that we need to go back and make sure that we sort out the mistakes and misconceptions. That idea resonates with me. However, it is inevitable in the diverse nature of humans to do that anyway. The problem is that if somebody finds something that seems incorrect in our current understanding, then it is generally very difficult to convince people that it is something that needs to be corrected.

What I want to propose here is a slightly different approach. We need to get rid of the clutter.

Clutter in our theory space

There is such a large amount of clutter in our way of looking at the physical world. Much of this clutter is a kind of curtain that we use to hide our ignorance behind. I guess it is human to try hiding one’s ignorance and what better way to do that by dumping a lot of befuddling nonsense over it.

Take for instance quantum mechanics. One often hears about quantum weirdness or the statement that nobody can really understand quantum physics. This mystery that anything quantum represents is one such curtain that people draw over their ignorance. I don’t think that it is impossible to understand quantum mechanics. It is just that we don’t like what we learn.

So what I propose is a minimalist approach. The idea is to identify the core of our understand about a phenomenon and put everything else in the proper perspective without cluttering it with nonsense. The idea of minimalism resonates with the idea of Occam’s razor. It states that the simplest explanation is probably the correct one.

To support the idea of minimalism in physics, we can remind ourselves that scientific theories are constructs that we compile in our minds to help us make sense of the physical world. One should be wary of confusing the two. That opens up the possibility that there may always be multiple theoretical constructs that successfully describe the same physical phenomena. Minimalism tells us to look for the simplest one among them. Those that are more complicated may contain unnecessary clutter that will inevitably just confuse us later.

To give a concrete example of this situation, we can think of the current so-called measurement problem. Previous, I explained that one can avoid any issues related to the measurement problem and the enigma of quantum collapse by resorting to the many-worlds interpretation. This choice enforces the principle of minimalism by selecting the simplest interpretation. Thereby, we are getting rid of the unnecessary clutter of quantum collapse.

This example is somewhat beyond science, because the interpretations of quantum mechanics is not (currently?) a scientific topic. However, there are other examples where we can also apply the minimalist principle. Perhaps I’ll write about that some other day.

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Transcending the impasse, part V

Beauty as a guiding principle

Proceeding with the series on Transcending the impasse in fundamental physics, I like to address some of the issues that has been proposed as reasons for the current impasse. One such issue is the methods by which theorists come up with their theories in fundamental physics. Sabine Hossenfelder, for example, feels strongly that one should not use beauty in the mathematics as a guide to what could be a potential theoretical explanation for fundamental phenomena.

What am I talking about? Perhaps the idea that beauty can have anything to do with fundamental physics sounds ridiculous anyway. Well, beauty, as they say lies in the eyes of the beholder. To a theoretical physicist, the notion of beauty may refer to a different experience than to an artist or a lover. Potential salient aspects of the concept of beauty that would be relevant for all those that experience beauty may include things like symmetry, balance, consistency, etc.

However, it is not my intention here to philosophize about beauty and what it is. The fact of the matter is that physicist do sometimes use their notion of beauty to guide them in how they construct their theories, or in what they consider to be the correct theory. One example that springs to mind is the relativistic equation of the electron of Paul Dirac. It is said that Dirac was guided in its derivation by the beauty in the mathematics.

Paul Dirac, who apparently used beauty as a guide to derive the relativistic electron equation

The issue of whether one should use beauty, or for that matter anything else, as a guide in the construction of fundamental theories reveals a deeper issue at stake here. First, we need to identify a difference between fundamental theoretical physics and other fields of physics. I hasten to add that this is not to be interpreted as a distinction between what is inferior and what is superior.

Other fields of physics usually have some underlying scientifically established physical theory in terms of which investigations are (or can be) done. For example, in classical optics, the fundamental theory is electromagnetism. If all else fails, one can always start with electromagnetism and derive the theoretical description of a phenomena rigorously from Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism. If the phenomenon includes quantum effects, one may need to fall back on quantum electrodynamics (QED) for this purpose.

In fundamental physics, one does not have this commodity. In most cases one can be lucky to have some experimental results to work with. Sometimes, the only guide is a nagging feeling that the current theories are not adequate. This is the case with quantum gravity. There are some conceptual arguments why general relativity cannot explain everything, but there are no experimental observations showing that something is missing.

How does one approach such a problem? One needs some form of inspiration. Different people tend to use different forms of inspiration. Some use the beauty in mathematics as their inspiration. Perhaps too many theorists have done that and ended up with unsuccessful theories. Hence, the reaction against it.

The point is, we need to remember what it takes to arrive at a scientifically established physical theory. Regardless of what method or form of inspiration or guiding principle one uses, the resulting theory can only become a scientific theory once it has survived experimental testing. In other words, the theory must be able to make predictions that can then be compared with actually observations and then be shown to agree with such observations.

So, in the end, whatever method theorists use to produce their theories is of no consequence, as long as it can succeed as a scientific theory. To put restrictions on the guiding principles, be it beauty or whatever else, makes no sense. Instead, one should allow the diversity of perspectives and freedom in thought to come up with potential theoretical explanations, and leave it to the rigors of the scientific method to sort out the successful theoretical descriptions from those that are to be discarded.

I do not believe that the use of beauty as a guiding principle is responsible for the current impasse in fundamental physics. That dubious honor belongs to a much more inimical phenomenon. But that is a topic for another day.

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