A mechanism for quantum collapse

It is argued that the current impasse in fundamental physics is at least partially caused by the fact that there does not exist a credible understanding of the process of quantum collapse. This argument begs the question of those interpretations of quantum mechanics that incorporate quantum collapse. Therein lies a dilemma: interpretations of quantum mechanics are generally non-scientific – except for a few special cases – interpretations of quantum mechanics are not falsifiable. Therefore, even if we were able to come up with a mechanism for quantum collapse, it would not form part of our scientific understanding because it would not allow falsification.

However, there are interpretations of quantum mechanics that do not involve quantum collapse. They present a possible way out of this dilemma. Whatever reason one would have to introduce the notion of quantum collapse in the first place, must somehow be reproduced in those interpretations of quantum mechanics that do not explicitly contain it. In other words, the observable phenomena that suggest a collapse mechanism, must somehow be reproduced in interpretations without quantum collapse. The explanation of any mechanism that would reproduce such phenomena would therefore provide a kind of mechanism for quantum collapse without quantum collapse. In this case, the falsification takes on the lesser form of a retrodiction where the observed phenomena are explained in term of a successful theory. That successful theory is standard quantum mechanics. In other words, what we’ll do is to use standard quantum mechanics without introducing quantum collapse to explain those phenomena that seem to require quantum collapse.

If we do not want to introduce quantum collapse we inevitably employ an interpretation of quantum mechanics that does not involve quantum collapse. The one that we use is the so-called many worlds interpretation. However, we first need to review it to remove some misconceptions. In effect, we’ll use a modified version of the many worlds interpretation.

The many worlds interpretation is often associated with a multi-verse that is produced by the constant branching of a universe due to the quantum interactions that take place in that universe. This notion is misleading. Taking a good hard look at the quantum mechanics formalism, one should realize that it does not support the idea of a multi-verse produced by constant branching. Instead, there is just one universe, but with an infinite multiple of “realities” that are associated with the infinite number of elements in the basis of the Hilbert space of this universe. The number of these realities never change – there is no branching. Instead, the basis always consist of an infinite number of discrete elements. The only effect of quantum interactions is to change their relative probabilities. So, the many worlds (or the multiple realities) correspond to the terms in the superposition of all these basis elements forming the state of the universe. This state evolves in a unitary fashion that incorporates all the interactions that take place in the universe and thereby produces a constant variation over time in the coefficients of the terms in the superposition.

With this picture in mind, we can consider what it means to have quantum collapse, or to understand any physical process that seems to suggest quantum collapse. As a first example of such a physical process, we use a historically relevant example presented by Albert Einstein during the 5th Solvay conference, which was held in Brussels in 1927. [For a transcript of the discussions at the 5th Solvay conference, see G. Bacciagaluppi and A. Valentini, Quantum Theory at the Crossroads, Reconsidering the 1927 Solvay Conference, Cambridge University Press (2009); arXiv:0609184.] At this conference, which played a prominent role in the development of quantum mechanics and the Copenhagen interpretation, Einstein described a scenario where an electron propagates toward a screen on which it is registered as a single point of absorption on the screen. He then presented two possible ways to view the process that takes place, exemplifying the problem of maintaining energy conservation without introducing action at a distance. This example is an apt demonstration of one of the key problems with the notion of quantum collapse.

Attendants of the Fifth Solvay Conference
Attendants of the Fifth Solvay Conference

Before we deal with the understanding of this process in the context of multiple realities, we first need to remove an unfortunate tacit assumption that we find in the discussions of such experimental scenarios. It mentions a particle. What particle? Or perhaps one should ask what is meant by the term particle? Does is refer to a localized lump of matter (or a dimensionless point) traveling on a world line? Or is it a more abstract notion associated with a finite mass and a discrete charge, without localization? I suspect, that the former is implies in these discussions, because it would help to explain the localization of the observed absorption. However, what we see is a localized absorption and not a particle. The notion of something that is itself localized is not the only possible explanation for the localization of an absorption process. The latter can simply be the result of a localized mechanism for the absorption process. In the scenario, the screen is assumed to be a photographic material, presumably consisting of little silver crystals that can register the electron.

So, a slightly different picture from that which was put forward by Einstein emerges. The electron is now represented by a wave function (not a particle) that propagates toward the screen. The screen contains numerous little crystals that can register the electron. However, assuming that the wave function represents only one electron, one would find only one such absorption event (otherwise we’ll have the problem of violating conservation principles). In terms of multiple realities, many of these crystals could serve to perform the absorption process. Each reality would correspond to a different crystal receiving the electron.

But how does the situation within a particular reality manages the localize the electron wave function without causing action at a distance? Remember that the different realities are associated with the different basis elements in the Hilbert space. The basis of the Hilbert space is not unique. One can define infinitely many different basis, each of which is related to any other basis by a unitary transformation. In general, there is nothing special about any particular basis. In other words, the separation of the wave function of the universe into a superposition of different realities can be changed via unitary transformation into another set of realities, each of which is a combination of the previous set of realities. However, when it comes to a specific interaction process, such as the absorption of an electron by a specific crystal, then there is a special basis that would clarify the process. This basis corresponds to the measurement basis of the crystal.

To understand what this measurement basis is, one can determine what electron wave function would have been radiated by the crystal if the absorption process is inverted as the adjoint process. At the fundamental level, all processes are invertible. It is just that the probability for the required initial conditions to produce a specific inverted process may be vanishingly small. We can nevertheless assume that these required conditions exist so that it would produce the radiated wave function. The conjugate of the radiated wave function would describe the ideal measurement basis element for the absorption of an electron by this crystal. In effect, nature transforms the basis (the realities) into the measurement basis for the absorption of electrons by the crystals. All the different realities now correspond to different basis elements, each of which is associated by the absorption of the electron by a different crystal.

Obviously all these basis elements are localized at the their associated crystals. This localization is accomplished purely through a unitary transformation without any funny action at a distance. The way that the unitary transformation accomplishes this localization is through constructive and destructive interference among the elements of any other basis that may initially have represented the multiple realities.

The different realities in the localized measurement basis have different coefficients associated with them in the superposition. Some of these coefficients would be larger than others, indicating which crystal is most likely to absorb the electron. It may be that one specific reality has a coefficient that completely dominates. In that case, although there are multiple realities, one specific reality would dominate. This dominant reality may be the one that we perceive as the single reality in our experience.

Hopefully, this understanding gives a feasible picture of the process whereby quantum collapse seems to take place. More can be said about this topic, but since this discussion has already been rather long, I’ll postpone further discussions for another day.


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Demystifying quantum mechanics VIII

Everything is no more or less in place to discuss one of the most enigmatic phenomena found in quantum mechanics: entanglement. It is sometimes called the quintessential property of quantum mechanics. 

We have discussed the fact that quantum mechanics introduces the concept of discrete entities that carry full sets of degrees of freedom, and which I called partites. Then we learned about the paradox introduced by Einstein, Podolski and Rosen (EPR) and how it led to the understanding that nature does not have a unique reality. Although it also allows that interactions could be nonlocal, we saw that such non-locality is not in agreement with our understanding of special relativity. The final ingredient that we need to explain quantum entanglement is the concept of a superposition. We can deal with that here.

The term superposition is a fancy way of saying that we are adding up things. Superpositions are also found in classical optics. There, one can observe interference effects when two waves are superimposed (added on top of each other at the same location). What makes the situation in quantum mechanics different is that the things that are added up in a quantum superposition can consist of multiple partites (multiple combinations of discrete entities) and these partites (discrete entities) do not have to be at the same location. Since each entity carries unique properties, as described in terms of the full set of degrees of freedom, the different terms in the quantum superposition gives complete descriptions of the state in terms of the set of discrete entities that they contain. 

Each the terms in the superposition can now be seen as a unique reality. The fact there are more than one term in the superposition, implies that there are multiple realities, just like the EPR paradox showed us. One can use the many-world interpretation to try to understand what this means.

Entangled entities
Artist impression of entangled entities

There are now different effects that these superpositions can produce. In some cases one can factorize the superposition so that it becomes the product of separate superpositions for each of the individual partites. In such a case one would call the state described by the superposition as being separable. If such a state cannot be factorized in this way, the state is said to be entangled.

What is the effect of a state being entangled? It implies that there are quantum correlations among the different entities in the terms. These correlations will show up when we make measurements of the properties of the partites. Due to the superposition, a measurement of just one of these partites will give us a range of possible results depending on which term in the superposition ends up in our measurement. On the other hand, if we measure the properties of two or more of the partites, we find that their properties are always correlated. This correlation only shows up when the state is entangled.

Some people think that one can use this correlation the communicate instantaneously between such partites if they are placed at different locations that are far apart. However, as we explained before, such instantaneous communication is not possible.

This discussion may be rather abstract. So, let try to make it a bit simpler with a simple example. Say that we form a superposition where each term contains two partites (two discrete entities). In our superposition, we only have two terms and the properties of the partities can be one of only two configurations. So we can represent our state as A(1) B(2) + A(2) B(1). Here A and B represent the identities of the partites and (1) and (2) represent their properties. When I only measure A, I will get either (1) or (2) with equal probability. However, when I measure both A and B, I will either get (1) for A and (2) for B or (2) for A and (1) for B. In other words, in each set of measurements, the two partites will have the opposite properties, and this result is obtained regardless of how far apart these partites are located.

The phenomenon of quantum entanglement has been observed experimental many times. Even though it is counterintuitive, it is a fact of nature. So, this is just one of those things that we need to accept. At least, we can understand it in terms of all the concepts that we have learned so far. Therefore, it does not need to be mysterious

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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 III

Many-worlds interpretation

In my series on the impasse in physics and how to transcend it, I previously discussed the issue of classical vs quantum physics. Here, I want to talk about the interpretations of quantum mechanics.

There is much activity and debate on these interpretations. Part of it is related to the measurement problem. Is there such a thing as quantum collapse? How does it work?

David Mermin once said in an article in Physics Today that new interpretations are added every year and none has ever been ruled out. If this is true, then it indicates that the interpretations of quantum mechanics is not part of science, and therefore also not part of physics.

I am not going to say one should not work on such interpretations and try to make sense of what is going on, but the scientific method does not seem to help us here. Perhaps people will eventually come up with experiments to determine how nature works. I’ve seen some proposals, but they are usually associated with some new mechanisms, which in my view are unlikely to be correct.

It occurs to me that while we cannot say which of the interpretations are correct, we may just as well just pick one and work with that. So I pick the simplest one and when I want to figure out how things will work out in one of these experiments, then I can just consider how things will work according to this interpretation. If such a prediction turns out to be wrong, it would show that this interpretation (and all those that made the same prediction) is wrong after all.

The simplest interpretation according to me is the many-world interpretation. It is simple because it does not require the weird unexplained notion of quantum collapse. People don’t like it, because it seems to require such a lot of different worlds. For that reason it is also associated with the idea of a multiverse.

Hugh Everett III, the person that invented the many-worlds interpretation

Well no, those ideas are anyway misleading. In quantum mechanics, all interactions are described by unitary evolution. The picture that it represents is that there is a set of states that the universe can take on. One can think of each such state as a different description of the world. Hence “many worlds.” However, the actual state of the universe is a quantum superposition of all the possible worlds. In the superposition each world is associated with a complex probability amplitude. It means that some worlds are more likely than others. During interactions these probability amplitudes change.

That is the whole idea of unitary evolution. All the possibilities are already present right from the start. The only thing that interactions do is to change the probability amplitudes that are associated with the different worlds. During the evolution in time the different worlds in the superposition can experience constructive or destructive interference, which would change their probability amplitudes, making some less or more likely that they were before.

The number of worlds (number of terms in the superposition) stays the same. They don’t increase as a result of interactions. How many such worlds are there? Well, if we look at the properties of the set of such basis states, then it is often assumed to be a countable infinite number. However, it may turn out to be uncountably infinite, having what is called the cardinality of the continuum.

What is more is that these different worlds are not distinct unique worlds. One can redefine the basis set of worlds by forming different superpositions of the worlds in the original set to get a new set in which the worlds now look different.

How does all this relate to what we see? The dynamics of the universe causes the interferences due to the unitary evolution to favor a small set of worlds that look very similar. This coherence in what the world looks like is a result of the constructive interference produced by the dynamics.

So the world that we see at a macroscopic level is not just one of these worlds. It is, in a sense, a conglomeration of all those worlds with large probability amplitudes. However, the differences among all these worlds are so small that we cannot notice it at a macroscopic level.

OK, not everything I said here can be confirmed in a scientific way. I cannot even proof that the many-worlds interpretation is correct. However, by thinking of it in this way, one can at least get some idea of it that makes sense.

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