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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