Saturday, January 19, 2013

Explaining quantum observers

Lumo explains quantum mechanics again:
I am writing down this preposterous story because this is exactly the type of thinking that many popular Рand, using Sidney Coleman's words, sometimes even not-so-popular Рbooks and articles want you to manipulate you into. GRW and Penrose collapse theories as well as the many-worlds ideology are example models giving special objects the right to "intervene" into Schr̦dinger's equation, either by discontinuous jumps or collapses or by splitting the world (which is comparably, infinitely ambitious). However, all this reasoning is completely nonsensical. There doesn't exist any systems for which the evolution according to the laws of quantum mechanics such as Schr̦dinger's equation is replaced by some discontinuous jumps. Quantum mechanics applies to all systems and processes in Nature, regardless of their size, duration, sex, race, and nationality. ...

Needless to say, people are looking for an "objective classical model of reality" that is valid for everyone. But quantum mechanics shows that Nature can't be described in this way. Instead, quantum mechanics tells you that you must understand yourself as an observer who may perceive the values of certain observables and quantum mechanics tells you that observing some values of observables at one moment implies that the probability of observing some combination of other observables at a different moment is something or something else. That's the only thing you may really empirically verify so it's just unphysical to "demand" that science also explains something else (such as an "underlying objective reality").
He is right. As you can see from my slogan, I do not believe in discontinuous jumps. Belief in hidden variables and jumps is misguided.

Sean M. Carroll writes about the poll I posted last week:
I’ll go out on a limb to suggest that the results of this poll should be very embarrassing to physicists. Not, I hasten to add, because Copenhagen came in first, although that’s also a perspective I might want to defend (I think Copenhagen is completely ill-defined, and shouldn’t be the favorite anything of any thoughtful person). The embarrassing thing is that we don’t have agreement.

Think about it — quantum mechanics has been around since the 1920's at least, in a fairly settled form. John von Neumann laid out the mathematical structure in 1932. Subsequently, quantum mechanics has become the most important and best-tested part of modern physics. Without it, nothing makes sense. Every student who gets a degree in physics is supposed to learn QM above all else. There are a variety of experimental probes, all of which confirm the theory to spectacular precision.

And yet — we don’t understand it. Embarrassing. To all of us, as a field (not excepting myself).

I’m sitting in a bistro at the University of Nottingham, where I gave a talk yesterday about quantum mechanics. I put it this way: here in 2013, we don’t really know whether objective “wave function collapse” is part of reality (as the poll above demonstrates).
Lumo rips him for these silly comments, but I think that it is embarrassing that so many physicists like Carroll do not seem to understand what von Neumann elucidated in 1932.

Chad Orzel responds:
He dates this from John von Neumann laying out the mathematical foundations in 1932, which is a little ironic, because about thirty of those eighty years of inaction can be laid at von Neumann’s feet. When he laid out his formulation of quantum mechanics, von Neumann asserted that hidden-variable theories were ruled out mathematically, and his reputation was such that most physicists regarded this as a settled question on that basis. The problem is, he was flat wrong on this point, relying on a mathematical theorem that didn’t actually say what he claimed it did.

The question was eventually re-opened in part by people thinking about it the right way– in particular David Bohm, and then John Bell.
Von Neumann was right about there being no hidden variables. His theorem was maybe weaker than what some people realized, but the search by Bohm and others for hidden variable theories has been a theoretical and experimental failure.

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