The Most Embarrassing Graph in Modern Physics

Scientists don’t always agree with each other. Yes, I know; shocking but true. In cases of collegial disagreement, it’s often fun to quantify the extent of opinion by gathering a collection of experts and taking a poll. Inevitably some killjoy will loudly grumble that “scientific questions aren’t decided by voting!”, but that misses the point. A poll of scientists isn’t meant to decide questions, it’s meant to collect data — mapping out the territory of opinion among people who have spent time and effort thinking carefully about the relevant questions.

There’s been a bit of attention given recently to one such poll, carried out by Maximilian Schlosshauer, Johannes Kofler, and Anton Zeilinger at a quantum foundations meeting (see John Preskill at Quantum Frontiers, Swans on Tea). The pollsters asked a variety of questions, many frustratingly vague, which were patiently answered by the 33 participants.

This plot gives the money shot, as they say in Hollywood:

Quantum Poll

It’s a histogram of the audience’s “favorite” interpretation of quantum mechanics. As we see, among this expert collection of physicists, philosophers, and mathematicians, there is not much of a consensus. A 42% percent plurality votes for the “Copenhagen” interpretation, while the others are scattered over a handful of alternatives.

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). We also don’t know whether, for example, supersymmetry is part of reality. Wave function collapse has been a looming problem for much longer, and is of much wider applicability, than the existence of supersymmetry. Yet the effort that is put into investigating the two questions is extremely disproportionate.

Not that we should be spending as much money trying to pinpoint a correct understanding of quantum mechanics as we do looking for supersymmetry, of course. The appropriate tools are very different. We won’t know whether supersymmetry is real without performing very costly experiments. For quantum mechanics, by contrast, all we really have to do (most people believe) is think about it in the right way. No elaborate experiments necessarily required (although they could help nudge us in the right direction, no doubt about that). But if anything, that makes the embarrassment more acute. All we have to do is wrap our brains around the issue, and yet we’ve failed to do so.

I’m optimistic that we will, however. And I suspect it will take a lot fewer than another eighty years. The advance of experimental techniques that push the quantum/classical boundary is forcing people to take these issues more seriously. I’d like to believe that in the 21st century we’ll finally develop a convincing and believable understanding of the greatest triumph of 20th-century physics.

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77 Responses to The Most Embarrassing Graph in Modern Physics

  1. Romain says:

    I don’t find the results of this graph embarrassing at all. I’ve studied quantum mechanics and, without any intention to criticize people such as Zeilinger, I find it puzzling that people are arguing about “interpretations” of QM.

    I feel that these interpretations are about trying to make sense out of phenomena that we cannot grasp because they’re outside of the logic and representations of our daily lives. In other words, it seems to me these interpretations are reformulations/projections of QM laws in common sense terms and thus necessarily reductions. A beginning of proof is you would actually compute the exact same things with all these interpretations.

    Therefore, the variety of interpretations seems normal. The embarrassing part is that we are actually trying to find a correct interpretation. If I were a bit sarcastic (and I can’t because these people are way smarter than I am), I would say that understanding QM by splitting it in classical logic arguments is the same as trying to understand the laws of universe with good and bad. You just can’t.

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  2. Anthony says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Poorly-rated. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 12

  3. Matt Leifer says:

    Scientific questions aren’t decided by voting!

    Seriously though, what I object to is not that a poll was conducted. It could give us useful information about what people are currently thinking. What I object to is the frequency with which polls on the foundations of quantum theory are conducted in comparison with other fundamental areas of physics. We do not see frequent polls about whether supersymmetry is true, even though that question is arguably just as open. What this suggests to me is that there are more researchers who regard quantum foundations as a matter of politics, choice, or religion as opposed to being a legitimate area of science than there are who regard supersymmetry in this way. If we have learned nothing else from John Bell then it ought to be that questions in quantum foundations can be settled by argument, rigorous theorems, and experiment, just like any other area of physics.

    I also disagree with you that it is just a matter of “thinking about it in the right way”. Experiments should play a major role as much as they do in any other area of physics. In fact, I would argue that far more experiments have been done testing the fundamentals of quantum theory than have been done looking for supersymmetry, it is just that, so far, the experiments involved have been far cheaper. Every time we do a Bell inequality experiment, a double slit with larger and larger molecules, or create macroscopic superpositions in SQUIDs we are testing the fundamentals of quantum theory. There have also been a number of other quirky experiments testing things like the Pauli exclusion principle and the absence of third order interference. Direct tests of Penrose’s ideas are on the table in the next few years as well.

    It is not that I think any of these experiments will disprove quantum theory, but I do think that experiments will be relevant to the ultimate solution. What will happen, I would guess, is that the correct view of quantum theory will lead to a way of generalizing the theory that will allow us to solve some other longstanding problems in physics. This will make experimental predictions and, upon confirming those, we will also confirm the correct view of quantum theory, since the relevant generalization will not look natural from the point of view of other interpretations of quantum theory. The evidence may come from quantum gravity, cosmology, the physics of black holes, or even non-gravitational high energy physics. The latter is, I admit, a longshot, but my thinking is that if supersymmetry is not confirmed then we will need another way of solving the unification problem and that could conceivably come from replacing quantum theory with something else.

    The moral of this is that, if you believe what I am saying, then you shouldn’t stop at coming up with ideas of how to think about quantum theory. Once you have had those ideas you should see what changes to quantum theory are natural from that point of view and what predictions you can make. This is the only way we can hope to separate interpretations. For example, in many-worlds theory we now have fairly well established derivations of the set of observables and the Born rule from the Schroedinger dynamics. Many-worlds views the wavefunction of the universe, evolving unitarily, as a literal description of what is going on. Therefore, a natural thing to do from this point of view is to change the equation of motion. Many people have tried to modify the Schroedinger equation and there are no-go results about superluminal signaling and so forth. However, when they do change the equation they usually assume that all the rest of quantum theory will work in just the same way, with the Born rule, projection postulate and so forth. However, on a many-worlds point of view this is simply not correct. The measurement axioms are supposed to be derived from the equation of motion and not postulated independently. Adding things to the theory ad hoc that are not really independent of the rest of the physics could be the source of the problem. Therefore, many-worlds advocates should look at this again and figure out what current ideas about observables and probabilities in many-worlds theory tell us about what should happen in these modified theories. A good start would be to look at PT-symmetric quantum theory, because it has trouble with negative probabilities when you try to couple a PT-symmetric system to a regular one. After that, one could look at nonlinear Schroedinger equations again.

    I have picked many-worlds as an example here because Sean likes it, but I could just as easily outline a program of generalization starting from any other interpretation of quantum theory and they would all be very different from one another.

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  4. Matt Leifer says:

    Wow, I did not expect that my hypothesis that people don’t regard the foundations of quantum theory as a legitimate scientific question would be confirmed by other commenters whilst I was in the course of writing my comment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. Ben Stein says:

    I actually find the results of this poll exciting, and heartening. Things would be much more depressing in my view if physicists weren’t thinking as much about this issue, or if a majority of physicists had one favorite interpretation of quantum mechanics without being able to adequately back up any interpretation at this time. The fact that the proper interpretation of quantum mechanics is still unconfirmed, after so many great minds have been considering this issue for a century, suggests to me that there are still richly thrilling times ahead for the fundamentals of quantum theory.

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  6. Nicholas Malaya says:

    As they say: ‘shut up and calculate!’ — does the physicality of the wavefunction really matter, from a fundamental physics perspective?

    As an example, let’s take the equation at the top of the blog: the famous entropy equation from Boltzman’s grave. I would propose that entropy ‘does not exist’ — it is not measurable in any physical sense, but rather, can only be inferred from the properties of the system. It rather succinctly describes the macroscopic properties of an object, but it has no fundamental physicality. Various physical principles that ‘do not exist’ (in that they are never directly observable) are very useful in physics, such as potential energy, entropy, the wavefunction, etc.

    (Full disclosure: my vote would be in the information theoretic camp. )

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  7. Anthony says:

    Matt L., what exactly is the question about the foundations of quantum mechanics that you think should be investigated?

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  8. Mark Rupright says:

    I actually like the way the question was phrased. With so many “interpretations” that all agree with the same mathematical and experimental results, preferred interpretations do seem to be a matter of comfort for the most part. As I’ve often said, the interpretation one likes is the one whose philosophical baggage one dislikes least. (Okay, in individual cases, some actually like the specific philosophical baggage.)

    So Sean, do you have a “favorite interpretation”?

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  9. Chad Orzel says:

    I have a problem with your phrasing regarding what’s required, but this comment section is too small to contain it. Thus, a ranty post on my own blog.

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  10. Gizelle Janine says:

    Very, very cool.

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  11. Matt Leifer says:

    @Anthony Well, the basic question is just “Quantum theory, WTF?” but I realize that needs to be explained a bit. One way of stating the question is “What must the world be like in reality in order for quantum theory to be true?”. As stated, the question looks rather philosophical, but as indicated in my previous comment I believe that different answers to this question lead to different possibilities for generalizing quantum theory. Also, this is the question that John Bell, Kochen-Speker, PBR, etc. were asking when they derived their theorems, so there is no doubt in my mind that it can lead to progress.

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  12. doc c says:

    This post goes to the heart of the conflict between science and religion. QM is well established as a computational representation of how the universe operates at extremely small scales as those operations manifest themselves at larger scales. However, our experience of reality only occurs at larger scales, so when we try to match the operations on a small scale to the experiences of the large scale, we can’t do it without the math. Keep scaling up and you see what I’m getting at. We can’t directly experience the largest scales of all (infinite) without math, and so our interpretation of infinity will always be diverse.
    Neither of these issues has stopped people from living productive, happy lives, or stopped human social and cultural groups from adapting to the universe as it presents itself to them. The mistake is to believe that we will be able to understand the universe the way many believe that God can, or control the universe the way they believe guardian angels can. It just ain’t gonna happen, so let’s move on.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  13. keith says:

    I took Sean’s article to mean that he’s embarrassed that not many possible interpretations have been ruled out in around a century, i.e. that the right experiments haven’t been devised.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Gizelle Janine says:

    I take back my last comment: Cool. But I do understand Sean’s concern, so to speak. I’d say something like concern over problem. But everyone look at it this way, they only asked 33 people. That’s gotta mean something in itself considering what came in first. Plus, graphs suck. So I’m double upset. Believe me, I’ve got a problem with everything.

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  15. Gizelle Janine says:

    Additionally: How do people get away with NOT believing in the wave function?!?! I hate to use the word believe, but its like it’s the tooth fairy in the Copenhagen interpretation. The way I see it, which seems adolescent, I’m an artist, it’s what I do. I draw all kind of lines, not just straight ones. Sometimes, when I’m feeling really creative (sarcasm), I draw curved ones. Explain that. :D

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  16. Neil says:

    How does decoherence enter into the definition of these interpretations? Is not the fundamental interpretative issue about the reality, or not, of the wave function collapse?

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  17. Anthony says:

    Fair enough Matt. I agree that some effort should be expended in that direction. But I am not worried that problems with more obvious experimental implications are receiving more attention. And I am not worried that 13 functionally identical interpretations exist.

    Of course, when we find something that fundamentally challenges our understanding of QM, this kind of work is great. I just don’t think that that is the case at the moment. There are open problems, of course, but nothing that says ‘I just don’t see how we could ever reconcile this experiment with that theory’.

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  18. Levent says:

    strange normalization! sum of fractions exceeds 1 !

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  19. What about David Deutsch’s claim that Quantum Computers prove the Everett’s interpretation?

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  20. Tony Rz says:

    Well that puts me in the same group as just about every scientist polled, of which I’m not, in that no one understands QM. Holy cow I’m not crazy after all.

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  21. MKS says:

    i adore the many different interpretations of qm — it shows just how powerful Neils Bohr was and all the permutations that scientists went through to figure out what he meant by that one utterance about what we can know and if we can make meaningful statements aboot universe…

    it shows a healthy, non-dogmatic mindset — they are all true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, etc…

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  22. Pingback: Il grafico più imbarazzante della fisica moderna « oh tempo le tue piramidi

  23. Meh says:

    #1. “I think Copenhagen is completely ill-defined, and shouldn’t be the favorite anything of any thoughtful person”. two words; chewin’ tabaccee.

    #2 I’m a fan of information based

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  24. Mark Pontin says:

    Sean –

    You propose that “the advance of experimental techniques that push the quantum/classical boundary’ will likely settle these questions.” (And I think you’re right to assume that the “shut up and calculate” school is sort of copping out.)

    Those advancing experimental techniques most definitely include weak measurement, yes? And in recent years we’ve seen many papers making ambitious claims for and relying on weak measurement, haven’t we?

    Like this one from 2009 proposing that, contra Heisenberg, simultaneous measurement of both position and velocity of particles is possible —

    “On the Weak Measurement of Velocity in Bohmian Mechanics”
    http://xxx.lanl.gov/abs/0808.3324

    As you’re doubtless better aware of than I am, there have been more recent papers making more ambitious claims. Given that I’m a mere science spectator, Aharanov’s two-state vector formalism seems an elegant and congenial explanation; I’m prepared to buy the claims for weak measurement. But mere elegance and congeniality, along with my non-scientist status, don’t stop me from noticing that there are questions about weak measurement.

    For instance, in these experiments, they aren’t measuring, say, the trajectory of any given photon and they’re still doing *averages,* which are the bread and butter of any quantum mechanic. They’re able to reconstruct the *average* trajectory of a photon, which is cool. Nevertheless, is weak measurement really measuring anything real?

    Here’s a paper articulating some of these questions better than I can —

    “What do quantum “weak” measurements actually measure?_
    – Stephen Parrott, 2009
    http://lanl.arxiv.org/abs/0908.0035

    Abstract: ‘A precise definition of “weak [quantum] measurements” and “weak value” (of a quantum observable) is offered, and simple finite dimensional examples are given showing that weak values are not unique and therefore probably do not correspond to any physical attribute of the system being “weakly” measured, contrary to impressions given by most of the literature on weak measurements….’

    All this is a little off your usual cosmology beat, I know. On the other hand, via the Aharanov/retrocausality connection, it does have to do with your Arrow of Time concerns. Most of all, though, whether it’s here or later, I’d deeply appreciate an intelligent discussion of the pros and cons of weak measurement that’s geared at a level even mere science spectators like myself can appreciate.

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  25. OMF says:

    If you’re not able to understand the results of a mathematical equation, something has gone wrong.

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  26. Daniel says:

    Sean,
    Don’t worry, the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood.

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  27. Doc C says:

    I think the answer to molyneux’s problem applies here. Children born with congenital cataracts whose sight is restored can distinguish shapes by touch but not by sight until they have had time to touch and see the shapes together.

    Our abstract imagination is limited by our cognitive sensory experience. This survey result springs from those kind of limits. We will always be limited in our capacity to understand nature.

    http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v14/n5/abs/nn.2795.html

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  28. Matt McIrvin says:

    In practice, I suspect that “Copenhagen” is mostly shorthand for “stop bothering me” or “shut up and calculate”. It’s the traditional default answer you give when you don’t want to talk about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, though, or perhaps because, nobody seems precisely sure what it is. And that’s not necessarily bad, though I suppose more interest would be expected at a foundations conference.

    I think I’m with the people who don’t find the disagreement all that embarrassing. Like Chad, I do not believe that people are going to be able to pick a correct interpretation from this list through pure reason. There are some, like the objective-collapse models, that actually make different experimental predictions from pure QM, and those might actually be tested (some crude forms of objective collapse one might propose have already been experimentally falsified). But any interpretation that’s consistent with all the results of quantum mechanics is going to stand unless and until quantum mechanics itself is wrong.

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  29. Chemicalscum says:

    I interrupted calculating the theoretical UV spectrum of a series of isomeric organic molecules by QM in order to read this thread, well I was waiting for the calculation to finish. I am a chemist not a physicist, therefore by definition I don’t understand QM but then we all don’t.

    I’m doing this calculation for the mundane and practical purpose of helping to identify an unknown compound in a pharmaceutical dosage form. QM is OK for FAPP, however I am not sure I want to shut up and calculate. The purely philosophical desire for physical realism leads me towards the Everett interpretation.

    What drives me to distraction is that in biology then from the many worlds point of view evolution must occur in Hilbert space. As Schrödinger pointed out in “What is Life” since X-rays cause mutations the source of mutation must be quantum mechanical enabling him to correctly predict that the genetic material was at the molecular level. Monod pointed out evolution was driven by chance and necessity http://ichemicalscum.blogspot.ca/2012/09/what-drives-evolution-mechanics-on.html .

    As Gould has suggested if you could rerun evolution again you would not get the same outcome. So all possible outcomes should on the basis of many worlds be real. I’ve wondered if there was some way of testing this using Bayesian statistics but I cant see one so I am driven to distraction.

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  30. Adam says:

    What, no Chopran interpretation? :)

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  31. AI says:

    This is simply a proof (if anyone needed it) that a century later QM is still the frontier of our understanding of reality.

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  32. Alex Palazzo says:

    I suspect that the poll allowed participants to give multiple answers, thus explaining why the sum > 100%.

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  33. Rezso says:

    I disagree with the claim that the Copenhagen interpretation is ill-defined.

    There is only one assumption in QM, that the physical observables form a noncommutative algebra. While the elements of commutative algebras can be represented as numbers, noncommutative algebras should be represented as matrices, or more generally, as linear operators defined on Hilbert-spaces.

    The expectation value should preserve the linearity of this structure.
    So we can use (psi, A psi) for pure states or, more generally Tr(rho*A) for mixed states.

    The whole mathematical construction is completely natural and well defined.

    Of course, it is hard to understand QM in an intuitive way, because our intutition is based on classical physics = commutative algebras. But this simply doesn’t mean that QM is ill-defined. Noncommutative algebras are completely well defined.

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  34. Doug says:

    I’ve been quite sympathetic to the idea that Scott Aaronson articulated, that Quantum Mechanics is not a jealous god (such as in the model of JHVH.) If thinking about MWI helps you perform a calculation in the morning and Copenhagen gets you through an afternoon problem, you have not angered your deity by thinking in two different ways. So long as you don’t upset any experimentalists, we can say every interpretation is just fine. Even if you have realist sensibilities, what is it that’s supposed to be real, other than the results of experiments? If it can’t be experimentally determined, there isn’t really some obligation to have a definite answer, that we should feel inadequate for failing to give.

    I was surprised though that consistent histories was at 0, I tend to like it.

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  35. Tony Rz says:

    A particle is a point in space that has no dimension, so, how can it be something that can be measured or observed, it’s just a small bit of a wave that continuously moves about through space and time, so it can’t be measured exactly any more than an ocean wave, you can only guess measure where it was but never, never a location. Just a thought. Am I WAY OFF the mark.

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  36. Matt Leifer says:

    @Matt McIrvin “In practice, I suspect that “Copenhagen” is mostly shorthand for “stop bothering me” or “shut up and calculate”.”

    Unlikely as this poll was taken at a conference dedicated to the foundations of quantum theoy, so people who do not want to think about interpretations of quantum theory would not have been there.

    I think that one of the main things I learned from this poll is that if you conduct a poll at a conference organized by Zeilinger then Copenhagen will come out top, whereas if you conduct a poll at a conference organized by Tegmark then many worlds will come out top. Is this a surprise to anyone?

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  37. Pete says:

    Many Worlds Interpretation seems like the most plausible in my opinion. I’ve never really been a big believer in fundamental randomness, it just doesn’t make sense (even to my post quantum strangeness incorporating mind).

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  38. Chris says:

    Personally I find that data from only 33 participants was used to publish a paper to be fairly embarrassing. No where near 5 sigma confidence of anything in the community, just those who happened to be at one conference.

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  39. bill says:

    The correct response should be ‘Uncertain’.

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  40. Damian says:

    Are you aware of Ladyman and Ross’s take on “the Copenhagen interpretation” Sean?:

    http://www.academia.edu/1434739/The_World_in_the_Data

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  41. Rezso says:

    How does the many worlds interpretation reproduce probabilities when they are generally irrational numbers?

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  42. huytt says:

    Matt Leifer,

    I totally agree with you. The work
    of John Bell, Cock Inspector, and
    PBR, etc is definitely a step in the
    right direction.

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  43. Rick says:

    It doesn’t really matter. Physics is all about explaining the results of experiments, and predicting the results of experiments by using a made-up “model” and mathematical rules. That’s it. The model may not have any physical significance to it or correspond to anything “actually existing”. If the model and the mathematical rules allow you to explain stuff and predict stuff, then it’s useful and we keep it around and say things like “that’s how the world works”. At the heart of quantum mechanics is “the wavefunction” and the mathematical rules that govern it. It allows us to do pretty well, and that’s all that matters. Who cares what the wavefunction is or what it does, as long as it gives us results.

    One thing I’ve noticed is how, as we go to smaller and smaller distances, the world seems to get more and more abstract and mathematical. We go from planets, which behave like actual objects with independent existence, to things like atoms and elementary particles, which are much more mathematical, less like anything “physical” we have experience with. Each electron is exactly the same as every other electron because electrons are just names we attach to a mathematical concept that seems to act in accordance with certain mathematical rules attached to that mathematical concept. It works, so who cares about interpretation.

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  44. ... and physics says:

    Here’s the answer to everything.

    Evidently, an electron does not possess the property of position before it’s measured. But it cannot have *no* properties at all before measurement, since then it would never get measured. Thus, quantum particles have some properties but not others before measurement.

    The electron is ‘real’ at all times.

    Is there anything wrong with this ‘realist’ interpretation?

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  45. vmarko says:

    @ … and physics:

    In addition to “real” electrons, there are also “virtual” electrons, that don’t have well-defined properties of real electrons (like mass, charge, spin, etc.). They are never observed directly (for precisely the reasons you state), but their “secondary effects” can be (and indeed are) observed.

    You don’t want to think about an electron as a particle, but rather as an excitation of the electron field, just like a photon is an excitation of the electromagnetic field. Particles don’t exist in nature, fields do.

    HTH, :-)
    Marko

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  46. vmarko says:

    The raison d’etre for all these interpretations of QM is physicists struggle to resolve the so-called “measurement problem”, which is at the core of the theory itself, and it is a real problem.

    Stated simply, QM doesn’t describe the quantum world, but rather the interaction between the quantum world with the classical world. There is always an (implicit or explicit) assumption that the “measurement device” does not and must not obey the laws of QM. This assumption introduces a fundamental dualism into our understanding of nature, saying that the laws of physics do not apply universally for all the “pieces” of the Universe.

    So one is forced to choose which “pieces” do obey QM and which don’t, and how to determine the boundary between the two sets. Consequently, people can either have an opinion (i.e. pick one of the interpretations), or choose to ignore the problem (the shut-up-and-calculate strategy).

    But do keep in mind that the interpretations are not a matter of just personal taste, or our psychological means of coming to terms with the reality of quantum physics. They are actually frameworks that try to address a very real (and so far a very unsolved) problem of quantum physics. Furthermore, they all fall short of resolving this problem in a satisfactory way.

    For example, as soon as you consider the Universe to be your quantum system, and a hydrogen atom to be a measuring device (which “observes” the Universe and collapses its wavefunction), the “measurement problem” blows right in your face, showing the incompleteness of any and every formulation of QM:

    * there is no concept of probability, since you don’t have an ensamble of Universes;
    * there is no decoherence, since the number of degrees of freedom of your measuring device is very limited;
    * there is no arrow of time, since the measuring device doesn’t have a large enough phase space (and as a consequence, “evolution in time” can not be formulated).

    And then what? The shut-up-and-calculate philosophy is unmaintainable, since QM doesn’t tell you a damn thing about the predictions of the measurements. That is the main issue that various interpretations are trying to resolve.

    The QM formalism, as well as it works on table-top experiments, is fundamentally incomplete. Completing it requires one to have a “philosophical interpretation” of QM, one that can be used to extrapolate our understanding of the QM formalism beyond the “small quantum and large classical” physical systems.

    Give all that, it is only natural that there is no consensus about any of these interpretations, and the graph seems quite ok from my point of view.

    HTH, :-)
    Marko

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  47. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    I have to agree with Matt Leifer. We are not ascertained that we have enough information to test specific QM theories as is, as they then should be called. We need to continue to try to derive tests.

    @ Nicholas Malaya: How do you define and test a boundary between “physical sense” & “direct observable” and any other set of constraints?

    Doing observations by way of experiments are using constraints, which can be more or less put there by theory. In that sense there is no difference between ad hoc observations (say, temperature before it was defined by statistical physics) and observational tests of measured values by way of theory (say, entropy).

    Testing for existence is at the heart of every mechanics, classical, relativistic or quantum, by “constrained reaction on constrained action”, as action-reaction or observation-observable (re Deutsch’s testable definition). We can’t bootstrap up any kind of physics without having done that test as first order of business!

    @ Rezso: I think the problem is that it is ill-defined physically. How fast does the wavefunction “collapse”? I have never heard of any such prediction from the Copenhagen theory. (Admittedly I am no theoretical physicist.)

    There doesn’t seem to be a dynamics for a crucial part of the theory.

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  48. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    @ vmarko: I don’t think this moves your point (I bow out on decoherence), but I don’t think QM is necessarily incomplete just because it doesn’t explicitly handles characteristics of macrosystem such as universes or arrows of time.

    Susskind derives the arrow of time (and yes, probabilities over ensembles of universes) from the dynamics of an inflationary multiverse. (More precisely terminal vacuums sets up an arrow.) That trickles down to microscale, where we don’t want any irreversibility correlated to an arrow, we want microscopic reversibility (“detailed balance” of chemistry). There would be no incompleteness between these two theories, QM within the observable universe/causal patch, and inflation from the causal patch up to the overall system.

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  49. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    @ doc c: Your religious comment is a veritable deepity. The inflationary standard cosmology is observable with only 6 parameters, which is about as many as you use to make images from a telescope in the first place.

    And that cosmology predicts and test that universes are zero energy, so can only happen spontaneously. This is perhaps what Hawking started in the 70’s, when he discovered that universes could start so. But now we also know that all universes must start so. I believe that is what Krauss has written a book about (but I can be mistaken).

    Humanity killed all gods 2004. Or at least the theistic creationist ones, with the implication of how inflation smooths the universe and so decides at least some physical laws, that the deist ones could soon be dead too. Or, reminding of our host’s predilections, since physicalism is a testable and now tested theory, all magic can now be rejected beyond reasonable doubt.

    The mistake was to believe that we will not be able to understand the universe, or that invisible bearded men had anything to do with it.

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  50. vmarko says:

    @ Torbjörn Larsson:

    Yes, Susskind uses the Multiverse ideas to circumvent some of the problems. This idea initially began with the Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of QM, which was devised precisely for the purpose of introducing “an ensamble of Universes”, so that one can keep talking about probability.

    But Multiverse ideas have their own bag of problems (for example, the inability to perform the preparation of the ensamble into the same initial quantum state), so it’s not as easy as it might look.

    Of course, there are quite some valiant and bold attempts, with even more to come over time, but so far there is no solution which is convincing enough. The result of the poll that Sean displayed says precisely that. ;-)

    Best, :-)
    Marko

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  51. vmarko says:

    @ Torbjörn Larsson:

    “The mistake was to believe that we will not be able to understand the universe, or that invisible bearded men had anything to do with it.”

    Just a note — keep in mind that there is a sharp difference between “understanding the basic laws of elementary physical systems” and “understanding any phenomenon that occurs in the Universe”. There are all sorts of things that make reductionism trip over and stop to a halt at one point or another (uncertainty relations, deterministic chaos, Goedel’s incompleteness theorems, etc…). Even Sean admits that understanding the basic laws does not imply understanding of the complex phenomena. ;-)

    And of course, invisible bearded men don’t have anything to do with neither science nor religion. The fact that some people draw images of God as an old bearded man have an interpretation similar to a physicist who draws a tiny ball on the blackboard and says “this is an electron” — neither is true in a literal sense, and both exist only to depict some more abstract concept.

    Best, :-)
    Marko

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  52. doc c says:

    @ Torbjorn,

    Produce someone who can visualize or otherwise experientially integrate QM, and I’ll yield my comment as a deepity.

    Saying that we will be able to understand the universe has as much validity as saying that an invisible bearded man created it. Neither is falsifiable at present. How do we disprove that the natural evolution of intelligent beings enables them to survive long enough for their full understanding to arise?

    Krauss never explained how something arises from nothing, only how our universe could arise from the quantum vacuum. That is a great achievement, as he rightly claims, but it is far from solving the entire problem of understanding how nature originated, in the typical meaning of originated.

    The creationist problem is that they forget that the God who they worship denied us direct access to him when he kicked our progenitors out of the Garden. Everything that follows in the Bible, by definition therefore, is a guess. What we were not denied access to is knowledge of our natural world. We’ve come a long way in that regard, but direct knowledge of a loving creator still remains closed off. There really is no Judeo-Christian religious argument against science in the natural world.

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  53. Gizelle Janine says:

    “And of course, invisible bearded men don’t have anything to do with neither science nor religion. The fact that some people draw images of God as an old bearded man have an interpretation similar to a physicist who draws a tiny ball on the blackboard and says “this is an electron” — neither is true in a literal sense, and both exist only to depict some more abstract concept.”

    Vmarko: in QM, I’d say because of the majority thinking we’ll live on a cloud and that a bearded man in the sky knows all, it might just be true in some sense. In QM it’s all about probablities. Who knows. Maybe I’ll see the Rat Pack playing poker.

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  54. Bob Iles says:

    @VMarko

    “You don’t want to think about an electron as a particle, but rather as an excitation of the electron field, just like a photon is an excitation of the electromagnetic field. Particles don’t exist in nature, fields do.”

    OK, I’m starting to get a handle on this but then my question is, what is it that excites a field, thereby causing us to observe particles? In addition, I assume this is part of the Standard Model, correct? So that a string theorist would perhaps say that it’s the vibration of strings that produce particles & maybe a LQG-ist would say it’s something else. Or am I off-base here?

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  55. vmarko says:

    @ Bob Iles:

    The Standard Model is one particular example of a quantum field theory (i.e. a theory of fields that are quantized). A nontrivial qft is a theory where one field can interact with another (or even with itself). Excitations of the fields (i.e. particles) are one of the products of those interactions.

    As for the string theory, the “real thing” is called String Field Theory, i.e. a theory of fields of strings. An elementary excitation of such a field is a string, instead of a particle. Now, each string is considered to be of small length, and it appears to us as a point particle experimentally. Furthermore, a string can vibrate in various ways, thereby appearing as a particle of this or that type. In QFT you introduce one field per each type of particles. In string field theory you introduce only one string-field which has oscillating strings as excitations, thereby generating “particles of all types” simultaneously. That is the string theory unification idea.

    Finally, Loop Quantum Gravity has nothing to do with all this — it deals with the quantization of the gravitational field, i.e. the manifold of “spacetime points” on which all other fields (or string-fields) may live. The LQG framework does not aim to do any unification like ST does. Rather, it aims at coupling the ordinary Standard Model QFT to quantum gravity. The matter fields are the same as in the SM, but the underlying manifold has a different structure (it actually isn’t a manifold anymore).

    But we’re drifting off-topic here… ;-)

    HTH, :-)
    Marko

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  56. Bob Iles says:

    @ VMarko

    Thank you for the explication. I was unaware of the term String Field Theory, altho I HAD heard of Superstring Theory & M Theory. Presumably the latter two should be more strictly Superstring Field Theory & M Field Theory. And I’ll forget about LQG for now, at least. (Smolin be danged! [g])

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  57. xiaokj says:

    @Nicholas Malaya:
    So many posts in, and nobody has yet to refute the claim.

    People must first realise that the entirety of Classical Thermodynamics can be reduced to the postulate of the existence and properties of the Entropy function, where the properties are mainly that it is first order in some variables and their conjugate variables, what we call extrinsic and intrinsic variables.

    Statistical Thermodynamics gives this Entropy function an interpretation, such that we can simply just define the Entropy function, or rather the partition function, in Quantum Mechanics, and come to the astonishing conclusion that the entirety of Statistical Thermodynamics is devoid of assumptions once Quantum Mechanics is accepted.

    @ Classical Observation:
    Although I do not agree with the interpretation, that is this Google fellow that is not a physicist, but manage to argue that you only require the measurement apparatus to be perfectly correlated with the quantum system in order to measure. So the foundation is refuted.

    @ Atoms Observing Universe:
    Variations of this problem is actually related to the Schroedinger’s Cat paradox. As a general rule, thought experiments are extremely fraught of disasters, and should be left to the masters. If you read Feynman Lectures Vol 3, he talks about the Ammonia Maser instead of the Schroedinger’s Cat, and upon easy reflection it is obvious that the Schroedinger’s Cat is a classical system, explainable with classical probability, and has absolutely nothing to do with quantum probabilities and quantum superposition and quantum measurement. As an analogy, it is a gigantic time waster for all those brilliant minds to spend upon.

    No, nothing is special of the minds of observers. Instead, something along the lines of entanglement is a better approach to this problem.

    @ Quantum Fields:
    Steven Weinberg’s book made an explanation as to why it is a relief to realise that Quantum Field Theories are themselves mean field approximations…

    My view on this is that, as of right now, the Standard Model is the most fundamental that we have, so that is it. Let String Theory struggle its way out from being a proto-theory before we even discuss it.

    For the record, I am closer to a Transactional Interpretation supporter. But I will fight for all the interpretations that are consistent with experiments, which is a whole lot. Copenhagen, however, is as Dr Sean Carroll said, not an interpretation at all. It is a set of rules to follow; ritualistic, and senseless. Interpretations are not trying to work against it, but to explain those rules that Copenhagen is about.

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  58. Dianelos Georgoudis says:

    I think the interpretation of QM is a different kind of problem than the confirmation of supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is part of physics, for it makes a claim about a deep order in the structure of physical phenomena. Granted that claim is not yet proven, but that’s not rare in advanced physics.

    The interpretation of QM on the other hand belongs to metaphysics, for, as Matt Leifer writes above it asks “what must the world be like in reality in order for quantum theory to be true?” But what the world is like is provably irrelevant to physics. For example, if we found out that we live in a computer simulation ( which is a serious hypothesis, see http://www.simulation-argument.com), or if we found out that Berkeley’s subjective idealism is true and matter does not actually exist, then not one sentence in physics books would have to be changed, or at least not one formula. As Rick says, physics is about mathematically modeling experimental results (or in general physical phenomena), and that’s it. Incidentally Berkeley’s subjective idealism allows for a very economical interpretation of QM, namely that God solves QM’s equations in his head as it were, and directly produces for us the respective quantum phenomena. Physicists of course try to find mechanistic interpretations, and are qua physicists not allowed to suggest weird religious explanations. On the other hand Everett’s picture of the world is weirder than most religious dogmas.

    By the way, I’d like to correct Matt on a point. Strictly speaking the question is not about how to interpret the theory of QM, but about how to interpret quantum phenomena. The distinction is significant, for quantum phenomena are given data, and are independent of any future developments of physical theory. I think one can describe a small set of quantum phenomena which are as difficult to interpret in Matt’s sense (i.e. of how the world must be like to produce them) than the whole of QM. If I am right in this then no future theoretical or experimental developments will help us solve the embarrassing problem of interpretation.

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  59. Patrick Murphy says:

    Wave(surface) collapses to a string(line) and finally from a string to a point(particle) seeing were still guessing

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  60. what would Witten do? says:

    Isn’t the question of the interpretation of quantum mechanics the same as the question of the ontology of quantum mechanics?

    Many-Worlds, Bohmianism, Transactional, etc… all give an account of *what it is that exists* before, during, and after measurement. (As far as I can tell Copenhagen doesn’t answer the question of what the world must be like if it is accurately modeled by quantum mechanics.)

    We know quantum systems (excitations of fields or whatever) possess some properties independently of the measuring apparatus, while other properties (e.g. the location of an electron) are not properties of the system under study but properties of the system-plus-measuring apparatus. Other features are here to stay, too, e.g. probability. This ‘neo-realism’ doesn’t require extra universes, pilot waves, or travelling backwards in time. I don’t see what the problem is.

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  61. As Penrose said, their can be more interpretations of QM than scientists doing it since some can believe in more than one interpretation at the same time. :-)

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  62. Dianelos Georgoudis says:

    Phillip,

    If I were a scientific realist I would choose the many minds interpretation, since it is the one interpretation which takes literally what QM says: Matter is and stays a wave of the superposition of many physical states. It follows that in every physical state which entails a consciousness producing brain, that consciousness exists and will experience only that one physical state when it looks around. Such a realist interpretation is the most economical possible, and perfectly comports with our own experience of quantum phenomena.

    It is true that the many minds interpretation does not escape the weird implications of the many worlds interpretation, but at least it avoids the splitting of the universe business. And, incidentally, there is nothing in QM about there being more than one universe.

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  63. Chris says:

    Could it be that we have 129% response to this question that make this graph embarrassing?

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  64. Pingback: Quantum mechanics is an “embarrassment”

  65. Mark E. Dougherty says:

    Here is the secret:

    “If you seek mind, you find only things.
    If you seek things, you find only mind.
    Therefore, there is only no-mind and no-thing
    and they are both the same thing.”

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  66. Sean Meaney says:

    String Theory invalidates Religion and Evolution because All life is the Same life at Superposition.

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  67. not-Carroll says:

    The many-minds interpretation is troubling because it implies that one brain can have several minds associated with it. That would be bizarre, it is not Dualism and not Materialism and not even Idealism.

    The survey didn’t cover many interpretations. The ones that were mentioned were not defined the same way by everyone. The participants had a bias compared to the rest of physicists and philosophers. Also, there is not even a consensus that there *is* a problem in the foundations.

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  68. smally says:

    John Baez has an interesting discussion of QM & Bayesianism here:
    http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/bayes.html

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  69. Michael says:

    If a man trained a dog to do a trick, how many times must he repeat it to learn it, how many times will the dog do this trick in his life time, when will the dog do this trick, if the man does not signal the dog to do the trick will he ever do it on his own, will the dog teach other dogs this trick, how does the dog feel, that he knows this trick. from the dogs perspective is the trick, ‘what I do when I see the man that taught me’?, can a bird do the same trick, does the dog like doing this trick or is it for another purpose such as food or favor, what the mathematically reason the bird can’t do the dog’s trick

    Just because an abstract question can be asked,
    no matter how apparently reasonable or unreasonable, doesn’t mean a 100% answer can/will be derived, but it’s truth will still exists. (light traveled at light speed before we gave it our value.)
    Reality can/will produce strange results when tested, reality “Itself” keeps itself secret from us, with pitfalls, lies, illusions, and traps. its part of what we are by design/creation. The universe is more than what can meet the eye and “our” minds’ eyes’.
    the way/why/how it works evolves moment to moment by influence of our infinite thought creation manifestation processes. You can never define rules that change because you defined them, or falsify themselves because you explain them, or play ‘tricks’ when you examine them.

    The universe is Mental By Nature, and my mind plays tricks on me.
    lol & live (The Real Secret)

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  70. Pingback: Sean Carroll: “What is Quantum Mechanics, Really?” : DS 2030

  71. Pingback: Quantum mechanics’ different schools | Macro Exposure

  72. Jim says:

    What about the fact that the percentages add up to 129%? That’s embarassing…

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  73. Ned Black says:

    As a lay person I have a problem with mathematics let alone QM.
    I mean, lines with infinite thinness, yeah right!
    does QM allow for that?

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  74. DanielS says:

    QM tries to mirror the universe. And the universe is a successfully game because there is out there an experience to design and test successfully games. From inside the game, there is something that comes from the future: the experience of the outside player. The player knows that something is going to happened, but is not quite sure exactly what. Of course, inside and outside, past or future, are false notions. But very useful for the fun of the game.

    The player is never sure about his power. He will always suspect that somebody is playing him. He will always suspect that he is a game in a game. QM tells to all players that they are probably right.

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  75. R Hawkins says:

    Some years ago (1990s) I did a degree in physics at Imperial College in London and had the pleasure of doing my final project with Prof Chris Isham. I spent my final year reading lots of papers on the Consistent Histories interpretation and comparing it to the more conventional Copenhagen and Bohm interpretations, we also studied a course in QFT and had a guest lecturer show in a quite simple way how Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation (or at least the plain vanilla version) led to probabilities of events that were greater than 1, even for straight forward events like the double slit experiment.

    This was held up as a reason why the Many World’s interpretation was problematic to say the least. How can an acceptable interpretation lead to calculated probabilities for events that are not consistent with experimental observations?

    Is there some more advanced understanding of Everett’s many world’s model which has been constructed which shows how workable probabilities can be arrived at for the quantum events we see in laboratories all the time while preserving the universe-splitting aspects of the interpretation? I would be interested to read a paper on this.

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  76. Dianelos Georgoudis says:

    @ not-Carroll

    On the many minds interpretation physical objects are not like they seem to us when we look around. There is not one pencil I see lying on the desk in front of me, nor one brain that is looking. There aren’t many pencils and many brains either. Reality is not at all like it seems, but is exactly like QM says it is, namely a superposition of all quantum states of the universe according to the distribution of the universe’s wavefuncion.

    Out of the potentially infinite number of superposed states, consider just one, which happens to include the states of a brain and of a pencil. These two states are entangled, in the sense that there is a representation of some of the physical parameters of the pencil in the patterns of neuron firings in that brain. Therefore the conscious experience produced by that *state* of the brain in that particular state of the universal wavefunction is of a concrete pencil lying on the desk.

    In other words the only existents that are concrete or “classical” are experiences. Everything else, including the brains which produce the experiences and the pencil some experiences are about, are abstract superposed quantum states. And exist not in physical space which we experience, but in the space of complex numbers. One’s current experience of the world is produced by a particular state of the universal wavefunction, but has nothing to do with how reality is. Reality consists of one mathematical object (QM’s universal wavefunction) producing myriads of experiences.

    At least that’s my understanding of the ontology of the many minds interpretation of QM. (Being myself a Berkeleyan idealist I don’t buy any of that stuff, but appreciate how well it works from the point of view of the scientific realist. Physical realism is untenable though; there is no physical matter as such but only the experience of physical objects following apparent physical laws.)

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  77. Fra Erasmus says:

    Neal Stephenson explores this in Anathem, where the hundreders and thousanders are able to bridge “many worlds” via conscious effort. Although not very rigorous, the thesis for the book is that collapse is a function of intelligent (sic) biological life, or consciousness.

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