Today I received my copy of the proceedings of this international conference, which was held at the Catholic University of Milan in June 2013. It contains my paper “Consciousness in the quantum world: An Indian perspective”.
Posted by Pete J at Amazon.com on (remember remember) the 5th of November:
For anyone interested in how mysticism can be connected up with physics in a practical way, to the benefit of physics, and without any beating around the bush, this book may be a godsend.
The mathematics of quantum mechanics is well beyond the comprehension of most people and for the most part it goes straight over my head. This text book, which seems to be a thorough introduction to this mathematics, complete with challenging exercises, is therefore unlikely to become a popular best-seller. It is also expensive, having the worst word-to-price ratio of any book I’ve ever bought. However, I’m glad I bought it. It is possible even for the non-mathematician to see at least how the various mathematical approaches fit together and why they are needed, while the real heart of the book is the interpretation it places on the mathematics and this is explained economically and in plain English.
Quantum theory is astonishingly successful despite the utter lunacy of its mathematics, but it rules out any hope of our ever being able to conceive of what it describes by the use of everyday ‘classical’ concepts. We don’t have any other kind of concepts, so we cannot conceive of what it describes. Whatever it describes would have to be vastly more weird and wonderful than anything we observe in our everyday world. So what are we to do? Must we accept that the way have to describe Nature must always remain incomprehensible to us?
While explaining why interpretations of quantum mechanics that try to accommodate classical intuitions are impossible, rendering futile any hope of creating a picture in our heads of what lies behind the mathematics, Mohrhoff quotes Dennis Diecks, Professor of the Foundations and Philosophy of the Natural Sciences at Utrecht University.
“However, this is a negative result that only provides a starting-point for what really has to be done: something conceptually new has to be found, different from what we are familiar with. It is clear that this constructive task is a particularly difficult one, in which huge barriers (partly of a psychological nature) have to be overcome.”
Mohrhoff continues, ‘Something conceptually new has been found, and it is presented in this book.’ What is presented is a big idea. ‘What quantum mechanics is trying to tell us’, says Mohrhoff, ‘is that reality is structured from the top down.’ As something to think about this is probably worth the price of the book. It seems possible that as stated this is a one-sided view and that there are two equal and opposite ways of looking at this structure, as might seem more typical for the world-view of the Upanishads, but it hardly matters. What matters is that we can see from The World According to Quantum Mechanics that the ancient psychological, metaphysical and cosmological doctrine endorsed by Sri Aurobindo and his group would dove-tail perfectly with the mathematics of quantum mechanics and allow physics to be reconciled with metaphysics and mysticism.
The book is a vindication of Erwin Schrodinger, who concluded early on that the new physics he was helping to invent implied the truth of the advaita doctrine. With its publication it may not be unreasonable to think that for theoretical physics a paradigm shift may be approaching of even greater magnitude than quantum mechanics.
From the introduction of Mind and Cosmos, the new book by philosopher Thomas Nagel (“What is it like to be a bat?”):
One of the legitimate tasks of philosophy is to investigate the limits of even the best developed and most successful forms of contemporary scientific knowledge. It may be frustrating to acknowledge, but we are simply at the point in the history of human thought at which we find ourselves, and our successors will make discoveries and develop forms of understanding of which we have not dreamt. Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole. Pointing out their limits is a philosophical task, whoever engages in it, rather than part of the internal pursuit of science—though we can hope that if the limits are recognized, that may eventually lead to the discovery of new forms of scientific understanding. Scientists are well aware of how much they don’t know, but this is a different kind of problem—not just of acknowledging the limits of what is actually understood but of trying to recognize what can and cannot in principle be understood by certain existing methods.
Cosmologist and science blogger Ethan Siegel has a fascinating article titled Have we reached the end of Particle Physics? I think this is as important as he thinks it is. Here is the gist of it:
there is a new idea gaining traction in recent years when it comes to making a quantum theory of gravity: asymptotic safety. Without going into any mathematical detail (and with full disclosure that I myself don’t understand it as well as I’d like), you can think of it as a mathematical trick that allows you to incorporate gravitation into your QFT….
There’s a very important reason we care about this: if we understand how to incorporate gravity into our quantum field theories, and we’ve measured the masses of all the standard model particles except one, we can theoretically predict what the mass of that one remaining particle needs to be in order for physics to work properly at all energies!
We can do this because demanding that the Universe be stable constrains that last free parameter — the mass of the Higgs boson — to be one particular value. If the mass turns out to be that value, then that’s indicative that, if asymptotic safety is a valid idea, there are no new particles in the Universe that couple to the Standard Model. In other words, there are no new particles to be found by building colliders in the Universe, all the way up to Planck energies, some 15 orders of magnitude more energetic than those probed by the LHC.
But if we can predict that mass, and the actual mass of the Higgs boson turns out to be anything else, either higher or lower, then that means there must be something new in the Universe in order for physics to be self-consistent. Now, here’s the truly amazing thing: that mass was calculated back in 2009, before the LHC was turned on.
You can read the abstract here and the full article here, but what’s truly amazing is that we’ve now found the Higgs, and we know its mass. Want to see what this paper, nearly 3 years old now, predicted for the mass of the Higgs?
So I want you to understand this correctly, because this could be huge. If asymptotic safety is right, and the work done in this paper is right, then an observation of a Higgs Boson with a mass of 126 GeV, with a very small uncertainty (±1 or 2 GeV), would be damning evidence against supersymmetry, extra dimensions, technicolor, or any other theory that incorporates any new particles that could be found by any accelerator that could be built within our Solar System.
Fast-forward to this past July, when the discovery of the Higgs Boson — confirmed to be a single, fundamental scalar particle of spin-0 — was announced. What was its mass, again?
According to the combined ATLAS+CMS data (both major detectors), a Higgs of mass somewhere between 125 and 126 GeV was detected with a (robust) significance of 6-σ, with an uncertainty of around ±1 GeV. In other words, those of you who followed the excitement in July may have witnessed the last fundamental particle physics discovery we will ever make.
Another review at Amazon.com, by Adrian Icazuriaga:
For those who have been following Mohrhoff’s revealing ideas during the last decade (the so called “Pondicherry Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”), this book adds a few very important points to what is already one of the most comprehensive and consistent interpretations of the fundamental laws of physics that anyone has put forward up to the present date.
He obviously didn’t start this journey one fortunate Monday morning. He is following the steps of people like Bohr, Peres, Mermin and many other physicists who have contributed greatly to one and the same philosophical project: the de-reification of quantum-mechanical correlation laws, and the enormous implications that this carries for our understanding of physical reality.
This book is probably the best synthesis of that long-standing project. Its merit not only lies in taking a few isolated ideas about QM’s probability algorithms and integrate them into an overall consistent view, which would be a huge achievement in itself, but first and foremost, to explain classical mechanics and classical conservation laws as part of (in the limit of) that same fuzzy state of affairs.
In this way, he very cleverly differentiates between what an equation of continuity says and what a local conservation law is, basically “a feature of our calculational tools”. Key concepts like energy and momentum are introduced as underpinning the homogeneity of time and space respectively, instead of being just symbols in an abstract equation. On the other hand, the deceptive idea of force, deeply entrenched in our perception of a physical world, is redefined in a way that permits us to make sense of the Lorentz force law and the gravitational force as not being a mediating agent between causes and effects.
This is a profound, exhaustive and very well organized textbook, which should be of interest to anyone with a previous background in physics or, even better, to anyone who has not yet been contaminated by the mainstream habits and tricks of philosophy of science and crash undergraduate courses in QM. You won’t find here any of the fancy stuff that philosophers like to talk about (backwards causation, many minds, many worlds and many papers), but it will give you enough substance and plenty of material to think about for the next ten or twenty years. At the very least, it will give you the basic tools to approach any other interpretational strategy with the necessary dose of scepticism and awareness. As the author correctly stresses, there is “no need to make the world stranger than it is”.
The style is not as incisive and confrontational as most of Mohrhoff’s shorter works, which is a bit of a disappointment, but understandable giving that this book is aimed at the general public. In years to come, “The World According to Quantum Mechanics” will be taken for what it is: a serious and courageous challenge to our fundamental ideas about the fabric of space and matter.
Anyway, thanks for asking! The first thing one needs to know about physics is that it’s a collection of calculational tools. Nobody has said this better than David Mermin, well known to both physics literates and semi-literates on account of his elegant simplifications of some important theorems. Here is what he wrote in his Physics Today column of May 2009:
When I was an undergraduate learning classical electromagnetism, I was enchanted by the revelation that electromagnetic fields were real. Far from being a clever calculational device for how some charged particles push around other charged particles, they were just as real as the particles themselves, most dramatically in the form of electromagnetic waves, which have energy and momentum of their own and can propagate long after the source that gave rise to them has vanished.
That lovely vision of the reality of the classical electromagnetic field ended when I learned as a graduate student that what Maxwell’s equations actually describe are fields of operators on Hilbert space. Those operators are quantum fields, which most people agree are not real but merely spectacularly successful calculational devices. So real classical electromagnetic fields are nothing more (or less) than a simplification in a particular asymptotic regime (the classical limit) of a clever calculational device. In other words, classical electromagnetic fields are another clever calculational device.
In particle physics one calculates the probabilities of particle “collisions”. The typical question is: what is the probability with which a given set S of incoming particles transforms into a particular set S’ of outgoing particles? The vacuum-state (mentioned in what follows) is a set of incoming or outgoing particles that is empty: it contains no particles.
The first major obstacle physicists encountered subsequent to the discovery of quantum mechanics was the annoying tendency of scattering probabilities to come out infinite. It took a quarter century and the “dippy process” of renormalization (as its inventor Richard Feynman called it) for physicists to discover the culprits. These were certain parameters that had made sense in the good old days of classical physics, notably a particle’s mass and (electric) charge. Naively introduced into the quantum-mechanical calculations, they became unobservable and meaningless. Renormalization made it possible to discard them and to calculate the actually observed particle masses and charges — to some extent, since they turned out to be running parameters: they increase (or decrease) as the momentum scale at which experiments are performed increases. Given a particle’s mass m(p), measured at a specific momentum p, we can calculate the mass m(p’) that the particle has at a different momentum p’. What we don’t know is how to calculate m(p). Its value has to be determined by experiment and then plugged into the theory.
Scattering probabilities involving not only electromagnetic interactions but also (or only) strong nuclear interactions became renormalizable when asymptotic freedom was discovered: the shorter the distance between strongly interacting particles, the weaker the force by which they attract or repel each other. As that distance approaches zero, so does this force. Asymptotic freedom also made it possible to calculate the masses of the strongly interacting fundamental particles — the quarks — without experimental input, at least in principle.
The hardest to render renormalizable were scattering probabilities involving not only electromagnetic and/or strong nuclear interactions but also weak nuclear interactions. This feat was accomplished by a theory for which Abdus Salam, Sheldon Glashow, and Steven Weinberg received the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics. It made use of the Higgs mechanism, which postulates the existence of a new type of particle, the Higgs boson (named after Peter Higgs, who in 1964 wrote one of three ground-breaking papers covering the Higgs mechanism).
The root of the difficulty was once again the presence of the parameter m in the Lagrangian — the mathematical expression that defines the theory and determines the scattering probabilities. The Higgs mechanism makes it possible to remove the offending parameter (thereby rendering the theory renormalizable) without causing the particles to be massless. It involves the following manipulations:
(Each theory contained in the so-called standard model of fundamental particle physics has a set of parameters that can be changed without changing the theory’s testable predictions. To select a particular such set is called “fixing the gauge”.) The new fields are associated with
The Higgs mechanism has been hailed as the process by which particles acquire their mass. In reality it is a clever mathematical trick, nothing more but also nothing less. What is achieved by it is the computability of scattering amplitudes that involve weak interactions.
In 1993 Leon M. Lederman, Director Emeritus of Fermilab, together with science writer Dick Teresi published a popular science book titled The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question? Lederman gave the Higgs boson the nickname “The God Particle” because “the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing” (The God Particle, p. 22).
One of the major reasons that science is held in low repute among portions of the citizenry is that it has too often allowed itself to become entangled with public relations. The PR connection has nothing to do with peer review, that essential element in the scientific method. The PR connection has to do with institutional politics, funding, and personal ambition.
What happens is this:
1. Some scientists publish a report of their work.
2. An alert PR guy who works for the university or institute notices some potentially hype-able words in the report.
3. He writes up a release, under the impression that he is Arthur C. Clarke.
4. J[ournalism]-school grads at a number of media outlets, whose science education ended in 8th grade, pick up the release, change three words to make it their own, and it is published to an unsuspecting public.
5. The unsuspecting public, which is not as dumb as the PR guy believes, dismisses the story as bushwah and blames the scientists.
Comment by Yours Truly: Where quantum mechanics is concerned, the progression usually stops at item 4, and the physicists are not blamed, in spite of their complicity in projecting the myth that physicists have exclusive access to “ultimate truth”, which jams the public’s BS meter.
Here is a dandy example. The Journal of the American Chemical Society has recently published a paper titled “Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth.” No non-chemist would get beyond the seventh word.
Here’s what the original paper is about. (I am no chemist, but among the formulae and jargon there are patches of intelligible English. I welcome anyone to correct my interpretation.) Many of the compounds that make up organic life exist in mirror-image forms. This is called chirality. So, amino acids, sugars, and other things can have right-handed (D) or left-handed (L) forms. On Earth, almost all living creatures incorporate L amino acids and D sugars. Since, purely as a chemical matter, either form is equally probable, the question arises, why is Earth’s life so strongly biased? We are immediately in the realm of conjecture. Of course, this is fine for science, which begins in “maybe” and proceeds by way of evidence to “probably.”
What is the evidence? Well, there isn’t much, really. Some meteorites found in Australia contained compounds with a slight bias in favor of what is found on Earth. Why might that be? Well, it has been shown that circularly polarized light of just the right directionality and wavelength can produce such a bias. And so the author of the paper tells us:
If there was also [yet undetected] right circularly polarized light with energy in the uv or higher irradiating the asteroid belt when the amino acids were present on a particle that later came to Earth, this could account for the small excesses of the L anantiomers seen in the α-methyl amino acids.
Or not. The key words in that sentence are “if” and “could.” It’s pure speculation, with no foreseeable possibility of being confirmed or disconfirmed. Again, this is not a bad thing in science. Speculation like this points out areas for active investigation.
The author of the paper concludes with a fairly obvious guess: If the L-D arrangement on Earth is the product of chance (such as the presence of circularly polarized light of just the right sort), then elsewhere in the universe there might be life based on a D-L arrangement. Or, as he puts it:
An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular polarized light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to favor the L α-methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth.
That’s it. That’s the whole substance of the paper. Straight-ahead chemistry, exploring a possible explanation for an observed phenomenon and drawing out one tentative prediction. “Showing that it could have happened this way is not the same as showing that it did,” the author most properly concedes. He should have quit while he was ahead. What imp of the perverse induced him to add two more sentences?
Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.
Maybe the PR guy talked him into it. Maybe he wrote that bumf after a celebratory lunch. Maybe he lost an election bet. Who knows? But he provided all that a hungry PR guy needed. The ACS press release begins thus:
Could “advanced” dinosaurs rule other planets? New scientific research raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe.
Cool, no? Stop the presses! Or cue the Internet. A website called TG Daily (which provides “edgy, compelling, and independent news” to “mock, tease, tempt, and tantalize our readers”) upped the ante by posting a piece headed:
Claim: Advanced dinosaurs may rule other planets
What began as a throwaway closer and became a “possibility” is now a “claim.” The piece concludes with a nostalgic look back at a popular episode of “Star Trek: Voyager,” complete with a video clip.
The piece then got picked up by Discovery News online—which is to science roughly as were my old Tom Swift books—with an “analysis” under the headline:
Do Intelligent Dinosaurs Really Rule Alien Worlds?
See the trick? PR triggers tabloid treatment, which then is transformed into respectable journalism through the pretense of questioning the premise. Is it really true, or is The Man trying to fool us again? Investigative reporter on the case.
FoxNews.com jumped into the game next with another maybe yes/maybe no piece in which it is asserted that “the rather outlandish prospect of alien—not terrestrial—dinosaur life is explored” in the paper.
Finally, the “intelligent agent” at Google News, probably abetted by a human secretly in the employ of Ming the Merciless, fed this stuff to the great information-seeking public. The downside, as far as ordinary citizens are concerned, is that a piece of journeyman work was turned into patently junk science.
I don’t know what’s the matter with physicists these days. It used to be that they were an intellectually sophisticated bunch, with the likes of Einstein and Bohr doing not only brilliant scientific research, but also interested, respectful of, and conversant in other branches of knowledge, particularly philosophy. These days it is much more likely to encounter physicists like Steven Weinberg or Stephen Hawking, who merrily go about dismissing philosophy for the wrong reasons, and quite obviously out of a combination of profound ignorance and hubris (the two often go together, as I’m sure Plato would happily point out). The latest such bore is Lawrence Krauss, of Arizona State University.
I have been ignoring Krauss’ nonsense about philosophy for a while, even though it had occasionally appeared on my Twitter or G+ radars. But the other day I read this interview Krauss just did with The Atlantic, and now I feel obliged to comment, for the little good that it may do….
Krauss’s volume [titled “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing”] … has been slammed by David Albert in the New York Times:
“The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields… they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.”
Now it’s my turn to slam Albert, though certainly not to defend Krauss.
Good heavens! Do these philosophy-of-science types really still believe in an “eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world”? Relativistic quantum fields are calculational devices. Particle physicists study scattering events. A scattering event is characterized by (i) a set of incoming particles with their energies and momenta and (ii) a set of outgoing particles with their energies and momenta. Relativistic quantum fields are algorithms that allow one to calculate for any given (i) the probability of obtaining any given (ii). They have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of the elementary physical stuff of the world — whether there is such a thing and if so what it might be. Period. Case closed. End of story.
(For a more realistic counterpoint to Albert’s brand of realism (read: reification of calculational tools) recall this quote by N. David Mermin.)
Responding in kind to Krauss’s armchair psychology, Pigliucci puts forth the hypothesis that the reason physicists such as Weinberg, Hawking and Krauss keep bashing philosophy is because they suffer from an intellectual version of the Oedipus Complex (you know, philosophy was the mother of science and all that… you can work out the details of the inherent sexual frustrations from there).
Pigliucci gives kudos to Ross Andersen, who conducted the interview, for pressing Krauss on several of his non sequiturs…. Andersen…: “certainly philosophers like John Rawls have been immensely influential in fields like political science and public policy. Do you view those as legitimate achievements?” And here Krauss is forced to reveal his anti-intellectualism, and even — if you allow me gentle reader — his intellectual dishonesty: “Well, yeah, I mean, look I was being provocative, as I tend to do every now and then in order to get people’s attention.” Oh really? This from someone who later on in the same interview claims that “if you’re writing for the public, the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you.” Indeed people are going to believe you, Prof. Krauss, and that’s a shame, at least when you talk about philosophy….
Andersen…: “it sounds like you’re arguing that ‘nothing’ is really a quantum vacuum, and that a quantum vacuum is unstable in such a way as to make the production of matter and space inevitable. But a quantum vacuum has properties. For one, it is subject to the equations of quantum field theory. Why should we think of it as nothing?” Maybe it was just me, but at this point in my mind’s eye I saw Krauss engaging in a more and more frantic exercise of handwaving, retracting and qualifying: “I don’t think I argued that physics has definitively shown how something could come from nothing [so why the book’s title?]; physics has shown how plausible physical mechanisms might cause this to happen. … I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality. And if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff [a nothing full of stuff? Fascinating], then I’ll go with that.”
But, insists Andersen, “when I read the title of your book, I read it as ‘questions about origins are over.’” To which Krauss responds: “Well, if that hook gets you into the book that’s great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. … If I’d just titled the book ‘A Marvelous Universe,’ not as many people would have been attracted to it.”
In all seriousness, Prof. Krauss, you ought (moral) to take your own advice and be honest with your readers. Claim what you wish to claim, not what you think is going to sell more copies of your book, essentially playing a bait and switch with your readers, and then bitterly complain when “moronic” philosophers dare to point that out.
Lee Smolin, in his “The Trouble with Physics” laments the loss of a generation for theoretical physics, the first one since the late 19th century to pass without a major theoretical breakthrough that has been empirically verified. Smolin blames this sorry state of affairs on a variety of factors, including the sociology of a discipline where funding and hiring priorities are set by a small number of intellectually inbred practitioners. Ironically, one of Smolin’s culprit is the dearth of interest in and appreciation of philosophy among contemporary physicists. This quote is from Smolin’s book:
“I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” (Albert Einstein)