Quantum mechanics and the manifestation of the world

My paper “Quantum mechanics and the manifestation of the world” has been published in Quantum Studies: Mathematics and Foundations 1 (3–4), pages 195–202, DOI 10.1007/s40509-014-0017-3. You can download it from Springer (for free) via this link.

An interesting new journal. In the preface to the second issue of Quantum Studies: Mathematics and Foundations the editors wrote:

After a very successful recent launch of this journal with the first issue, we continue to hope that this journal provides a home for those who think there are new worlds to be discovered by looking deeply into quantum mechanics. Our advice is: “Think, reconsider, explore, create deep questions, use paradoxes as a tool for understanding, and finally: publish in this journal!”

The reviewer of my paper wrote that it “describes a unique and refreshingly different view of quantum theory” — something one doesn’t get to hear very often. The paper is based on an invited talk at the Berge Fest, a conference celebrating the 60th birthday of Berge Englert (Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore, 22–25 April 2014).

Conference venue
The Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium at the National University of Singapore, where the conference was held.

The talk in turn was based on my paper “Manifesting the Quantum World”, which was published in Foundations of Physics 44 (6), 641–677, DOI 10.1007/s10701-014-9803-3. You can get the preprint here.

Notes on an Important Book — Another 5-Star Review

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.

Well said

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.

The last particle ever?

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?

holy crap

Holy. Crap.

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.

No need to make the world stranger than it is

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.

That Goddamn Particle

Say that one more time

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:

  • Start with a Lagrangian containing the quantum fields that associated with the weakly interacting particles (and remember that quantum field are merely spectacularly successful calculational devices).
  • Add a quantum field in such a way that the vacuum state ceases to be unique.
  • Define new fields in terms of the ones present at this point.
  • “Fix the gauge” in such a way that the vacuum state is again unique.

(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

  • three massive bosons (most unimaginatively named W-plus, W-minus, and Z-naught), which mediate weak interactions,
  • the massless photon, which mediates electromagnetic interactions,
  • and the massive Higgs boson, whose tentative discovery has just been announced.

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).

From Science to Google News

Robert McHenry, former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica has written this excellent piece for American.com.

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?

dinosSee 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.