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.

Pigliucci and Albert slamming Krauss, Yours Truly slamming Albert and (by implication) Krauss

In yesterday’s post at Philosophy & Theory in Biology, Massimo Pigliucci writes:

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)

How I came to meet Lady Marley, Ulrich Mohrhoff and other extraordinary people

A blog post by a theoretical physicist who (for the time being at least) wishes to remain unnamed.

This is the story of how I got to the philosophy department at […] University in the UK and how I came to meet and know about some very clever people.

I had an interest in science since a very young age. I used to build incredibly complicated and highly useless electrical devices, the idea was to create something complex that happened to have a function, the functionality was secondary, my main concern was to have as much stuff as possible without making the whole structure fall apart.

For example, there was a kind of “robot” which incorporated a weather station, a fan, a lamp and a cassette rewinder, among other things. The weather station only detected if it was raining or not, the problem was that instead of looking at this damn thing to see if the “raining” indicator was on, it was always easier to pull back the curtains and see it for yourself. The cassette rewinder allowed you to save on batteries, but on the other hand, you had to extract the cassette from the walkman, cycle back home, put the cassette in the rewinder till you thought you have reached the song you wanted to listen to, put it back in the walkman to check it, and so fort, so the whole business was utterly pointless. That’s how realism ruins an otherwise brilliant idea.

I had a respectable collection of live spiders and lizards, and I enjoyed building temperature controlled environments for my beloved reptiles. I was creating one of those comfy homes when I got seriously electrocuted and almost died. I was very surprised to find out years later that Richard Feynman had the same type of hobbies when he was a kid. The only difference is that he was brilliant and I almost killed myself, so that must mean something.

I decided to study physics for the same reason as everyone else: nature, the ultimate knowledge and all that stuff. To get there you first have to do some sacrifices, overcome obstacles, prove yourself, travel a long way, etc. So I did all that, and finally here comes the big day. First day of class at this multimillion investment building opening for the first time, sitting in the brand new auditorium, fully packed with 180 first-year students of physics, the biggest generation in the history of the faculty. Mauricio, who was the Dean at that time, had the honour of giving the welcoming speech. Using an impressive minimalist surround audio system he starts by saying, in perfectly clear Spanish:

“You have not come here to dedicate your life to the study of nature and the laws of physics, a 2% of you may follow that road; the rest of you have come here to become something quite different. In a few years time you will be working in the IT industry or in Wall Street. Nowadays there are physicists working in banks all around the world, developing dynamical models, understanding complex economic systems, programming software…”

With hindsight, now I understand that had I had a minimum of criteria or integrity I should have walked away at that point and never looked back. But for one reason or another I decided to stay there and after five difficult years I was among the handful of guys that came through the exit door with a degree in theoretical physics… ready for the IT market!

It may be because of that that I was not at all surprised when ten years later I read that a group of mathematicians and physicists working with derivatives in Wall Street had been made partially responsible for the worst economic crisis in the last century, ruining the lives of a few million people. It was the same as with those monstrous devices I used to build when I was a boy, it didn’t fit the purpose. Putting those guys to do that job was a risky move, too complex and artificial to be considered safe.

Coming back to my senses, I realized that the profession of physics had become too narrow and specialized, I was missing the big picture, so I decided to study philosophy. After paying a considerable amount of money (which is what you, or somebody else, has to do if you want to get into philosophy) I ended up studying Philosophy of Science at […]. Finally I had the chance to leave behind those narrow minded, boring physicists and meet some wonderfully smart people, people capable of saying at least two meaningful words in any social environment.

The main incentive for me was that I was going to be able to learn, first-hand, from one of the top-notch professors in the area of philosophy of physics and quantum mechanics, which was my main interest at the time. Her name was Lady Marley and there was a lot of fuss in the department whenever she moved around. When she asked a question in the middle of a talk, the background murmur would die away all of a sudden. When she entered a room, people would turn around and start inadvertently clapping with their ears. So I had to figure out what was all this admiration about. It turned out that it had something to do with her “genius”, of which her extensive work and knowledge of the subject was an inextricable part.

She had big smelly feet, which a Lady is not supposed to have, I know, but unfortunately that was the case here. So when you would get into the half-light of her office, hardly being able to walk between piles of books that reached to the ceiling, she would lay down in a sofa and take off her shoes, resting her big smelly feet in a heap of dispersed books and listening to you very carefully, not saying much, just to be able to measure the scope of your stupidity.

I was very close to getting into that same flattery mood when by sheer luck I came to read about this guy, one of those German physicists that happen to be born from time to time, his name was Ulrich Mohrhoff. No one knew anything about him or had the least idea of the issues he was trying to highlight in quantum mechanics. To me, everything he said seemed TREMENDOUSLY important, so I studied his work quite a lot, I read everything he wrote about physics and the few critical notes on his work that were published at the time. It was something groundbreaking and exciting. Exciting is the right word, here is a guy who is saying something really new and meaningful about a very old problem, and he publishes it in Foundation of Physics, so he’s not a nut case. What can be more important?

I was wrong, food is more important.

Lady Marley was very conscious about the nature of her job, she would ring up the BBC to defend the argument that government cuts in areas like philosophy of science could damage future discoveries in unrelated fields. While some crazy guy on the other side of the line would say just the opposite, that the world is made of things (extensive things) and we should try to live with what we can afford.

So after listening very carefully to Lady Marley’s lectures, I came to her first seminar, knowing, after studying Mohrhoff, Mermin and others, that there were at least a few very worrying issues on what she had presented as objective “facts” of the microscopic world. She started talking again about the wave function and I took the first opportunity that presented to ask her where was she extracting the physical content of that function from, whether it was just a mathematical apparatus to calculate probabilities or an element of the real world. She looked at me in the same way as Hudig looked at Willems* the day he fired the bastard from his post, and added with a pitiful laugh: “oh, you are an anti-realist!”

That was the beginning and the end of it. From then onwards there was no chance to discuss anything other than the usual waffle and fancy stuff, which is a mixture of science fiction and wishful thinking, all the standard tricks and transpired formalities of main stream philosophy of science. The rest of the people there were as lively as the reflection of the light in the totem permitted them to be. They shared some of that warmth and lived by it.

I didn’t find the openness or the opportunities I was expecting to find, but I did meet a very nice fellow with a strange Japanese surname which did philosophy of biology. He was unaffected and lovable. Sadly, I already had a bad experience with the natural world and didn’t want to get electrocuted twice.

* Two characters in Joseph Conrad’s “An Outcast of the Islands”

Quantum mechanics, scientists, and New Age mystics

Brian Cox — co-author with Jeff Forshaw of The Quantum Universe (And Why Anything That Can Happen, Does) (Da Capo Press, 2012) — has posted an article titled Why Quantum Theory Is So Misunderstood in the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog. There he defends his claim that according to quantum mechanics “everything is connected to everything else”, and that “this is literally true if quantum theory as currently understood is not augmented by new physics,” which for the moment (and probably for a long time to come) it isn’t. “This means that the subatomic constituents of your body are constantly shifting, albeit absolutely imperceptibly, in response to events happening an arbitrarily large distance away…”

That this statement received some well-deserved criticism in scientific circles wasn’t, according to Cox, because it is wrong but because “it sounds like woo woo, and quantum theory attracts woo-woo merde-merchants like the pronouncements of New Age mystics attract flies.”

Cox goes on to inform us (“for the record”) that “the subtle interconnectedness in quantum theory cannot be used to transmit information.” Wait a minute. Haven’t we just been told that the subatomic constituents of our bodies are constantly shifting in response to events happening an arbitrarily large distance away? If this were true, the response would depend on what happened a large distance away — otherwise we couldn’t say that it was a response to what happened there. But if what happens here depends on what happens there, then what happens here contains information about what happens there.

I am not saying that the “subtle interconnectedness in quantum theory” can be used to transmit information. It cannot. What I am saying (in agreement with the critics) is that blather about subatomic constituents constantly shifting in response to arbitrarily distant events is not the right way to illustrate the subtle interconnectedness that exists in quantum theory. Rather, it is precisely the kind of thoughtless talk that fires up the wooly masters of the New Age. Nor does saying that the constant shifting takes place “absolutely imperceptibly” explain why it cannot be used to transmit information. This qualifier is nothing but the second of two wrongs that pretend to make a right.

Cox accepts partial responsibility for the “cataclysmic tosh” purveyed by writers who cannot “possibly have the faintest idea how to use quantum theory to calculate the energy levels in a hydrogen atom” but tries to defend the use of his shifty metaphor, with scant success. Along the way he cites scientific questions — Is the climate warming and, if so, what is the cause? Is it safe to vaccinate children against disease? — whose answers “are independent of the opinion, faith or political persuasion of the individual.” I wish the tosh purveyed by those who know how to calculate the energy levels in a hydrogen atom were equally independent of their faiths or opinions. (Political persuasion may not be a factor here.)

The fact of the matter is that the mathematical formalism of quantum physics is a probability calculus. It serves to assign probabilities to the possible outcomes of measurements yet to be made, on the basis of measurement outcomes already obtained. This calculus, moreover, is the only testable part of the theory. It is all that experimental physicists need to know and most of them care to know. How, if not by way of faith or opinion, does one get from here to balderdash like the following?

“Quantum theory tells us that the universe we experience emerges from a bewildering, counterintuitive maelstrom of interactions between an infinity of recalcitrant sub-atomic particles. To understand something as simple as a rainbow, we have to allow each single particle of light to explore the entire universe on its journey through the rain.”

For a significantly more insightful discussion of quantum mechanics and its popularization I strongly recommend an article by philosopher of science Dennis Dieks, which appeared in the first issue of AntiMatters.

Quantum fuzziness and the stability of matter

In what follows I elaborate on a couple of arguments I made in The World According To Quantum Mechanics.

Why does a typical material object occupy as much space as it does? Part of the answer is that it is “made” of atoms (as well as molecules), and that an atom occupies a space roughly a tenth of a nanometer across. So why does an atom occupy that much space, despite the fact that it is composed of a very few objects, which either (like an electron) occupy no space at all or (like a nucleus) occupy a space roughly ten femtometers across — four orders of magnitude less than the atom?

To keep the problem as simple as possible, let us consider an atom of hydrogen in its ground state. Before we can profitably do so, however, we need to clarify what it means for a quantum-physical system to be “in” a state. After all, a quantum state is a probability algorithm, and it does not make much sense to say that a quantum system is in a probability algorithm.

We may think of the ground state of a hydrogen atom as an actual state of affairs if we allow that this state of affairs is adequately described in terms of the probability distributions it defines. Specifically, we may think of the position probability distribution defined by the ground state as describing a fuzzy position, and we may think of this fuzzy position as an aspect of that state of affairs. But we need to be clear about (i) when that state of affairs obtains and (ii) how we know that it obtains.

The ground state of atomic hydrogen (qua probability algorithm) is determined by a single outcome: the lowest possible outcome of a measurement of the atom’s energy. Strictly speaking, however, the possession by the atom of a specific energy cannot be observed. What can be observed is transitions between (approximately) stationary states, including transitions to the ground state. We can observe the transition of a hydrogen atom to its ground state, and we can prevent any subsequent transition to an excited state, at least for a limited period. If we do so, we know that the ground state (qua actual state of affairs) obtains, and we know when it obtains: not at any instant of time, but during an undifferentiated time span beginning with the atom’s transition to the ground state.

So why does a hydrogen atom in its ground state occupy as much space as it does? Primarily because the electron’s position relative to the proton is fuzzy. Merely being fuzzy is not enough, though. The relative position between the two particles must also stay fuzzy. For this, the electrostatic attraction between the two particles, which (by itself) would cause their relative position to get sharper (less fuzzy), must be offset by something which (by itself) would cause their relative position to grow more fuzzy. This something is the fuzziness of their relative momentum. A mere equilibrium between these two tendencies, however, also is not enough. The equilibrium has to be stable, and for this Heisenberg’s uncertainty relation is needed. This ensures that a decrease in the fuzziness of a relative position (beyond a certain limit) causes an increase in the fuzziness of the corresponding relative momentum, and vice versa. It thereby ensures that a decrease (or increase) in one tendency causes a decrease (or increase) in the other.

The word “uncertainty”, however, is misleading. Although Heisenberg’s original term Unschärfe carries the statistical sense of this word as well as the sense of “fuzziness”, the latter is appropriate here; for what “fluffs out” atoms is not our subjective uncertainty about the values of the relative positions and momenta of the constituents of atoms but an objective fuzziness of those values.

How the Hippies Saved Physics

From a review by George Johnson of How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival by David Kaiser (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011). Titled What Physics Owes the Counterculture, it was published on June 17, 2011 in the NYT Sunday Book Review.

How the Hippies Saved Physics

“What the Bleep Do We Know!?,” a spaced-out concoction of quasi physics and neuroscience that appeared several years ago, promised moviegoers that they could hop between parallel universes and leap back and forth in time — if only they cast off their mental filters and experienced reality full blast. Interviews of scientists were crosscut with those of self-proclaimed mystics, and swooping in to explain the physics was Dr. Quantum, a cartoon superhero who joyfully demonstrated concepts like wave-particle duality, extra dimensions and quantum entanglement. Wiggling his eyebrows, the good doctor ominously asked, “Are we far enough down the rabbit hole yet?”…

Dr. Quantum was a cartoon rendition of Fred Alan Wolf, who resigned from the physics faculty at San Diego State College in the mid-1970s to become a New Age vaudevillian, combining motivational speaking, quantum weirdness and magic tricks in an act that opened several times for Timothy Leary. By then Wolf was running with the Fundamental Fysiks Group, a Bay Area collective driven by the notion that quantum mechanics, maybe with the help of a little LSD, could be harnessed to convey psychic powers. Concentrate hard enough and perhaps you really could levitate the Pentagon.

In “How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival,” David Kaiser, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, turns to those wild days in the waning years of the Vietnam War when anything seemed possible: communal marriage, living off the land, bringing down the military with flower power Why not faster-than-light communication, in which a message arrives before it is sent, overthrowing the tyranny of that pig, Father Time?

The hippies who save physics
Members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, circa 1975; clockwise from left: Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag, Nick Herbert and Fred Alan Wolf

That was the obsession of Jack Sarfatti, another member of the group. Sarfatti was Wolf’s colleague and roommate in San Diego, and in a pivotal moment in Kaiser’s tale they find themselves in the lobby of the Ritz Hotel in Paris talking to Werner Erhard, the creepy human potential movement guru, who decided to invest in their quantum ventures. Sarfatti was at least as good a salesman as he was a physicist, wooing wealthy eccentrics from his den at Caffe Trieste in the North Beach section of San Francisco.

Other, overlapping efforts like the Consciousness Theory Group and the Physics/Consciousness Research Group were part of the scene, and before long Sarfatti, Wolf and their cohort were conducting annual physics and consciousness workshops at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur.

Fritjof Capra, who made his fortune with the countercultural classic “The Tao of Physics” (1975) was part of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, as was Nick Herbert, another dropout from the establishment who dabbled in superluminal communication and wrote his own popular book, “Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics” (1985). Gary Zukav, a roommate of Sarfatti’s, cashed in with “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” (1979). I’d known about the quantum zeitgeist and read some of the books, but I was surprised to learn from Kaiser how closely all these people were entangled in the same web […]