Even physicists don’t understand quantum mechanics

Check out Sean Carroll’s New York Times article Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics. I thought it was great. And I just loved that subtitle: Worse, they don’t seem to want to understand it. Carroll started by quoting Feynman, who said this: “I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics”. That’s a good start. Feynman was known as the great explainer, but he couldn’t explain how a magnet works. Or how gravity works. Moreover he was a major contributor to quantum electrodynamics, which can be treated as part of quantum mechanics. But he couldn’t explain the photon, the electron, or how pair production works:

Pair production image by Adrian Melissinos from Strong field QED by Kirk McDonald, also see conjuring matter from light

That’s because quantum electrodynamics (QED) lacks foundation. It describes the interaction between light and matter, but it doesn’t describe light or matter or the interaction between light and light. However despite these glaring deficiencies, QED is used as the foundation for quantum chromodynamics and the electroweak interaction, which are major parts of the Standard Model. How can any physicist be happy with that? Carroll isn’t, and quite right so. He described quantum mechanics as a black box, and said “physicists don’t understand their own theory any better than a typical smartphone user understands what’s going on inside the device”. He also said it’s surprising that physicists are OK with not understanding the most important theory they’ve got. Damn right it is.

The measurement problem

Carroll went on to talk of two problems. The first problem is where quantum mechanics uses different rules for quantum objects depending on whether they’re being observed or not. If they’re not being observed, the objects are said to exist in a superposition of different possibilities, such as being at any one of various locations. But when we observe them, they’re said to “suddenly snap into just a single location”. Carroll said we can’t predict where this location will be, all we can do is calculate probabilities. He described this issue as the measurement problem, and said “the whole thing is preposterous”. Quite.

What is it that quantum theory actually describes?

Carroll said the second problem was “we don’t agree on what it is that quantum theory actually describes”. He said we describe a quantum object such as an electron in terms of a wave function, which evolves according to Schrödinger’s famous equation. Then he asked this: “What is the wave function?” Carroll asked if it’s a complete and comprehensive representation of the world, or whether we need additional physical quantities to fully capture reality. Or whether the wave function has no direct connection with reality at all. Carroll said until physicists answer these questions, they don’t understand quantum mechanics. And that “if nobody understands quantum mechanics, nobody understands the universe”. He’s right. After a hundred years on the job, our quantum mechanics still don’t understand their subject.

If nobody understands quantum mechanics, nobody understands the universe

Carroll then said you’d think understanding quantum mechanics would be the priority among physicists worldwide. Then he pointed out that the reality is exactly backward. He said this: “Few modern physics departments have researchers working to understand the foundations of quantum theory. On the contrary, students who demonstrate an interest in the topic are gently but firmly – maybe not so gently – steered away, sometimes with an admonishment to ‘Shut up and calculate!’ Professors who become interested might see their grant money drying up, as their colleagues bemoan that they have lost interest in serious work”. That’s strong stuff. Carroll said this attitude goes back to the 1920s and Niels Bohr, and that people who didn’t like it found themselves estranged from the field.

Public domain image of Einstein and Bohr with captions from SpaceRace on Youtube

Spot on. Take a look at Bohr’s 1922 Nobel lecture on the structure of the atom. In his last paragraph Bohr said this: “We are therefore obliged to be modest in our demands and content ourselves with concepts which are formal in the sense that they do not provide a visual picture of the sort one is accustomed to require of the explanations with which natural philosophy deals”. That’s where it all started. That was the ominous portent of things to come. If Bohr couldn’t give a qualitative description of the atom, there would be no such description. This became his mantra, and the mantra of the Copenhagen school. So much so that even Einstein found himself estranged from the field. The Einstein-Bohr debates were between realism and mysticism, and mysticism won. So much so that on page 161 of Max Born’s 1969 book Physics in my generation, you can read how Einstein told Leopold Infeld that “Here in Princeton they consider me an old fool”. This was circa 1936. See page 9 of Infeld’s 1965 article As I see it for more.

Empirically minded physicists

Carroll did hold out some hope. He said empirically-minded physicists have realized that measurement can be probed via subtle experiments. I took that as a reference to the weak measurement work by for example Aephraim Steinberg et al and Jeff Lundeen et al. See the 2011 physicsworld article top 10 breakthroughs of 2011, along with the secret lives of photons revealed and catching sight of the elusive wavefunction:

Image from the Nature paper Direct Measurement of the Quantum Wavefunction

Also see the ScienceMag article Furtive approach rolls back the limits of quantum uncertainty and the underlying Science paper Observing the Average Trajectories of Single Photons in a Two-Slit Interferometer. I think it’s good stuff, and I guess others do too, because I can see 558 citations on Google scholar. But I don’t seem to have heard much about this sort of thing recently.

Papers on the foundations of quantum mechanics were to be rejected out of hand

Maybe that’s just me, but it’s food for thought. See the past research page on the Lundeen lab website. Read the semi-technical explanation. It says this: We hope that the scientific community can now improve upon the Copenhagen Interpretation, and redefine the wavefunction so that it is no longer just a mathematical tool, but rather something that can be directly measured in the laboratory”. What they’re saying is wavefunction is real. That dates from 2011, and yet here we are in 2019 and it isn’t common knowledge. Moreover nobody seems to know about Art Hobson’s explanation of the double slit experiment in his 2013 paper There are no particles, there are only fields. I didn’t. What gives? Perhaps it’s related to something Carroll said towards the end of his article. It’s rather disturbing. He said this: “For years, the leading journal in physics had an explicit policy that papers on the foundations of quantum mechanics were to be rejected out of hand”. Now that is not good. Not good at all.

Our inability to understand quantum mechanics itself is standing in the way

Carroll finished up by saying “our best attempts to understand fundamental physics have reached something of an impasse”. He also said gravity doesn’t fit into the framework of quantum mechanics, and that “our inability to understand quantum mechanics itself is standing in the way”. It certainly is. Anyway, his last words were music to my ears: “After almost a century of pretending that understanding quantum mechanics isn’t a crucial task for physicists, we need to take this challenge seriously”. That we do Sean. That we do. The bottom line is that quantum physicists don’t understand their subject. They’ve been shying away from understanding it for the thick end of a hundred years, and it’s got to stop, because physics is trapped in an impasse and it’s dying. Carroll has said it loud and clear in an international newspaper. The guy is bang on. What’s not to like?

Quantum Supremacy II

Plenty, it would seem. Take a look at Peter Woit’s blog. He wrote a piece called Quantum Supremacy II. Woit referred to Carroll’s article, and said this: “Unfortunately I don’t think that this article accurately describes the issues surrounding what we do and don’t understand about quantum foundations”. Oh phooey. He also says “I don’t think that it’s accurate, fair (or good for public relations) to portray your colleagues as not really interested in how nature really works”. No, it isn’t good for public relations. It’s good for physics, because there really has been an impasse, because physicists have been wallowing in mystery rather than striving for understanding. Sadly the comments are what you’d expect. They all support Woit’s criticism of Carroll. Not one of them defends Carroll. Funny that. Here’s a selection:

Alessandro Strumia said this: “Writing that physicists are not interested in understanding quantum mechanics and suggesting that physicists pushed out of the field those who tried is worse than inaccurate. It’s fake news”. Oh no it isn’t. It’s true. Hence the saying Don’t rock the boat or you’ll never make full professor.

GoletaBeach said “Sean Carroll’s op-ed left me unimpressed”. Come off it. The guy absolutely nailed it.

Evgenii Rudnyi referred to the many-worlds multiverse and said this: “During this process there appears a lot of Sean Carrolls speaking any possible statements including the negation of the above statement. Hence, why should we pay attention to a statement of just one of these copies?” Because there is no multiverse, and Carroll is telling it how it is.

Will Kinney said I guess I was one of the few people who was utterly underwhelmed by Sean Carroll’s Op-ed”. That was in a tweet kindly pointed out by Woit.

Mark Hillery said “Carroll’s piece paints a very misleading picture of the past and present of research in quantum physics”. Oh no it doesn’t. I’ve done the research.

Jim Baggot said “this kind of stuff is dangerous and threatens to undermine the authority of science just when it is under unprecedented attack from anti-scientific and pseudo-scientific propaganda”. Et tu Jim?

Woit followed up with another blog article called Regarding Papers about Fundamental Theories. He tried to undermine Carroll’s claim that the leading journal rejected papers on the foundations of quantum mechanics. He says it stems from page 214 of Adam Becker’s 2018 book What is Real? This refers to an editorial in the July 15 1973 issue of Physical Review D written by Samuel Goudsmit, then editor-in-chief. Woit then says Becker’s source is page 121 of David Kaiser’s 2012 book How the Hippies Saved Physics. It all sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? It isn’t.

The white-knight champion of rationality

The thing about Woit is that he portrays himself as some white-knight champion of rationality, nobly defending physics from pseudoscience. But in truth he defends pseudoscience from physics. You might think he spends his ample spare time attacking string theory, but under the covers he’s also promoting and protecting the status quo. He’s a one-sided propagandist who censors the comments that point out the issues. He’s part of the problem, not part of the solution. He’s a custodian of ignorance, not a beacon of enlightenment. Woit isn’t just the Witchfinder General of String Theory. He’s a Chief Inspector in the Standard Model Thought Police. He’s the one who’s not even wrong. Because it isn’t just Physical Review D that rejects papers on the foundations of quantum mechanics. It’s all of them. They’ll peddle nonsense about quantum gravity reversing cause and effect, but they won’t print a paper on the nature of the electron. It was Wolfgang Pauli who coined the phrase not even wrong. It was Wolfgang Pauli who stomped on Ralph Kronig’s electron spin proposal in 1925, with the specious claim that the surface would have to be moving faster than light. It was Wolfgang Pauli and Werner Heisenberg who were so determined to oppose Schrodinger’s 1926 wave in a  closed path that they promoted Yakov Frenkel’s point-particle electron. It was Pauli and Heisenberg and Dirac and Bohr who sidelined Charles Galton Darwin’s 1927 vector-wave electron, It was all downhill from there, it was nearly a hundred years ago, and it’s all so simple.

Electron papers must be rejected

See what Schrödinger said on page 26 of quantization as a problem of proper values, part II: “let us think of a wave group of the nature described above, which in some way gets into a small closed ‘path’, whose dimensions are of the order of the wave length”. Then think about the wave nature of matter and ask yourself what happens in gamma-gamma pair production. Do the gamma photons pop out of existence, and the electron and positron pop into existence? Spontaneously, like worms from mud? Courtesy of some magical mysterious creation and annihilation operators? Or do waves change from an open linear path to a closed chiral spin ½ path? When you plump for the latter you’ll soon realise that a wave in a closed path exhibits resistance to change in its motion, just like a wave in an open path. Then you’ll understand the photon in the mirror-box, and then you’ll realise that mass is all down to E=mc². It’s nothing to do with some magical mysterious cosmic treacle. So then you’ll say how can they have discovered the Higgs boson? Get the picture? Electron papers must be rejected so you don’t find out that the Higgs mechanism truly is the toilet of the Standard Model.

The nuclear force is electromagnetic

It doesn’t stop there, because when you understand the electron you soon find out what charge is. Charge is what happens when you wrap a sinusoidal wave into that closed chiral spin ½ path, and the result is a phase-invariant Möbius-like spinor configuration:

Then you start questioning color charge. Then when you know that electron motion occurs because the electron is a “dynamical spinor”, you know that messenger particles aren’t real, and the gluons in ordinary hadrons are virtual. Then you think some more about electron capture, and then you realise the nuclear force is electromagnetic:

Nuclear force plot from the Dux college HSC physics course, neutron charge distribution plot by Dru Renner, inverted by me

It all comes tumbling down. All the misconceptions. All the fairy tales, all the lies to children. Because once you start putting some real foundations in, you come to appreciate that the quantum foundations have always been missing. And that there are wrong-headed people in physics who will fight dirty to preserve the impasse that’s killing physics.

Your comment is awaiting moderation

As a little demonstration of what I mean, I left a comment on Woit’s blog. I didn’t link to the physics detective. I just said this: “I think the problem is more widespread than you think. John Williamson and Martin van der Mark wrote their electron paper in 1991, and spent 6 years trying to get it published. In the end they had to settle for a low impact journal called Annales de la Foundation Louis de Broglie. Samuel Goudsmit would have loved this paper, because along with George Uhlenbeck, he discovered electron spin. See the discovery of the electron spin:

I didn’t mention that this paper has been studiously ignored ever since. Or that there are other similar papers that have also been studiously ignored, such as the nature of the electron by Qiu-Hong Hu. Or An Electron Model Consistent with Electron-Positron Pair Production from High Energy Photons by Donald Bowen and Robert Mulkern. It was a good comment. A fine comment. But of course, it hung around for a while with the strapline Your comment is awaiting moderation. It wasn’t awaiting moderation. It was awaiting censorship, which was duly applied, courtesy of Woit. It isn’t the only comment that didn’t appear on Woit’s blog. I am reliably informed that I am not alone in this. Which means Woit is not your champion. He’s a cuckoo in the nest.


This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. NB: Woit has been badmouthing Carroll some more, using many-worlds ad-hominems. See An Apology. His final words were “They may however come to the same conclusion I’ve just reached: best to ignore him, which I’ll try to do from now on”. Now he’s buried the matter with three new blog posts in two days.
    PS: I think the many-worlds multiverse is pseudoscience, but I still think Carroll was spot on in his NYT article. And it looks like he’s touched a nerve.

  2. Another great read John. I recently have read many articles about exiting new graphene applications ; Wyehl semi-metals; p-bits ; paramagnoms; newer advanced takes on the double slit experiment ; ect.. Does most of the theoretical quantum scientists realize how far behind in the cosmic dust they are being left by the rest of the physics community? They seem to me to be dangerously close to being completely irrelevant. I also accidentally came accross a Wikipedia list of famous academic frauds and it added much insight as to the money grubbing that permeates modern science. Speaking of frauds, are you familar with Youtube pseudoscientific wunderkind Theoria Aposphasia? I find his lunatic, narcissistic rants and self indulgent discoveries(?) to be highly entertaining.

    1. Thanks Greg. No, I don’t think theoretical physicists realise they’re being left behind. Or how irrelevant to modern life they’ve become. I hate the way physics is withering on the vine because scientific progress has been stalled for decades. And how people like Woit are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Theoria Aposphasia? I’ve never heard of him. But hey, I’ve just watched https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whoylwf-i0A . I was pleasantly surprised. “This sucker makes my eyes hurt”. It sounds as if this guy knows that a magnetic field is a “turn” field. It was interesting that he talked about fields and a hurricane and the ether.

  3. You definately need to watch the episodes concerning his “profound discoveries & interpretations” that only he could have made. Watching Mr. Apophasia to me is kinda like watching an x-rated circus carnival sideshow , where he projects himself as the carnaval barker and then as the ringmaster, but it turns out he is the circus freak who bites off the heads of the chickens. He is now my newest favorite comedian.Until next time.

  4. You definately need to watch the episodes concerning his “profound discoveries & interpretations” that only he could have made. Watching Mr. Apophasia to me is kinda like watching an x-rated circus carnival sideshow , where he projects himself as the carnaval barker and then as the ringmaster, but it turns out he is the circus freak who bites off the heads of the chickens. Until next time.

  5. I just finished Julian Barbour’s End of Time. I particularly enjoyed his treatment of quantum mechanics. It’s about the wave function and he gives a very nice explanation of how tracks are formed in the cloud chamber.

  6. Modern Physics is bankrupt.

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