Quantum Theory Rebuilt From Simple Physical Principles

Scientists have been using quantum theory for almost a century now, but embarrassingly they still don’t know what it means. An informal poll taken at a 2011 conference on Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality showed that there’s still no consensus on what quantum theory says about reality — the participants remained deeply divided about how the theory should be interpreted.

Some physicists just shrug and say we have to live with the fact that quantum mechanics is weird. So particles can be in two places at once, or communicate instantaneously over vast distances? Get over it. After all, the theory works fine. If you want to calculate what experiments will reveal about subatomic particles, atoms, molecules and light, then quantum mechanics succeeds brilliantly.

But some researchers want to dig deeper. They want to know why quantum mechanics has the form it does, and they are engaged in an ambitious program to find out. It is called quantum reconstruction, and it amounts to trying to rebuild the theory from scratch based on a few simple principles.

If these efforts succeed, it’s possible that all the apparent oddness and confusion of quantum mechanics will melt away, and we will finally grasp what the theory has been trying to tell us. “For me, the ultimate goal is to prove that quantum theory is the only theory where our imperfect experiences allow us to build an ideal picture of the world,” said Giulio Chiribella, a theoretical physicist at the University of Hong Kong.

There’s no guarantee of success — no assurance that quantum mechanics really does have something plain and simple at its heart, rather than the abstruse collection of mathematical concepts used today. But even if quantum reconstruction efforts don’t pan out, they might point the way to an equally tantalizing goal: getting beyond quantum mechanics itself to a still deeper theory. “I think it might help us move towards a theory of quantum gravity,” said Lucien Hardy, a theoretical physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

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The Flimsy Foundations of Quantum Mechanics

The basic premise of the quantum reconstruction game is summed up by the joke about the driver who, lost in rural Ireland, asks a passer-by how to get to Dublin. “I wouldn’t start from here,” comes the reply.

Where, in quantum mechanics, is “here”? The theory arose out of attempts to understand how atoms and molecules interact with light and other radiation, phenomena that classical physics couldn’t explain. Quantum theory was empirically motivated, and its rules were simply ones that seemed to fit what was observed. It uses mathematical formulas that, while tried and trusted, were essentially pulled out of a hat by the pioneers of the theory in the early 20th century.

Take Erwin Schrödinger’s equation for calculating the probabilistic properties of quantum particles. The particle is described by a “wave function” that encodes all we can know about it. It’s basically a wavelike mathematical expression, reflecting the well-known fact that quantum particles can sometimes seem to behave like waves. Want to know the probability that the particle will be observed in a particular place? Just calculate the square of the wave function (or, to be exact, a slightly more complicated mathematical term), and from that you can deduce how likely you are to detect the particle there. The probability of measuring some of its other observable properties can be found by, crudely speaking, applying a mathematical function called an operator to the wave function.

But this so-called rule for calculating probabilities was really just an intuitive guess by the German physicist Max Born. So was Schrödinger’s equation itself. Neither was supported by rigorous derivation. Quantum mechanics seems largely built of arbitrary rules like this, some of them — such as the mathematical properties of operators that correspond to observable properties of the system — rather arcane. It’s a complex framework, but it’s also an ad hoc patchwork, lacking any obvious physical interpretation or justification.

Compare this with the ground rules, or axioms, of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which was as revolutionary in its way as quantum mechanics. (Einstein launched them both, rather miraculously, in 1905.) Before Einstein, there was an untidy collection of equations to describe how light behaves from the point of view of a moving observer. Einstein dispelled the mathematical fog with two simple and intuitive principles: that the speed of light is constant, and that the laws of physics are the same for two observers moving at constant speed relative to one another. Grant these basic principles, and the rest of the theory follows. Not only are the axioms simple, but we can see at once what they mean in physical terms.

What are the analogous statements for quantum mechanics? The eminent physicist John Wheeler once asserted that if we really understood the central point of quantum theory, we would be able to state it in one simple sentence that anyone could understand. If such a statement exists, some quantum reconstructionists suspect that we’ll find it only by rebuilding quantum theory from scratch: by tearing up the work of Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrödinger and starting again.

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Post completo en: Quanta Magazine

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