The Trouble with Quantum Mechanics
In the NY Review of Books, Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate in Physics for his contributions with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow to the unification of the weak force and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, comments on quantum mechanics and the directions it might go:
The development of quantum mechanics in the first decades of the twentieth century came as a shock to many physicists. Today, despite the great successes of quantum mechanics, arguments continue about its meaning, and its future.
The first shock came as a challenge to the clear categories to which physicists by 1900 had become accustomed. There were particles—atoms, and then electrons and atomic nuclei—and there were fields—conditions of space that pervade regions in which electric, magnetic, and gravitational forces are exerted. Light waves were clearly recognized as self-sustaining oscillations of electric and magnetic fields. But in order to understand the light emitted by heated bodies, Albert Einstein in 1905 found it necessary to describe light waves as streams of massless particles, later called photons.
Then in the 1920s, according to theories of Louis de Broglie and Erwin Schrödinger, it appeared that electrons, which had always been recognized as particles, under some circumstances behaved as waves. In order to account for the energies of the stable states of atoms, physicists had to give up the notion that electrons in atoms are little Newtonian planets in orbit around the atomic nucleus. Electrons in atoms are better described as waves, fitting around the nucleus like sound waves fitting into an organ pipe.1 The world’s categories had become all muddled.
Worse yet, the electron waves are not waves of electronic matter, in the way that ocean waves are waves of water. Rather, as Max Born came to realize, the electron waves are waves of probability. That is, when a free electron collides with an atom, we cannot in principle say in what direction it will bounce off. The electron wave, after encountering the atom, spreads out in all directions, like an ocean wave after striking a reef. As Born recognized, this does not mean that the electron itself spreads out. Instead, the undivided electron goes in some one direction, but not a precisely predictable direction. It is more likely to go in a direction where the wave is more intense, but any direction is possible.
Probability was not unfamiliar to the physicists of the 1920s, but it had generally been thought to reflect an imperfect knowledge of whatever was under study, not an indeterminism in the underlying physical laws. Newton’s theories of motion and gravitation had set the standard of deterministic laws. When we have reasonably precise knowledge of the location and velocity of each body in the solar system at a given moment, Newton’s laws tell us with good accuracy where they will all be for a long time in the future. Probability enters Newtonian physics only when our knowledge is imperfect, as for example when we do not have precise knowledge of how a pair of dice is thrown. But with the new quantum mechanics, the moment-to-moment determinism of the laws of physics themselves seemed to be lost.
All very strange. In a 1926 letter to Born, Einstein complained:
Quantum mechanics is very impressive. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory produces a good deal but hardly brings us closer to the secret of the Old One. I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice.2
As late as 1964, in his Messenger lectures at Cornell, Richard Feynman lamented, “I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics.”3 With quantum mechanics, the break with the past was so sharp that all earlier physical theories became known as “classical.”
The weirdness of quantum mechanics did not matter for most purposes. Physicists learned how to use it to do increasingly precise calculations of the energy levels of atoms, and of the probabilities that particles will scatter in one direction or another when they collide. Lawrence Krauss has labeled the quantum mechanical calculation of one effect in the spectrum of hydrogen “the best, most accurate prediction in all of science.”4 Beyond atomic physics, early applications of quantum mechanics listed by the physicist Gino Segrè included the binding of atoms in molecules, the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei, electrical conduction, magnetism, and electromagnetic radiation.5 Later applications spanned theories of semiconductivity and superconductivity, white dwarf stars and neutron stars, nuclear forces, and elementary particles. Even the most adventurous modern speculations, such as string theory, are based on the principles of quantum mechanics.
Many physicists came to think that the reaction of Einstein and Feynman and others to the unfamiliar aspects of quantum mechanics had been overblown. This used to be my view. After all, Newton’s theories too had been unpalatable to many of his contemporaries. Newton had introduced what his critics saw as an occult force, gravity, which was unrelated to any sort of tangible pushing and pulling, and which could not be explained on the basis of philosophy or pure mathematics. Also, his theories had renounced a chief aim of Ptolemy and Kepler, to calculate the sizes of planetary orbits from first principles. But in the end the opposition to Newtonianism faded away. Newton and his followers succeeded in accounting not only for the motions of planets and falling apples, but also for the movements of comets and moons and the shape of the earth and the change in direction of its axis of rotation. By the end of the eighteenth century this success had established Newton’s theories of motion and gravitation as correct, or at least as a marvelously accurate approximation. Evidently it is a mistake to demand too strictly that new physical theories should fit some preconceived philosophical standard.
In quantum mechanics the state of a system is not described by giving the position and velocity of every particle and the values and rates of change of various fields, as in classical physics. Instead, the state of any system at any moment is described by a wave function, essentially a list of numbers, one number for every possible configuration of the system.6 If the system is a single particle, then there is a number for every possible position in space that the particle may occupy. This is something like the description of a sound wave in classical physics, except that for a sound wave a number for each position in space gives the pressure of the air at that point, while for a particle in quantum mechanics the wave function’s number for a given position reflects the probability that the particle is at that position. What is so terrible about that? Certainly, it was a tragic mistake for Einstein and Schrödinger to step away from using quantum mechanics, isolating themselves in their later lives from the exciting progress made by others.
Even so, I’m not as sure as I once was about the future of quantum mechanics. It is a bad sign that those physicists today who are most comfortable with quantum mechanics do not agree with one another about what it all means. The dispute arises chiefly regarding the nature of measurement in quantum mechanics. This issue can be illustrated by considering a simple example, measurement of the spin of an electron. (A particle’s spin in any direction is a measure of the amount of rotation of matter around a line pointing in that direction.) . . .
Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more, and it is interesting.