Let There Be Light, Part I
I'd like to conclude by discussing the various interpretations of quantum
mechanics around today. When I say interpretations, I mean descriptions
of quantum theory that attempt to attach some real world model. While
no serious scientists doubt that the theories are correct, there is considerable
debate about what they mean. All viable interpretations make the same
predictions about the experiments we can conduct in a lab with current
technology. All the interpretations agree that, when unobserved, quantum
events develop as wave functions. All the interpretations agree that whenever
a particle is observed, it takes on a definite state.
Where the interpretations disagree is how these two facts are to be reconciled.
Without going into great detail, I will outline the currently available
The Copenhagen Interpretation (CI)
The oldest interpretation, this is the one that is generally offered
up in high school and college physics texts. The following represents
a fairly succinct summary of the Copenhagen's salient points, from The
Page of Uncertainty:
- The wave function is a complete description of a wave-particle.
That is, any information that can't be derived from the wave function
doesn't exist. For example, if the wave is spread out over a broad region,
then we can't determine where the particle is located. And since the
wave function doesn't tell us the location, the particle doesn't have
a location. Similarly, if a wave is made up of many different momenta,
then the wave-particle doesn't have a value for the momentum.
- When a measurement of a wave-particle is made, its wave function
collapses. So for example, if we precisely measure the momentum of a
particle, its wave function suddenly changes from a wave made up of
many moment, to a wave with only one momentum. (This is termed a collapse,
even though the wave doesn't actually get any smaller in this case.
Remember, a wave with an exact momentum extends across the entire universe.)
- If two properties of a wave-particle are related by an uncertainty
relation (such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle), no measurement
can simultaneously determine both properties to a precision greater
than the uncertainty relation allows. In the case of the Heisenberg
uncertainty principle, this means that if we measure the position of
a particle, then there's a limit to the precision with which we can
know the momentum. A consequence of this is that when we measure the
position of a particle, we affect its momentum, and vice versa.
It should be noted that there is no one established Copenhagen Interpretation.
The biggest flaw with CI, one that was demonstrated almost immediately,
is that measurement is ill-defined. No one has given a satisfactory description
as to what kind of event is necessary to collapse a wave function. Nor,
given the equations of QM, does it seem that it is possible to do so.
This lead to the infamous Shrodinger's
Cat thought experiment. If someone were to develop a refined CI that
predicted that wave collapse were associated with a particular physical
phenomenon, this could be measured, and CI could then be considered a
viable model. However, this seems unlikely at present.
I will mention in passing that a minority of CI advocates claim that
consciousness is the key event in the collapse. Not only does this seem
like a suspiciously solipsistic theory, it doesn't solve the measurement
problem. Instead of "what constitutes a measurement?" we are
stuck with "what constitutes a consciousness?".
Hidden Variables (HV)
Einstein, who hated the uncertainties and fuzziness of QM, was a proponent
of Hidden Variable interpretations. Basically HV asserts that particles
carry unobservable information in them that corresponds to a description
of the wave function they will follow.
later experiment, would demonstrate that any Hidden Variable theory
would require a superluminal (faster than light) communication system
Transactional Interpretations (TI)
The Transactional Interpretation asserts that every quantum event has
two waves associated with it, an advanced wave that moves in normal time
and a retarded wave that moves backwards in time. I would strongly encourage
reading the Transactional
Interpretation web reference, not just to understand the interpretation,
but because the site covers many of the problems in QM.
Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI)
The most paradigm shattering interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is theMany Worlds Interpretation,
aka the Everett Interpretation, or under a slightly different guise, Many
MWI claims that every quantum event is not an either-or proposition.
Instead, all possible events occur. There exists a universe for every
possible permutation of history that QM allows. This interpretation seems
so far fetched at first blush, that it seems odd that it is taken seriously
at all, particularly by such physicists as Stephen Weinberg, Murray Gell-Mann
and Stephen Hawking.
Yet it has the distinct advantage of being free of all the paradoxes
that plague traditional QM. It (almost) neatly resolves all the problems
that have arisen as a result of QM: wave particle duality, the measurement
problem, locality, etc.
I firmly believe that someday the mystery of Quantum Mechanics will be
solved- we will know why light acts like a wave and looks like a particle.
Furthermore, I believe that understanding the implications of Quantum
Mechanics will be necessary to develop new theories to explain the mysteries
of both the quantum and macroscopic world.
I hope that this "puzzle" and its related links encourage
you to learn more about the incredible almost magical physics that define