
"When
will we emerge from the quantum tunnel of obscurity?"
Can contradictory things happen at the same time? Does the universe
continue about its business when we're not looking at it? These questions
have been raised in the context of quantum mechanics ever since the
theory was formulated in the 1920s. While most physicists dismissed
these issues as "just philosophical", a small minority (inspired
by the examples of Louis de Broglie, Albert Einstein and Erwin Schroedinger)
continued to question the meaning of the most successful theory of science,
and often suffered marginalisation and even ridicule.
It is one thing to apply quantum mechanics to calculate atomic energy
levels or the rate at which atoms emit light. But as soon as one asks
what is actually happening during an atomic transition, quantum mechanics
gives no clear answer. The Copenhagen interpretation, forged by Niels
Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, emphasises the subjective experience of
"observers" and avoids any description of an objective reality;
it talks about the chances of different outcomes occuring in a measurement,
but does not say what causes a particular outcome to occur. For decades,
students have been taught to avoid asking probing questions. An attitude
of "shutupandcalculate" has dominated the field. The result
is widespread confusion, and a strange unwillingness to ask clear and
direct questions. As the late cosmologist Dennis Sciama once put it,
whenever the subject of the interpretation of quantum mechanics comes
up "the standard of discussion drops to zero".
The publication of John Bell's book Speakable and Unspeakable in
Quantum Mechanics in 1987 provided a point of reference for a change
in attitude that gained real momentum in the 1990s.
Bell spearheaded a movement to purge physics of some inherently vague
notions inherited from the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. For
instance the "measurement apparatus" was treated by Bohr and
Heisenberg as something fundamentally distinct from the "system
being measured": the latter was subject to the laws of quantum
mechanics whereas the former was not. But if everything — including
our equipment — is made of atoms, how can such a distinction be
anything more than an approximation? In reality everything — "system",
"apparatus", even human "observers" — should
obey the same laws of physics. The clarity of Bell's writings forced
many people to confront the uncomfortable fact that quantum mechanics
as usually formulated had a problem explaining why we see definite events
taking place.
Bell advertised what he saw as two promising avenues to resolve the
quantum paradoxes: the theory must be supplemented either with a new
random process that selects outcomes (the "dynamical reduction
of the state vector") or with extra "hidden variables"
whose unknown values select outcomes. Theories of both types have been
constructed. Indeed, a correct hidden — variables theory was written
down by Louis de Broglie as long ago as 1927, and was shown by David
Bohm in 1952 to account completely for quantum phenomena. The de Broglie
— Bohm theory gave an objective account of quantum physics; yet,
until about 10 years ago, most physicists had not heard of it. Today,
many have heard of it, but still very few understand it or work on it.
And it is still not taught to students (even though in my experience
many students would love to know more about this theory).
One wonders where things will go from here. On the one hand, in the
last five years the subject of the interpretation of quantum mechanics
has suddenly become more respectable thanks to the rising technology
of quantum information and computation, which has shown that something
of practical use — novel forms of communication and computation
— can emerge from thoughts about the meaning of quantum mechanics.
But on the other hand, there is a danger that the problem of the interpretation
of quantum mechanics will be pushed aside in the rush to develop "real"
technological applications of the peculiarities of quantum phenomena.
The rise of quantum information theory has also generated a widespread
feeling that "information" is somehow the basic building block
of the universe. But information about what? About information itself?
As noted by P.W. Anderson in a recent Edge comment on Seth Lloyd, not
only does it seem unjustified to claim that "information"
is the basic stuff of the universe: worse, an unfortunate tendency has
developed in some quarters to regard the theory of information as the
only really fundamental area of reseach. Personally, I find quantum
information theory very interesting, and it has without doubt enriched
our understanding of the quantum world: but I fear that in the long
run its most enthusiastic practitioners may lead us back to the vague
subjectivist thinking from which we were only just emerging.
Antony
Valentini is
a theoretical physicist at Imperial College in London.
