Tag Archives: quantum mechanics

Book Review: The Joy of Insight

There’s something endlessly fascinating about the early days of quantum physics. In a century, we went from a few odd, inexplicable experiments to a practically complete understanding of the fundamental constituents of matter. Along the way the new ideas ended a world war, almost fueled another, and touched almost every field of inquiry. The people lucky enough to be part of this went from familiarly dorky grad students to architects of a new reality. Victor Weisskopf was one of those people, and The Joy of Insight: Passions of a Physicist is his autobiography.

Less well-known today than his contemporaries, Weisskopf made up for it with a front-row seat to basically everything that happened in particle physics. In the late 20’s and early 30’s he went from studying in Göttingen (including a crush on Maria Göppert before a car-owning Joe Mayer snatched her up) to a series of postdoctoral positions that would exhaust even a modern-day physicist, working in Leipzig, Berlin, Copenhagen, Cambridge, Zurich, and Copenhagen again, before fleeing Europe for a faculty position in Rochester, New York. During that time he worked for, studied under, collaborated or partied with basically everyone you might have heard of from that period. As a result, this section of the autobiography was my favorite, chock-full of stories, from the well-known (Pauli’s rudeness and mythical tendency to break experimental equipment) to the less-well known (a lab in Milan planned to prank Pauli with a door that would trigger a fake explosion when opened, which worked every time they tested it…and failed when Pauli showed up), to the more personal (including an in retrospect terrifying visit to the Soviet Union, where they asked him to critique a farming collective!) That era also saw his “almost Nobel”, in his case almost discovering the Lamb Shift.

Despite an “almost Nobel”, Weisskopf was paid pretty poorly when he arrived in Rochester. His story there puts something I’d learned before about another refugee physicist, Hertha Sponer, in a new light. Sponer’s university also didn’t treat her well, and it seemed reminiscent of modern academia. Weisskopf, though, thinks his treatment was tied to his refugee status: that, aware that they had nowhere else to go, universities gave the scientists who fled Europe worse deals than they would have in a Nazi-less world, snapping up talent for cheap. I could imagine this was true for Sponer as well.

Like almost everyone with the relevant expertise, Weisskopf was swept up in the Manhattan project at Los Alamos. There he rose in importance, both in the scientific effort (becoming deputy leader of the theoretical division) and the local community (spending some time on and chairing the project’s “town council”). Like the first sections, this surreal time leads to a wealth of anecdotes, all fascinating. In his descriptions of the life there I can see the beginnings of the kinds of “hiking retreats” physicists would build in later years, like the one at Aspen, that almost seem like attempts to recreate that kind of intense collaboration in an isolated natural place.

After the war, Weisskopf worked at MIT before a stint as director of CERN. He shepherded the facility’s early days, when they were building their first accelerators and deciding what kinds of experiments to pursue. I’d always thought that the “nuclear” in CERN’s name was an artifact of the times, when “nuclear” and “particle” physics were thought of as the same field, but according to Weisskopf the fields were separate and it was already a misnomer when the place was founded. Here the book’s supply of anecdotes becomes a bit more thin, and instead he spends pages on glowing descriptions of people he befriended. The pattern continues after the directorship as his duties get more administrative, spending time as head of the physics department at MIT and working on arms control, some of the latter while a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (which apparently even a Jewish atheist can join). He does work on some science, though, collaborating on the “bag of quarks” model of protons and neutrons. He lives to see the fall of the Berlin wall, and the end of the book has a bit of 90’s optimism to it, the feeling that finally the conflicts of his life would be resolved. Finally, the last chapter abandons chronology altogether, and is mostly a list of his opinions of famous composers, capped off with a Bohr-inspired musing on the complementary nature of science and the arts, humanities, and religion.

One of the things I found most interesting in this book was actually something that went unsaid. Weisskopf’s most famous student was Murray Gell-Mann, a key player in the development of the theory of quarks (including coining the name). Gell-Mann was famously cultured (in contrast to the boorish-almost-as-affectation Feynman) with wide interests in the humanities, and he seems like exactly the sort of person Weisskopf would have gotten along with. Surprisingly though, he gets no anecdotes in this book, and no glowing descriptions: just a few paragraphs, mostly emphasizing how smart he was. I have to wonder if there was some coldness between them. Maybe Weisskopf had difficulty with a student who became so famous in his own right, or maybe they just never connected. Maybe Weisskopf was just trying to be generous: the other anecdotes in that part of the book are of much less famous people, and maybe Weisskopf wanted to prioritize promoting them, feeling that they were underappreciated.

Weisskopf keeps the physics light to try to reach a broad audience. This means he opts for short explanations, and often these are whatever is easiest to reach for. It creates some interesting contradictions: the way he describes his “almost Nobel” work in quantum electrodynamics is very much the way someone would have described it at the time, but very much not how it would be understood later, and by the time he talks about the bag of quarks model his more modern descriptions don’t cleanly link with what he said earlier. Overall, his goal isn’t really to explain the physics, but to explain the physicists. I enjoyed the book for that: people do it far too rarely, and the result was a really fun read.

Duality and Emergence: When Is Spacetime Not Spacetime?

Spacetime is doomed! At least, so say some physicists. They don’t mean this as a warning, like some comic-book universe-destroying disaster, but rather as a research plan. These physicists believe that what we think of as space and time aren’t the full story, but that they emerge from something more fundamental, so that an ultimate theory of nature might not use space or time at all. Other, grumpier physicists are skeptical. Joined by a few philosophers, they think the “spacetime is doomed” crowd are over-excited and exaggerating the implications of their discoveries. At the heart of the argument is the distinction between two related concepts: duality and emergence.

In physics, sometimes we find that two theories are actually dual: despite seeming different, the patterns of observations they predict are the same. Some of the more popular examples are what we call holographic theories. In these situations, a theory of quantum gravity in some space-time is dual to a theory without gravity describing the edges of that space-time, sort of like how a hologram is a 2D image that looks 3D when you move it. For any question you can ask about the gravitational “bulk” space, there is a matching question on the “boundary”. No matter what you observe, neither description will fail.

If theories with gravity can be described by theories without gravity, does that mean gravity doesn’t really exist? If you’re asking that question, you’re asking whether gravity is emergent. An emergent theory is one that isn’t really fundamental, but instead a result of the interaction of more fundamental parts. For example, hydrodynamics, the theory of fluids like water, emerges from more fundamental theories that describe the motion of atoms and molecules.

(For the experts: I, like most physicists, am talking about “weak emergence” here, not “strong emergence”.)

The “spacetime is doomed” crowd think that not just gravity, but space-time itself is emergent. They expect that distances and times aren’t really fundamental, but a result of relationships that will turn out to be more fundamental, like entanglement between different parts of quantum fields. As evidence, they like to bring up dualities where the dual theories have different concepts of gravity, number of dimensions, or space-time. Using those theories, they argue that space and time might “break down”, and not be really fundamental.

(I’ve made arguments like that in the past too.)

The skeptics, though, bring up an important point. If two theories are really dual, then no observation can distinguish them: they make exactly the same predictions. In that case, say the skeptics, what right do you have to call one theory more fundamental than the other? You can say that gravity emerges from a boundary theory without gravity, but you could just as easily say that the boundary theory emerges from the gravity theory. The whole point of duality is that no theory is “more true” than the other: one might be more or less convenient, but both describe the same world. If you want to really argue for emergence, then your “more fundamental” theory needs to do something extra: to predict something that your emergent theory doesn’t predict.

Sometimes this is a fair objection. There are members of the “spacetime is doomed” crowd who are genuinely reckless about this, who’ll tell a journalist about emergence when they really mean duality. But many of these people are more careful, and have thought more deeply about the question. They tend to have some mix of these two perspectives:

First, if two descriptions give the same results, then do the descriptions matter? As physicists, we have a history of treating theories as the same if they make the same predictions. Space-time itself is a result of this policy: in the theory of relativity, two people might disagree on which one of two events happened first or second, but they will agree on the overall distance in space-time between the two. From this perspective, a duality between a bulk theory and a boundary theory isn’t evidence that the bulk theory emerges from the boundary, but it is evidence that both the bulk and boundary theories should be replaced by an “overall theory”, one that treats bulk and boundary as irrelevant descriptions of the same physical reality. This perspective is similar to an old philosophical theory called positivism: that statements are meaningless if they cannot be derived from something measurable. That theory wasn’t very useful for philosophers, which is probably part of why some philosophers are skeptics of “space-time is doomed”. The perspective has been quite useful to physicists, though, so we’re likely to stick with it.

Second, some will say that it’s true that a dual theory is not an emergent theory…but it can be the first step to discover one. In this perspective, dualities are suggestive evidence that a deeper theory is waiting in the wings. The idea would be that one would first discover a duality, then discover situations that break that duality: examples on one side that don’t correspond to anything sensible on the other. Maybe some patterns of quantum entanglement are dual to a picture of space-time, but some are not. (Closer to my sub-field, maybe there’s an object like the amplituhedron that doesn’t respect locality or unitarity.) If you’re lucky, maybe there are situations, or even experiments, that go from one to the other: where the space-time description works until a certain point, then stops working, and only the dual description survives. Some of the models of emergent space-time people study are genuinely of this type, where a dimension emerges in a theory that previously didn’t have one. (For those of you having a hard time imagining this, read my old post about “bubbles of nothing”, then think of one happening in reverse.)

It’s premature to say space-time is doomed, at least as a definite statement. But it is looking like, one way or another, space-time won’t be the right picture for fundamental physics. Maybe that’s because it’s equivalent to another description, redundant embellishment on an essential theoretical core. Maybe instead it breaks down, and a more fundamental theory could describe more situations. We don’t know yet. But physicists are trying to figure it out.

Classicality Has Consequences

Last week, I mentioned some interesting new results in my corner of physics. I’ve now finally read the two papers and watched the recorded talk, so I can satisfy my frustrated commenters.

Quantum mechanics is a very cool topic and I am much less qualified than you would expect to talk about it. I use quantum field theory, which is based on quantum mechanics, so in some sense I use quantum mechanics every day. However, most of the “cool” implications of quantum mechanics don’t come up in my work. All the debates about whether measurement “collapses the wavefunction” are irrelevant when the particles you measure get absorbed in a particle detector, never to be seen again. And while there are deep questions about how a classical world emerges from quantum probabilities, they don’t matter so much when all you do is calculate those probabilities.

They’ve started to matter, though. That’s because quantum field theorists like me have recently started working on a very different kind of problem: trying to predict the output of gravitational wave telescopes like LIGO. It turns out you can do almost the same kind of calculation we’re used to: pretend two black holes or neutron stars are sub-atomic particles, and see what happens when they collide. This trick has grown into a sub-field in its own right, one I’ve dabbled in a bit myself. And it’s gotten my kind of physicists to pay more attention to the boundary between classical and quantum physics.

The thing is, the waves that LIGO sees really are classical. Any quantum gravity effects there are tiny, undetectably tiny. And while this doesn’t have the implications an expert might expect (we still need loop diagrams), it does mean that we need to take our calculations to a classical limit.

Figuring out how to do this has been surprisingly delicate, and full of unexpected insight. A recent example involves two papers, one by Andrea Cristofoli, Riccardo Gonzo, Nathan Moynihan, Donal O’Connell, Alasdair Ross, Matteo Sergola, and Chris White, and one by Ruth Britto, Riccardo Gonzo, and Guy Jehu. At first I thought these were two groups happening on the same idea, but then I noticed Riccardo Gonzo on both lists, and realized the papers were covering different aspects of a shared story. There is another group who happened upon the same story: Paolo Di Vecchia, Carlo Heissenberg, Rodolfo Russo and Gabriele Veneziano. They haven’t published yet, so I’m basing this on the Gonzo et al papers.

The key question each group asked was, what does it take for gravitational waves to be classical? One way to ask the question is to pick something you can observe, like the strength of the field, and calculate its uncertainty. Classical physics is deterministic: if you know the initial conditions exactly, you know the final conditions exactly. Quantum physics is not. What should happen is that if you calculate a quantum uncertainty and then take the classical limit, that uncertainty should vanish: the observation should become certain.

Another way to ask is to think about the wave as made up of gravitons, particles of gravity. Then you can ask how many gravitons are in the wave, and how they are distributed. It turns out that you expect them to be in a coherent state, like a laser, one with a very specific distribution called a Poisson distribution: a distribution in some sense right at the border between classical and quantum physics.

The results of both types of questions were as expected: the gravitational waves are indeed classical. To make this work, though, the quantum field theory calculation needs to have some surprising properties.

If two black holes collide and emit a gravitational wave, you could depict it like this:

All pictures from arXiv:2112.07556

where the straight lines are black holes, and the squiggly line is a graviton. But since gravitational waves are made up of multiple gravitons, you might ask, why not depict it with two gravitons, like this?

It turns out that diagrams like that are a problem: they mean your two gravitons are correlated, which is not allowed in a Poisson distribution. In the uncertainty picture, they also would give you non-zero uncertainty. Somehow, in the classical limit, diagrams like that need to go away.

And at first, it didn’t look like they do. You can try to count how many powers of Planck’s constant show up in each diagram. The authors do that, and it certainly doesn’t look like it goes away:

An example from the paper with Planck’s constants sprinkled around

Luckily, these quantum field theory calculations have a knack for surprising us. Calculate each individual diagram, and things look hopeless. But add them all together, and they miraculously cancel. In the classical limit, everything combines to give a classical result.

You can do this same trick for diagrams with more graviton particles, as many as you like, and each time it ought to keep working. You get an infinite set of relationships between different diagrams, relationships that have to hold to get sensible classical physics. From thinking about how the quantum and classical are related, you’ve learned something about calculations in quantum field theory.

That’s why these papers caught my eye. A chunk of my sub-field is needing to learn more and more about the relationship between quantum and classical physics, and it may have implications for the rest of us too. In the future, I might get a bit more qualified to talk about some of the very cool implications of quantum mechanics.

Science, Gifts Enough for Lifetimes

Merry Newtonmas, Everyone!

In past years, I’ve compared science to a gift: the ideal gift for the puzzle-fan, one that keeps giving new puzzles. I think people might not appreciate the scale of that gift, though.

Bigger than all the creative commons Wikipedia images

Maybe you’ve heard the old joke that studying for a PhD means learning more and more about less and less until you know absolutely everything about nothing at all. This joke is overstating things: even when you’ve specialized down to nothing at all, you still won’t know everything.

If you read the history of science, it might feel like there are only a few important things going on at a time. You notice the simultaneous discoveries, like calculus from Newton and Liebniz and natural selection from Darwin and Wallace. You can get the impression that everyone was working on a few things, the things that would make it into the textbooks. In fact, though, there was always a lot to research, always many interesting things going on at once. As a scientist, you can’t escape this. Even if you focus on your own little area, on a few topics you care about, even in a small field, there will always be more going on than you can keep up with.

This is especially clear around the holiday season. As everyone tries to get results out before leaving on vacation, there is a tidal wave of new content. I have five papers open on my laptop right now (after closing four or so), and some recorded talks I keep meaning to watch. Two of the papers are the kind of simultaneous discovery I mentioned: two different groups noticing that what might seem like an obvious fact – that in classical physics, unlike in quantum, one can have zero uncertainty – has unexpected implications for our kind of calculations. (A third group got there too, but hasn’t published yet.) It’s a link I would never have expected, and with three groups coming at it independently you’d think it would be the only thing to pay attention to: but even in the same sub-sub-sub-field, there are other things going on that are just as cool! It’s wild, and it’s not some special quirk of my area: that’s science, for all us scientists. No matter how much you expect it to give you, you’ll get more, lifetimes and lifetimes worth. That’s a Newtonmas gift to satisfy anyone.

Lessons From Neutrinos, Part I

Some of the particles of the Standard Model are more familiar than others. Electrons and photons, of course, everyone has heard of, and most, though not all, have heard of quarks. Many of the rest, like the W and Z boson, only appear briefly in high-energy colliders. But one Standard Model particle is much less exotic, and nevertheless leads to all manner of confusion. That particle is the neutrino.

Neutrinos are very light, much lighter than even an electron. (Until relatively recently, we thought they were completely massless!) They have no electric charge and they don’t respond to the strong nuclear force, so aside from gravity (negligible since they’re so light), the only force that affects them is the weak nuclear force. This force is, well, weak. It means neutrinos can be produced via the relatively ordinary process of radioactive beta decay, but it also means they almost never interact with anything else. Vast numbers of neutrinos pass through you every moment, with no noticeable effect. We need enormous tanks of liquid or chunks of ice to have a chance of catching neutrinos in action.

Because neutrinos are both ordinary and unfamiliar, they tend to confuse people. I’d like to take advantage of this confusion to teach some physics. Neutrinos turn out to be a handy theme to convey a couple blog posts worth of lessons about why physics works the way it does.

I’ll start on the historical side. There’s a lesson that physicists themselves learned in the early days:

Lesson 1: Don’t Throw out a Well-Justified Conservation Law

In the early 20th century, physicists were just beginning to understand radioactivity. They could tell there were a few different types: gamma decay released photons in the form of gamma rays, alpha decay shot out heavy, positively charged particles, and beta decay made “beta particles”, or electrons. For each of these, physicists could track each particle and measure its energy and momentum. Everything made sense for gamma and alpha decay…but not for beta decay. Somehow, they could add up the energy of each of the particles they could track, and find less at the end than they did at the beginning. It was as if energy was not conserved.

These were the heady early days of quantum mechanics, so people were confused enough that many thought this was the end of the story. Maybe energy just isn’t conserved? Wolfgang Pauli, though, thought differently. He proposed that there had to be another particle, one that no-one could detect, that made energy balance out. It had to be neutral, so he called it the neutron…until two years later when James Chadwick discovered the particle we call the neutron. This was much too heavy to be Pauli’s neutron, so Edoardo Amaldi joked that Pauli’s particle was a “neutrino” instead. The name stuck, and Pauli kept insisting his neutrino would turn up somewhere. It wasn’t until 1956 that neutrinos were finally detected, so for quite a while people made fun of Pauli for his quixotic quest.

Including a Faust parody with Gretchen as the neutrino

In retrospect, people should probably have known better. Conservation of energy isn’t one of those rules that come out of nowhere. It’s deeply connected to time, and to the idea that one can perform the same experiment at any time in history and find the same result. While rules like that sometimes do turn out wrong, our first expectation should be that they won’t. Nowadays, we’re confident enough in energy conservation that we plan to use it to detect other particles: it was the main way the Large Hadron Collider planned to try to detect dark matter.

As we came to our more modern understanding, physicists started writing up the Standard Model. Neutrinos were thought of as massless, like photons, traveling at the speed of light. Now, we know that neutrinos have mass…but we don’t know how much mass they have. How do we know they have mass then? To understand that, you’ll need to understand what mass actually means in physics. We’ll talk about that next week!

Light and Lens, Collider and Detector

Why do particle physicists need those enormous colliders? Why does it take a big, expensive, atom-smashing machine to discover what happens on the smallest scales?

A machine like the Large Hadron Collider seems pretty complicated. But at its heart, it’s basically just a huge microscope.

Familiar, right?

If you’ve ever used a microscope in school, you probably had one with a light switch. Forget to turn on the light, and you spend a while confused about why you can’t see anything before you finally remember to flick the switch. Just like seeing something normally, seeing something with a microscope means that light is bouncing off that thing and hitting your eyes. Because of this, microscopes are limited by the wavelength of the light that they use. Try to look at something much smaller than that wavelength and the image will be too blurry to understand.

To see smaller details then, people use light with smaller wavelengths. Using massive X-ray producing machines called synchrotrons, scientists can study matter on the sub-nanometer scale. To go further, scientists can take advantage of wave-particle duality, and use electrons instead of light. The higher the energy of the electrons, the smaller their wavelength. The best electron microscopes can see objects measured in angstroms, not just nanometers.

Less familiar?

A particle collider pushes this even further. The Large Hadron Collider accelerates protons until they have 6.5 Tera-electron-Volts of energy. That might be an unfamiliar type of unit, but if you’ve seen it before you can run the numbers, and estimate that this means the LHC can sees details below the attometer scale. That’s a quintillionth of a meter, or a hundred million times smaller than an atom.

A microscope isn’t just light, though, and a collider isn’t just high-energy protons. If it were, we could just wait and look at the sky. So-called cosmic rays are protons and other particles that travel to us from outer space. These can have very high energy: protons with similar energy to those in the LHC hit our atmosphere every day, and rays have been detected that were millions of times more powerful.

People sometimes ask why we can’t just use these cosmic rays to study particle physics. While we can certainly learn some things from cosmic rays, they have a big limitation. They have the “light” part of a microscope, but not the “lens”!

A microscope lens magnifies what you see. Starting from a tiny image, the lens blows it up until it’s big enough that you can see it with your own eyes. Particle colliders have similar technology, using their particle detectors. When two protons collider inside the LHC, they emit a flurry of other particles: photons and electrons, muons and mesons. Each of these particles is too small to see, let alone distinguish with the naked eye. But close to the collision there are detector machines that absorb these particles and magnify their signal. A single electron hitting one of these machines triggers a cascade of more and more electrons, in proportion to the energy of the electron that entered the machine. In the end, you get a strong electrical signal, which you can record with a computer. There are two big machines that do this at the Large Hadron Collider, each with its own independent scientific collaboration to run it. They’re called ATLAS and CMS.

The different layers of the CMS detector, magnifying signals from different types of particles.

So studying small scales needs two things: the right kind of “probe”, like light or protons, and a way to magnify the signal, like a lens or a particle detector. That’s hard to do without a big expensive machine…unless nature is unusually convenient. One interesting possibility is to try to learn about particle physics via astronomy. In the Big Bang particles collided with very high energy, and as the universe has expanded since then those details have been magnified across the sky. That kind of “cosmological collider” has the potential to teach us about physics at much smaller scales than any normal collider could reach. A downside is that, unlike in a collider, we can’t run the experiment over and over again: our “cosmological collider” only ran once. Still, if we want to learn about the very smallest scales, some day that may be our best option.

Who Is, and Isn’t, Counting Angels on a Pinhead

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

It’s a question famous for its sheer pointlessness. While probably no-one ever had that exact debate, “how many angels fit on a pin” has become a metaphor, first for a host of old theology debates that went nowhere, and later for any academic study that seems like a waste of time. Occasionally, physicists get accused of doing this: typically string theorists, but also people who debate interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Are those accusations fair? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In order to tell the difference, we should think about what’s wrong, exactly, with counting angels on the head of a pin.

One obvious answer is that knowing the number of angels that fit on a needle’s point is useless. Wikipedia suggests that was the origin of the metaphor in the first place, a pun on “needle’s point” and “needless point”. But this answer is a little too simple, because this would still be a useful debate if angels were real and we could interact with them. “How many angels fit on the head of a pin” is really a question about whether angels take up space, whether two angels can be at the same place at the same time. Asking that question about particles led physicists to bosons and fermions, which among other things led us to invent the laser. If angelology worked, perhaps we would have angel lasers as well.

Be not afraid of my angel laser

“If angelology worked” is key here, though. Angelology didn’t work, it didn’t lead to angel-based technology. And while Medieval people couldn’t have known that for certain, maybe they could have guessed. When people accuse academics of “counting angels on the head of a pin”, they’re saying they should be able to guess that their work is destined for uselessness.

How do you guess something like that?

Well, one problem with counting angels is that nobody doing the counting had ever seen an angel. Counting angels on the head of a pin implies debating something you can’t test or observe. That can steer you off-course pretty easily, into conclusions that are either useless or just plain wrong.

This can’t be the whole of the problem though, because of mathematics. We rarely accuse mathematicians of counting angels on the head of a pin, but the whole point of math is to proceed by pure logic, without an experiment in sight. Mathematical conclusions can sometimes be useless (though we can never be sure, some ideas are just ahead of their time), but we don’t expect them to be wrong.

The key difference is that mathematics has clear rules. When two mathematicians disagree, they can look at the details of their arguments, make sure every definition is as clear as possible, and discover which one made a mistake. Working this way, what they build is reliable. Even if it isn’t useful yet, the result is still true, and so may well be useful later.

In contrast, when you imagine Medieval monks debating angels, you probably don’t imagine them with clear rules. They might quote contradictory bible passages, argue everyday meanings of words, and win based more on who was poetic and authoritative than who really won the argument. Picturing a debate over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, it seems more like Calvinball than like mathematics.

This then, is the heart of the accusation. Saying someone is just debating how many angels can dance on a pin isn’t merely saying they’re debating the invisible. It’s saying they’re debating in a way that won’t go anywhere, a debate without solid basis or reliable conclusions. It’s saying, not just that the debate is useless now, but that it will likely always be useless.

As an outsider, you can’t just dismiss a field because it can’t do experiments. What you can and should do, is dismiss a field that can’t produce reliable knowledge. This can be hard to judge, but a key sign is to look for these kinds of Calvinball-style debates. Do people in the field seem to argue the same things with each other, over and over? Or do they make progress and open up new questions? Do the people talking seem to be just the famous ones? Or are there cases of young and unknown researchers who happen upon something important enough to make an impact? Do people just list prior work in order to state their counter-arguments? Or do they build on it, finding consequences of others’ trusted conclusions?

A few corners of string theory do have this Calvinball feel, as do a few of the debates about the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. But if you look past the headlines and blogs, most of each of these fields seems more reliable. Rather than interminable back-and-forth about angels and pinheads, these fields are quietly accumulating results that, one way or another, will give people something to build on.

Reality as an Algebra of Observables

Listen to a physicist talk about quantum mechanics, and you’ll hear the word “observable”. Observables are, intuitively enough, things that can be observed. They’re properties that, in principle, one could measure in an experiment, like the position of a particle or its momentum. They’re the kinds of things linked by uncertainty principles, where the better you know one, the worse you know the other.

Some physicists get frustrated by this focus on measurements alone. They think we ought to treat quantum mechanics, not like a black box that produces results, but as information about some underlying reality. Instead of just observables, they want us to look for “beables“: not just things that can be observed, but things that something can be. From their perspective, the way other physicists focus on observables feels like giving up, like those physicists are abandoning their sacred duty to understand the world. Others, like the Quantum Bayesians or QBists, disagree, arguing that quantum mechanics really is, and ought to be, a theory of how individuals get evidence about the world.

I’m not really going to weigh in on that debate, I still don’t feel like I know enough to even write a decent summary. But I do think that one of the instincts on the “beables” side is wrong. If we focus on observables in quantum mechanics, I don’t think we’re doing anything all that unusual. Even in other parts of physics, we can think about reality purely in terms of observations. Doing so isn’t a dereliction of duty: often, it’s the most useful way to understand the world.

When we try to comprehend the world, we always start alone. From our time in the womb, we have only our senses and emotions to go on. With a combination of instinct and inference we start assembling a consistent picture of reality. Philosophers called phenomenologists (not to be confused with the physicists called phenomenologists) study this process in detail, trying to characterize how different things present themselves to an individual consciousness.

For my point here, these details don’t matter so much. That’s because in practice, we aren’t alone in understanding the world. Based on what others say about the world, we conclude they perceive much like we do, and we learn by their observations just as we learn by our own. We can make things abstract: instead of the specifics of how individuals perceive, we think about groups of scientists making measurements. At the end of this train lie observables: things that we as a community could in principle learn, and share with each other, ignoring the details of how exactly we measure them.

If each of these observables was unrelated, just scattered points of data, then we couldn’t learn much. Luckily, they are related. In quantum mechanics, some of these relationships are the uncertainty principles I mentioned earlier. Others relate measurements at different places, or at different times. The fancy way to refer to all these relationships is as an algebra: loosely, it’s something you can “do algebra with”, like you did with numbers and variables in high school. When physicists and mathematicians want to do quantum mechanics or quantum field theory seriously, they often talk about an “algebra of observables”, a formal way of thinking about all of these relationships.

Focusing on those two things, observables and how they are related, isn’t just useful in the quantum world. It’s an important way to think in other areas of physics too. If you’ve heard people talk about relativity, the focus on measurement screams out, in thought experiments full of abstract clocks and abstract yardsticks. Without this discipline, you find paradoxes, only to resolve them when you carefully track what each person can observe. More recently, physicists in my field have had success computing the chance particles collide by focusing on the end result, the actual measurements people can make, ignoring what might happen in between to cause that measurement. We can then break measurements down into simpler measurements, or use the structure of simpler measurements to guess more complicated ones. While we typically have done this in quantum theories, that’s not really a limitation: the same techniques make sense for problems in classical physics, like computing the gravitational waves emitted by colliding black holes.

With this in mind, we really can think of reality in those terms: not as a set of beable objects, but as a set of observable facts, linked together in an algebra of observables. Paring things down to what we can know in this way is more honest, and it’s also more powerful and useful. Far from a betrayal of physics, it’s the best advantage we physicists have in our quest to understand the world.

The Multiverse You Can Visit Is Not the True Multiverse

I don’t want to be the kind of science blogger who constantly complains about science fiction, but sometimes I can’t help myself.

When I blogged about zero-point energy a few weeks back, there was a particular book that set me off. Ian McDonald’s River of Gods depicts the interactions of human and AI agents in a fragmented 2047 India. One subplot deals with a power company pursuing zero-point energy, using an imagined completion of M theory called M* theory. This post contains spoilers for that subplot.

What frustrated me about River of Gods is that the physics in it almost makes sense. It isn’t just an excuse for magic, or a standard set of tropes. Even the name “M* theory” is extremely plausible, the sort of term that could get used for technical reasons in a few papers and get accidentally stuck as the name of our fundamental theory of nature. But because so much of the presentation makes sense, it’s actively frustrating when it doesn’t.

The problem is the role the landscape of M* theory plays in the story. The string theory (or M theory) landscape is the space of all consistent vacua, a list of every consistent “default” state the world could have. In the story, one of the AIs is trying to make a portal to somewhere else in the landscape, a world of pure code where AIs can live in peace without competing with humans.

The problem is that the landscape is not actually a real place in string theory. It’s a metaphorical mathematical space, a list organized by some handy coordinates. The other vacua, the other “default states”, aren’t places you can travel to, there just other ways the world could have been.

Ok, but what about the multiverse?

There are physicists out there who like to talk about multiple worlds. Some think they’re hypothetical, others argue they must exist. Sometimes they’ll talk about the string theory landscape. But to get a multiverse out of the string theory landscape, you need something else as well.

Two options for that “something else” exist. One is called eternal inflation, the other is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. And neither lets you travel around the multiverse.

In eternal inflation, the universe is expanding faster and faster. It’s expanding so fast that, in most places, there isn’t enough time for anything complicated to form. Occasionally, though, due to quantum randomness, a small part of the universe expands a bit more slowly: slow enough for stars, planets, and maybe life. Each small part like that is its own little “Big Bang”, potentially with a different “default” state, a different vacuum from the string landscape. If eternal inflation is true then you can get multiple worlds, but they’re very far apart, and getting farther every second: not easy to visit.

The many-worlds interpretation is a way to think about quantum mechanics. One way to think about quantum mechanics is to say that quantum states are undetermined until you measure them: a particle could be spinning left or right, Schrödinger’s cat could be alive or dead, and only when measured is their state certain. The many-worlds interpretation offers a different way: by doing away with measurement, it instead keeps the universe in the initial “undetermined” state. The universe only looks determined to us because of our place in it: our states become entangled with those of particles and cats, so that our experiences only correspond to one determined outcome, the “cat alive branch” or the “cat dead branch”. Combine this with the string landscape, and our universe might have split into different “branches” for each possible stable state, each possible vacuum. But you can’t travel to those places, your experiences are still “just on one branch”. If they weren’t, many-worlds wouldn’t be an interpretation, it would just be obviously wrong.

In River of Gods, the AI manipulates a power company into using a particle accelerator to make a bubble of a different vacuum in the landscape. Surprisingly, that isn’t impossible. Making a bubble like that is a bit like what the Large Hadron Collider does, but on a much larger scale. When the Large Hadron Collider detected a Higgs boson, it had created a small ripple in the Higgs field, a small deviation from its default state. One could imagine a bigger ripple doing more: with vastly more energy, maybe you could force the Higgs all the way to a different default, a new vacuum in its landscape of possibilities.

Doing that doesn’t create a portal to another world, though. It destroys our world.

That bubble of a different vacuum isn’t another branch of quantum many-worlds, and it isn’t a far-off big bang from eternal inflation. It’s a part of our own universe, one with a different “default state” where the particles we’re made of can’t exist. And typically, a bubble like that spreads at the speed of light.

In the story, they have a way to stabilize the bubble, stop it from growing or shrinking. That’s at least vaguely believable. But it means that their “portal to another world” is just a little bubble in the middle of a big expensive device. Maybe the AI can live there happily…until the humans pull the plug.

Or maybe they can’t stabilize it, and the bubble spreads and spreads at the speed of light destroying everything. That would certainly be another way for the AI to live without human interference. It’s a bit less peaceful than advertised, though.

Particles vs Waves, Particles vs Strings

On my “Who Am I?” page, I open with my background, calling myself a string theorist, then clarify: “in practice I’m more of a Particle Theorist, describing the world not in terms of short lengths of string but rather with particles that each occupy a single point in space”.

When I wrote that I didn’t think it would confuse people. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know people can be confused in a variety of ways. And since I recently saw someone confused about this particular phrase (yes I’m vagueblogging, but I suspect you’re reading this and know who you are 😉 ), I figured I’d explain it.

If you’ve learned a few things about quantum mechanics, maybe you have this slogan in mind:

“What we used to think of as particles are really waves. They spread out over an area, with peaks and troughs that interfere, and you never know exactly where you will measure them.”

With that in mind, my talk of “particles that each occupy a single point” doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t the slogan mean that particles don’t exist?

Here’s the thing: that’s the wrong slogan. The right slogan is just a bit different:

“What we used to think of as particles are ALSO waves. They spread out over an area, with peaks and troughs that interfere, and you never know exactly where you will measure them.”

The principle you were remembering is often called “wave-particle duality“. That doesn’t mean “particles don’t exist”. It means “waves and particles are the same thing”.

This matters, because just as wave-like properties are important, particle-like properties are important. And while it’s true that you can never know exactly where you will measure a particle, it’s also true that it’s useful, and even necessary, to think of it as occupying a single point.

That’s because particles can only affect each other when they’re at the same point. Physicists call this the principle of locality, the idea that there is no real “action at a distance”, everything happens because of something traveling from point A to point B. Wave-particle duality doesn’t change that, it just makes the specific point uncertain. It means you have to add up over every specific point where the particles could have interacted, but each term in your sum has to still involve a specific point: quantum mechanics doesn’t let particles affect each other non-locally.

Strings, in turn, are a little bit different. Strings have length, particles don’t. Particles interact at a point, strings can interact anywhere along the string. Strings introduce a teeny bit of non-locality.

When you compare particles and waves, you’re thinking pre-quantum mechanics, two classical things neither of which is the full picture. When you compare particles and strings, both are quantum, both are also waves. But in a meaningful sense one occupies a single point, and the other doesn’t.