Saturday, September 1, 2018

Quantum Sense and Nonsense by Jean Bricmont

I don't really know why I picked up Quantum Sense and Nonsense or when. I'm pretty sure it was in the last year when I was looking for some popular books to read after I finished The Wave Function, and this one, written by Jean Bricmont and published by Springer, stood out. The cover, and likely the description, seems a little misleading since it seems to say that the book will focus on crazy and unfounded assertions of psychic and mystical properties attributed to quantum mechanics (and as Bricmont has published with Sokal, that's exactly what you'd think), but instead the book focuses on two experiments (double slit experiments and EPR-type experiments, both of which seem to be recurring themes on Physics Frontiers) and the interpretation of each. Bricmont follows Bell in asserting that EPR-experiments like the Aspect experiment show that there is some kind of non-locality at play in quantum mechanics and that the best way to interpret the meaning of the wave function (that is, what the wave function, itself, is) is to look toward an interpretation like the de Broglie-Bohm vision of the wave function (see Bell's, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics).

Despite being much different than what I thought the book would be, this made the Quantum Sense and Nonsense an excellent read.

The double slit experiment as performed by Thomas Young in the first decade of the 19th century showed that coherent light from the sun interfered with itself, showing that light is, in fact, a wave -- and brought about the belief in a mysterious Ether in which the light waves propagated. When Einstein showed the photoelectric effect requires quantization of light,* this made the interpretation more difficult. And de Broglie's prediction that electrons, really all material objects, have a wavelength and the subsequent discovery of electron diffraction, brought the same problem to all matter. And the interference is so strong that when a single photon or a single electron is sent through the slits, and the results of the experiments accumulated, the interference fringes are still seen. Material objects interfere with themselves.

A very strange property, and one that leads to many strange interpretations of quantum mechanics, is that if you set up a detector at one of the slits in the double slit experiment to see which slit the particle passes through, then the interference fringes will disappear. This leads to the idea that observation causes a change in the wave function, what is termed the wave function collapse. Many strange ideas come out of this, even from physicists (Bricmont's target). People use this idea to give consciousness a role in the measurement of quantum systems, Bricmont uses quotes from the following physicists to show the sloppy thinking on these points: d'Espagnat, Wheeler, and Mermin (to name only those I've heard of): they all give some role to the human mind in the collapse of the wave function. To be fair, understanding the collapse is impossible in the standard "Copenhagen" interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is what Schroedinger's cat was intended to show.

The EPR experiments, violations of Bell's theorem, are the second cause of sloppy thinking because they show one of two things: either (1) quantum mechanics is non-local or (2) quantum mechanics is non-causal. Those are the two assumptions that Bell uses to derive his inequalities beyond ordinary statistics and quantum theory. If you have to choose one of the two assumptions to invalidate, (1) is the more likely (although we recently published a podcast on retrocausality and Yakir Aharonov has a different version of a locality-preserving assumption, presented in his Quantum Paradoxes book as well as old papers). But once you remove locality from your assumptions about the world, people start babbling about telepathy and similar nonsense.

As befits someone of Bricmont's station, the descriptions of these experiments are exemplary, and Quantum Sense and Nonsense would be worth a read if only they were presented here. However, he does us another service by giving us a rich, logical and convincing description and defense of the de Broglie-Bohm pilot wave theory of quantum mechanics. In this theory, the wave and particle are broken up into two objects, an oscillation in space time that drives the motion of an otherwise deterministic particle. The randomness of quantum mechanics then ceases to be the mystical randomness associated with Bohr and Heisenberg and Copenhagen in general and becomes the deterministic randomness of statistical mechanics.** Bricmont goes so far to say that because of this and the fact that it can be mathematicised, de Broglie-Bohm is the only interpretation of quantum mechanics;*** the others (including statistical, Copenhagen, and many-worlds) don't meet that bar. Obviously, it doesn't mean that Bricmont is right, since he's delved into philosophy or worse in the comparison of interpretations by their linguistic characterizations, but it is a good way of thinking about the interpretations.

So I would recommend this book. I do think that it is a little too popular for most people that would read this, and he often refers to his own, more technical Making Sense of Quantum Mechanics quite a bit for more quantitative details. He also says that this is only "slightly" more rigorous and would probably point you to P. Holland's The Quantum Theory of Motion for a really rigorous treatment. I haven't read either of those two books, however, so I can't recommend them to you.


I wrote this review a little faster than I'd like because I'd just finished the book yesterday and Google sent me a "news story" on my phone today, which I read over my morning coffee. It was a rather infantile post by LuboŇ° Motl, someone I've never heard of, who calls himself a "freelance string theorist" (but who has a reasonably impressive pedigree) reviewing books by science journalists. It makes me sad when a physicist does as bad a job of presenting science as a science journalist does.

The blog does a good job of showing two very bad ways to think about the interpretations of quantum mechanics. The first is from the book he reviews (or really, the blog post that he reviews of the book that it reviews). In that case, the science journalist author, whose name is of no importance, suggests that all interpretations are valid. This seems quite odd to me, especially when most of them are logically contradictory: if you believe in a wave function collapse, then you can't coherently believe in the universal wave function of Everett. You can make up a pretty complex and silly rationale if you want to, but it will always end up being incoherent somewhere (and I'm not going to read it to find out where). The reason you would want to hold multiple conceptions in your head is to find out places where they disagree -- and then to find an experiment that distinguishes them.

Motl himself presents to us the second version, which is to deny all interpretations. But that is clearly unsatisfactory. Although it is called the Copenhagen interpretation (by some, what is meant by that changes from philosopher to philosopher, physicist to physicist), you still have to have some interpretation. You have to have some ontological vision of the wave function to assert that information cannot travel faster than light during its collapse, for example, or to state that it would be impossible to ever use it for long distance communication. That you refuse to examine your beliefs doesn't mean that they're not there.

Bricmont does a good job of showing how to deal with interpretations without getting so dogmatic that his assertions become meaningless, just the opposite of Motl


* Planck's experiments don't show this. Since the quantized electromagnetic waves are coming out of an enclosed chamber, black body radiation could be interpreted as having something to do with standing waves in the oven.

** Interestingly, though, the roles of randomness are reversed. In statistical mechanics we measure macroscopic parameters associated with microstates. In quantum mechanics, and especially in the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation, the wave function is the microstate and the measurement is of the particle, or the microstate.

*** I should mention that de Broglie-Bohm is not excessively popular among physicists. Reading The Wave Function, however, I came out of it thinking it was extremely popular among professional philosophers of science.

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