For a long time, I’ve been interested in the sorts of questions exemplified by the following example:
Suppose we are Isaac Newton or Gottfried Leibniz. We have at our disposal two sources of inspiration: data, collected by intrepid philatelists like Tycho Brahe and something like theory, in the form of artifacts like Kepler’s Laws, Galileo’s pre-Newtonian laws of motion (for it was he who first suggested that objects in motion retain that motion unless acted upon), and a smattering of Aristotelian and post-Aristotelian intuitions about motion (for instance, John Philoponus’ notion that, in addition to the rules of motion described by Aristotle, one object could impart on another a transient impetus). You also have tables and towers and balls you can roll on them or drop from them. You can perform your own experiments.
The question, then, is how do you synthesize something like Newton’s Laws. Jokes about Newton’s extra-scientific interests aside, this is alchemy indeed, and an alchemy to which most training physicists receive (or at least I received) does not address itself.
Newton’s Laws are generally dropped on the first year physics student (perhaps after working with statics for awhile) fully formed:
||When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.
||The vector sum of the external forces F on an object is equal to the mass m of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector aof the object: F = ma.
||When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.
(this formulation borrowed from Wikipedia)
The laws are stated here in terms of a lot of subsidiary ideas: inertial reference frames, forces, mass. Neglecting the reference to mathematical structures (vector sums), this is a lot to digest: and it is hard to imagine Newton just pulling these laws from thin air. It took the species about 2000 years to figure it out (if you measure from Zeno to Newton, since Newton’s work is in some sense a practical rejoinder to the paradoxes of that pre-Socratic philosopher), so it cannot be, as some of my colleagues have suggested, so easy to figure out.
A doctorate in physics takes (including the typical four year undergraduate degree in math, physics or engineering) about ten years. Most of what is learned in such a program is pragmatic theory: how to take a problem statement or something even more vague, identify the correct theoretical approach from a dictionary of possibilities, and then to “turn the crank.” It is unusual (or it was unusual for me) for a teacher to spend time posing more philosophical questions. Why, for instance, does a specific expression called the “Action,” when minimized over all possible paths of a particle, find a physical path? I’ve had a lot of physicist friends dismiss my curiosity about this subject, but I’m not the only one interested (eg, the introductory chapter of Lanczos’ “The Variation Principles of Mechanics”).
What I am getting to here, believe it or not, is that I think physicists are over-prepared to work problems and under-prepared to do the synthetic work of building new theoretical approaches to existing unsolved problems. I enjoy the freedom of having fallen from the Ivory Tower, and I aim to enjoy that freedom in 2016 by revisiting my education from a perspective which allows me to stop and ask “why” more frequently and with more intensity.
Enter Scott Aaronson’s “Quantum Computing Since Democritus,” a book whose title immediately piqued my interest, combining, as it does, the name of a pre-Socratic philosopher (the questions of which form the basis, in my opinion, for so much modern physics) with the most modern and pragmatic of contemporary subjects in physics. Aaronson’s project seems to accomplish exactly what I want as an armchair physicist: stopping to think about what our theories really mean.
To keep myself honest, I’ll be periodically writing about the chapters of this book – I’m a bit rusty mathematically and so writing about the work will encourage me to get concrete where needed.
Atoms and the Void
Atoms and the Void is a short chapter which basically asks us to think a bit about what quantum mechanics means. Aaronson describes Quantum Mechanics in the following way:
Here’s the thing: for any isolated region of the universe that you want to consider, quantum mechanics describes the evolution in time of the state of that region, which we represent as a linear combination – a superposition – of all the possible configurations of elementary particles in that region. So, this is a bizarre picture of reality, where a given particle is not here, not there, but in a sort of weighted sum over all the places it could be. But it works. As we all know, it does pretty well at describing the “atoms and the void” that Democritus talked about.
The needs of an introductory chapter, I guess, prevent him from describing how peculiar this description is: for one thing, there is never an isolated region of the universe (or at least, not one we are interested in, I hope obviously). But he goes on to meditate on this anyway by asking us to think about how we interpret measurement where quantum mechanics is concerned. He dichotimizes interpretations of quantum mechanics by where they fall on the question of putting oneself in coherent superposition.
Happily, he doesn’t try to claim that any particular set of experiments can definitely disambiguate different interpretations of quantum mechanics. Instead he suggests that by thinking specifically of Quantum Computing, which he implies gets most directly at some of the issues raised by debates over interpretation, we might learn something interesting.
This tantalizes us to move to chapter 2.