Archive for October, 2020

Gribbin: Six Impossible Things

October 25, 2020

Six Impossible Things
The Mystery of the Quantum World
John Gribbin
(MIT, 2019)
101 p.

The shelves of neighbourhood bookstores groan under the weight of popular science books about quantum theory. Six Impossible Things stands out from this crowd because it focuses not on the mechanics or the findings of quantum theory, but on how to interpret the theory. What is it saying the world is like?

Gribbin opens the book by describing two quantum phenomena in which the strangeness of quantum theory is most evident. The first is the famous double-slit experiment, and the second is entanglement. These form the main course in many popular books on quantum mechanics, but are here only the appetizers.

In the remainder of the book, Gribbin describes six different schools of interpretation of quantum theory, and discusses, in particular, what each of them says is happening in these two famous case studies. These six schools are really schools of interpretation; they all rely on exactly the same mathematics and make exactly the same predictions for experiments. They differ only in how they describe the entities and dynamics underlying the observations. They agree on what happens in the end; they differ on how and why it happens.


So, for example, the most common school of interpretation among working physicists is the so-called Copenhagen interpretation. On this view, there is an entity called the wave function, the time-evolution of which is described by the Schrodinger equation. Quantum states evolve into superpositions of states, and when a measurement is made the wave function collapses into one state with predictable probability. Quantum mechanical systems don’t have definite properties until measured, on this view. The biggest problem for this school is the “measurement problem”: the measurement intervenes in the physics and itself has no physical description. What is a measurement anyway? Does it require a conscious agent to carry it out? Many physicists have thought so, but this has led to thought experiments like the one with Schrodinger’s cat, which strain credulity as a sound description of the world.

A second interpretation is the “pilot wave” theory, pioneered in the early days by de Broglie and developed at length by David Bohm. On this view, particles (like electrons or photons) are always and only particles with definite properties — there is no wave/particle duality or superposition of states — but the particles interact with a “pilot wave” which evolves dynamically, like the wave function, and which guides particles on different paths through space depending on small variations in initial conditions. The theory is deterministic, but specific outcomes are impossible to predict without more information. This view has its attractions: much of the quantum weirdness found in the Copenhagen interpretation is gone, and there is no measurement problem. But the theory has features not obviously attractive too: the pilot wave affects particles but is itself un-measurable, and the theory requires non-locality — the properties of a particle depend on the properties of all other particles with which it has ever interacted, and on their properties now, not just their past properties.

Third comes my own least favourite: the “many worlds” interpretation. On this view there is no collapse of the wave function so that the outcome of a measurement is one of the range of possible states. Instead all of the possible outcomes are realized each time a measurement is made, each outcome in a different universe. The universe we live in is constantly branching into myriad new universes each time a quantum mechanical system is reduced from a superposition of states to a specific state. Every possible universe is realized somewhere, provided it obeys the laws of physics. The contempt I feel for this interpretation would be difficult to overestimate. Practically the sole consolation it provides is the reassurance that somewhere a living, breathing Elizabeth Bennett is living her life just as was so memorably recounted by Miss Austen in her story.

Another possible interpretation is the ‘decoherence’ view, which takes entanglement, sometimes an odd and slightly annoying phenomenon in the mental universe of physicists, and makes it the key to everything. On this view, quantum systems become entangled with their environments, and these macroscopic entangled states behave, on average, like classical (ie. non-quantum) systems. The larger the distance scale, the faster this entanglement causes the quantum system to ‘decohere’. This view has the advantage of explaining why quantum mechanical systems are generally very small and relatively simple: if they become large or complex, they decohere through interactions with their environments. In fact, to the degree that I understand it, this interpretation of the theory is my own favourite: it is metaphysically modest and makes a lot of sense. However, I may not understand its implications adequately; Gribbin devotes a chunk of his chapter to arguing that the decoherence interpretation is equivalent to something called the Many Histories interpretation, which he encapsulates in this way: “Everything that could possibly happen already has happened, and we only noticed part of it.” That sounds bad, but I confess I don’t understand this alleged equivalence.

Next is the ‘ensemble interpretation’, favoured by Einstein, which attempts to do away with quantum weirdness by claiming that the probabilistic predictions of the theory pertain not to any one quantum system, but to an ensemble (or collection) of such systems, if they existed. On this view, each individual quantum system behaves deterministically, but duplicates of the system could behave differently, according to the probabilities predicted by the theory. It makes a kind of sense, but has trouble explaining why this particular quantum system behaves as it does. The idea has been rejuvenated by Lee Smolin in recent years, who has proposed a highly non-local interpretation whereby the degree of “quantumness” exhibited by a system depends on how many instances of that system exist in the universe, with all such instances together forming an ‘ensemble’  in the relevant sense. Hydrogen atoms behave quantum mechanically because there are many of them, but you and I behave classically because we are unique (or, if you prefer, we know we are unique because we behave classically). This is an interesting view, if you can abide the radical non-locality.

Finally, Gribbin describes the “transactional interpretation”, a view inspired by the fact that the equations of quantum theory allow for solutions travelling both forward and backward in time. The backward-travelling solutions are usually regarded as spurious, but in this interpretation they are taken seriously. The proposal is that physics depends not just on where things have been, but also on where they are going. Not just on where and how a quantum system originated, but also on where and how, in the future, it will be measured. When worked out in detail, this view, rather surprisingly, produces exactly the formalism of quantum mechanics. One hardly knows what to do with this fact.


Gribbin summarizes the six interpretations he has described in this way:

  1. The world does not exist unless you look at it.
  2. Particles are pushed around by an invisible wave, but the particles have no influence on the wave.
  3. Everything that could possibly happen does, in an array of parallel realities.
  4. Everything that could possibly happen already has happened, and we only noticed part of it.
  5. Everything influences everything else instantly, as though space did not exist.
  6. The future influences the past.

Choose your poison.

A few closing remarks. First, there is no getting around the fact that quantum theory has upset our conventional views of what the world is like, but, as this books makes clear, just how it upsets them is not clear. Second, it strikes me as quite amazing that a single theory, the mathematical structure of which is uncontroversial, could produce such a wide variety of possible physical descriptions. Third, this is a very fine book, written without undue technicalities, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject.

Wodehouse: Pigs Have Wings

October 13, 2020

Pigs Have Wings
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2000) [1952]
224 p.

To everything, the wise man said, there is a season, and at Blandings Castle it’s the season for stealing pigs. The county fair is fast approaching, and the contest for portliest pig is heating up: the Empress of Blandings, our heavyset heroine, is porking out in preparation, but on a neighbouring estate that notorious kill-joy, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, has been rearing a challenger, the majestically rotund Queen of Matchingham. Under the strain of competition, plans are hatched, and pigs, be they ever so corpulent, begin to disappear, and re-appear, and disappear again as a pig-pinching mania runs amok.

Meanwhile, back at the Castle, romance hangs in the air like the potent scent of a recently purloined pig. Old flames pop up under false identities, and penniless lovers circle round Lord Emsworth eyeing ways and means to solicit a few thousand pounds from him — even if, perhaps, it means removing a few thousand pounds from the pig sty…

As always with Wodehouse, the ingeniously contrived plot is a mere frame on which to hang his wonderfully ornamented prose. I have too infrequently included examples of this prose in these notes, so here is a sample. A few chapters in, Wodehouse circles back to take up the doings of George Cyril Wellbeloved, the pig-keeper in the employ of Parsloe-Parsloe, beginning in this way:

It is one of the chief drawbacks to the lot of the conscientious historian that in pursuance of his duties he is compelled to leave in obscurity many of those to whom he would greatly prefer to give star billing. His task being to present a panoramic picture of the actions of a number of protagonists, he is not at liberty to concentrate his attention on any one individual, however much the latter’s hard case may touch him personally. When Edward Gibbon, half-way through his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, complained to Doctor Johnson one night in a mood of discouragement that it – meaning the lot of the conscientious historian – shouldn’t happen to a dog, it was to this aspect of it that he was referring.

In this macedoine of tragic happenings in and around Blandings Castle, designed to purge the souls of a discriminating public with pity and terror, it has been necessary to devote so much space to Jerry Vail, Penny Donaldson, Lord Emsworth and the rest of them that George Cyril Wellbeloved, we are fully aware, has been neglected almost entirely. Except for one brief appearance early in the proceedings, he might as well, for all practical purposes, have been painted on the back drop.

It is with genuine satisfaction that the minstrel, tuning his harp, now prepares to sing of this stricken pig man.

That’s the pleasure of reading Wodehouse, in a nutshell.