Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘physics’

“I wish that I was a film comedian”

I’ve just been reading David C. Cassidy’s updated version of his Heisenberg biography, titled Beyond Uncertainty. He reports that in May 1925 Wolfgang Pauli, who was struggling together with Heisenberg to apply the new quantum theory to calculate the spectral lines of hydrogen, wrote in a letter

Physics is at the moment once again very wrong. For me, in any case, it is much too difficult, and I wish that I was a film comedian or something similar and had never heard of physics.

Here is a challenge for a young postmodernist film-maker: Produce the silent-film comedies that Wolfgang Pauli would have made, had he never heard of physics (or abandoned physics? Presumably they would have been different…)

Alternatively, a science fiction author could write about a universe governed by Charlie Chaplin’s quantum mechanics.

More uncertainty confusion

After commenting on the confusion between different clichés about physics and physicists in reporting about Angela Merkel, I feel obliged to note this sentence, from an article in the New Statesman about the fake traveller-tourist dichotomy:

The rush to witness the “authentic” ultimately alters the reality, in a kind of behaviourist butterfly effect.

Once again, physics clichés are being confounded. When you’re looking for an educated-sounding way to make the banal observation that it’s hard to observe things without getting mixed up in them, and so changing them, the cliché you want is “uncertainty”. The “butterfly effect” is what you cite when you’re bloviating about how small actions can have large long-term effects.

It’s slightly depressing for anyone who has hopes for general science education. It suggests that even if you come up with compelling ordinary-language metaphors for scientific concepts, the result will just be a salad of interchangeable expressions gesturing vaguely at an undifferentiated mass of physics woo-woo concepts.

Quantum politics

According to The Guardian,

It is, perhaps, a measure of just how powerful she has become: Angela Merkelnow appears to be influencing youth slang. The compilers of Germany’s most popular dictionary say that the verb “merkeln” is on track to become the most popular “youth word” of the year… The word is none-too flattering, meaning being indecisive, or failing to have an opinion on something – behaviour that Germans often attribute to Merkel.

They attribute this characteristic to quantum physics:

Merkel observers put the chancellor’s approach down to her training in quantum physics, which leads her to work a problem through step by step like an experiment, rather than trying to predict its outcome in advance.

What’s weird is, first of all, that she’s not particularly an expert on quantum physics. Her doctorate is in physical chemistry, and while it did involve quantum mechanics, it also involved many other tools and methods equally well. Second, the characteristics they describe have nothing to do with quantum physics. They’re simply attributes of an experimental scientist (though I would have thought that scientists are more typically accused of being dogmatic and inflexible, more than of being indecisive).

Surely, if you’re attributing someone’s indecision to their training in quantum physics you have to make some reference to “uncertainty” or “quantum superposition”. Merkel is Schrödinger’s Kanzlerin.

Security theatre, WWII and today

Computer security researcher Chris Roberts has been banned from United Airlines for the offense of pointing out that the lax security in their onboard wifi systems could endanger the safety of the aircraft. At the same time, they insisted that

We are confident our flight control systems could not be accessed through techniques [Mr Roberts] described.

The only danger to the flight control systems, it turns out, was the researcher who informed them (via Twitter) of the security flaws.

This reminded me of the story Richard Feynman told about cracking safes for a lark at Los Alamos. One time he decided to needle a colonel he was visiting at Oak Ridge, who had just deposited some highly secret documents extra heavy-duty safe, but with the same easy-to-crack lock on it. He’d figured out that when the safe was left open, it was easy to pick up two of the three numbers of the combination by feel.

“The only reason you think they’re safe in there is because civilians call it a ‘safe’.”

The colonel furiously challenged him to open it up. This Feynman accomplished, in two minutes, though he pretended to need much longer, to distract from what an easy trick it was.) After allowing some moments of astonishment, he decided to be responsible:

“Colonel, let me tell you something about these locks: When the door to the safe or the top drawer of the filing cabinet is left open, it’s very easy for someone to get the combination. That’s what I did while you were reading my report, just to demonstrate the danger. You should insist that everybody keep their filing cabinet drawers locked while they’re working, because when they’re open, they’re very, very vulnerable.”

The next time Feynman visited Oak Ridge, everyone was wanting to keep him out of their offices. It seems, the colonel’s response to the danger was to make everyone change their combinations if Feynman had been in or passed through their office, which was a significant nuisance.

That was his solution: I was the danger.[…] Of course, their filing cabinets were still left open while they were working.

Hippie science

There are two books I’ve read sort of recently, From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner and How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser, that supplement each other as a picture of how antimaterialistic culture of the SF Bay area in the late 1960s through mid-1970s produced a lot of nonsense, but also hugely important new impulses in hard technical fields. Silicon Valley grew out of an ethos of DIY back-to-the-earth-ism (hence the “Homebrew Computer Club”), while the Fundamental Fysiks Group at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, took the energy of enthusiasm for parapsychology and mysticism, and channeled it into revival of an inquisitive style of physics that rediscovered entanglement and Bell’s Theorem, and laid the groundwork for quantum cryptography and quantum information science.

Einstein and the Quantum

I just saw an ad (in Blackwell’s Books) for a book titled Einstein and the Quantum, with a text that began

Einstein himself famously rejected quantum mechanics with his God does not play dice theory…

Putting aside the fact that “God does not play dice with the universe” is a quip, not a theory, I’m fascinated by this extreme statement of a calumny on Einstein that I knew as standard when I first learned about quantum mechanics from popular science in the 1970s, that the old man, despite his revolutionary past (and he was only in his late 40s) simply lacked the intellectual flexibility to keep up, rejected the new science, and was proved wrong by the march of progress.

In fact, that famous remark (from a 1926 letter to Max Born) acknowledged up front that the emerging probabilistic view of quantum mechanics was proving very useful. He simply rejected the willingness to deny a micro-level interpretation. (And the so-called Copenhagen “Interpretation” of quantum mechanics is really an anti-interpretation, a programmatic refusal to interpret. For more comments on the pedagogical function, see here.) The fact that this approach went from strength to strength as a calculating tool does not mean that its interpretive framework, the one that said that probabilities are the fundamental objects and there is no use going deeper, has been proved, any more than the success of Maxwell’s equations proved the existence of molecular vortices in the luminiferous aether. In particular, proponents of the Copenhagen Interpretation have tended to ignore the fact that they are helping themselves to a supposedly primitive concept, probability, that is actually complex, strange, and sorely in need of physical foundations.

Certainly one powerful strain of modern work on the foundations of physics — in particular, the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics (cf. David Wallace’s The Emergent Multiverse) also rejects the notion that there is some randomness at the core of quantum mechanics, and takes as a point of departure the entanglement theory first proposed in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen thought experiment.

* Einstein wrote, “Die Theorie liefert viel, aber dem Geheimnis des Alten bringt sie uns kaum näher. Jedenfalls bin ich überzeugt, daß der nicht würfelt.“ Literally: “The theory gives us much, but it hardly brings us nearer to the Ancient One’s secret. In any case, I am convinced that he does not throw dice.”

Sex education and the multiverse

I recently read and enjoyed David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity, a tour d’horizon of quantum physics and philosophy of science, brewed up with a remarkably persuasive idiosyncratic worldview, even if it does descend into a slightly cranky and increasingly ignorant rant on politics and economics by the end. This was my first introduction to the “multiverse”, which seems to be the modern version of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. I was impressed at how cogent this picture has become since I last interested myself for quantum mechanics and its philosophical interpretations in my teens.

It might not be right, but it does lay down a marker against the Copenhagen interpretation — position and path don’t exist except when measured,  wave-particle “duality”, etc. — which in comparison seems more like a counsel of despair than a physical theory in any meaningful sense.

In thinking about it, I realised that I’ve long had the feeling that the Copenhagen interpretation was more than anything the physics educator’s version of chastity education: not a real solution, but mainly a way to avoid dealing with parents yelling “Your teacher told you what?!”

Post-Newtonian politics, or, Psychopathology and national security

A short addendum to the comment about the seemingly counter-productive tactics of the US and European security apparatus in its attack on everyone involved in the Snowden NSA-document affair. Inspired by remarks of John Quiggin, I observed that we can’t understand what is happening when we view the state as a unitary goal-directed entity. Much of what is going on now can only be interpreted as eruptions of an internal power struggle, where the security services feel threatened, and are throwing their weight around.

Talking about throwing weight around puts one in mind of celestial mechanics. Under most circumstances we can consider planets as being simple objects, a mass located at a single point, the so-called centre of mass, whose motion is defined by a single momentum vector. It is only when we look at the fine structure, long-term behaviour, or extreme events that we need to consider the internal disposition of the mass. So it is with governments, that we may incline to see as unitary objects moved by the single will of the president or prime minister. Of course, political theorists and historians know that even the most extreme dictatorship has factions and power structures that shape the master’s will.

The analogy has been applied to the philosophy of mind. Two decades ago Philosopher Daniel Dennett introduced the definition of the self as a “center of narrative gravity”. We have intuitive models of human psychology that work, like Newton’s Laws, to predict people’s behaviour without reference to their complex inner life. Thus, if I arrange to meet you at a restaurant at 6, it suffices for me to have a few high-level beliefs about you — you want to see me, you know where the restaurant is, you have a watch — to predict that you will be there at about 6. I don’t need to concern myself with your inner life, and, in fact, for me to do so would be intrusive. It is only when behaviour becomes pathological that the unitary self loses traction.

Similarly, the pathological outbursts of the security apparatus (calling them “services” suggest that they are serving someone other than themselves, which is doubtful) force us to consider the complex power relations between government institutions.

We need to turn to some unemployed old kremlinologists to understand our own governments.

Tag Cloud