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Alternative Paths

The book QBism: The Future of Quantum Physics Hardcover by Hans Christian von Baeyer explores an unconventional interpretation of quantum mechanics: "Quantum Bayesianism". Instead of collapsing wavefunctions or Many Worlds, "QBism" focuses attention on observers and on how to update their subjective probability estimates of quantum events via Bayes Theorem.

Von Baeyer's book is by turns frustratingly vague and fascinatingly inspirational. Perhaps the most important idea, however, is buried near the end, in Chapter 22 ("The Road Ahead"): a summary of some comments by physicist Richard P. Feynman made during his 1965 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Feynman's words are a mere aside — but they're so insightful that they deserve to be highlighted and pondered.

I would like to interrupt here to make a remark. The fact that electrodynamics can be written in so many ways — the differential equations of Maxwell, various minimum principles with fields, minimum principles without fields, all different kinds of ways, was something I knew, but I have never understood. It always seems odd to me that the fundamental laws of physics, when discovered, can appear in so many different forms that are not apparently identical at first, but, with a little mathematical fiddling you can show the relationship. An example of that is the Schrödinger equation and the Heisenberg formulation of quantum mechanics. I don't know why this is — it remains a mystery, but it was something I learned from experience. There is always another way to say the same thing that doesn't look at all like the way you said it before. I don't know what the reason for this is. I think it is somehow a representation of the simplicity of nature. A thing like the inverse square law is just right to be represented by the solution of Poisson's equation, which, therefore, is a very different way to say the same thing that doesn't look at all like the way you said it before. I don't know what it means, that nature chooses these curious forms, but maybe that is a way of defining simplicity. Perhaps a thing is simple if you can describe it fully in several different ways without immediately knowing that you are describing the same thing.

And at the conclusion of his Nobel lecture, Feynman reprises and expands upon that crucial theme:

Many different physical ideas can describe the same physical reality. Thus, classical electrodynamics can be described by a field view, or an action at a distance view, etc. Originally, Maxwell filled space with idler wheels, and Faraday with fields lines, but somehow the Maxwell equations themselves are pristine and independent of the elaboration of words attempting a physical description. The only true physical description is that describing the experimental meaning of the quantities in the equation — or better, the way the equations are to be used in describing experimental observations. This being the case perhaps the best way to proceed is to try to guess equations, and disregard physical models or descriptions. For example, McCullough guessed the correct equations for light propagation in a crystal long before his colleagues using elastic models could make head or tail of the phenomena, or again, Dirac obtained his equation for the description of the electron by an almost purely mathematical proposition. A simple physical view by which all the contents of this equation can be seen is still lacking.

Therefore, I think equation guessing might be the best method to proceed to obtain the laws for the part of physics which is presently unknown. Yet, when I was much younger, I tried this equation guessing and I have seen many students try this, but it is very easy to go off in wildly incorrect and impossible directions. I think the problem is not to find the best or most efficient method to proceed to a discovery, but to find any method at all. Physical reasoning does help some people to generate suggestions as to how the unknown may be related to the known. Theories of the known, which are described by different physical ideas may be equivalent in all their predictions and are hence scientifically indistinguishable. However, they are not psychologically identical when trying to move from that base into the unknown. For different views suggest different kinds of modifications which might be made and hence are not equivalent in the hypotheses one generates from them in ones attempt to understand what is not yet understood. I, therefore, think that a good theoretical physicist today might find it useful to have a wide range of physical viewpoints and mathematical expressions of the same theory (for example, of quantum electrodynamics) available to him. This may be asking too much of one man. Then new students should as a class have this. If every individual student follows the same current fashion in expressing and thinking about electrodynamics or field theory, then the variety of hypotheses being generated to understand strong interactions, say, is limited. Perhaps rightly so, for possibly the chance is high that the truth lies in the fashionable direction. But, on the off-chance that it is in another direction — a direction obvious from an unfashionable view of field theory — who will find it? Only someone who has sacrificed himself by teaching himself quantum electrodynamics from a peculiar and unusual point of view; one that he may have to invent for himself. I say sacrificed himself because he most likely will get nothing from it, because the truth may lie in another direction, perhaps even the fashionable one.

But, if my own experience is any guide, the sacrifice is really not great because if the peculiar viewpoint taken is truly experimentally equivalent to the usual in the realm of the known there is always a range of applications and problems in this realm for which the special viewpoint gives one a special power and clarity of thought, which is valuable in itself. Furthermore, in the search for new laws, you always have the psychological excitement of feeling that possibly nobody has yet thought of the crazy possibility you are looking at right now.

So what happened to the old theory that I fell in love with as a youth? Well, I would say it's become an old lady, that has very little attractive left in her and the young today will not have their hearts pound anymore when they look at her. But, we can say the best we can for any old woman, that she has been a very good mother and she has given birth to some very good children. And, I thank the Swedish Academy of Sciences for complimenting one of them. Thank you.

Hmmmm, arguably a sexist/ageist metaphor at the end — but the punch line remains: "... I don't know what it means, that nature chooses these curious forms, but maybe that is a way of defining simplicity. Perhaps a thing is simple if you can describe it fully in several different ways without immediately knowing that you are describing the same thing."

And best of all to remember:

      I
  Don't
Know

(cf. The Mysterians (1999-08-02), Many Worlds Demystified (1999-10-24), QuantumNondemolition (2000-02-05), Hans Bethe (2004-11-29), Schrodinger's Catastrophe (2008-01-26), John Archibald Wheeler (2008-04-15), Introduction to Bayesian Statistics (2010-11-20), ...) - ^z - 2017-01-15