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“It can be argued that in trying to see behind the formal predictions of quantum theory we are just making trouble for ourselves”*…

Context, it seems, is everthing…

… What is reality? Nope. There’s no way we are going through that philosophical minefield. Let’s focus instead on scientific realism, the idea that a world of things exists independent of the minds that might perceive it and it is the world slowly revealed by progress in science. Scientific realism is the belief that the true nature of reality is the subject of scientific investigation and while we may not completely understand it at any given moment, each experiment gets us a little bit closer. This is a popular philosophical position among scientists and science enthusiasts.

A typical scientific realist might believe, for example, that fundamental particles exist even though we cannot perceive them directly with our senses. Particles are real and their properties — whatever they may be — form part of the state of the world. A slightly more extreme view is that this state of the world can be specified with mathematical quantities and these, in turn, obey equations we call physical laws. In this view, the ultimate goal of science is to discover these laws. So what are the consequences of quantum physics on these views?

As I mentioned above, quantum physics is not a realistic model of the world — that is, it does not specify quantities for states of the world. An obvious question is then can we supplement or otherwise replace quantum physics with a deeper set of laws about real states of the world? This is the question Einstein first asked with colleagues Podolski and Rosen, making headlines in 1935. The hypothetical real states of the world came to be called hidden variables since an experiment does not reveal them — at least not yet.

In the decades that followed quantum physics rapidly turned into applied science and the textbooks which became canon demonstrated only how to use the recipes of quantum physics. In textbooks that are still used today, no mention is made of the progress in the foundational aspects of quantum physics since the mathematics was cemented almost one hundred years ago. But, in the 1960s, the most important and fundamental aspect of quantum physics was discovered and it put serious restrictions on scientific realism. Some go as far as to say the entire nature of independent reality is questionable due to it. What was discovered is now called contextuality, and its inevitability is referred to as the Bell-Kochen-Specker theorem.

John Bell is the most famous of the trio Bell, Kochen, and Specker, and is credited with proving that quantum physics contained so-called nonlocal correlations, a consequence of quantum entanglement. Feel free to read about those over here.

It was Bell’s ideas and notions that stuck and eventually led to popular quantum phenomena such as teleportation. Nonlocality itself is wildly popular these days in science magazines with reported testing of the concept in delicately engineered experiments that span continents and sometimes involve research satellites. But nonlocality is just one type of contextuality, which is the real game in town.

In the most succinct sentence possible, contextuality is the name for the fact that any real states of the world giving rise to the rules of quantum physics must depend on contexts that no experiment can distinguish. That’s a lot to unpack. Remember that there are lots of ways to prepare the same experiment — and by the same experiment, I mean many different experiments with completely indistinguishable results. Doing the exact same thing as yesterday in the lab, but having had a different breakfast, will give the same experimental results. But there are things in the lab and very close to the system under investigation that don’t seem to affect the results either. An example might be mixing laser light in two different ways.

There are different types of laser light that, once mixed together, are completely indistinguishable from one another no matter what experiments are performed on the mixtures. You could spend a trillion dollars on scientific equipment and never be able to tell the two mixtures apart. Moreover, knowing only the resultant mixture — and not the way it was mixed — is sufficient to accurately predict the outcomes of any experiment performed with the light. So, in quantum physics, the mathematical theory has a variable that refers to the mixture and not the way the mixture was made — it’s Occam’s razor in practice.

Now let’s try to invent a deeper theory of reality underpinning quantum physics. Surely, if we are going to respect Occam’s razor, the states in our model should only depend on contexts with observable consequences, right? If there is no possible experiment that can distinguish how the laser light is mixed, then the underlying state of reality should only depend on the mixture and not the context in which it was made, which, remember, might include my breakfast choices. Alas, this is just not possible in quantum physics — it’s a mathematical impossibility in the theory and has been confirmed by many experiments.

So, does this mean the universe cares about what I have for breakfast? Not necessarily. But, to believe the universe doesn’t care what I had for breakfast means you must also give up reality. You may be inclined to believe that when you observe something in the world, you are passively looking at it just the way it would have been had you not been there. But quantum contextuality rules this out. There is no way to define a reality that is independent of the way we choose to look at it…

Why is no one taught the one concept in quantum physics which denies reality?” It’s called contextuality and it is the essence of quantum physics. From Chris Ferrie (@csferrie).

* “It can be argued that in trying to see behind the formal predictions of quantum theory we are just making trouble for ourselves. Was not precisely this the lesson that had to be learned before quantum mechanics could be constructed, that it is futile to try to see behind the observed phenomena?” – John Stewart Bell


As still we try, we might relatively hearty birthday greetings to Sir Marcus Laurence Elwin “Mark” Oliphant; he was born on this date in 1901. An Australian physicist who trained and did much of his work in England (where he studied under Sir Ernest Rutherford at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory), Oliphant was deeply involved in the Allied war effort during World War II. He helped develop microwave radar, and– by helping to start the Manhattan Project and then working with his friend Ernest Lawrence at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, California, helped develop the atomic bomb.

After the war, Oliphant returned to Australia as the first director of the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering at the new Australian National University (ANU); on his retirement, he became Governor of South Australia and helped found the Australian Democrats political party.


“Give me juicy autumnal fruit, ripe and red from the orchard”*…

American fruit and nuts…

Pascale Georgiev, editorial director at Atelier Éditions, was researching botanical artwork a few years ago when she came across the US Department of Agriculture’s pomological watercolour collection, an archive of 7,500 watercolours of fruit and nuts grown in the US between 1886 and 1942, mostly created before photography was widespread. The discovery led to a new book, An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits & Nuts (Atelier, £44), full of images that Georgiev describes as irresistible. “The belle angevine pear… makes my heart sing and I’m partial to a plum named tragedy.” She’s also proud that the book showcases women working in science: “Nine of this US department’s 21 artists were women. A rare thing at the time.” Most of all she’d like readers to think about biodiversity. “I hope they share my delight in discovering the history of the fruit we consume, alongside beautiful artworks.”

A glorious collection: “Get fruity: vintage botanical watercolors,” from @guardian.

* Walt Whitman


As we ruminate on ripeness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1950 that the daily comic strip Peanuts premiered in eight newspapers: The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Minneapolis Tribune, The Allentown Call-Chronicle, The Bethlehem Globe-Times, The Denver Post, The Seattle Times, and The Boston Globe.  Its creator, Charles Schulz had developed the concept as a strip (L’il Folks) in his hometown paper, The St. Paul Pioneer Press, from 1947 to 1950.  At its peak, Peanuts ran in over 2,600 newspapers, with a readership of 355 million in 75 countries, and was translated into 21 languages.

First Peanuts strip


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October 2, 2021 at 1:00 am

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure”*…

When a man is tired of memes, he is tired of life.

Samuel Johnson’s original observation pertained to his hometown of London, the streets of which he knew better than most. As a man of letters and author of a best-selling dictionary, he wrote volumes [see here]. But nowadays, in the words of one English professor, “Samuel Johnson is one of those figures whom everyone quotes and no one reads.” (The use of “whom” is how you know an English professor wrote that.)

That’s perhaps as it should be: As the subject of the first modern biography [see here], Johnson (1709-84) was known as the best social talker who ever lived. And 228 years after his death, referencing Johnson’s portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds became a universally recognized expression of this profane sentiment: 

Resurrecting history’s most quotable man: “The memeification of Dr. Johnson

For more on the remarkable Dr. J., see “A Word A Day, the Doctor’s Way.”

* Samuel Johnson


As we share the love with Shakespeare, we might recall that it was on this date in 2000 that Charles M. Schulz published the last daily Peanuts strip. (The final Sunday panel ran on on February 13 of that year.)


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January 3, 2021 at 1:01 am

“I’ve developed a new philosophy. I only dread one day at a time.”*…




Starting [last] month, the very talented Adam Koford, the creator of Laugh-Out-Loud Cats webcomic, started posting these wonderful bootleg Peanuts comics to his Twitter account, and continued almost every day since.

Loose and sketchy, they capture the essence of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts so well: sweet and sad, combining childlike wonder and existential dread. As he went on, they started evolving a unique style of their own, distinct from the Peanuts characters but still recognizable….

Via Andy Baio‘s wonderful site Waxy.  The “Peanuts” panels are strewn through Adam’s Twitter feed; as a gift to us all, Baio collected a bunch of them into a Twitter “Moment.”

Enjoy… and don’t mention it to the Schultz estate.

* Charlie Brown


As we ruminate on reality, we might recall that today’s a relative-ly good day for it, as it was on this date in 1900 that German physicist Max Planck presented and published his study of the effect of radiation on a “black-body” substance (introducing what we’ve come to know as the Planck Postulate), and the quantum theory of modern physics– and for that matter, Twentieth Century modernity– were born.

Planck study demonstrated that in certain situations energy exhibits the characteristics of physical matter– something unthinkable at the time, when energy was thought to exist only in wave form– and suggested that energy exists in discrete packets, which he called “quanta”… thus laying the foundation on which he, Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, Dirac, and others built our modern understanding.

220px-Max_Planck_1933Max Planck


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December 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I think if human beings had genuine courage, they’d wear their costumes every day of the year, not just on Halloween”*…




With an eye to Thursday’s festivities, a collection of photos, circa 1897-1918, of children (from the Bronx) dressed as ghosts: “Costume.”

* Douglas Coupland


As we give face to our fears, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that CBS premiered It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  it was the third Peanuts special (and second holiday-themed special, following A Charlie Brown Christmas) to be produced and animated by Bill Melendez.  It was also the first Peanuts special to use the titular pattern of a short phrase, followed by “Charlie Brown”, a pattern which would remain the norm for almost all subsequent Peanuts specials.  And it was one of 17 Peanuts specials (plus a feature film) to feature the music of Vince Guaraldi.

250px-Great_pumpkin_charlie_brown_title_card source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 27, 2019 at 1:01 am

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