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Posts Tagged ‘quantum physics

“Horror vacui”*…

A 1672 book about the vacuum by the German scientist Otto von Guericke depicts a demonstration he gave for Emperor Ferdinand III, in which teams of horses tried unsuccessfully to pull apart the halves of a vacuum-filled copper sphere.

Recently, (Roughly) Daily took a look at nothing– and the perplexing philosophical questions that it raises. Today, Charlie Wood examines nothing’s physical manifestation, the vacuum, and the similarly perplexing questions it raises for physicists…

Millennia ago, Aristotle asserted that nature abhors a vacuum, reasoning that objects would fly through truly empty space at impossible speeds. In 1277, the French bishop Etienne Tempier shot back, declaring that God could do anything, even create a vacuum.

Then a mere scientist pulled it off. Otto von Guericke invented a pump to suck the air from within a hollow copper sphere, establishing perhaps the first high-quality vacuum on Earth. In a theatrical demonstration in 1654, he showed that not even two teams of horses straining to rip apart the watermelon-size ball could overcome the suction of nothing. [See illustration above.]

Since then, the vacuum has become a bedrock concept in physics, the foundation of any theory of something. Von Guericke’s vacuum was an absence of air. The electromagnetic vacuum is the absence of a medium that can slow down light. And a gravitational vacuum lacks any matter or energy capable of bending space. In each case the specific variety of nothing depends on what sort of something physicists intend to describe. “Sometimes, it’s the way we define a theory,” said Patrick Draper, a theoretical physicist at the University of Illinois.

As modern physicists have grappled with more sophisticated candidates for the ultimate theory of nature, they have encountered a growing multitude of types of nothing. Each has its own behavior, as if it’s a different phase of a substance. Increasingly, it seems that the key to understanding the origin and fate of the universe may be a careful accounting of these proliferating varieties of absence.

“We’re learning there’s a lot more to learn about nothing than we thought,” said Isabel Garcia Garcia, a particle physicist at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in California. “How much more are we missing?”

So far, such studies have led to a dramatic conclusion: Our universe may sit on a platform of shoddy construction, a “metastable” vacuum that is doomed — in the distant future — to transform into another sort of nothing, destroying everything in the process.

Nothing started to seem like something in the 20th century, as physicists came to view reality as a collection of fields: objects that fill space with a value at each point (the electric field, for instance, tells you how much force an electron will feel in different places). In classical physics, a field’s value can be zero everywhere so that it has no influence and contains no energy. “Classically, the vacuum is boring,” said Daniel Harlow, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Nothing is happening.”

But physicists learned that the universe’s fields are quantum, not classical, which means they are inherently uncertain. You’ll never catch a quantum field with exactly zero energy…

For an explanation of how key to understanding the origin and fate of the universe may be a more complete understanding of the vacuum: “How the Physics of Nothing Underlies Everything,” from @walkingthedot in @QuantaMagazine.

* attributed to Aristitole, and usually “translated,” as above, “Nature abhors a vacuum”

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As we noodle on nought, we might spare a thought for Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he died on this date in 1967 at the age of 83.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television…)

Gernsback, wearing his invention, TV Glasses

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“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”*…

Imaginary numbers were long dismissed as mathematical “bookkeeping.” But now, as Karmela Padavic-Callaghan explains, physicists are proving that they describe the hidden shape of nature…

Many science students may imagine a ball rolling down a hill or a car skidding because of friction as prototypical examples of the systems physicists care about. But much of modern physics consists of searching for objects and phenomena that are virtually invisible: the tiny electrons of quantum physics and the particles hidden within strange metals of materials science along with their highly energetic counterparts that only exist briefly within giant particle colliders.

In their quest to grasp these hidden building blocks of reality scientists have looked to mathematical theories and formalism. Ideally, an unexpected experimental observation leads a physicist to a new mathematical theory, and then mathematical work on said theory leads them to new experiments and new observations. Some part of this process inevitably happens in the physicist’s mind, where symbols and numbers help make invisible theoretical ideas visible in the tangible, measurable physical world.

Sometimes, however, as in the case of imaginary numbers – that is, numbers with negative square values – mathematics manages to stay ahead of experiments for a long time. Though imaginary numbers have been integral to quantum theory since its very beginnings in the 1920s, scientists have only recently been able to find their physical signatures in experiments and empirically prove their necessity…

Learn more at “Imaginary numbers are real,” from @Ironmely in @aeonmag.

* The Red Queen, in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass

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As we get real, we might spare a thought for two great mathematicians…

Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann died on this date in 1866. A mathematician who made contributions to analysis, number theory, and differential geometry, he is remembered (among other things) for his 1859 paper on the prime-counting function, containing the original statement of the Riemann hypothesis, regarded as one of the most influential papers in analytic number theory.

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Andrey (Andrei) Andreyevich Markov died on this date in 1922.  A Russian mathematician, he helped to develop the theory of stochastic processes, especially those now called Markov chains: sequences of random variables in which the future variable is determined by the present variable but is independent of the way in which the present state arose from its predecessors.  (For example, the probability of winning at the game of Monopoly can be determined using Markov chains.)  His work on the study of the probability of mutually-dependent events has been developed and widely applied to the biological, physical, and social sciences, and is widely used in Monte Carlo simulations and Bayesian analyses.

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“The threat of a pandemic is different from that of a nerve agent, in that a disease can spread uncontrollably, long after the first carrier has succumbed”*…

We were, of course, warned. As we do our best to digest the news of emergent new strains of the COVID-19 virus, a look back at Annie Sparrow‘s 2016 New York Review of Books essay on pandemics…

Pandemics—the uncontrolled spread of highly contagious diseases across countries and continents—are a modern phenomenon. The word itself, a neologism from Greek words for “all” and “people,” has been used only since the mid-nineteenth century. Epidemics—localized outbreaks of diseases—have always been part of human history, but pandemics require a minimum density of population and an effective means of transport. Since “Spanish” flu burst from the trenches of World War I in 1918, infecting 20 percent of the world’s population and killing upward of 50 million people, fears of a similar pandemic have preoccupied public health practitioners, politicians, and philanthropists. World War II, in which the German army deliberately caused malaria epidemics and the Japanese experimented with anthrax and plague as biological weapons, created new fears…

According to the doctor, writer, and philanthropist Larry Brilliant, “outbreaks are inevitable, pandemics are optional.”

Much of human history can be seen as a struggle for survival between humans and microbes. Pandemics are microbe offensives; public health measures are human defenses. Water purification, sanitation, and vaccination are crucial to our living longer, better, even taller lives. But these measures of mass salvation are not sexy. While we know prevention is better and considerably cheaper than cure, there is little financial reward or glory in it. Philanthropists prefer to build hospitals rather than pay community health workers. Pharmaceutical companies prefer the Western market to the distant and poor Global South where people cannot afford to buy treatments. Education is a powerful social vaccine against the ignorance that enables pathogens to flourish, but insufficient to overcome the corruption of public goods by private interests. The current enthusiasm for detecting the next panic-inducing pathogen should not divert resources and research from the perennial threats that we already have. We must resist the tendency of familiarity and past failures to encourage contempt and indifference…

An important (and in its time, sadly, prescient) read: “The Awful Diseases on the Way,” from @annie_sparrow in @nybooks.

See also “6 of the Worst Pandemics in History” (source of the image above) and “A history of pandemics.”

[TotH to MK]

Hannah Fry

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As we prioritize preparation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1935 that physicist Erwin Schrödinger published his famous thought experiment– now known as “Schrödinger’s cat“– a paradox that illustrates the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is s-cat.jpg

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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

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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.

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“The ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ‘ought to be’”*…

One of the most bizarre aspects of quantum physics is that the fundamental entities that make up the Universe, what we know as the indivisible quanta of reality, behave as both a wave and a particle. We can do certain experiments, like firing photons at a sheet of metal, where they act like particles, interacting with the electrons and kicking them off only if they individually have enough energy. Other experiments, like firing photons at small thin objects — whether slits, hairs, holes, spheres, or even DVDs — give patterned results that show exclusively wave-like behavior. What we observe appears to depend on which observations we make, which is frustrating, to say the least. Is there some way to tell, fundamentally, what the nature of a quanta is, and whether it’s wave-like or particle-like at its core?

That’s what Sandra Marin wants to know, asking:

“I wonder if you could help me to understand John Wheeler – the delayed choice experiment and write an article about this.”

John Wheeler was one of the most brilliant minds in physics in the 20th century, responsible for enormous advances in quantum field theory, General Relativity, black holes, and even quantum computing. Yet the idea about the delayed choice experiment hearkens all the way back to perhaps our first experience with the wave-particle duality of quantum physics: the double-slit experiment…

Although Einstein definitively wanted us to have a completely comprehensible reality, where everything that occurred obeyed our notions of cause-and-effect without any retrocausality, it was his great rival Bohr who turned out to be correct on this point. In Bohr’s own words:

“…it…can make no difference, as regards observable effects obtainable by a definite experimental arrangement, whether our plans for constructing or handling the instruments are fixed beforehand or whether we prefer to postpone the completion of our planning until a later moment when the particle is already on its way from one instrument to another.”

As far as we can tell, there is no one true objective, deterministic reality that exists independently of observers or interactions. In this Universe, you really to have to observe in order to find out what you get.

The history and the results of John Wheeler‘s famous “delayed choice” experiments: “Is Light Fundamentally A Wave Or A Particle?

* Richard Feynman

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As we reconsider categories, we might recall that it was on this date in 1404 that King Henry IV signed the “Act Against Multipliers,” stipulating that “None from hereafter shall use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication; and if any the same do, they incur the pain of felony.” Great alarm was felt at that time lest any alchemist should succeed in “transmutation” (the conversion of a base metal into gold or silver), thus undermining the sanctity of the Royal currency and/or possibly financing rebellious uprisings. Alchemy, which had flourished since the time of Bacon, effectively became illegal.

The Act was repealed in 1689, when Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, and other members of the vanguard of the scientific revolution lobbied for its repeal.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 13, 2021 at 1:01 am

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