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Posts Tagged ‘quantum theory

“Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes and the second law of thermodynamics”*…

The second law of thermodynamics– asserting that the entropy of a system increases with time– is among the most sacred in all of science, but it has always rested on 19th century arguments about probability. As Philip Ball reports, new thinking traces its true source to the flows of quantum information…

In all of physical law, there’s arguably no principle more sacrosanct than the second law of thermodynamics — the notion that entropy, a measure of disorder, will always stay the same or increase. “If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations,” wrote the British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington in his 1928 book The Nature of the Physical World. “If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” No violation of this law has ever been observed, nor is any expected.

But something about the second law troubles physicists. Some are not convinced that we understand it properly or that its foundations are firm. Although it’s called a law, it’s usually regarded as merely probabilistic: It stipulates that the outcome of any process will be the most probable one (which effectively means the outcome is inevitable given the numbers involved).

Yet physicists don’t just want descriptions of what will probably happen. “We like laws of physics to be exact,” said the physicist Chiara Marletto of the University of Oxford. Can the second law be tightened up into more than just a statement of likelihoods?

A number of independent groups appear to have done just that. They may have woven the second law out of the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics — which, some suspect, have directionality and irreversibility built into them at the deepest level. According to this view, the second law comes about not because of classical probabilities but because of quantum effects such as entanglement. It arises from the ways in which quantum systems share information, and from cornerstone quantum principles that decree what is allowed to happen and what is not. In this telling, an increase in entropy is not just the most likely outcome of change. It is a logical consequence of the most fundamental resource that we know of — the quantum resource of information…

Is that most sacrosanct natural laws, second law of thermodynamics, a quantum phenomenon? “Physicists Rewrite the Fundamental Law That Leads to Disorder,” from @philipcball in @QuantaMagazine.

* “Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes and the second law of thermodynamics. All three are processes in which useful or accessible forms of some quantity, such as energy or money, are transformed into useless, inaccessible forms of the same quantity. That is not to say that these three processes don’t have fringe benefits: taxes pay for roads and schools; the second law of thermodynamics drives cars, computers and metabolism; and death, at the very least, opens up tenured faculty positions.” — Seth Lloyd


As we get down with disorder, we might spare a thought for Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he died on this date in 1778.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.


“A nothing will serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said”*…

Metaphysical debates in quantum physics don’t get at “truth,” physicist and mathematician Timothy Andersen argues; they’re nothing but a form of ritual activity and culture. After a thoughtful intellectual history of both quantum mechanics and Wittgenstein’s thought, he concludes…

If Wittgenstein were alive today, he might have couched his arguments in the vocabulary of cultural anthropology. For this shared grammar and these language games, in his view, form part of much larger ritualistic mechanisms that connect human activity with human knowledge, as deeply as DNA connects to human biology. It is also a perfect example of how evolution works by using pre-existing mechanisms to generate new behaviors.

The conclusion from all of this is that interpretation and representation in language and mathematics are little different than the supernatural explanations of ancient religions. Trying to resolve the debate between Bohr and Einstein is like trying to answer the Zen kōan about whether the tree falling in the forest makes a sound if no one can hear it. One cannot say definitely yes or no, because all human language must connect to human activity. And all human language and activity are ritual, signifying meaning by their interconnectedness. To ask what the wavefunction means without specifying an activity – and experiment – to extract that meaning is, therefore, as sensible as asking about the sound of the falling tree. It is nonsense.

As a scientist and mathematician, Wittgenstein has challenged my own tendency to seek out interpretations of phenomena that have no scientific value – and to see such explanations as nothing more than narratives. He taught that all that philosophy can do is remind us of what is evidently true. It’s evidently true that the wavefunction has a multiverse interpretation, but one must assume the multiverse first, since it cannot be measured. So the interpretation is a tautology, not a discovery.

I have humbled myself to the fact that we can’t justify clinging to one interpretation of reality over another. In place of my early enthusiastic Platonism, I have come to think of the world not as one filled with sharply defined truths, but rather as a place containing myriad possibilities – each of which, like the possibilities within the wavefunction itself, can be simultaneously true. Likewise, mathematics and its surrounding language don’t represent reality so much as serve as a trusty tool for helping people to navigate the world. They are of human origin and for human purposes.

To shut up and calculate, then, recognizes that there are limits to our pathways for understanding. Our only option as scientists is to look, predict and test. This might not be as glamorous an offering as the interpretations we can construct in our minds, but it is the royal road to real knowledge…

A provocative proposition: “Quantum Wittgenstein,” from @timcopia in @aeonmag.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations


As we muse on meaning, we might recall that it was on this date in 1954 that the official ground-breaking for CERN (Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire) was held. Located in Switzerland, it is the largest particle physics laboratory in the world… that’s to say, a prime spot to do the observation and calculation that Andersen suggests. Indeed, it’s been the site of many breakthrough discoveries over the years, maybe most notably the 2012 observation of the Higgs Boson.

Because researchers need remote access to these facilities, the lab has historically been a major wide area network hub. Indeed, it was at CERN that Tim Berners-Lee developed the first “browser”– and effectively fomented the emergence of the web.

CERN’s main site, from Switzerland looking towards France

“I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans. And I am rooting for the machines.”*…

Claude Shannon with his creation, Theseus the maze-solving mouse, an early illustration of machine learning and a follow-on project to the work described below

Readers will know of your correspondent’s fascination with the remarkable Claude Shannon (see here and here), remembered as “the father of information theory,” but seminally involved in so much more. In a recent piece in IEEE Spectrum, the redoubtable Rodney Brooks argues that we should add another credit to Shannon’s list…

Among the great engineers of the 20th century, who contributed the most to our 21st-century technologies? I say: Claude Shannon.

Shannon is best known for establishing the field of information theory. In a 1948 paper, one of the greatest in the history of engineering, he came up with a way of measuring the information content of a signal and calculating the maximum rate at which information could be reliably transmitted over any sort of communication channel. The article, titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” describes the basis for all modern communications, including the wireless Internet on your smartphone and even an analog voice signal on a twisted-pair telephone landline. In 1966, the IEEE gave him its highest award, the Medal of Honor, for that work.

If information theory had been Shannon’s only accomplishment, it would have been enough to secure his place in the pantheon. But he did a lot more…

In 1950 Shannon published an article in Scientific American and also a research paper describing how to program a computer to play chess. He went into detail on how to design a program for an actual computer…

Shannon did all this at a time when there were fewer than 10 computers in the world. And they were all being used for numerical calculations. He began his research paper by speculating on all sorts of things that computers might be programmed to do beyond numerical calculations, including designing relay and switching circuits, designing electronic filters for communications, translating between human languages, and making logical deductions. Computers do all these things today…

The “father of information theory” also paved the way for AI: “How Claude Shannon Helped Kick-start Machine Learning,” from @rodneyabrooks in @IEEESpectrum.

* Claude Shannon (who may or may not have been kidding…)


As we ponder possibility, we might send uncertain birthday greetings to Werner Karl Heisenberg; he was born on this date in 1901.  A theoretical physicist, he made important contributions to the theories of the hydrodynamics of turbulent flows, the atomic nucleus, ferromagnetism, superconductivity, cosmic rays, and subatomic particles.  But he is most widely remembered as a pioneer of quantum mechanics and author of what’s become known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics.”

During World War II, Heisenberg was part of the team attempting to create an atomic bomb for Germany– for which he was arrested and detained by the Allies at the end of the conflict.  He was returned to Germany, where he became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, which soon thereafter was renamed the Max Planck Institute for Physics. He later served as president of the German Research Council, chairman of the Commission for Atomic Physics, chairman of the Nuclear Physics Working Group, and president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Some things are so serious that one can only joke about them

Werner Heisenberg


“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


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


“Men knew better than they realized, when they placed the abode of the gods beyond the reach of gravity”*…

In search of a theory of everything…

Twenty-five particles and four forces. That description — the Standard Model of particle physics — constitutes physicists’ best current explanation for everything. It’s neat and it’s simple, but no one is entirely happy with it. What irritates physicists most is that one of the forces — gravity — sticks out like a sore thumb on a four-fingered hand. Gravity is different.

Unlike the electromagnetic force and the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity is not a quantum theory. This isn’t only aesthetically unpleasing, it’s also a mathematical headache. We know that particles have both quantum properties and gravitational fields, so the gravitational field should have quantum properties like the particles that cause it. But a theory of quantum gravity has been hard to come by.

In the 1960s, Richard Feynman and Bryce DeWitt set out to quantize gravity using the same techniques that had successfully transformed electromagnetism into the quantum theory called quantum electrodynamics. Unfortunately, when applied to gravity, the known techniques resulted in a theory that, when extrapolated to high energies, was plagued by an infinite number of infinities. This quantization of gravity was thought incurably sick, an approximation useful only when gravity is weak.

Since then, physicists have made several other attempts at quantizing gravity in the hope of finding a theory that would also work when gravity is strong. String theory, loop quantum gravity, causal dynamical triangulation and a few others have been aimed toward that goal. So far, none of these theories has experimental evidence speaking for it. Each has mathematical pros and cons, and no convergence seems in sight. But while these approaches were competing for attention, an old rival has caught up.

The theory called asymptotically (as-em-TOT-ick-lee) safe gravity was proposed in 1978 by Steven Weinberg. Weinberg, who would only a year later share the Nobel Prize with Sheldon Lee Glashow and Abdus Salam for unifying the electromagnetic and weak nuclear force, realized that the troubles with the naive quantization of gravity are not a death knell for the theory. Even though it looks like the theory breaks down when extrapolated to high energies, this breakdown might never come to pass. But to be able to tell just what happens, researchers had to wait for new mathematical methods that have only recently become available…

For decades, physicists have struggled to create a quantum theory of gravity. Now an approach that dates to the 1970s is attracting newfound attention: “Why an Old Theory of Everything Is Gaining New Life,” from @QuantaMagazine.

* Arthur C. Clarke, 2010: Odyssey Two


As we unify, we might pause to remember Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, OM, FRS; he died in this date in 1944.  An astrophysicist, mathematician, and philosopher of science known for his work on the motion, distribution, evolution and structure of stars, Eddington is probably best remembered for his relationship to Einstein:  he was, via a series of widely-published articles, the primary “explainer” of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to the English-speaking world; and he was, in 1919, the leader of the experimental team that used observations of a solar eclipse to confirm the theory.


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