There’s a new popular book out this week about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, Adam Becker’s What is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics. Ever since my high school days, the topic of quantum mechanics and what it really means has been a source of deep fascination to me, and usually I’m a sucker for any book such as this one. It’s well-written and contains some stories I had never encountered before in the wealth of other things I’ve read over the years.
Unfortunately though, the author has decided to take a point of view on this topic that I think is quite problematic. To get an idea of the problem, here’s some of the promotional text for the book (yes, I know that this kind of text sometimes is exaggerated for effect):
A mishmash of solipsism and poor reasoning, [the] Copenhagen [interpretation] claims that questions about the fundamental nature of reality are meaningless. Albert Einstein and others were skeptical of Copenhagen when it was first developed. But buoyed by political expediency, personal attacks, and the research priorities of the military industrial complex, the Copenhagen interpretation has enjoyed undue acceptance for nearly a century.
The text then goes to describe Bohm, Everett and Bell as the “quantum rebels” trying to fight the good cause against Copenhagen.
Part of the problem with this good vs. evil story is that, as the book itself explains, it’s not at all clear what the “Copenhagen interpretation” actually is, other than a generic name for the point of view the generation of theorists such as Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Wigner and von Neumann developed as they struggled to reconcile quantum and classical mechanics. They weren’t solipsists with poor reasoning skills, but trying to come to terms with the extremely non-trivial and difficult problem of how the classical physics formalism we use to describe observations emerges out of the more fundamental quantum mechanical formalism. They found a workable set of rules to describe what the theory implied for results of measurements (collapse of the state vector with probabilities given by the Born rule), and these rules are in every textbook. That there is a “measurement problem” is something that most everyone was aware of, with Schrodinger’s cat example making it clear. Typically, for the good reason that it’s complicated and they have other topics they need to cover, textbooks don’t go into this in any depth (other than often telling about the cat).
As usual these days, the alternative to Copenhagen being proposed is a simplistic version of Everett’s “Many Worlds”: the answer to the measurement problem is that the multiverse did it. The idea that one would also like the measurement apparatus to be described by quantum mechanics is taken to be a radical and daring insight. The Copenhagen papering over of the measurement problem by “collapse occurs, but we don’t know how” is replaced by “the wavefunction of the universe splits, but we don’t know how”. Becker pretty much ignores the problems with this “explanation”, other than mentioning that one needs to explain the resulting probability measure.
String theory, inflation and the cosmological multiverse are then brought in as supporting Many Worlds (e.g. that probability measure problem is just like the measure problem of multiverse cosmology). There’s the usual straw man argument that those unhappy with the multiverse explanation are just ignorant Popperazzi, unaware of the subtleties of the falsifiability criterion:
Ultimately, arguments against a multiverse purportedly based on falsifiability are really arguments based on ignorance and taste: some physicists are unaware of the history and philosophy of their own field and find multiverse theories unpalatable. But that does not mean that multiverse theories are unscientific.
For a much better version of the same story and much more serious popular treatment of the measurement problem, I recommend a relatively short book that is now over 20 years old, David Lindley’s Where does the Weirdness Go?. Lindley’s explanation of Copenhagen vs. Many Worlds is short and to the point:
The problem with Copenhagen is that it leaves measurement unexplained; how does a measurement select one outcome from many? Everett’s proposal keeps all outcomes alive, but this simply substitutes one problem for another: how does a measurement split apart parallel outcomes that were previously in intimate contact? In neither case is the physical mechanism of measurement accounted for; both employ sleight of hand at the crucial moment.
Lindley ends with a discussion of the importance of the notion of decoherence (pioneered by Dieter Zeh) for understanding how classical behavior emerges from quantum mechanics. For a more recent serious take on the issues involved, I’d recommend reading something by Wojciech Zurek, for instance this article, a version of which was published in Physics Today. Trying to figure out what “interpretation” Zurek subscribes to, I notice that he refers to an “existential interpretation” in some of his papers. I don’t really know what that means. Unlike most discussions of “interpretations”, Zurek seems to be getting at the real physical issues involved, so I think I’ll adopt his (whatever it means) as my chosen “interpretation”.
Update: For another take on much the same subject, out in the UK now is Philip Ball’s Beyond Weird. The US version will be out in the fall, and I think I’ll wait until then to take a look. In the meantime, Natalie Wolchover has a review at Nature.
Update: There’s a new review of What is Real? at Nature.
Update: Jim Holt points out that David Albert has a review of the Becker book in the latest New York Review of Books. I just read a print copy last night, presumably it should appear online soon here [Review now available here].
Update: Some comments from Adam Becker, the author of the book.
I won’t try to rebut everything Peter has said about my book—there are some things we simply disagree about—but I would like to clear up two statements he makes about the book that are possibly misleading:
Peter says that I claim the answer to the measurement problem is that “the multiverse did it.” But I don’t advocate for the many-worlds interpretation in my book. I merely lay it out as one of the reasonable available options for interpreting quantum mechanics (and I discuss some of its flaws as well). I do spend a fair bit of time talking about it, but that’s largely because my book takes a historical approach to the subject, and many-worlds has played a particularly important role in the history of quantum foundations. But there are other interpretations that have played similarly important roles, such as pilot-wave theory, and I spend a lot of time talking about those interpretations too. I am not a partisan of any particular interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Second, I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that I paint Bohr as a villain. I mention several times in my book that Bohr was rather unclear in his writing, and that sussing out his true views is dicey. But what matters more that Bohr’s actual views is what later generations of physicists generally took his views to be, and the way Bohr’s work was uncritically invoked as a response to reasonable questions about the foundations of quantum mechanics. It’s true that this subtlety is lost in the jacket flap copy, but that’s publishing for you.
Also, for what it’s worth, I do like talking about reality as it relates to quantum mechanics. But I suppose that’s hardly surprising, given that I just wrote a book on quantum foundations titled “What Is Real?”. I’d be happy to discuss all of this further over email if anyone is interested (though I’m pretty busy at the moment and it might take me some time to respond).
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