About the only thing that has transcended the bitter partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans in the US during recent years has been quantum mechanics, with the enactment late last year of the National Quantum Initiative Act (the NQI was first mentioned on the blog here). In March there was a National Quantum Coordination Office established at the White House, and last week there was an executive order establishing a National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee.
The NQI directs the federal government to spend \$1.2 billion over the next five years, with the NSF told to create two to five “Multidisciplinary Centers for Quantum Research and Education” and the DOE two to five “National Quantum Information Science Research Centers”. Besides the NQI, pretty much everywhere you look the past few years you see new well-funded “quantum” centers popping up, two randomly chosen examples would be the Chicago Quantum Exchange and the Yale Quantum Institute. In the private sector, a huge investment in quantum science is taking place, driven by hopes that quantum computing and other applications will lead to a technological revolution and associated vast riches.
Looking at new books on fundamental physics that I’ve seen over the past year and a half, the conventional enthusiastic treatment of string theory/SUSY/extra dimensions is now dead, with Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math the only popular book addressing these topics, and doing so in a quite negative way. The new trendy topic is the foundations of quantum mechanics, with the recent publication of Adam Becker’s What is Real?, Philip Ball’s Beyond Weird, Anil Ananthaswamy’s Through Two Doors at Once, Lee Smolin’s Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, George Greenstein’s Quantum Strangeness, and Sean Carroll’s Something Deeply Hidden. Forthcoming from Oxford University Press are two quantum books by Jim Baggott, Quantum Reality and The Quantum Cookbook.
On the whole this change in hot topic is a positive development, although the fact that it’s driven by a lack of anything new to say about particle physics and unification is rather depressing. On the quantum front, while I think it’s great that public attention is being drawn to quantum mechanics, if you look at my reviews you’ll see that I have mixed feelings about the point of view taken by some of the recent books (the best of the lot I think is Philip Ball’s).
The latest example of the high public profile of quantum mechanics is the publication today in the New York Times of a piece by Sean Carroll arguing that Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics: worse, they don’t seem to want to understand it. Unfortunately I don’t think that this article accurately describes the issues surrounding what we do and don’t understand about “quantum foundations”, nor the dramatically improving funding prospects for research in this area. In addition I don’t think that it’s accurate, fair (or good for public relations) to portray your colleagues as “not really interested in how nature really works”, somehow not curious or bright enough to realize (see here) that there is a crisis at the heart of their subject and that, thanks to Sean Carroll:
the crisis can now come to an end. We just have to accept that there is more than one of us in the universe. There are many, many Sean Carrolls. Many of every one of us.