Gerard ’t Hooft in recent years has been pursuing some idiosyncratic ideas about quantum mechanics; for various versions of these, see papers like this, this, this and this. His latest version is last month’s Discreteness and Determinism in Superstrings, which starts with cellular automata in 1+1 dimensions and somehow gets a quantized superstring out of it (there are also some comments about this on his web-site here).
Personally I find it difficult to get at all interested in this (for reasons I’ll try and explain in a moment), but those who are interested might like to know that ’t Hooft has taken to explaining himself and discussing things with his critics at a couple places on-line, including Physics StackExchange, and Lubos Motl’s blog. If you want to discuss ’t Hooft’s ideas, best if you use one of these other venues, where you can interact with the man himself.
One of ’t Hooft’s motivations is a very common one, discomfort with the non-determinism of the conventional interpretation of quantum mechanics. The world is full of crackpots with similar feelings who produce reams of utter nonsense. ’t Hooft is a scientist though of the highest caliber, and as with some other people who have tried to do this sort of thing, I don’t think what he is producing is nonsense. It is, however, extremely speculative, and, to my taste, starting with a very unpromising starting point.
Looking at the results he has, there’s very little of modern physics there, including pretty much none of the standard model (which ’t Hooft himself had a crucial role in developing). If you’re going to claim to solve open problems in modern physics with some radical new ideas, you need to first show that these ideas reproduce the successes of the estabished older ones. From what I can tell, ‘t Hooft may be optimistic he can get there, but he’s a very long way from such a goal.
Another reason for taking very speculative ideas seriously, even if they haven’t gotten far yet, is if they seem to involve a set of powerful and promising ideas. This is very much a matter of judgement: what to me are central and deep ideas about mathematics and physics are quite different than someone else’s list. In this case, the central mathematical structures of quantum mechanics fit so well with central, deep and powerful insights into modern mathematics (through symmetries and representation theory) that any claim these should be abandoned in favor of something very different has a big hurdle to overcome. Basing everything on cellular automata seems to me extremely unpromising: you’re throwing out deep and powerful structures for something very simple and easy to understand, but with little inherent explanatory power. That’s my take on this, those who see this differently and want to learn more about what ’t Hooft is up to should follow the links above, and try discussing these matters at the venues ’t Hooft is frequenting.
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