Some Quick Items

A few quick items:

  • This past weekend I went to see the new film Out of Blue, which sounded promising: a murder mystery based on a Martin Amis book, set in New Orleans, starring Patricia Clarkson, with a plot involving lots of deep ideas about physics. Unfortunately, the film was pretty awful, for a review from a professional, see here. There was a lot of physics, I think intended to add philosophical depth, but it was just the usual Schrodinger’s cat, black holes, dark matter, multiverse mumbo-jumbo. The Variety reviewer appropriately ends her review with

    It makes one feel a little bit embarrassed for the multiverse.

  • Sticking to the sophomoric, I was searching through old boxes of stuff and turned up a paper I wrote, Quantum Theory and Reality, about the interpretation of quantum mechanics for an expository writing class during my first year (1976) of college. While it was my first year, I did have sophomore standing. Rereading the thing, I’m glad to see that I’ve learned a few things since my sophomore year, but on the other hand, some of my views haven’t changed (I still don’t think “hidden variables” work…).
  • Ethan Siegel at Forbes has This is Why The Multiverse Must Exist. By now, all I can do is refer to this FAQ.
  • Results using the full datasets of the LHC Run 2 are starting to appear, some of them in talks given at last week’s Moriond conference in La Thuile. There are summaries available from CMS, ATLAS and LHCb. Referring to the absence of any significant evidence of new particles or anything inconsistent with the SM, in these results and in a new result from BELLE, Jester comments:

    La Thuile: Where Hopes Melt Away.

    This week, there’s another ongoing “Winter” HEP conference (“Winter” I guess means you can go skiing…), at Aspen.

  • I was sorry to hear of the recent death of Jean-Marc Fontaine, at the age of 74. Frank Calegari has an appreciation of Fontaine and his work here.
  • For more positive recent developments in arithmetic geometry, I recommend Peter Scholze’s lecture series at UCLA on Prismatic Cohomology, discussed by Terry Tao here. In related news, this week at MSRI there’s an interesting workshop on Derived Algebraic Geometry and its Applications.
  • For an interview with Eric Weinstein, who, like Sabine Hossenfelder, is always thought-provoking on the great question of why fundamental physics has gone off the rails, see here. I think he may have a point about Tom Lehrer.
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13 Responses to Some Quick Items

  1. Dave Miller says:


    Do you have a link to any discussion of your view that “hidden variables” does not work?

    It seems obvious to me that hidden variables does work, but in such an aesthetically unappealing way that it is hard for me to believe that hidden variables is really true: the main problem of course is that Bell’s theorem means that making hidden variables agree observationally with relativity will be a rather ugly kludge.

    As I recall, Bell goes into all this in detail in his Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics.

    In any case, I think understanding various thoughtful objections to the different approaches to QM may help us all understand better what the “mystery” is that bothers so many of us.

    (By the way, I too wrote a term paper on the foundations of QM, in my case focusing on Bell’s theorem, as an undergrad back in the mid-’70s.)


  2. Peter Woit says:

    Dave Miller,

    Hidden-variable theories I know about have all sorts of problems accounting for quantum fields, for relativity, for spin, with getting around these problems requiring constructing something far more complicated and ugly than conventional QFT, for no discernable benefit. I understand that some are hopeful that a successful hidden-variables theory exists and want to pursue that quest, but they have not so far succeeded.

    All, I don’t want to start another discussion here about interpretational issues in QM, based on my naive views when I was 18 years old, and even less want to engage in the usual tedious ideological arguments over hidden variable theories. Please wait until there’s something serious to discuss.

  3. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I’m just struck by how similar your essay is to any number of articles on the subject I’ve read over the past year, in terms of framing the issue. I’m with those who feel that “quantum foundations” has not been a terribly progressive field since its inception. DOA might be a forgivable assessment, if overly harsh. I hope someone comes up with a good experiment that actually…decides something one of these days. I’m amazed people approach the subject in the absence of new data without a sense of despair.

  4. Maximillian Tresmond says:

    Naive views? Hardly. Eighteen years old, just out of high school, and writing at a level of scientific sophistication that most people would never reach in their entire lives. That’s amazing. We are all fortunate to have a real scientist like you, rather than a science communicator, help enlighten us about the pressing issues in physics and provide us with a deep level of insight that is hard to come by just in reading science news.

    You really are an outstanding mind, a great scientist, and an ambassador to the profession that continues to inspire other people to get into science and mathematics. Thanks for everything you’ve done and continue to do Dr. Woit.

    p.s. Was than an IBM Selectric typewriter?

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Yes, the static nature of this subject is both striking and depressing. You can see perhaps why I have little patience for listening to exactly the same arguments I was reading about over 40 years ago. It is kind of ridiculous to often see the issue framed as the “brave new insurgency against the old Copenhageners”, when these insurgents were active in the 50s and 60s, are all now long dead.

    Maximillian Tresmond,

    Thanks for the over-the-top compliments, but I’m sure our high schools and college expository writing courses to this day have lots of students writing similar things. I think it was a Smith-Corona electric, not an IBM Selectric.

  6. Peter says:


    I don’t want to start a discussion about the interpretations of QM. All the interpretations I’ve seen are untestable, unobservable or equally (or even more) mysterious than the thing they try to “explain”.

    However, I have a question.

    How seriously did you take these “alternate interpretations”, “tinkering with the laws of logic” etc. you write about at the end of the paper?

    I remember reading about these alternate interpretations when I was a young student of physics. Arrogant as I was, I immediately thought “This is just silly. The whole mathematical machinery of QM is developed with plain, old-fashioned logic. Not one single mathematical theorem that is used has an indeterminate truth-value. How is it possible that we have to tinker with the laws of logic to understand something that never used or needed these alternate laws?”

    Was I exceptionally arrogant, or did you have the same reaction?

  7. Peter Woit says:

    You were smarter than me. I did take such things seriously, taking a lot of courses in the philosophy department, including ones from Quine (logic, i.e. Quine reading his yellowed notes on the subject) and Putnam (also found some of those papers, but I don’t think anyone wants to read what I had to say about Kant…). It took me a while to realize this kind of thing could not be the answer to deep interpretational issues in QM, and that my time was better spent learning more about QM and QFT themselves.

  8. Maximillian Tresmond says:

    What was it like to study under W.V.O. Quine? Did he ever bring up his indispensability argument for mathematical platonism in his undergraduate classes?

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Maximillian Tresmond,
    I was tremendously impressed by Quine’s writings, by his major books available at the time (e.g. From a Logical Point of View, Word and Object, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays). The course I took though was a logic course, and a big disappointment. I’m not joking about his reading yellowed lecture notes. But he’s one of the true greats of philosophy, and his way of thinking about science and how we gain knowledge of the world is quite compelling.

    On the other hand, the logic course was a bore, and later in life when I read his autobiography, that was another disappointment, not exactly a gripping tale.

  10. anon. says:

    Just curious what you thought the novelist Martin Amis would deliver? A completely new – albeit non-crackpot – approach to solving the outstanding problems with the standard model, maybe? 😉

  11. AT— says:

    Dear Peter,

    It was a pure delight to read your essay from your college days.

    I would like to ask you a question (from the history of science perspective): was MWI not yet “en vogue” in those days already? As far as I know, DeWitt started his exposure of MWI in late-60’s/early-70’s. You didn’t mention it in your essay, was it because you didn’t take it seriously, or due to it being mostly unknown 43 years ago?

    [For what it’s worth, I think that MWI is, at best, a fringe interpretation of probability theory, but my POV is irrelevant to the question above]

  12. Peter Woit says:


    I haven’t read the Amis novel, quite possibly it’s much better than the film. I wasn’t expecting much from the physics in the film, would have been perfectly happy to see a good film with some added cheesy physics for fun.


    It’s been so long ago now I really can’t remember when I first paid any attention to MWI. My vague impression is that MWI only started to get significant exposure with the DeWitt/Graham book published by Princeton in 1973. This was right around the time I started reading about quantum mechanics, and it’s not the sort of volume I would have found accessible, I was more reading things from philosophers of science. So, it’s quite possible MWI isn’t mentioned just because I’d never heard of it.

    In terms of the “has there been progress in the interpretation of QM since 1976” question, the fact that now such discussions often include a big dose of multiverse blathering doesn’t really tip the scale in a positive direction.

  13. Blake Stacey says:

    The conventional view of historians and philosophers of QM is that Everett’s ideas remained mostly obscure and un-discussed until the early 1970s. See, for example, Byrne’s biography of Everett (informatively reviewed by Adrian Kent). I suspect that this picture is largely accurate, though looking in places they don’t expect may turn up further discussions, and indirect evidence of conversations not written down. For example, Feynman presented an Everettian view in his 1963 lectures on gravitation, raising it as a possibility he took seriously but didn’t find compelling. He seems to have filed it, along with the idea that somehow gravitation itself might be a breakdown of quantum mechanics, as conceptual speculation that isn’t likely to be productive.

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