Something is Rotten in the State of Physics.

How else to explain that almost a century after the most successful modern physics theory has been coined leading experts in the field can still not agree on how to interpret it?

Exhibit (A) this bar chart from a survey taken at a quantum foundations meeting.  It has been called the most embarrassing  graph of modern physics (and rightly so).

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Unsurprisingly, my favorite interpretation of QM, Ulrich Mohrhoff’s Pondicherry Interpretation, is such a dark horse candidate it did not even make the list.

In accordance with this main confusion, the view on the role of the observer is also all over the map:

Screen Shot 2013-02-23 at 11.46.52 AMThe majority settles on a statement that no matter how I try to parse it, doesn’t make any sense to me:  If our formalism describes nature correctly, and the observer plays a fundamental role in the latter, how is it supposed to not occupy a distinguished physical role? The cognitive dissonance to take this stance is dizzying. At least the quantum hippie choice of option (d) has some internal consistency.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that with regard to quantum computing these experts are as ignorant as the public at large and completely ignore that D-Wave is already shipping a quantum computer (if the phrasing was about a universal quantum computer these results would have been easier to tolerate).  Invited to opine on the availability of the first working and useful quantum computer this was the verdict:








The paper contains another graph that could almost parse as a work of art, it visualizes the medium to strong correlation between the survey answers.  To me it is the perfect illustration for the current State of Physics with regards to the interpretation of quantum mechanics:

It is a mess.

Given this state of affairs it’s small wonder that one of my heros, Carver Mead, recently described the QM revolution that started in the early last century as an aborted one. It is indeed time to kick-start it again.

21 thoughts on “Something is Rotten in the State of Physics.

  1. I’ve been following your blog for some time. As a physics graduate (of the poorest quality) I’m also bemused by the amount of time it’s taking to figure out the “grand aspects” of quantum mechanics even while at the smallest level it has had so much success in predicting behaviours not yet observed.

    I think it’s a little unfair though to criticise them over their answer to the quantum computing device question, since the word “useful” was there – something most people would interpret as “economically viable way for solving a problem”. I’ve never understood what problems your machines can solve which are not vastly more economic to solve in another way. Is there such a problem space ? If not, I think the physicists were fair to answer how they did.

  2. Fair enough the question did contain the term “useful”. Yet, I suspect the result is more due to the dismissal of any architecture, other than universal gate based QC, as not truly being a quantum computer. Especially in academia there seems to be a strong bias in that regard.

    As I tried to point out on my quantum taxonomy post, there are many approaches to this field and that’s why this tunnel vision really rubs me the wrong way.

    D-Wave’s machine is restricted to optimization problems, yet this is a huge and rapidly growing IT market (as BI professional, one that I am very familiar with).

    So in my mind there is no doubt about the usefulness of the class of problems that the D-Wave machines can tackle. The only open question, to me, is if it can outperform conventional hardware on a conservatively estimated cost basis. The latter only hands-on benchmarks can decide.

    I’ve been in touch with a researcher who performs such tests and is in the sceptical camp. Actually have a bet going with him that D-Wave will pull through – nothing as grand as Scott Aaronson’s bet though, if I lose I owe only a gallon of maple syrup :-).

  3. Great post! I love that poll. The illogicality of the net position may perhaps be the ultimate disproof of the Penrose Conjecture. Perhaps human brains do not use quantum processes at all! Perhaps they are purely classical. Hence the difficulty of a group of evidently smart and well-educated people coming up with an mean position of incoherence. Love it.

    1. It is simple delusion of Penrose because consciousness just could not be physical phenomena not to speak of Quantum phenomena.

      1. Mohammad, your other very long comment was a verbatim copy of your posts on LinkedIn and very much off-topic as only concerning SR. It was not addressing what this post is about i.e. the interpretations of QM. Hence I removed it.

        If you want to discuss SR on this blog, I an eralier post I wrote about an alternative more modern derivation of SR that does not start with the assumption that light speed is constant in all frames of references. It is conceptually much cleaner than Einstein’s earlier original way of getting to SR and an example of how theories can be derived form very self explanatory first principles.

  4. There are those who are not allowed to talk
    There are those who are paid not to talk
    There are those who are ignored
    There are those who have been deleted
    If all were allowed to participate freely
    Those who are in the dark might have been enlightened
    Maybe a quantum computer will give us calculated guesses fast
    It will take a systematic coordinated approach of many to solve this one
    Unlike quantum computer answers there is no room for guessing

  5. I predominately work within a kind of Copenhagen interpretation – although I never use the word ‘observer’ because it’s too loaded with all this ‘consciousness’ nonsense 🙂

    Do people really believe that our world existed in some kind of gloopy entangled quantum mess until consciousness had developed to a sufficient level to effect a collapse of the wavefunction? That’s a step too far, for me at least.

    I prefer using the Copenhagen interpretation because it gives us a nice prescription for getting the right answers – and it has, so far, not been shown to be incorrect experimentally. But does it make any sense? Not at all.

    What is fascinating is that we can work within whatever interpretation we like (provided it is a consistent interpretation that predicts the correct answers) – until we have a way of experimentally distinguishing between the various interpretations then we can use whichever one takes our fancy on any given day. Ive used the MWI at times to solve problems because, for those specific problems, it was easier for me to get the answers that way.

    So yes, something is definitely rotten in the state of physics – and maybe we can blame the Danes – or at least one specific Dane called Neils Bohr!

  6. Regarding the human brain:

    Memory is estimated to be on the order of 2.5 petabytes

    However, given 20 unique trigger levels, and 20 systemic influences (hormones, enzymes, neural/dendrite connections…

    Seems to me the value would be closer to 20^20 unique states; for each neuron. There is a great deal of redundancy, but I was just thinking about all the unique systemic chemistry states that contribute to brain function.

  7. The poll does reveal a very divided community. A discussion on why a certain interpretation is favored over others would help. For example why does Bohmian Mechanics fare so badly, atleast, in the present poll?

    It would, I think, be interesting to understand the philosophical underpinnings that make some of the major interpretations irreconcilable with each another

    1. Bohmian Mechanics is a hidden variable interpretation of QM, and those are some of the few were experimental designs based on the Bell inequalities have been devised to falsify them. If you subscribe to this interpretation you must believe that nature cleverly uses the few loopholes not yet probed, to hide its hidden variables. Hence the low vote count for this particular interpretation.

      I plan to write a bit about the Bell theorem in the future, in the meantime the SEP is a surprisingly good resource with regards to QM interpretations.

  8. Physics is like any other science , no specialty when it comes to what it takes to go forward boldly! it takes knowledge ,method, effort, ideas and art to push the boundaries of any science including physics. do not forget that the more physics get’s coated in unnecessary academic formalities the less we could expect extra ordinary developments.
    for example: Einstein’s time could be more efficiently used if papers were accepted and followed up (on better words: understood!) by master minds of that era who took 10 years to become with a primary understanding that this man is making a good point!!
    If academic and scientific societies separate research and education and go more social, if current physicists accept that in one or two centuries their godlike knowledge will be referenced as basics and dummy information, if science separates from politics and borders , if human race gets it that universities are not brilliant minds origin but their destination and many other if …
    As the article states results from this survey shows clearly how reliable and ground breaking ,our front liners of physics are? specially when it comes to big jumps , physics need phenomenal and exceptional thinkers not just academic researchers who build fantastic materials, equipment and provide shiny experiments and believe it or not like einstein , Tesla , Ramanujan and many other big jumpers physics needs to learn to have look around big walls of universities and over streets (via internet and social channels it’s painless and costless!) may be the next clerk or fruit boy is some where smiling at what ever physics is trying to achieve as a music or a vision

  9. Indeed, only experiment can resolve between the interpretations.

    The problem is the experiment needed is not physical, but metaphysical. Unfortunately nobody in accustomed in conducting metaphysical experiments, which is a big deficiency.

    The experiment would need to abandon some requirements to a scientific experiment – that is why it would not be a scientific experiment.

  10. Dear Mr. Dekant,

    how enjoyable to see this site has demurred from constant bashing of CF to less standing waveforms! This elevates the commentary leaving the pith and rot of oaken-pathology well behind.

    You might find the recent brew on TED Talks Science Board suppressing Sheldrake’s “War on Consciousness” worthy. If the QM “observer” is none other than consciousness – seeing is no longer believing.

    1. Greenwin, you will find lots of material on QM and quantum computing on this site. I’ve been blogging for about a year and try to have a substantial post every two weeks.

      I just created the /fringe section when ECN closed the door to give the crowd there another home, and because it’s useful to aggregate all my science interests in one place even the fringy ones.

      Eventually I will broaden the scope of the fringe section as there are other non peer reviewed efforts that I find of interest (Heim theory, Hilbert book model, etc.). But there is lots of stuff ‘above the fold’ with peer review pedigree that arrests my attention and that will always go into the main blog.

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