On Being a Quantum Physicist in Autumn 2019

(a friendly warning for police violence, transphobia and philosophy of physics)

The way I see it, the two big Why? questions about quantum mechanics are, first, why do we use the particular mathematical apparatus of quantum theory, as opposed to any alternative we might imagine? And second, why do we only find it necessary to work with the full perplexities of quantum physics some of the time? These two questions are related. In order to understand how imprecise measurements might wash out quantum weirdness, we need to characterize which features of quantum theory really are fundamentally weird. And this, in turn, requires separating deep principles from convenient conventions and illuminating the true core of the physics. My own research has focused on the first question, but the second is never too far from my mind.

Of course, I have a lot on my mind these days, but I don’t think I’m special in that regard.

If you ask me, a “quantum system” can be any part of nature that is subject to an agent’s inquiry. A “quantum measurement” is, in principle, any action that an agent takes upon a quantum system. The road between Boston’s City Hall and the Holocaust Memorial is a quantum system. When the police use their bicycles as battering rams against queer kids and street medics, running towards the trouble is a quantum measurement. Being threatened with pepper spray, while secoondhand exposure already stings the eye and throat, one human thrown to the pavement in the intersection in front of you while another arrest happens on the sidewalk just behind you, is an outcome of that measurement. Unsurprisingly, textbooks provide little guidance on casting that event into the algebraic formalism of density matrices, and in the moment, other types of expertise are more immediately useful.

I first encountered quantum physics in a serious way during the spring of my second year at university — 2003, that would have been. I did not particularly care about the conceptual or philosophical “foundations” of it until the summer of 2010. The interval in between encompassed six semesters of quantum mechanics and subjects dependent upon it, along with my first attempts to find a research problem in the area. Once my curiosity had been provoked, it took the better part of a year to find an “interpretation” of quantum mechanics that was at all satisfying, and longer than that to make the transition from “this is how a member of that school would answer that question” to “this is what I declare myself”. Part of that transition was my discovery that I could put my own stamp on the ideas: The concepts and the history provoked new mathematical questions, which I could approach with a background that nobody else had.

The interpretation I adopted was the QBism of Chris Fuchs and Rüdiger Schack, later joined by N. David Mermin.

QBism is

an interpretation of quantum mechanics in which the ideas of agent and experience are fundamental. A “quantum measurement” is an act that an agent performs on the external world. A “quantum state” is an agent’s encoding of her own personal expectations for what she might experience as a consequence of her actions. Moreover, each measurement outcome is a personal event, an experience specific to the agent who incites it. Subjective judgments thus comprise much of the quantum machinery, but the formalism of the theory establishes the standard to which agents should strive to hold their expectations, and that standard for the relations among beliefs is as objective as any other physical theory.

That’s how we put it in the FAQ. Any physicist who is weird enough to endorse an interpretation of quantum mechanics will naturally get inquiries about it. Many of these, we get often enough that we try to compile good answers together into a nicely portable package — with the proviso that the quantum is a project, and some answers are not final because if physics were easy, we’d be done by now.

There’s a question which seems particularly suited to answering in the blog format, though: “Why don’t you believe in the Many Worlds Interpretation?”
Continue reading On Being a Quantum Physicist in Autumn 2019

Recollection

Mathematics was always my worst subject at school, right up until I went to college. I’ve heard a similar story from other physicists. I don’t know how useful my speculation about it will be to anybody else, but I think this is the reason why.

The kind of mistake I was prone to making, and the flaws in the way mathematics was taught, meshed perfectly. Carelessness cost more in math than in anything else, on the whole. If I was writing a history essay and I happened to swap Elba and St. Helena, I might only get docked a couple points out of a hundred, or perhaps none at all if the teacher had too many papers to grade. But if I wandered away from my pre-algebra homework, and upon my return my garishly awful handwriting had turned absolute-value bars into ordinary parentheses, my calculations would be completely off from that point onward. Nor did any of my teachers pick up on my problem — “Blake, you’ve got to be more careful!” — which makes me suspect that they weren’t much better at identifying what went wrong for other students, either.

In history and to a large extent in science, I was able to get by all through middle and high school with what I had learned out of books and documentaries on my own. (I was extraordinarily lucky to have a family that already had plenty of books around, and the means and the sense to provide me with more as I packed their contents into my brains.) I don’t think I had to learn anything in school that came across as wholly new. Everything was at most an elaboration of a topic I had already seen, something I’d grasped from a Larry Gonick cartoon guide, let’s say, done up with a few more details that might just have been included for the sake of having homework problems to assign. Algebra and geometry and trig and calculus, though, came closer to asking for a genuine production on my part.

Techniques of checking one’s work, which might have helped me to become a bit more generally competent, were either not taught or not motivated. “Plug your value of $x$ back in and check” might have been the last step of a few algebra exercises, but only because it was part of the rubric, devised to add another thing that could be graded.

The weird thing is that I had a sense of the importance of the mathematics, of the motivation for it. I knew why Kepler had cared about sines and cosines — to hear the music of the spheres, to turn comets from signs of dread into those of wonder. Exponentials tracked the explosion of populations and the decay of radioisotopes, each ominous in its own way. The subject offered wonders of pure thought and marvels of application. At the time, schoolwork merely seemed disconnected from those treasures which I saw in secondhand outline. Now, in retrospect, it appears almost a parody of them.

Concerning Wigner’s Former Roommate

I attended a workshop on the mini-genre of Extended Wigner’s Friend “paradoxes” but did not think that I’d write much on the topic myself. And, indeed, the comment I eventually produced is mostly bibliography.

B. C. Stacey, “On QBism and Assumption (Q)” [arXiv:1907.03805].

I correct two misapprehensions, one historical and one conceptual, in the recent literature on extensions of the Wigner’s Friend thought-experiment. Perhaps fittingly, both concern the accurate description of some quantum physicists’ beliefs by others.

Also available via SciRate.

On Reconstructing the Quantum

It’s manifesto time! “Quantum Theory as Symmetry Broken by Vitality” [arXiv:1907.02432].

I summarize a research program that aims to reconstruct quantum theory from a fundamental physical principle that, while a quantum system has no intrinsic hidden variables, it can be understood using a reference measurement. This program reduces the physical question of why the quantum formalism is empirically successful to the mathematical question of why complete sets of equiangular lines appear to exist in complex vector spaces when they do not exist in real ones. My primary goal is to clarify motivations, rather than to present a closed book of numbered theorems, and consequently the discussion is more in the manner of a colloquium than a PRL.

Also available via SciRate.

New Paper Dance

Another solo-author outing by me: “Invariant Off-Diagonality: SICs as Equicoherent Quantum States” [arXiv:1906.05637].

Coherence, treated as a resource in quantum information theory, is a basis-dependent quantity. Looking for states that have constant coherence under canonical changes of basis yields highly symmetric structures in state space. For the case of a qubit, we find an easy construction of qubit SICs (Symmetric Informationally Complete POVMs). SICs in dimension 3 and 8 are also shown to be equicoherent.

Also available via SciRate.

It Is a Heartbreakingly Lovely Spring Day

When I was a prickly atheist teenager, I did not appreciate the Battle Hymn of the Republic. After all, it was one of the bad guys’ songs in Inherit the Wind, wasn’t it? Much later, I realized — oh, it was written by an abolitionist in 1861. She was thirsty to see the fields watered with slaveowner blood. OK then. More terrible swift sword, please.

When I was a prickly atheist teenager, I was rather confident that the people who put “evolution is just a theory” stickers in all our biology books would be Good Germans if given the chance.

Turns out? I was right.

If I had foreseen that organized atheism would descend into sexism and xenophobia, then I would give myself credit. Yes, pretty much as soon as I met a convention-ful of skeptics, I found myself ill at ease with the blithe acceptance of economic injustice, and vaguely surprised by how easily the cogs of critical thinking were disengaged once the conversation moved beyond “UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees”. I should have been more upset, and sooner.

When I was a university student, I wrote a sestina in the voice of Persephone, mourning her life, with the trick ending that she’s a goth girl and wishes she had eaten more of the pomegranate seeds so that she could groove on the underworld for a longer fraction of the year. This may be indicative of my type of indulgence then.

When I was a university student, I began a novel. Like any youngster who has just discovered layering and allusion — anagrams with doctorates — I went full in, under the spell of Pale Fire and Appel’s Annotated Lolita and elective courses on hypertext fiction. I am sure the result would in many places embarrass me now, though at least I am still fond of this sample. I doubt I had the stylistic control to make all of my attempts at subversion be more than recapitulations. In retrospect, one character seems, within the strictures of a “romance” subplot, to be discovering their own asexuality. A better writer would have done more with that. And the motives of my off-screen villains now feel a bit too armchair, too intellectualized, when simple misogynist fury would suffice.

Also, I underplayed climate change, treating it as a diegetic justification for a mild surrealism, a reason for the world to be reshaped — under a spell, again, this time of Borges’ “Death and the Compass”.

You see, I finished that novel in 2008, when plenty was wrong with the world, but matters were sufficiently good for sufficiently many that it felt we could make things right, if we only worked hard.

When I was younger, I found that “Holy Writ” was habitually obscure, frequently cruel and almost always in need of an editor. Now, as we are poised to inherit the heated wind, I would add that the best reason to know the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac is to appreciate the twist ending that Wilfred Owen gave it:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

From Gender to Gleason

… or, The Case of Adam Becker’s What Is Real? (2018).

It is easy to argue that the founders of quantum mechanics made statements which are opaque and confusing. It is fair to say that their philosophical takes on the subject are not infrequently unsatisfying. We can all use reminders that human flaws and passions are a part of physics. So, it would be nice to have a popular book on these themes, one that makes no vital omissions, represents its sources accurately and lives up to its own ideals.

Sadly, we’re still waiting.

Full review (PDF).

In Re “CopenHagen” and “COLLAPSE”

I was having an e-mail conversation the other day with a friend from olden days — another MIT student who made it out with a physics degree the same year I did — and that led me to set down some thoughts about history and terminology that may be useful to share here.

My primary claim is the following:

We should really expunge the term “the Copenhagen interpretation” from our vocabularies.

What Bohr thought was not what Heisenberg thought, nor was it what Pauli thought; there was no single unified “Copenhagen interpretation” worthy of the name. Indeed, the term does not enter the written literature until the 1950s, and that was mostly due to Heisenberg acting like he and Bohr were more in agreement back in the 1920s than they actually had been.

For Bohr, the “collapse of the wavefunction” (or the “reduction of the wave packet”, or whatever you wish to call it) was not a singular concept tacked on to the dynamics, but an essential part of what the quantum theory meant. He considered any description of an experiment as necessarily beginning and ending in “classical language”. So, for him, there was no problem with ending up with a measurement outcome that is just a classical fact: You introduce “classical information” when you specify the problem, so you end up with “classical information” as a result. “Collapse” is not a matter of the Hamiltonian changing stochastically or anything like that, as caricatures of Bohr would have it, but instead, it’s a question of what writing a Hamiltonian means. For example, suppose you are writing the Schrödinger equation for an electron in a potential well. The potential function $V(x)$ that you choose depends upon your experimental arrangement — the voltages you put on your capacitor plates, etc. In the Bohrian view, the description of how you arrange your laboratory apparatus is in “classical language”, or perhaps he’d say “ordinary language, suitably amended by the concepts of classical physics”. Getting a classical fact at your detector is just the necessary flipside of starting with a classical account of your source.

(Yes, Bohr was the kind of guy who would choose the yin-yang symbol as his coat of arms.)

To me, the clearest expression of all this from the man himself is a lecture titled “The causality problem in atomic physics”, given in Warsaw in 1938 and published in the proceedings, New Theories in Physics, the following year. This conference is notable for several reasons, among them the fact that Hans Kramers, speaking both for himself and on behalf of Heisenberg, suggested that quantum mechanics could break down at high energies. More than a decade after what we today consider the establishment of the quantum theory, the pioneers of it did not all trust it in their bones; we tend to forget that nowadays.

As to how Heisenberg disagreed with Bohr, and what all this has to do with decoherence, I refer to Camilleri and Schlosshauer.

Do I find the Bohrian position that I outlined above satisfactory? No, I do not. Perhaps the most important reason why, the reason that emotionally cuts the most deeply, is rather like the concern which Rudolf Haag raised while debating Bohr in the early 1950s:

I tried to argue that we did not understand the status of the superposition principle. Why are pure states described as [rays] in a complex linear space? Approximation or deep principle? Niels Bohr did not understand why I should worry about this. Aage Bohr tried to explain to his father that I hoped to get inspiration about the direction for the development of the theory by analyzing the existing formal structure. Niels Bohr retorted: “But this is very foolish. There is no inspiration besides the results of the experiments.” I guess he did not mean that so absolutely but he was just annoyed. […] Five years later I met Niels Bohr in Princeton at a dinner in the house of Eugene Wigner. When I drove him afterwards to his hotel I apologized for my precocious behaviour in Copenhagen. He just waved it away saying: “We all have our opinions.”

Why rays? Why complex linear space? I want to know too.

The Mills of Institutional Review Boards

Back in 2017, nominal intellectuals Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay proved that they were willing to invest a lot of energy in lying. Not content to rest on those laurels, they joined with Helen Pluckrose and soon redoubled their efforts. I didn’t have much to say about their “Grievance Studies” brouhaha when that story broke last fall, apart from the observation that the Bogdanov brothers had a better success rate — six out of six bullshit papers accepted! — and I’m still waiting for Steven Pinker to call the whole of physics a heap of postmodern rubbish.

(He won’t; he’s too busy appropriating its respectability.)

Today, I learned that Boghossian’s institutional review board found that his actions in the “Grievance Studies” hoax constitute research misconduct.

EDIT TO ADD: Further commentary on the ethics of academic hoaxes.

Sporadic SICs and exceptional Lie algebras

A while back, I had a bit of a sprawling conversation about certain geometrical oddities over multiple threads at the n-Category Café. I finally got organized enough to gather these notes together, incorporating edits for clarity and recording one construction I haven’t found written in the literature anywhere.

Sometimes, mathematical oddities crowd in upon one another, and the exceptions to one classification scheme reveal themselves as fellow-travelers with the exceptions to a quite different taxonomy.

UPDATE (30 March 2019): Thanks to a kind offer by John Baez, we’re going through this material step-by-step over at a blog with a community, the n-Category Café:

  • Part 1: Definitions and preliminaries
  • Part 2: Qutrits and E6
  • Part 3: The Hoggar lines, E7 and E8

Triply Positive Matrices

One more paper to round out the year!

J. B. DeBrota, C. A. Fuchs and B. C. Stacey, “Triply Positive Matrices and Quantum Measurements Motivated by QBism” [arXiv:1812.08762].

We study a class of quantum measurements that furnish probabilistic representations of finite-dimensional quantum theory. The Gram matrices associated with these Minimal Informationally Complete quantum measurements (MICs) exhibit a rich structure. They are “positive” matrices in three different senses, and conditions expressed in terms of them have shown that the Symmetric Informationally Complete measurements (SICs) are in some ways optimal among MICs. Here, we explore MICs more widely than before, comparing and contrasting SICs with other classes of MICs, and using Gram matrices to begin the process of mapping the territory of all MICs. Moreover, the Gram matrices of MICs turn out to be key tools for relating the probabilistic representations of quantum theory furnished by MICs to quasi-probabilistic representations, like Wigner functions, which have proven relevant for quantum computation. Finally, we pose a number of conjectures, leaving them open for future work.

This is a sequel to our paper from May, and it contains one minor erratum for an article from 2013.

QBism and the Ithaca Desiderata

Time again for the New Paper Dance!

B. C. Stacey, “QBism and the Ithaca Desiderata” [arXiv:1812.05549].

In 1996, N. David Mermin proposed a set of desiderata for an understanding of quantum mechanics, the “Ithaca Interpretation”. In 2012, Mermin became a public advocate of QBism, an interpretation due to Christopher Fuchs and Ruediger Schack. Here, we evaluate QBism with respect to the Ithaca Interpretation’s six desiderata, in the process also evaluating those desiderata themselves. This analysis reveals a genuine distinction between QBism and the IIQM, but also a natural progression from one to the other.

The State Space of Quantum Mechanics is Redundant

There was some water-cooler talk around the office this past week about a paper by Masanes, Galley and Müller that hit the arXiv, and I decided to write up my thoughts about it for ease of future reference. In short, I have no reason yet to think that the math is wrong, but what they present as a condition on states seems more naturally to me like a condition on measurement outcomes. Upon making this substitution, the Masanes, Galley and Müller result comes much closer to resembling Gleason’s theorem than they say it does.

So, if you’re wanting for some commentary on quantum mechanics, here goes:
Continue reading The State Space of Quantum Mechanics is Redundant

Proceedings of the Royal Society of Smegheads

So, the news from a little while back was that a new Journal of Controversial Ideas is in the pipeline, with a big part of the motivation being to protect “academic freedom” from the (nonexistent) Campus Free Speech Crisis. If this sounds to you like a way for the hateful to spout toxic ravings about marginalized peoples from behind a screen of anonymity, then I’d say you have a low opinion of human nature, a low opinion that is entirely merited by the data. If it also sounds to you like a good way to part a mark from his dollar with “peer review” that amounts to a vanity pay-to-publish scheme, then I’d say your sense of cynicism is nicely calibrated.

When I heard about J. Con. Id., I couldn’t help thinking that I have myself supported some unpopular scientific opinions. A few times, that’s where my best professional judgment led me. When my colleagues and I have found ourselves in that position, we set forth our views by publishing … in Nature.

(I have to admit that the 2010 comment is not as strong as it could have been. It was a bit of a written-by-committee job, with all that that implies. I recommend that every young scientist go through that process … once. Better papers in the genre came later. And for my own part, I think I did a better job distinguishing all the confusing variants of terminology when I had more room to stretch, in Chapter 9 of arXiv:1509.02958.)

The Rise of Ironic Physics and/or Machine Physicists?

CONTENT ADVISORY: old-fashioned blog snarkery about broad trends in physics.

Over on his blog, Peter Woit quotes a scene from the imagination of John Horgan, whose The End of Science (1996) visualized physics falling into a twilight:

A few diehards dedicated to truth rather than practicality will practice physics in a nonempirical, ironic mode, plumbing the magical realm of superstrings and other esoterica and fret­ting about the meaning of quantum mechanics. The conferences of these ironic physicists, whose disputes cannot be experimentally resolved, will become more and more like those of that bastion of literary criticism, the Modern Language Association.

OK (*cracks knuckles*), a few points. First, “fretting about the meaning of quantum mechanics” has, historically, been damn important. A lot of quantum information theory came out of people doing exactly that, just with equations. The productive way of “fretting” involves plumbing the meaning of quantum mechanics by finding what new capabilities quantum mechanics can give you. Let’s take one of the least blue-sky applications of quantum information science: securing communications with quantum key distribution. Why trust the security of quantum key distribution? There’s a whole theory behind the idea, one which depends upon the quantum de Finetti theorem. Why is there a quantum de Finetti theorem in a form that physicists could understand and care about? Because Caves, Fuchs and Schack wanted to prove that the phrase “unknown quantum state” has a well-defined meaning for personalist Bayesians.

This example could be augmented with many others. (I selfishly picked one where I could cite my own collaborator.)

It’s illuminating to quote the passage from Horgan’s book just before the one that Woit did:

This is the fate of physics. The vast majority of physicists, those employed in industry and even academia, will continue to apply the knowledge they already have in hand—inventing more versatile lasers and superconductors and computing devices—without worrying about any underlying philosophical issues.

But there just isn’t a clean dividing line between “underlying philosophical issues” and “more versatile computing devices”! In fact, the foundational question of what the nature of “quantum states” really are overlaps with the question of which quantum computations can be emulated on a classical computer, and how some preparations are better resources for quantum computers than others. Flagrantly disregarding attempts to draw a boundary line between “foundations” and “applications” is my day job now, but quantum information was already getting going in earnest during the mid-1990s, so this isn’t a matter of hindsight. (Feynman wasn’t the first to talk about quantum computing, but he was certainly influential, and the motivations he spelled out were pretty explicitly foundational. Benioff, who preceded Feynman, was also interested in foundational matters, and even said as much while building quantum Hamiltonians for Turing machines.) And since Woit’s post was about judging whether a prediction held up or not, I feel pretty OK applying a present-day standard anyway.

In short: Meaning matters.

But then, Horgan’s book gets the Einstein–Podolsky—Rosen thought-experiment completely wrong, and I should know better than to engage with what any book like that on the subject of what quantum mechanics might mean.

To be honest, Horgan is unfair to the Modern Language Association. Their convention program for January 2019 indicates a community that is actively engaged in the world, with sessions about the changing role of journalism, how the Internet has enabled a new kind of “public intellectuals”, how to bring African-American literature into summer reading, the dynamics of organized fandoms, etc. In addition, they plainly advertise sessions as open to the public, which I can only barely imagine a physics conference doing more than a nominal jab at. Their public sessions include a film screening of a documentary about the South African writer and activist Peter Abrahams, as well as workshops on practical skills like how to cite sources. That’s not just valuable training, but also a topic that is actively evolving: How do you cite a tweet, or an archived version of a Wikipedia page, or a post on a decentralized social network like Mastodon?

Dragging the sciences for supposedly resembling the humanities has not grown more endearing since 1996.
Continue reading The Rise of Ironic Physics and/or Machine Physicists?

What I Do

At the moment, I’m taking a quick break from reading some rather dense mathematical prose, and I spent yesterday plugging away at a draft of my research group’s next technical publication. This led me to reflect on a lesson that I think a lot of science education leaves out: Even in a technical article, you have to have a story to carry the progression through. “These are all the boffo weird roadside attractions we found while proving the theorems in our last paper” is honest, but not adequate.

Our research project is the reconstruction of the mathematical formalism of quantum theory from physical principles. We tease apart the theory, identify what is robustly strange about it — for many more quantum phenomena can be emulated with classical stochasticity than are often appreciated — and try to build a new representation that brings the most remarkable features of the physics to the forefront. In special relativity, we have Einstein’s postulates, and the dramatic tension between them: Inertial observers can come to agree upon the laws of physics, but they cannot agree upon a standard of rest. In thermodynamics, we have the Four Laws, which come with their own dramatic tension, in that energy is conserved while entropy is nondecreasing. Both of these theories are expressed in terms of what agents can and cannot do, yet they are more than “mere” engineering, because they apply to all agents. Or, to say it another way, it is to the benefit of any agent to pick up the theory and use it as a guide.

What, then, is the analogue for quantum theory? If the textbook presentation of quantum physics is like the formulae for the Lorentz transform, with all those square roots and whatnot, or the Maxwell relations in thermo, with all those intermingling partial derivatives that we invent hacks about determinants to remember, what is quantum theory’s version of Einstein’s postulates or the Four Laws?

That’s the grandiose version, anyway. The reason I got invited to speak at an American Mathematical Society meeting is that the geometric structures that arise in this work are vexingly fascinating. You want about Galois fields and Hilbert’s 12th problem? We’ve got ’em! How about sphere packing and unexpected octonions? We’ve got those, too! And the structure that leads down the latter path turns out, on top of that, to yield a new way of thinking about Mermin’s 3-qubit Bell inequality. It is all lovely, and it is all strange.

The SIC problem gives us the opportunity to travel all throughout mathematics, because, while the definition looks pretty small, the question is bigger on the inside.

"no matter how gifted, you alone cannot change the world"