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?