Category Archives: Quantum mechanics

Polchinski on Smolin on Polchinski on Smolin

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll has just posted a guest essay by Joe Polchinski replying to Lee Smolin’s response to Polchinski’s review of Smolin’s book. I managed to snag the first comment spot; I predict that Peter Woit will show up within ten. With any luck, the ensuing comments will contain much good talk about physics, though the signal-to-noise ratio is a perennial problem. (Even Sean admits that he doesn’t read every comment.)

I would like to skim past several details of the physics and pull out for special consideration a passage of Polchinski’s which concerns, ironically, what happens when you think in text instead of physics:

This process of translation of an idea from words to calculation will be familiar to any theoretical physicist. It is often the hardest part of a problem, and the point where the greatest creativity enters. Many word-ideas die quickly at this point, or are transmuted or sharpened. Had you applied it to your word-ideas, you would probably have quickly recognized their falsehood. Further, over-reliance on the imprecise language of words is surely correlated with the tendency to confuse scientific arguments with sociological ones.

Polchinski is speaking about the standards one must maintain while doing science, but similar concerns apply to the process of explaining science. Of course, the latter process is one ingredient in the former, but we often think of “popularizing” (or vulgarisation if we want to be Gallic) as a distinct enterprise from communicating with fellow researchers and educating the next round of students. John Armstrong’s recent post on this topic addresses the same question from the opposite direction: according to Polchinski, going from words to equations is the hard part of getting work done, while Armstrong points out that when “vulgarizing” the science, that’s the very step we omit!

Armstrong amplified his point in the comments here at Sunclipse:

Roger Penrose noted specifically in his introduction to The Road To Reality that modern physics is no longer accessible to anyone — specialists included — except through the mathematics. We understand quantum field theory as well as we do because we understand the mathematics. To avoid the mathematics in its entirely [sic] cuts the legs out from under any popularization of physics, and risks becoming The Tao of Physics or The Dancing Wu Li Masters.

Continue reading Polchinski on Smolin on Polchinski on Smolin

The Unapologetic Mathematician on Popularization

John Armstrong has a short and sweet post on popularizing mathematics and physics which is worth reading in its entirety. I don’t want to quote the whole thing, so just go read it.

Incidentally, he says he was inspired to write the post by the movie Mindwalk (1990). I had only ever heard of this flick because they’d stuck a preview for it on the Brief History of Time video I rented sometime in the late nineties. I then managed to forget about it until a few weeks ago, when I was poking through Wikipedia for articles containing pseudoscience. Somehow, in the tangled thicket of pages growing like weeds upon quantum mysticism and Choprawoo, I found Mindwalk. “Aha! I remember seeing a preview for that movie.”

A Quarter of Everything

I have just two quibbles with this New Yorker article on the Large Hadron Collider to which Scott Aaronson directed my attention. First, throughout her informative story, Elizabeth Kolbert consistently abbreviates “Large Hadron Collider” as “L.H.C.” I’ve yet to see anybody in the physics community use the periods when they write “LHC.” Is this some official policy which we, the project’s website and the rest of the Internet just are too lazy to follow? Or are these strange little dots the product of a New Yorker in-house style guide demanding their presence based on some holier-than-Sinai rule about tiny ink specks? If the latter is the case, the foolish prescriptivist responsible needs an introduction to my friend the clue-by-four.

My second and marginally more serious complaint involves the following passage from page five:
Continue reading A Quarter of Everything

Recycled Rant: the Quantum Mind

This is a topic which seems to come up with depressing regularity, so I figure I should put my stance on the record. The bulk of this post is recycled from a Memoirs of a Skepchick comment thread.

For various reasons, I am extremely skeptical of the notion that consciousness could be rooted in quantum phenomena. Of course, the entire world is quantum, in a sense: it’s the principles of quantum mechanics which determine the properties of materials out of which the world is made. Like Democritus of Abdera said twenty-five hundred years ago, “Nothing exists save atoms and the void”, and quantum physics constitutes the rules by which atoms play.

The challenge, then, is not to say “all is quantum” (a statement with no more content, by itself, than saying “all is love”). In what way do the strange and esoteric mathematical descriptions of the atomic and sub-atomic world build up the everyday stuff with which we are so familiar? This is a deep problem, one with many mysteries left to resolve, and physicists spend lots of time worrying about it. One thing which we do know is that when you put a lot of quantum particles together, at a certain point they stop acting in the quantum way and become better approximated by Newton’s laws of classical mechanics. This is odd, because if you put a pile of classical pieces together, you get a bigger classical object! Newton’s laws reproduce themselves at higher scales, but the quantum laws do not.

It’s a bit like discovering that all the ordinary houses on your ordinary street are made of bricks from Faerie.
Continue reading Recycled Rant: the Quantum Mind

Favorite Paper Title of the Day

J. D. Bashford, I. Tsohantjis, P. D. Jarvis (3 February 1998). “A supersymmetric model for the evolution of the genetic codePNAS 95 (3): 987–992.

The application of group theoretical methods to spectroscopy is today part of the accepted set of techniques for the analysis of many body systems in physics. In the present paper, we consider models for the symmetries of the genetic code by using the classical Lie superalgebras. We claim that, beyond the physical language of spectroscopy in which the method is couched, the group theoretical technique is indeed able to give a succinct account of many of the currently understood aspects of the evolution of the genetic code and the observed degeneracy structure of the codon-amino acid correspondences. We present one particular model, based on the Lie superalgebra A(5,0) ≅ sl(6/1), which has many natural structural features for this purpose that conform with observation. We argue that the model is susceptible to numerical verification by using the wealth of data that are available on biologically important molecules related to DNA.

See related and citing articles in Google Scholar.

Press Release from AdS/CFT Territory

The good folks at Princeton have been beavering away at the esoteric, abstrusely mathematical yet infinitely tantalizing relationships between string theories and gauge theories. The latter are the rather well-respected mathematical descriptions of how the bits and pieces of atomic nuclei interact; the former is what you get when you look at the dawn of time, the centers of black holes and the other places where our understanding throws up its hands, and you jump in with both feet. Or, at least that’s what string theory was, back in 1997 or so.

Today, we’ve come to recognize that physics has a strange property: ideas you invent in one place pop their heads up where you never expected. Thus, supersymmetry — a mathematical concept invented in the 1970s to make string theory look a little more like the real world — branched off to become its own field of inquiry. In trying to figure out the implications of supersymmetry, Ed Witten and company invented supersymmetric quantum mechanics, which (among other things) gives you a wickedly delightful insight into all the problems professors use to torture their undergraduate physics students in Quantum Mechanics I.

The journey from string theory to SUSY QM leaves behind the essential “stringiness” of the original theory, but over the past several years, we’ve seen a whole slew of results which suggest that the math invented to quantize gravity, break the hearts of black holes and hold the Big Bang in our hands is also applicable to other, more accessible situations. Does this mean that string theory is the right path to quantizing gravity and all the rest? No, not necessarily. Does it mean that we can get our teeth into the equations and use experiments to see if at least some of our ideas work? Yes. Is knowing about this arena of activity a key part of understanding what physicists are doing today? Again, the answer is yes.

You can really hear the writer stretching for metaphors in the ScienceDaily story based on Princeton’s press release: “Between the two road sections lay a seemingly unbridgeable mathematical gulf”, etc. If you look at the paper which provoked this release, or even its abstract, you can appreciate why the press office’s language gets so tortured:

In two remarkable recent papers the planar perturbative expansion was proposed for the universal function of the coupling appearing in the dimensions of high-spin operators of the N=4 super Yang-Mills theory. We study numerically the integral equation derived by Beisert, Eden, and Staudacher, which resums the perturbative series. In a confirmation of the anti–de Sitter-space/conformal-field-theory (AdS/CFT) correspondence, we find a smooth function whose two leading terms at strong coupling match the results obtained for the semiclassical folded string spinning in AdS5. We also make a numerical prediction for the third term in the strong coupling series.

Clear as a kegger in a mud pit.

The press release tries to draw a layman-friendly picture, as I mentioned. At a slightly higher level of mathiness are Barton Zwiebach’s String Theory for Pedestrians lecture videos. (Yes, that’s the same Zwiebach who taught the class and wrote the book.) The AdS/CFT correspondence stuff appears in the second and third lectures of the three-lecture series.

(Tip o’ the string theorist’s beret to Peter Steinberg.)

Even Though Mom Is Watching

I have to post about Quantum Tantra.

I’m a very ambitious physicist; I was trained at Stanford. I want not merely to find a new particle or equation but to discover an entirely new way of doing science. Quantum tantra aims to put humans in direct touch with nature without the mediation of instruments, without even those instruments called the senses. My needs are simple: I’d like to invent a truly gooey interface that connects my mind to other minds in the Universe. Modern physics is fully erect science; quantum tantra is physics on all fours.

Touching nature directly, and without the senses, eh? Sounds like, ahem, Tanuki-sized bollocks. Honestly, now, who wants to have sex where each motion is too tiny to be detected, and as soon as she observes you getting ready, your wavefunction collapses? (Besides, if there were anything legitimate in this, Richard Feynman would have discovered it already.)

This does, oddly, synchronize with the Attack of the Skinny Vixens which Dr. Joan Bushwell so kindly warns us about. Dr. Bushwell alerts us to this BBC story whose tagline reads, “Scientists are developing a pill which could boost women’s libido and reduce their appetite.” (Gee, I thought we were all supposed to be hunting down the God particle.) According to the BBC, Prof. Robert Millar of the Medical Research Council’s Human Reproduction Unit (in Edinburgh) believes that a pill based on “Type 2 Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone” will ramp up the libido of the human female whilst simultaneously lowering her appetite. Hey, it works with monkeys and shrews!
Continue reading Even Though Mom Is Watching

New Scientist, the EmDrive and the Wobosphere

shnood: (roughly) an imposter; a person oblivious to just how trivial or wrong his ideas are.

“Were there any interesting speakers at the conference?”
“No, just a bunch of shnoods.

“The magazine New Scientist loves to feature shnoods on the cover.”

Note: someone who’s utterly contemptible would not be a shnood, but rather a schmuck.

— Scott Aaronson (27 May 2006)

Those of you interested in the way the Wobosphere functions as a disputation arena (“We Can Fact-Check Yo’ Ass!”) may be interested in the following sordid tale of intrigue and skullduggery. I originally wrote most of this last October, in a lengthy comment on David Brin’s blog. The moral of the story, insofar as I can find one, is this: if you say that you can move your car forward by bouncing a soccer ball back and forth inside it fifty thousand times, you’ll get a quizzical look (at best). If you say the same thing but with “microwave photons” instead of soccer balls, you’re reporting on cutting-edge science!

Back in September, New Scientist magazine published an article on the “EmDrive”, a machine purportedly able to propel itself using microwaves bouncing inside a box. Those of us who remember the Dean drive and umpty-ump other wonder machines have no trouble recognizing this as the same old stuff: like all the wonder-powered spacedrives before it, it can only putter forward by violating the conservation of momentum. New Scientist‘s reportage provoked science-fiction writer Greg Egan to write an open letter saying he was “gobsmacked by the level of scientific illiteracy” the magazine showed.

So it goes, as they say on Tralfamadore. Claims of exotic spacedrives fuelled by violations of fundamental physics are, sadly but understandably, about twopence a dozen. The aspect of the affair which Egan found truly disturbing — indeed, reprehensible — was the way New Scientist glibly provided a “news” piece full of pseudoscientific gibberish purely to justify how the EmDrive might work. (Their argument really pushed the limits of the absurd, too: Einstein’s relativity has momentum conservation built into its mathematical structure, so you can’t use relativity jargon like “reference frames” to sidestep the conservation law.)

Egan posted his letter to the moderated Usenet group sci.physics.research, and the physicist John Baez put a copy on the blog he co-hosts, The n-Category Cafe. This spurred enough people to write New Scientist that the magazine opened a blog thread to discuss the issue, opening with a self-exusing note from the editor, Jeremy Webb. (Said note, as far as I can tell, satisfied nobody.)
Continue reading New Scientist, the EmDrive and the Wobosphere

I Guess It’s a Deuteron

Seed has just offered the world a “Cribsheet” on string theory. It looks pretty slick, although their portrayal of a “hydrogen atom” seems to have an extra nucleon (as Wolfgang notes in the Cosmic Variance thread). I’m inclined to forgive the multiple electron orbits, since they only show one actual electron — and besides, ellipses aren’t that great a way of drawing orbitals anyway.

(Incidentally, if you want to see orbitals in video, check out episode 51 of The Mechanical Universe, available for free online via Annenberg Media.)

They do cite Barton Zwiebach’s First Course in String Theory (2004), which gives me a slight tinge of pride. I mean, somebody had to work the problems in the last five chapters to see if they were solvable by students and not just professors.

The portion of this post below the fold is a rough draft of several different rants, developed in embryonic form and smushed together. Read only if you’re exceptionally curious.
Continue reading I Guess It’s a Deuteron

Where Was I When They Were Passing Out the Wit?

Scott Aaronson has a new comment policy:

If you reject an overwhelming consensus on some issue in the hard sciences — whether it’s evolution, or general relativity, or climate change, or anything else — this blog is an excellent place to share your concerns with the world. Indeed, you’re even welcome to derail discussion of completely unrelated topics by posting lengthy rants against the academic orthodoxy — the longer and angrier the better! However, if you wish to do this, I respectfully ask that you obey the following procedure:

1. Publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal setting out the reasons for your radical departure from accepted science.
2. Reference the paper in your rant.

If you attempt to skip to the “rant” part without going through this procedure, your comments will be deleted without warning. Repeat offenders will be permanently banned from the blog. Life is short. I make no apologies.

It looks like Dave Bacon can now talk about time travel, but my own conspiracy theories will have to wait. But soon, I promise, the real meaning behind supersymmetric quantum mechanics will be made clear. They laughed at me when I suggested that the BPS interpretation of shape invariance may have a non-topological origin. The fools — I’ll show them all!
Continue reading Where Was I When They Were Passing Out the Wit?

Russell Blackford on Human Enhancement

I’m not sure when the idea of “human enhancement” first bubbled up in my brain. It seems to be one of those possibilities which I just grew up with, thanks to a childhood lost in books. In Cosmos, Carl Sagan wrote,

There must be ways of putting nucleic acids together that will function far better — by any criterion we choose — than any human being who has ever lived. Fortunately, we do not yet know how to assemble alternative sequences of nucleotides to make alternative kinds of human beings. In the future we may well be able to assemble nucleotides in any desired sequence, to produce whatever characteristics we think desirable — a sobering and disquieting prospect.

The video version ends with “awesome and disquieting prospect,” by the way. Sagan’s friend Isaac Asimov was a little more cheerful; while dying of AIDS, he concluded the revision of his book The Human Brain with these words:

Man would then, by his own exertions, become more than man, and what might not be accomplished thereafter? It is quite certain, I am sure, that none of us will live to see the far-distant time when this might come to pass. And yet, the mere thought that such a day might some day come, even though it will not dawn on my own vision, is a profoundly satisfying one.

Continue reading Russell Blackford on Human Enhancement