Einstein’s beef with quantum physics, explained


JIM AL-KHALILI: Einstein is famous for giving us the special theory of relativity. The fact that nothing goes faster than light, time is the fourth dimension, but he did not find the equations. It was the interpretation, the retelling of the equations, and it’s the same with any other theory in physics. With quantum mechanics, it’s different. We have the equations of quantum mechanics, but we cannot agree on what this equation means.

Schrodinger’s equation being the most famous, we can turn the crank and produce numbers from the equation, but the narrative, the story, the explanation is always something we discuss. And it bothers me. At the end of the 19th century, it was already known that we needed new physics to explain mysterious phenomena – radio activity similar to x-rays, that energy seemed to come out of nowhere, to understand the behavior or the structure of the atom, and so when quantum mechanics came about, it wasn’t because physicists were sitting around scratching their heads thinking, “There must be a deeper understanding of the nature of reality.”

I know, let’s invent quantum mechanics.” It was forced on physicists because of inexplicable experimental results. It’s a fuzzy, probabilistic world. Things never behave in a certain way, atoms can have two energies in same time., electrons can be in two places at the same time, particles are not discrete, small clumps, sometimes they can behave like spread probability waves, it’s really on a level far beyond anything we can visualize or imagine. If we think of everyday objects, a tennis ball for example, subject to the laws of Newtonian mechanics; you go down, orders of magnitude, down to a millimeter, down to a micrometer, down to the scale of individual cells or bacteria, eventually when you get down to something like a billionth of a meter, then you start to encounter the fuzziness of the quantum world.

The founding fathers of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, people like the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli – and they realized they could make predictions for measurement results, but you don’t link with the real world only if you look. That’s how they got away with not needing a narrative, the ‘shut up and calculate the interpretation’, more accurately, it’s called the ‘Copenhagen narrative’. But now many physicists, myself included, argue that it’s not a narrative at all, it’s a burying your head in the sand approach.

Einstein was very unhappy with that, in fact, he said, “No, look, the job of physics is to know and understand how the world is, not just to make predictions about the results of experiments and that kind of thing. of an operationalist view. Well, okay, that’s helpful, but it doesn’t give us any real understanding.” This is why we still need a narrative. The knowledge of quantum mechanics along with Einstein’s theories of relativity really gave us the modern world. We wouldn’t have developed an understanding of materials and how they conduct electricity, so we wouldn’t have understood semiconductors, we wouldn’t have developed silicon chips, so we wouldn’t have of computers. I would not speak here in this medium today without our quantum understanding. But there are aspects of the quantum world that are more mysterious.

Quantum entanglement, for example, the idea that, say, two electrons separated in space can nevertheless somehow behave in a coordinated way. There are speculative ideas about whether space itself is connected via quantum entanglement. We don’t all need to be experts in quantum mechanics, even the smartest quantum physicists don’t know how things work inside their smartphones, but we will develop ideas like quantum cryptography, quantum computing, quantum sensors – these are ideas and technologies that are going to affect us in our daily lives, so we need to have enough appreciation for science just to know what to trust, who to do trust.

As we peel layers of onions from the nature of reality, we uncover deeper mysteries within. But it’s also true that we’re learning more, we’re becoming more enlightened, we know a lot about how the world works now, but that doesn’t mean we’ve come to the end of the road. No, I think there’s going to be more weirdness to come and that’s great. I can’t wait.

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