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100 years of Einstein!
December 30, 2004 8:36 PM   Subscribe

Einstein's miraculous centenary - "A century after Einstein's miracle year, most people still do not understand exactly what it was he did. Here, we attempt to elucidate." [oh and, also see :]
posted by kliuless (68 comments total)

 
Einstein will be remembered for his mistakes ...
posted by lacus at 9:02 PM on December 30, 2004


To summarize: In 1905, Einstein, a young patent clerk published four papers which:

1) Introduced a revolutionary new theory of Relativity

2) Laid down the basis for Quantum Mechanics (The Photo-electric effect paper)

3) Established the size and existence of Molecules

4) Laid down the basis for what many years later would come to be known as Chaos Theory (His paper on Brownian Motion, a simple stochastic process)

Yeah, I'd say that was a good year for him...
posted by vacapinta at 9:04 PM on December 30, 2004


I dont agree lacus. What mistakes are you referring to?

As the article points out (did you read it?) Einstein's attacks on Quantum Mechanics only made it stronger and teased out all sorts of subtleties. His EPR paradox illustrates this really well. Neat stuff like Quantum Teleportation arises directly out of Einstein's criticisms.

Also, what he called "his greatest mistake" his introduction of the cosmological constant in Relativity, well, the book isnt closed on that one and it appears that he may have been right after all.
posted by vacapinta at 9:35 PM on December 30, 2004


That was a really cool one. Basically, Einstein's relativity theory predicted that the entire universe was expanding -- this ran up against the prevailing wisdom of the time, that it was stationary, so he tweaked the equations with an arbitrary term (the Cosmological Constant) to cancel the expansion out. A decade later (give or take) Hubble showed that the universe was indeed expanding.
posted by Tlogmer at 9:52 PM on December 30, 2004


I'm going with the assumption that if you want to impart the wisdom of Einstein to the masses, you shouldn't be using words like "elucidate."
posted by efalk at 9:54 PM on December 30, 2004


Remember in that movie "Young Einstein" where it explained how he invented carbonated beer, the electric guitar, and rock 'n roll? That was awesome.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 10:05 PM on December 30, 2004


sigh.
posted by Dean Keaton at 10:14 PM on December 30, 2004


From the article:

"The first was that chance plays a fundamental role in the interactions of elementary particles, and therefore in the way the world works. Physics, up to that point in history, had been “deterministic”. Consequence followed cause with no room for uncertainty. But uncertainty is at the core of quantum mechanics. It is there in the form of Werner Heisenberg's famous “uncertainty principle” that it is impossible to measure both the speed and the location of an object with precision. And it is there in the form of Erwin Schrödinger's equally famous cat, which is simultaneously dead and alive because its fate depends on the quantum properties of an object whose state is indeterminate (rather than merely unknown) until it is measured."

I've never understood the conclusion that the universe is fundamentally indeterministic. Why is uncertainty an ontological reality rather than an epistemological barrier? How is that proved?
posted by Gyan at 10:15 PM on December 30, 2004


To add, I know that no one has 'proved' it, given that Bohm contrived an interpretation to show that the notion of strict determinism is not incompatible with QM. Also, the Nobel laureate 't Hooft believes in determinism(PDF), regardless of the validity of his particular ideas.
posted by Gyan at 10:22 PM on December 30, 2004


A while back there was a fellow living in a cave in LosAlamos
his web site has a correction of Einstein's theory concerning gravity His theory concerns the unseen gravionic force btw
I am not a physicist
posted by hortense at 11:20 PM on December 30, 2004


I've never understood the conclusion that the universe is fundamentally indeterministic. Why is uncertainty an ontological reality rather than an epistemological barrier? How is that proved?

there can be no final proof of anything in physics. only observation and refinement.
posted by muppetboy at 11:25 PM on December 30, 2004


ah! yes. Einstein. The man is one of the main figures of 20th century physics, undoubtedly. But, I have been wondering why people are seemingly so Einstein-stricken? Modern physics is a painstaking effort of generations of modern and not-so-modern scientists. Why don't we hear/read so much about Maxwell, for example? And what is the allure of physics on people? Why don't we single out Watson? disclaimer: I am a physist myself so not so bothered by it, just wondering :-)
posted by carmina at 11:29 PM on December 30, 2004


Re: micromike... wtf is a gravion? Or graviation, for that matter?
posted by squidlarkin at 11:32 PM on December 30, 2004


I meant to use this as my first link
posted by hortense at 11:36 PM on December 30, 2004


May I command your attention to this brief on-topic plug for Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe." Really nice review of special and general relativity, then quantum mechanics, then the most lucid explanation I've seen to date of string and superstring theory.

I should disclaim that I took (passed, even) two years of physics at Harvard, including a semester of relativity and another of quantum mechanics, but it's all rather foggy now and I don't suppose I'm any better at understanding this stuff than your average clever layman.

Einstein was a great genius; granted even a minimum of justice, he will be remembered 2000 years hence when every other living figure from the last century has been forgotten. The mistake people make, I think, is thinking of his cute little face, odd habits, and bizarre little quotations collected on science calendars when they call his name to mind.

His enduring legacy is the equations.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:38 PM on December 30, 2004


muppetboy: there can be no final proof of anything in physics. only observation and refinement.

Does not apply. Everything is subject to change, including beliefs and foundations. Nevertheless, for practical purposes, beliefs are held, axioms are accepted. The article (and many others) claim that chance is fundamental, and not just a label as a result of our uncertainty. How?
posted by Gyan at 11:40 PM on December 30, 2004


Why is uncertainty an ontological reality rather than an epistemological barrier?

Science really isn't capable of making ontological conclusions: it is essentially an epistemological system. Anyone who tells you that the indeterminacy apparent in quantum systems indicates an essential indeterminacy in reality is blowing smoke up your ass. Doesn't the fact that the observation is part of the uncertainty principle clue you into the epistemological nature of the endeavor?

I am not a physicist

No shit?
posted by mr_roboto at 11:42 PM on December 30, 2004


Science really isn't capable of making ontological conclusions: it is essentially an epistemological system. Anyone who tells you that the indeterminacy apparent in quantum systems indicates an essential indeterminacy in reality is blowing smoke up your ass. Doesn't the fact that the observation is part of the uncertainty principle clue you into the epistemological nature of the endeavor?

Yes, I'm clued in. Thank You Very Much. I'm wondering why so many aren't, as illustrated by the Economist article block I quoted.
posted by Gyan at 11:52 PM on December 30, 2004


Sorry. Your earlier comments made it seem like you thought there was some sort of "proof". I didn't realize you were being disingenuous.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:56 PM on December 30, 2004


And while I was googling trivia on Einstein's popularity I found this instead. And in there, Einstein’s Controversy with Drude and the Origin of Statistical Mechanics: A New Glimpse from the “Love Letters’’(PDF).
ok, back to googling...
posted by carmina at 12:03 AM on December 31, 2004


I really like reading stuff like this. Thank you. Kind of makes me feel like "Ogre" from "Revenge of the Nerds," though.
"What if 'C-A-T' really spelled 'dog'?"
posted by PossumCowboy at 1:19 AM on December 31, 2004


Anyone who tells you that the indeterminacy apparent in quantum systems indicates an essential indeterminacy in reality is blowing smoke up your ass

Not really. In fact, the underlying indeterminacy theory is the commonly held view among physicists. The attempts to show the opposite is true, the so-called hidden variable theories have all had their problems and while they haven't been disproved have also been deemed to be inelegant.

Physics is not just epistemology. For many systems there are often many underlying explanations. This is where principles such as economy, beauty, simplicity are favored when looking for a program to move forward.

A lot of people, like Einstein, have had a problem with the idea that the universe at its smallest core is fundamentally indeterminate but its actually the *simplest* way of describing things that we have today.
posted by vacapinta at 1:43 AM on December 31, 2004


mr_roboto: Anyone who tells you that the indeterminacy apparent in quantum systems indicates an essential indeterminacy in reality is blowing smoke up your ass.

Obviously you're not a physicist (not that I am, I'm only an undergrad major, and with poor grades at that, so take what I say with a grain of salt).

The reason why Einstein disliked quantum physics so much was that in fact it DOES indicate an essential indeterminacy in reality. ("God does not play dice", etc.) His arguments with Bohr on this point are legendary. Hidden variable theories have more or less been shown false (e.g., EPR experiment), and the only kinds that remain have to postulate ridiculous amounts of "stuff we can't know but it's there, really!" and MUST BE NON-LOCAL, which make it half-assed already for people who want to preserve the "intuitive" picture of reality.

Gyan: I've never understood the conclusion that the universe is fundamentally indeterministic. Why is uncertainty an ontological reality rather than an epistemological barrier? How is that proved?

Well, the point is that uncertainty doesn't mean "we don't know what it is, but it's there" - it means "we don't know it because it's not there to be measured in the first place". Various interpretations can get around bits and pieces of stuff we consider "ugly", but not all of them. So far the interpretations either must be a) non-deterministic b) non-local c) postulate the existence of infinite parallel universes. Many-worlds is local and deterministic but require infinite universes. Hidden variables are deterministic but require non-locality, and most most physicists dislike it because it seems to be a cop-out. The Copenhagen interpretation avoids hidden variables but is non-deterministic and incomplete by definition.

I'd say more but I got a B- in Modern Physics. Haha.
posted by aerify at 3:10 AM on December 31, 2004


Attributed incorrectly. That's muppetboy, not Gyan.
posted by aerify at 3:11 AM on December 31, 2004


vacapinta, it's less that he opposed quantum physics than the WAY he did it. He was almost religious in his refusal to accept the overwhelming evidence, and near the end of his career admitted that he had made himself pretty much irrelevant with his foolish idealism.

Also, what he called "his greatest mistake" his introduction of the cosmological constant in Relativity, well, the book isnt closed on that one and it appears that he may have been right after all.

He was spectacularly wrong. He included it because he wanted the universe to be static - not a very scientific reason. There might, in fact, be a cosmological constant, but most certainly NOT for the reasons he proposed. Quantum vacuum fluctuations have something to do with it, but, um, my class on that is next semester.
posted by aerify at 3:16 AM on December 31, 2004


hortense, that guy sounds like a crackpot to me. There are a million people out there who claim to have proven Einstein wrong/correct/the Messiah, and most of them don't work for universities ;)
posted by aerify at 3:17 AM on December 31, 2004


Of course the cosmological constant was spectacularly wrong. But it was only spectacularly wrong because the theory it was altering was spectacularly right. At the time astronomers hadn't yet discovered anything outside the galaxy -- the galaxy and the universe were synonymous -- a guy with a pencil and paper figured out that the entire universe was expanding. (It wasn't Einstein, but Einstein's equations were the ones being used.)
posted by Tlogmer at 4:55 AM on December 31, 2004


The only thing constant is change.
Here's to the next hundred years.
posted by kamylyon at 5:45 AM on December 31, 2004


Aerify I dont know If he is a crack pot or not but his theory
of gravity is elegant IMHO.

Gravions represent the basic connections of gravity. Modern science has been confused for some time about the role of gravity in nature. Mankind has been searching for a "particle" that carries gravity. But particles, or mass, don't represent gravity. Particles represent mass. Philosophically, mass represents identity for all things that exist and gravity represents the relationship of those "things" that exist, in any universe. To define the relationship of any two masses, gravity must somehow connect these masses. Therefore, gravity must be the series of bonds and connections that make up all real things, and all bonds of all types between all masses, must be graviational in nature.. Thus every bond between every mass must be a connection of gravity, or a gravion. Once one understands the role of gravity, one can see that gravity must represent all connections between all masses that exist in the real world.

Since gravity defines the relationship between all masses, it must be responsible for defining the space that exists between the masses. Gravions, therefore, define all space as we know it. Einstein thought that space was Euclidean, that is, made up of three dimensions measured at right angles to each other. He thought that gravity then "bent" this somehow "straight" space. But what he didn't realize is that gravity must define the space and must define it from each mass outward. Nature does this by extending gravions outward to define the space of their existence. The more mass, the larger the gravions reach out and the more "space" they define. Einstein assumed that the speed of gravity must be infinite, because that is what we assume about our own coordinate systems in math. But in a relativistic cosmos, there is no universal Euclidean coordinate system and these gravions must extend out at a speed that is faster than the things that move within the system, but yet they must move at a speed that is less than infinity, or else exist outside of time. So gravity "moves" at the speed of light squared, as defined in the universal energy equation E=gmc2
posted by hortense at 5:53 AM on December 31, 2004


Einstein thought that space was Euclidean, that is, made up of three dimensions measured at right angles to each other. He thought that gravity then "bent" this somehow "straight" space.

No, that's wrong. Einstein used Riemannian Geometry, not just Euclidian.

Einstein assumed that the speed of gravity must be infinite, because that is what we assume about our own coordinate systems in math...So gravity "moves" at the speed of light squared

Again, wrong. One striking aspect of general relativity is its prediction that gravity propogates at the speed of light (not squared). Do a search for "frame dragging" for some cool recent evidence for this.

I don't know enough physics to address the other points, but I know enough that they seem a bit incoherent.
posted by Tlogmer at 6:11 AM on December 31, 2004


Carmina, I suspect part of the appeal of Einstein has to do with the idea that a lowly patent clerk, working on his own as a hobby, could displace Isaac Newton's explanation of how the universe functions.

Combine that with the ideas appearing to be so counter-intuitive to the laymen, the popular perception is that Einstein's work was a great leap of creativity. Now, it may have been that the math would have dictated that relativity would have been theorized by another physicist, but the popular idea that Einstein is riding the tram to work, looking at the clock tower at the end of the tram line, and thinking to himself "I wonder what the clock would look like if I was traveling at the speed of light?". And the musings of a clerk change man's understanding of the universe? Well, that's the kind of "lone genius" story that appeals greatly to people. "Eureka!", "Watson, come here, I need you!", and all that.

Could someone informed speculate how relativity would have been deduced without Einstein? I suspect the math would have dictated a solution sooner rather than later, but how much of a leap did Einstein actually provide? 5 years, 50 years, half an hour?
posted by dglynn at 6:28 AM on December 31, 2004


dglynn, Einstein worked as a patent clerk because he needed a job (teaching positions were scarce back then). It's not uncommon for grad students/post-docs today to have odd jobs, either - academia does not pay well. People like the idea of him being a patent clerk (or the myth that he was bad at math) because they like underdogs and this idea of outsiders who come in and revolutionize fields by sheer brilliance.

It's a load of hooey. Einstein was not bad at math. Probably not the BEST, but good enough to be a theoretical physicist. (That is no cakewalk, I assure you.) The popular perception of Einstein as this great revolutionary has done a lot (no fault of his) to bring us these crackpots like the one referred to by hortense (both of whom, no offense, obviously have have no knowledge whatsoever of even the most rudimentary high school math or physics, as if they did they would not be spouting this utter rubbish.)

I think it's absolutely hilarious that these people who have never spent time at any academic institution, or any time studying math or science at all, think they can come in and revolutionize science without knowing a goddamn thing. My professors get mailings by crackpots all the time who claim to have the "theory of everything". (And we aren't even that big a school.) hortense, in terms of academic credibility that site is just a few points above Timecube.

micromike: Modern science has been confused for some time about the role of gravity in nature.

Yes, theories are always being reworked. So tell me, how often do you contribute to scientific and peer-reviewed journals? If you are such a genius I'm sure that many universities would be willing to offer you a teaching position in the physics or philosophy departments.
posted by aerify at 7:01 AM on December 31, 2004


Ahahahha. Looks like I was wrong.

Our friend here did apply to graduate school. And they turned him down. I wonder why? ;)
posted by aerify at 7:07 AM on December 31, 2004


carmina, what is the allure of physics on people is one of the weak forces of the universe.

heh.
posted by ZippityBuddha at 7:25 AM on December 31, 2004


dglynn -- I think it was Michio Kaku who said that physics would have gotten to relativity about 30 years later without Einstein.
posted by Tlogmer at 7:27 AM on December 31, 2004


Anyone who tells you that the indeterminacy apparent in quantum systems indicates an essential indeterminacy in reality is blowing smoke up your ass.

Bullshit. You're wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Let's just make mefi a "no philosophy of contemporary physics" zone. Otherwise, I may have to shoot someone. Or several someones.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:13 AM on December 31, 2004


I've never understood the conclusion that the universe is fundamentally indeterministic. Why is uncertainty an ontological reality rather than an epistemological barrier? How is that proved?

As I understand it, some quantum mechanical interactions require indeterminism to operate. For example, a light wave passed through two slits always interferes with itself. This is true, and can be confirmed experimentally, even if the light wave is composed of a single photon particle. Photons must be particles; this has been proven by other experiments.

For a single photon to interfere with itself in a double-slit experiment, it must interact with both slits, and for the observed pattern to result, it must interact with both simultaneously. There is no way to explain this with a deterministic system of particles. All other particles also can be shown to exhibit this property. Also, there is other evidence, such as quantum tunneling and quantum entanglement, that demonstrate indeterminism.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:53 AM on December 31, 2004


>> Anyone who tells you that the indeterminacy apparent in quantum systems indicates an essential indeterminacy in reality is blowing smoke up your ass.

> Bullshit. You're wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Yes, we've told him many times he's wrong :D
posted by aerify at 8:55 AM on December 31, 2004


mitrovarr: There is no way to explain this with a deterministic system of particles.

Well, not with the Copenhagen interpretation, anyway. But non-local hidden variable theories posit an unknowable "quantum potential" that DOES, in fact, give a deterministic path of the particle. It's just determined by a function that we can't know, ever. It's inelegant and most physicists hate it. The reason why we cling to these views is that we have this intuitive feeling that reality MUST exist the way we think it does - events are local, things always have measurable properties, etc. But I think 20th century physics has taught us that most of these intuitive assumptions are just plain wrong. Hell, even Newtonian mechanics isn't intuitive - the Aristotelian model of physics is very "intuitive" but spectacularly wrong.
posted by aerify at 9:01 AM on December 31, 2004


"But I think 20th century physics has taught us that most of these intuitive assumptions are just plain wrong."

The entire development of western science has taught us that most of these intuitive assumptions are wrong.

The failure of intuition in this tradition begins, perhaps, with the discovery of incommensurability. It only gets worse. Or better, depending upon one's perspective.

My principle philosophy of science interest is, however, the beautiful irony that this entire journey deeper and deeper into counterintuitive waters has been initiated and powered by intuitive common sense.

I've argued in the past with a mefite about his insistence that a naive absolutism and determinism underlies both QM and relativity. He thought he knew a great deal about both. It's hard to understand how someone could be this spectacularly ignorant. Or perhaps not ignorant, but spectacularly incomprehending.

Gyan, your very distinction between an "epistemological barrier" and a description of "ontological reality" is problematic, especially in the context of scientific empiricism. Most scientists I know are naive realists, taking for granted that their empiricism is a direct line to "ontological reality". For them, your question is moot. For others, like myself, who are more sophisticated with regard to these matters, the fact that you make the distinction implicitly assumes "ontological reality" which, in my view, begs the question. In short, I don't think there's a rigorous way in which to take your question seriously in the form you intend it. The line of thought it implies? Yes, of course. But your implied criticism is, in my view, as radically naive as what it's trying to criticize.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:17 AM on December 31, 2004


That was an interesting theory, aerify. Thanks for pointing it out.

I don't really know if there's much point in thinking about theories that are by definition unknowable. Even if our universe is completely indeterministic with regard to every single possible interaction or test, there's always the possibility that it's just a simulation being run on a giant computer in another universe, which calculates deterministically and then makes it impossible to tell.

I guess maybe the best idea is to say that the universe certainly appears to be indeterministic, although it (like almost anything else) cannot be proven beyond any doubt philosophically.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:29 AM on December 31, 2004


Yep , aerify, I think we are agreeing. People love the myth of the lone genius, whether it's true or not(see Edison, Thomas).

People also seem to have an affinity for the individual insight myth(Newton's apple), and the revelatory moment myth(that crazy Franklin fellow outside with his kites in the rain). I suspect the popular perception might be that Einstein provided some great leap forward, that would have been unknown if not for the individual applying his particular way of looking at the problem. Tlogmer's answer that the leap may have been thirty years does tend to de-tune that idea a bit, but thirty years is still a pretty nifty trick.

Of course, it was probably more likely that the name was unique, and the hairstyle so recognizable that he actually constituted a brand that said "Science In The New Age" in easy pop shorthand.

Maybe if Dirac had a mohawk.....
posted by dglynn at 9:31 AM on December 31, 2004


Bullshit. You're wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Let's just make mefi a "no philosophy of contemporary physics" zone.


Why don't you just attempt a lay person explanation of your understanding instead of just closing off an area of discussion? It's good to qualify statements around here with IANAP etc, but it doesn't mean we have to just bow to authorities without at least trying to understand. No one should ever take comments on an internet board as expertise, but it can get you thinking, and maybe picking up some relevant books.

I think Gyan's question was quite well-framed, and aerify's response was good. The three primary theories, the copenhagen interpretation, the holistic approach, and the multiverse theory, are the current attempts to explain consistent but very strange phenomena.

These phenomena are sometimes misunderstood as issues of knowledge, ie, we can't know the location and speed at the same time, when really what scientists are trying to say is that particles act in a way which can't have a speed and a place at the same time - basically, that they don't seem to act like little bits of matter, in the way we understand matter normally. I think the non-local interpretation makes the whole thing much more intuitive than attempting to continue describing them as little bits of matter which just happen to be extremely weird. This is why einstein had such a problem with the copenhagen approach, and he may not have been completely wrong.

For pop science explanations, I'd check out Michio Kaku and David Deutsch.
posted by mdn at 9:48 AM on December 31, 2004


I don't think that "a thirty year leap" adequately explains the importance of what Einstein did. He also did it very well (excepting the kludge mentioned above).

Also, SR was going to happen, soon, but GR is a different matter. And GR is so, so beautiful.

Not directly comparable, but an example that I like and will make my point, is Blaise Pascal and his insight about atmospheric pressure (and related). One might say that this insight was inevitable, and it was. One might also say that this insight was there waiting to be had, all the groundwork already done—indeed, all the real (intellectual) work already having been done. That, too, is correct. More to the point, and this could be flattering or damning, this had been true for a millenium and a half. Archimedes had done all the necessary work, had all the necessary insights about fluid pressure. And, Pascal's and Archimedes's insights were (and are!) very counterintuitive but also sort of necessary upon reflection. So was Pascal's insight deserving of great praise, the work of a true genius? Or could anyone have done it? The latter seems as if it could be true, yet apparently in 1500 years no one had.

I compare Einstein and Relativity to this because there's simply no doubt that these sorts of intellectual "advances" occur in a social context, that they're in some sense historically necessary and seperate from the personalities we associate with them. And yet, and yet... Blaise Pascal seems to demonstrate that without the personalities, maybe these things wouldn't happen. Our determination (hah!) of historical necessity may be a bit hasty.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:50 AM on December 31, 2004


"Why don't you just attempt a lay person explanation of your understanding instead of just closing off an area of discussion?"

My termperment and preference is to agree with you. But long, long experience has shown me that in this subject (as in others, but my experience especially in this subject) trying to do this just isn't productive.

I'm not a physicist (but, like others here, was once a physics major). My real expertise is in philosophy of science, but with a strong math and science background. I've never been satisfied with the quality of the discussion among most scientists when they enter into the deep waters we're treading here; certainly I've not been satisfied with philosophers with insufficient physics; and, well, average lay people are much worse. There's too many interlocking disciplines and lines of thought involved in examining these philosophical implications of QM that I've come to not trust anyone who doesn't have both advanced degrees in physics and philosophy (of some sort, preferably philosophy of science). I'm not included in this number, I should be clear. I don't trust anyone on this subject, not even myself. People with very little education on either the deep physics and philosophy involved? More becomes obfuscated than is clarified. Trust me or not, my mature judgment is that these conversations are not productive.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:58 AM on December 31, 2004


Actually, I've seen some really insightful discussions here on this very topic.

It seems at once paradoxical, disingenuous and unhelpful of you, EB, to step in here and spend 10 paragraphs saying that there is nothing to be said.

Also, I'm not sure what you mean about Pascal. He was very much of his time and his insights on atmospheric pressure owe much to the work of Torricelli, his contemporary.
posted by vacapinta at 11:39 AM on December 31, 2004


Bullshit. You're wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Let's just make mefi a "no philosophy of contemporary physics" zone.


I'm not making any attempt to address the "philosophy of contemporary physics". I have a glancing familiarity with interpretations of quantum mechanics within the framework of physics, and I realize that I'm not qualified to comment on them.

My comment was addressing the application of physical theories to areas outside of physics. I'd say that unless you're operating under an ontology that's based entirely on empirical consensus sensory experiences, such an application is impossible.

The scientific method is simply incapable of making fundamental determinations about the metaphysical nature of "reality". It's not an ontological system.

Not to mention the fact that when people try to apply conclusions from quantum mechanics to broader "philosophical" questions, they usually fuck them up. I say leave quantum mechanics out of your philosophy: it's not really applicable, and you're likely to misunderstand it anyway.

So it seems we might agree.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:42 AM on December 31, 2004


aerify: Well, the point is that uncertainty doesn't mean "we don't know what it is, but it's there" - it means "we don't know it because it's not there to be measured in the first place".

It should be left at "We don't know", without appending the "because..." part. How does the 'because' part justify its inclusion?

mitrovarr: For a single photon to interfere with itself in a double-slit experiment, it must interact with both slits, and for the observed pattern to result, it must interact with both simultaneously. There is no way to explain this with a deterministic system of particles.

You mean to say that within current framework of physics understanding, no deterministic structure has provided the mechanics for the observed phenomena. But you take a (half-)step forward and assert that "there is no way to explain...". Have you logically proven that determinism can be discounted? I say half-step forward, because your statement might be literally true. Maybe, in 100 years time, physics arranges the organization of matter, not as particles or waves, but as some other elementary units, and some other class of interactions as fundamental. That new framework might indicate determinism and your literal statement could still be true, while being wrong in spirit.

Ethereal Bligh: For others, like myself, who are more sophisticated with regard to these matters, the fact that you make the distinction implicitly assumes "ontological reality" which, in my view, begs the question. In short, I don't think there's a rigorous way in which to take your question seriously in the form you intend it. The line of thought it implies? Yes, of course. But your implied criticism is, in my view, as radically naive as what it's trying to criticize.

If you're saying that ontological reality(OR) does not exist, since any representation by us of it would still be a qualia-based epistemic referent, I disagree. This would wander into Eastern thought systems: Reality is formless and Everything is Nothing. Is this what you're getting at? If so, I disagree because lack of representation of OR shouldn't negate the fact that as time continues, universe will unfold a certain way, empirical science is just about predicting these changes. So, when I say OR exists, I just mean that certain predictions will be more accurate/resonant than others. So, how does Copenhagen conclude that indeterminism is not because simply we don't know how the universe will unfold, but rather "the engine" is indeterministic. That just seems like a radical leap.
posted by Gyan at 12:31 PM on December 31, 2004


...to step in here and spend 10 paragraphs saying that there is nothing to be said.

The topic I was dissuading is not the topic on which I was writing.

The essential idea of Blaise Pascal was that the atmosphere is a fluid in a vessel. Fluid pressure was well examined and understood by Archimedes. Everything else by Pascal and Torricelli is mere elaboration of this insight.

Gyan: you wrote "This would wander into Eastern thought systems..." Well, no. This is a central problem of western philosophical thought.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:07 PM on December 31, 2004


EB: But is the conclusion of Eastern systems, what you're getting at, or something similar?
posted by Gyan at 1:14 PM on December 31, 2004


I"m not getting at any conclusions. I'm pointing out that the distinction you're assuming is problematic and is best not taken for granted.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:24 PM on December 31, 2004


'm pointing out that the distinction you're assuming is problematic

Elaborate, please.
posted by Gyan at 1:28 PM on December 31, 2004


Have you logically proven that determinism can be discounted?

Gyan, I thought aerify essentially answered your question above. This isnt a simple matter of "we dont know" so we'll assume we can never know.

The mathematics of QM is pretty airtight. It is when we try to interpret this behavior into our own understanding that we get into trouble. Essentially, in QM particles act not as definite particles with definite properties but as a superposition of states. That is, when modeling the development of particles you are actually using a superposition of various (quantized) particle states all at once The transition from the superposition (or the "entangled" state) to the so-called "collapse" also remains a bit of a philosophical issue but it can be modeled mathematically.

If you try to model this strange behavior of partcles with the assumption that there are underlying deterministic forces at work, it is there that the troubles begin. There is no clean way to explain this without a lot of scaffolding and introduction of a lot of other unnecessary baggage.

Bell showed that there is a fundamental problem with trying to explain QM using any local theory. So, any deterministic theory of the universe has to actually include all sorts of even stranger behavior which we have no cause to believe in.

Other, deterministic theories such as Many-Worlds try to explain the quantum superpositions by positing that it is the "interference" effect of an uncountable number of other universes. Right now, its hard to separate that from pure metaphysics.

So, the huge leap you specify, that Nature is fundamentally indeterminate, is actually the simplest and best conclusion. It cannot be logically proven to be true but then neither can Gravity.


posted by vacapinta at 1:29 PM on December 31, 2004


Elaborate, please.

Perhaps someone else will be happy to do so. Sorry, I'm not up to it this afternoon. I'm also not the best person to do so, as I've spent much of my adult life pondering this and that perversely makes it more difficult to talk about with others rather than less.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:35 PM on December 31, 2004


Here's a nice review article from PhysicsWeb which explains succinctl I think why physicists believe QM to be a fairly complete theory and how it has stood the test of time.

The charges of Eastern mysticism were also used by Einstein. Again, I should stress that most physicists have the "shut up and calculate" approach because QM works! The equations, however, you interpret them, give results which can be verified in experiments and have been for over 50 years.
posted by vacapinta at 1:42 PM on December 31, 2004


Gyan: It should be left at "We don't know", without appending the "because..." part. How does the 'because' part justify its inclusion?

Well, Gyan, I don't know how to put this, but you are wrong. This isn't a matter of interpretation, because it has been mathematically proven. What can be interpreted is how the fundamental indeterminacy arises. We already know it's there, the question is why we see it. No physicists questions that it exists, because it has been proved experimentally and theoretically. This is where it gets hard to explain it in lay terms, because fundamentally it is a problem that arose experimentally and was proved mathematically. Or maybe the other way around, sorry.

There is a good book that tries to bridge the gap between the technical literature and the popular literature. If you have a decent grasp of undergraduate mathematics and physics you should be able to plow through it with a bit of effort. It's a good coverage of the history of the evolution of quantum mechanics, and it explains it mathematically without being TOO difficult.

The Quantum Challenge: Modern Research on the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics (Jones and Bartlett Series in Physics and Astronomy) by George Greenstein, Arthur Zajonc
posted by aerify at 9:22 PM on December 31, 2004


For Gyan

This is a ridiculously dumbed-down analogy that destroys all subtleties and is horribly inaccurate. But it's one way to sort of get a general hand-wavy idea.

Let's think of a coin toss. You flip a coin, cover it with your hand. You look at it. It's either heads or tails. And you know it was either heads or tails before you looked at it.

The thing is, on very very small scales, this "obvious" picture of reality no longer holds. The coin is NOT either heads or tails UNTIL you look at it. You might think, "No, it must be either one or the other. Just LOOKING at it shouldn't change reality. Reality is out there! We just see it for what it is."

Wrong. The very act of measuring alters the state of the system. This is not a problem in the sense that, "oh, if we could measure it in a BETTER way, we could see what's really there." It's a problem that there's really IS NOT that objective "reality' of heads or tails UNTIL you measure it. Sometimes, the act of measurement seems to have altered something that occurred in the past.

What, you say? Does causality not exist? Don't worry, it does; there are several ways to think about this.

1. Copenhagen. The system existed as a "superposition" of dual states, and our act of observing it caused the system to "collapse" into the observed state. This is shown experimentally. But obviously it's an incomplete description. Why does "measurement" or "observation" change anything? How do you define it? Is consciousness involved? The brain is clearly subject to the same laws of physics as anything else so it's unclear what the hell is going on.

2. Non-local hidden variables. There is this unknowable, vast "quantum potential" that exists across all space-time, and changes instantly all over the entire universe based on an event at any location. It deterministically explains every state. The coin WAS actually heads or tails, but the function that determined it is unknowable. It's the ghost behind the screen poking things and moving things around so that things work out right, but we don't know why. It seems to be "right" in that it fits our everyday conception of reality. But it's just bad, bad physics. It's inelegant, you're just sweeping shit you don't know under the rug to preserve your prejudices. Einstein showed time was not constant (sacrilege). Why must we cling to outmoded ideas of what "must" be the case?

3. Many-worlds. The coin was BOTH heads and tails - in different universes! When we observed it, we split into the universe that had the state we observed. The other state exists too, but in a universe that we can't ever experience. There are an infinite number of universes, and they contain all the possible combination of states. All consistent histories exist. There is a universe for every physically possible event. It's local and deterministic, but people find it creepy that there are an infinite number of yous, and that ANYTHING that is possible does exist. Considered inelegant by some who say, well, since we can't observe these extra universes, we might as well invoke simplicity and say they don't exist and cut them out of the theory, so we're back to 1 or 2.
posted by aerify at 9:48 PM on December 31, 2004


aerify: You're attacking the wrong thing. I have no problem with either the uncertainty principle or lack of 'ability to observe without interacting'.

But your analogy exposition still seems wrong. See below.

It's either heads or tails. And you know it was either heads or tails before you looked at it.

The thing is, on very very small scales, this "obvious" picture of reality no longer holds.


How do you know the "obvious" reality DOES hold at our scale? What if the faces of the coin randomly and instantaneously swap position at the moment of unraveling? Without some observation, how would you ever prove otherwise?

Instead of "No, it must be either one or the other. Just LOOKING at it shouldn't change reality. Reality is out there! We just see it for what it is.", it would be, "No, why couldn't it be either one or the other. Can I find out? If so, how? If not, what *can* I say?"


There are four options

1)Reality is fundamentally indeterministic. We are able to verify this. (How? It beats me)

2)Reality is fundamentally indeterministic. We aren't able to verify this, but within our framework of knowledge, we believe so.

3)Reality is fundamentally deterministic. We can know this. We just think it's not, for reasons/subtle flaws that will be rectified later.

4)Reality is fundamentally deterministic. We can't know either way. Our current approach says it's not.

Now, I'm saying we're restricted to 2 and 4. The article, and you, assert 1 is the case.
posted by Gyan at 10:33 PM on December 31, 2004


The macroscopic view fits our "intuitive" reality for reasons having to do with statistics, I think. And physics of scale require that things be very very small before we start to see these "fuzzy" effects. There are quantum effects on things our size but they're very very small and we don't notice them.

I'm telling you it's 1. And not just me, the entire scientific community, who are much smarter than you or I and have been working on this thing for the last hundred years. I assure you they know what they're talking about. If you want to know why please study a bit of math/physics and go read that book. I assure you it's worth it, although I'm not sure I understand it perfectly myself. It's mind-boggling.
posted by aerify at 11:01 PM on December 31, 2004


Here's a starter (note: these are all "popular" and non-technical articles, so they lack math) -

EPR Paradox
Does the Universe Exist If We're Not Looking? (I don't buy the interperation but it's one of many)
The Quantum World
A Double-Slit Quantum Eraser Experiment
Quantum Physics and Theology (ignore the "theology" bit)
posted by aerify at 11:17 PM on December 31, 2004


I'm telling you it's 1. And not just me, the entire scientific community, who are much smarter than you or I and have been working on this thing for the last hundred years. I assure you they know what they're talking about.

Finally, the appeal to authority. In any case, you're wrong in claiming the 'entire scientific community' believes it. In case you missed it, in my second post to this thread, I linked to a 2002 paper by Physics Nobel laureate Gerardus 't Hooft, who argues for a deterministic universe. MWI also seems to have good support. You're also negating yourself since in your earlier post, you elucidated on the various interpretations, although preferring Copenhagen on the basis of elegance and Occam, over the others. And that should clue you in. It's the Copenhagen interpretation of the QM formalism. The reason there are multiple of them is because they can't show option 1 to be the case.
posted by Gyan at 11:44 PM on December 31, 2004


Many-worlds isn't "deterministic", at least not in the classical sense in that you can make any useful predictions from it, since every state exists separately. It's actually indistinguishable from Copenhagen.

The determinism we're talking about here is NOT in the classical/Newtonian sense (in that if you have the state you can predict the outcome). Quantum mechanics itself is indeterministic. The actual math and science of it, I mean. We describe the waveform as a probability distribution. And that's the reality of it, it's not due to poor observation.

Why must you cling so desperately to determinism? It's the 21st century, people! :)
posted by aerify at 2:45 AM on January 1, 2005


By the way, I don't prefer Copenhagen. I like many-worlds. I don't think infinite universes are "inelegant", I was just trying to get everybody's viewpoint in.
posted by aerify at 2:46 AM on January 1, 2005


aerify: Quantum mechanics itself is indeterministic. The actual math and science of it, I mean. We describe the waveform as a probability distribution. And that's the reality of it, it's not due to poor observation.

See, I have no trouble with the first 3 sentences. The first part of the 4th is an unwarranted conclusion. And I'm not desperate to salvage determinism. Option 1 is just not *proven*.
posted by Gyan at 12:21 PM on January 1, 2005


Care to explain to me how we could "verify" that reality is deterministic?

This whole assumption of some "ontological reality" independent of what we can or cannot know begs the question. The resulting conversation is truly bizarre. The odd thing is that you think it reasonable to assume determinism until "proven" otherwise and unreasonable to assume indeterminism until "proven" otherwise. Well, you assert that you can't see how the latter could be "proven" otherwise; but, as I point out, you gloss over the problem of proving determinism!

The reason that most QM physicists adopt a naive realism about the philsophical implications of QM is because everything they do with QM shouts "intedeterminism!". They're naive empiricists who assume—interestingly, as I think you do—that the way experience reality is the primary and, really, ultimately infallible clue as to its true nature. Their experience of reality via QM says that reality is indeterminate. So they say that it is.

Your non-QM and also philosophically naive experience of reality says that it is deterministic. So you say that it is.

A non-naive philosophical perspective wonders why any of you think that any of the things you think mean the things you think they mean actually do mean the things you think they mean.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:44 PM on January 1, 2005


Care to explain to me how we could "verify" that reality is deterministic?

We can't.

The odd thing is that you think it reasonable to assume determinism until "proven" otherwise and unreasonable to assume indeterminism until "proven" otherwise.

Bullshit. Then you haven't thoroughly and completely read the "truly bizzare" conversation. I don't assume determinism and I'm not sure that the world is determininstic.

A non-naive philosophical perspective wonders why any of you think that any of the things you think mean the things you think they mean actually do mean the things you think they mean.

It that sentiment indicates lack of naivete, that makes me non-naive as well.

The central philosophical puzzle to me is, can we actually make any metaphysical statements?
posted by Gyan at 1:45 PM on January 1, 2005



Gödel and Einstein: Friendship and Relativity
via
I have enjoyed this thread thanks
posted by hortense at 7:54 PM on January 1, 2005


re: (in)determinism

cahill (also last link of the post :) has proposed process physics whereby the fundamental 'layer' of reality is random! altho, (like wolfram :) it's been met with skepticism!

altho, like gyan, i find 't hooft's interpretation -- of 'perfect information at the planck scale' -- intriguing (as well as zurek's "quantum darwinism," previously mentioned here :) because they speak to the role information plays in physics, whether it's some notion like wolfram's "computational equivalence" or (in my mind!) some form of a 'law of conservation of information' :D so like how matter/energy is conserved, so is like information/entropy!? somehow? i dunno :D

anyway, i was digging around looking for other QM interpretatations, altho they tend to get metaphysical so it'll be neat watching out for experiments to test them in years to come so they can at least gain some grounding as theories...i only have a glancing understanding of any of this, so i'm not really sure how to evaluate different claims, i just thought they helped explain different points of view...

altho it seems to me that it starts to become problematic once you get to 'what is information?' or 'is the universe discrete or continuous?' and the like; it's hard to test...

if the universe were discrete and amenable to information theory à la shannon tho, one of the things i was thinking was that uncertainty could arise thru rounding errors if 'physics' could be considered as recursive algorithms running on a planck scale subtrate, à la 't hooft, sorta like a lorenz attractor or something i guess -- deterministic but unknowable, not sure if quantum computers are deterministic tho...

like, one of the things i've been wondering for awhile is what is probability?
Probabilities may be subjective or objective; we are concerned with both kinds of probability, and the relationship between them. The fundamental theory of objective probability is quantum mechanics: it is argued that neither Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation, nor the pilot-wave theory, nor stochastic state-reduction theories, give a satisfactory answer to the question of what objective probabilities are in quantum mechanics, or why they should satisfy the Born rule; nor do they give any reason why subjective probabilities should track objective ones.

But it is shown that if probability only arises with decoherence, then they must be given by the Born rule. That further, on the Everett interpretation, we have a clear statement of what probabilities are, in terms of purely categorical physical properties; and finally, along lines recently laid out by Deutsch and Wallace, that there is a clear basis in the axioms of decision theory as to why subjective probabilities should track these objective ones.

[...]

Subjective and objective probability emerge at the end of the day as seamlessly interjoined: nothing like this was ever achieved in classical physics. Philosophically it is unprecedented; it will be of interest to philosophers even if quantum mechanics turns out to be false, and the Everett interpretation consigned to physical irrelevance; for the philosophical difficulty with probability has always been to find any conception of what chances are, in physical terms, that makes sence of the role that they play in our rational lives.
and, if that's the case, then what to make of negative probability, à la feynman?

also re: "why people are seemingly so Einstein-stricken?"

in addition to galison (second to last post link :) came across this! "Influenced by the work of Riemann and Lobachevsky, Clifford studied non-euclidean geometry. In 1870 he wrote On the space theory of matter in which he argued that energy and matter are simply different types of curvature of space. In this work he presents ideas which were to form a fundamental role in Einstein's general theory of relativity."

btw simon singh had a nice article on einstein's annus mirabilis today too! (dunno why, but i always read that as latin for miserable anus :)

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 8:12 PM on January 2, 2005


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