Classical physics was free from any need for clarification. The physics that emerged with Isaac Newton and dominated until the early 1900s appeared to be relatively simple: Matter behaved like tiny billiard balls and responded to forces by accelerating or decelerating. There was no requirement for any supplementary interpretations. Although the details could be complex, there was nothing strange about it.
However, everything changed when quantum mechanics emerged, and the weirdness escalated rapidly. Quantum mechanics deals with phenomena that occur on an atomic scale, and it is currently the most successful theory we possess. So, why are there numerous interpretations of the theory? Why does quantum mechanics necessitate an interpretation in the first place?
In essence, what is the message that quantum mechanics is attempting to convey?
Affairs of state
Quantum physics is replete with oddities – numerous ways in which it deviates from the classical perspective of particles that are entirely knowable, possessing completely describable characteristics. The particular strangeness that one concentrates on is usually the one that shapes their preferred interpretation.
However, the oddest aspect that has garnered the most attention, and consequently shaped the greatest number of interpretations, is the concept of “superpositions” and the process of measurement in quantum mechanics.
The essence of physics can be reduced to the description of what is known as the state. In classical physics, a particle’s state was defined by its position and momentum, with momentum being linked to velocity. The position and velocity could be ascertained with as much precision as your equipment permitted. The state was never linked to measurement, meaning there was no need to observe the particle. However, quantum mechanics necessitates a vastly different perspective on the state.
In quantum physics, the state embodies potential measurement outcomes. For instance, consider a particle inside a box with two chambers. Prior to measurement, the quantum state is in a “superposition” state, with one term corresponding to the particle being in the first chamber and another term corresponding to the particle being in the second chamber. Both terms exist simultaneously in the quantum state. The superposition is said to “collapse” only after a measurement is made, at which point the state has only one term – the one that aligns with observing the particle in the first or the second chamber.
What quantum mechanics points to
What is happening in the realm of quantum mechanics is a question that has given rise to many interpretations. The primary focus of most of these interpretations is the strange phenomenon of a particle being in two places simultaneously. In addition, they raise fundamental questions about the properties of particles and how measurements can change the state of a particle. Furthermore, what constitutes a measurement is also unclear, and whether a person is required to make a measurement or any interaction with the rest of the world can qualify as one.
Quantum interpretations can be broadly categorized as those that preserve the classical worldview and those that don’t. The former seeks to minimize the role of measurement in quantum mechanics while preserving the reality of the quantum state, which describes the world by itself, without any reference to us. The “Many Worlds Interpretation” is an example of this. However, the author argues that this is a mistake and that the central lesson of quantum mechanics is that we are involved, in some way, in the description of the science we do.
The author is not suggesting that “the observer affects the observed” or that physics requires a place for some kind of Cosmic Mind or that consciousness changes things. Instead, the author argues that there are more nuanced ways of understanding what quantum mechanics is trying to tell us, and that QBism offers a compelling interpretation. Ultimately, the author suggests that the most exciting aspect of quantum mechanics is that it is trying to teach us what it means to be a subject doing science in the Universe.
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