Quantum Physics: A Survivor’s Guide

A few days ago, I mentioned I felt like writing a new book: a sort of guidebook for amateur physicists like me. I realized that is actually fairly easy to do. I have three very basic papers – one on particles (both light and matter), one on fields, and one on the quantum-mechanical toolbox (amplitude math and all of that). But then there is a lot of nitty-gritty to be written about the technical stuff, of course: self-interference, superconductors, the behavior of semiconductors (as used in transistors), lasers, and so many other things – and all of the math that comes with it. However, for that, I can refer you to Feynman’s three volumes of lectures, of course. In fact, I should: it’s all there. So… Well… That’s it, then. I am done with the QED sector. Here is my summary of it all (links to the papers on Phil Gibbs’ site):

Paper I: Quantum behavior (the abstract should enrage the dark forces)

Paper II: Probability amplitudes (quantum math)

Paper III: The concept of a field (why you should not bother about QFT)

Paper IV: Survivor’s guide to all of the rest (keep smiling)

Paper V: Uncertainty and the meaning of the wavefunction (the final!)

Jean Louis Van Belle, 21 October 2020

Note: As for the QCD sector, that is a mess. We might have to wait another hundred years or so to see the smoke clear up there. Or, who knows, perhaps some visiting alien(s) will come and give us a decent alternative for the quark hypothesis and quantum field theories. One of my friends thinks so. Perhaps I should trust him more. 🙂

As for Phil Gibbs, I should really thank him for being one of the smartest people on Earth – and for his site, of course. Brilliant forum. Does what Feynman wanted everyone to do: look at the facts, and think for yourself. 🙂

A new book?

I don’t know where I would start a new story on physics. I am also not quite sure for whom I would be writing it – although it would be for people like me, obviously: most of what we do, we do for ourselves, right? So I should probably describe myself in order to describe the audience: amateur physicists who are interested in the epistemology of modern physics – or its ontology, or its metaphysics. I also talk about the genealogy or archaeology of ideas on my ResearchGate site. All these words have (slightly) different meanings but the distinctions do not matter all that much. The point is this: I write for people who want to understand physics in pretty much the same way as the great classical physicist Hendrik Antoon Lorentz who, just a few months before his demise, at the occasion of the (in)famous 1927 Solvay Conference, wanted to understand the ‘new theories’:

“We are representing phenomena. We try to form an image of them in our mind. Till now, we always tried to do using the ordinary notions of space and time. These notions may be innate; they result, in any case, from our personal experience, from our daily observations. To me, these notions are clear, and I admit I am not able to have any idea about physics without those notions. The image I want to have when thinking physical phenomena has to be clear and well defined, and it seems to me that cannot be done without these notions of a system defined in space and in time.”

Note that H.A. Lorentz understood electromagnetism and relativity theory as few others did. In fact, judging from some of the crap out there, I can safely say he understood stuff as few others do today still. Hence, he should surely not be thought of as a classical physicist who, somehow, was stuck. On the contrary: he understood the ‘new theories’ better than many of the new theorists themselves. In fact, as far as I am concerned, I think his comments or conclusions on the epistemological status of the Uncertainty Principle – which he made in the same intervention – still stand. Let me quote the original French:

“Je pense que cette notion de probabilitĂ© [in the new theories] serait Ă  mettre Ă  la fin, et comme conclusion, des considĂ©rations thĂ©oriques, et non pas comme axiome a priori, quoique je veuille bien admettre que cette indĂ©termination correspond aux possibilitĂ©s expĂ©rimentales. Je pourrais toujours garder ma foi dĂ©terministe pour les phĂ©nomĂšnes fondamentaux, dont je n’ai pas parlĂ©. Est-ce qu’un esprit plus profond ne pourrait pas se rendre compte des mouvements de ces Ă©lectrons. Ne pourrait-on pas garder le dĂ©terminisme en en faisant l’objet d’une croyance? Faut-il nĂ©cessairement Ă©riger l’ indĂ©terminisme en principe?”

What a beautiful statement, isn’t it? Why should we elevate indeterminism to a philosophical principle? Indeed, now that I’ve inserted some French, I may as well inject some German. The idea of a particle includes the idea of a more or less well-known position. Let us be specific and think of uncertainty in the context of position. We may not fully know the position of a particle for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. The precision of our measurements may be limited: this is what Heisenberg referred to as an Ungenauigkeit.
  2. Our measurement might disturb the position and, as such, cause the information to get lost and, as a result, introduce an uncertainty: this is what we may translate as an Unbestimmtheit.
  3. The uncertainty may be inherent to Nature, in which case we should probably refer to it as an Ungewissheit.

So what is the case? Lorentz claims it is either the first or the second – or a combination of both – and that the third proposition is a philosophical statement which we can neither prove nor disprove. I cannot see anything logical (theory) or practical (experiment) that would invalidate this point. I, therefore, intend to write a basic book on quantum physics from what I hope would be Lorentz’ or Einstein’s point of view.

My detractors will immediately cry wolf: Einstein lost the discussions with Bohr, didn’t he? I do not think so: he just got tired of them. I want to try to pick up the story where he left it. Let’s see where I get. 🙂

Bell’s No-Go Theorem

I’ve been asked a couple of times: “What about Bell’s No-Go Theorem, which tells us there are no hidden variables that can explain quantum-mechanical interference in some kind of classical way?” My answer to that question is quite arrogant, because it’s the answer Albert Einstein would give when younger physicists would point out that his objections to quantum mechanics (which he usually expressed as some new  thought experiment) violated this or that axiom or theorem in quantum mechanics: “Das ist mir wur(sch)t.”

In English: I don’t care. Einstein never lost the discussions with Heisenberg or Bohr: he just got tired of them. Like Einstein, I don’t care either – because Bell’s Theorem is what it is: a mathematical theorem. Hence, it respects the GIGO principle: garbage in, garbage out. In fact, John Stewart Bell himself – one of the third-generation physicists, we may say – had always hoped that some “radical conceptual renewal”[1] might disprove his conclusions. We should also remember Bell kept exploring alternative theories – including Bohm’s pilot wave theory, which is a hidden variables theory – until his death at a relatively young age. [J.S. Bell died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1990 – the year he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics. He was just 62 years old then.]

So I never really explored Bell’s Theorem. I was, therefore, very happy to get an email from Gerard van der Ham, who seems to have the necessary courage and perseverance to research this question in much more depth and, yes, relate it to a (local) realist interpretation of quantum mechanics. I actually still need to study his papers, and analyze the YouTube video he made (which looks much more professional than my videos), but this is promising.

To be frank, I got tired of all of these discussions – just like Einstein, I guess. The difference between realist interpretations of quantum mechanics and the Copenhagen dogmas is just a factor 2 or π in the formulas, and Richard Feynman famously said we should not care about such factors (Feynman’s Lectures, III-2-4). Modern physicists fudge them away consistently. They’ve done much worse than that, actually. :-/ They are not interested in truth. Convention, dogma, indoctrination – non-scientific historical stuff – seems to prevent them from that. And modern science gurus – the likes of Sean Carroll or Sabine Hossenfelder etc. – play the age-old game of being interesting: they pretend to know something you do not know or – if they don’t – that they are close to getting the answers. They are not. They have them already. They just don’t want to tell you that because, yes, it’s the end of physics.

[1] See: John Stewart Bell, Speakable and unspeakable in quantum mechanics, pp. 169–172, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Uncertainty, quantum math, and A(Y)MS

This morning, one of my readers wrote me to say I should refrain from criticizing mainstream theory or – if I do – in friendlier or more constructive terms. He is right, of course: my blog on Feynman’s Lectures proves I suffer from Angry Young Man Syndrome (AYMS), which does not befit a 50-year old. It is also true I will probably not be able to convince those whom I have not convinced yet.

What to do? I should probably find easier metaphors and bridge apparent contradictions—and write friendlier posts and articles, of course! 🙂

In my last paper, for example, I make a rather harsh distinction between discrete physical states and continuous logical states in mainstream theory. We may illustrate this using Schrödinger’s thought experiment with the cat: we know the cat is either dead or alive—depending on whether or not the poison was released. However, as long as we do not check, we may describe it by some logical state that mixes the ideas of a dead and a live cat. This logical state is defined in probabilistic terms: as time goes by, the likelihood of the cat being dead increases. The actual physical state does not have such ambiguity: the cat is either dead or alive.

The point that I want to make here is that the uncertainty is not physical. It is in our mind only: we have no knowledge of the physical state because we cannot (or do not want to) measure it, or because measurement is not possible because it would interfere (or possibly even destroy) the system: we are usually probing the smallest of stuff with the smallest of stuff in these experiments—which is why Heisenberg himself originally referred to uncertainty as Ungenauigkeit instead of Unbestimmtheit.

So, yes, as long as we do not look inside of the box – by opening or, preferably, through some window on the side (the cat could scratch you or jump out when opening it) – we may think of Schrödinger’s cat-in-the-box experiment as a simple quantum-mechanical two-state system. However, it is a rather special one: the poison is likely to be released after some time only (it depend on a probabilistic process itself) and we should, therefore, model this time as a random variable which will be distributed – usually more or less normally – around some mean. The (cumulative) probability distribution function for the cat being dead will, therefore, resemble something like the curves below, whose shapes depend not only on the mean but also on the standard deviation from the mean.


Schrödinger’s cat-in-the-box experiment involves a transition from an alive to a dead state: it is sure and irreversible. Most real-life quantum-mechanical two-state systems will look very different: they will not involve some dead-or-alive situation but two very different states—position states, or energy states, for example—and the probability of the system being in this or that physical state will, therefore, slosh back and forth between the two, as illustrated below.

Probabilities desmos

I took this illustration from the mentioned paper, which deals with amplitude math, so I should refer you there for an explanation of the rather particular cycle time (π) and measurement units (ħ/A). The important thing here – in the context of this blog post, that is – is not the nitty-gritty but the basic idea of a quantum-mechanical two-state system. That basic idea is needed because the point that I want to make here is this: thinking that some system can be in two (discrete) physical states only may often be a bit of an idealization too. The system or whatever is that we are trying to describe might be in-between two states while oscillating between the two states, for example—or we may, perhaps, not be able to define the position of whatever it is that we are tracking—say, an atom or a nucleus in a molecule—because the idea of an atom or a nucleus might itself be quite fuzzy.

To explain what fuzziness might be in the context of physics, I often use the metaphor below: the propeller of the little plane is always somewhere, obviously—but the question is: where exactly? When the frequency of going from one place to another becomes quite high, the concept of an exact position becomes quite fuzzy. The metaphor of a rapidly rotating propeller may also illustrate the fuzziness of the concept of mass or even energy: if we think of the propeller being pretty much everywhere, then it is also more useful to think in terms of some dynamically defined mass or energy density concept in the space it is, somehow, filling.

propeller This, then, should take some of the perceived harshness of my analyses away: I should not say the mainstream interpretation of quantum physics is all wrong and that states are either physical or logical: our models may inevitably have to mix a bit of the two! So, yes, I should be much more polite and say the mainstream interpretation prefers to leave things vague or unsaid, and that physicists should, therefore, be more precise and avoid hyping up stuff that can easily be explained in terms of common-sense physical interpretations.

Having said that, I think that only sounds slightly less polite, and I also continue to think some Nobel Prize awards did exactly that: they rewarded the invention of hyped-up concepts rather than true science, and so now we are stuck with these things. To be precise, I think the award of the 1933 Nobel Prize to Werner Heisenberg is a very significant example of this, and it was followed by others. I am not shy or ashamed when writing this because I know I am in rather good company thinking that. Unfortunately, not enough people dare to say what they really think, and that is that the Emperor may have no clothes.

That is sad, because there are effectively a lot of enthusiastic and rather smart people who try to understand physics but become disillusioned when they enroll in online or real physics courses: when asking too many questions, they are effectively told to just shut up and calculate. I also think John Baez’ Crackpot Index is, all too often, abused to defend mainstream mediocrity and Ivory Tower theorizing. At the same time, I promise my friendly critic I will think some more about my Angry 50-Year-Old Syndrome.

Perhaps I should take a break from quantum mechanics and study, say, chaos theory, or fluid dynamics—something else, some new math. I should probably also train to go up Mont Blanc again this year: I gained a fair amount of physical weight while doing all this mental exercise over the past few years, and I do intend to climb again—50-year-old or not. Let’s just call it AMS. 🙂 And, yes, I should also focus on my day job, of course! 🙂

However, I probably won’t get rid of the quantum physics virus any time soon. In fact, I just started exploring the QCD sector, and I am documenting this new journey in a new blog: Reading Einstein. Go have a look. 🙂

Post scriptum: The probability distribution for the cat’s death sentence is, technically, speaking a Poisson distribution (the name is easy to remember because it does not differ too much from the poison that is used). However, because we are modeling probabilities here, its parameters k and λ should be thought of as being very large. It, therefore, approaches a normal distribution. Quantum-mechanical amplitude math implicitly assumes we can use normal distributions to model state transitions (see my paper on Feynman’s Time Machine).

Dismantling myths

I just published a paper in which I show we do not need the machinery of state vectors and probability amplitudes to describe quantum-mechanical systems (think of a laser here, for example). We can describe these systems just as well in terms of a classical oscillation: the Planck-Einstein relation determines frequencies, which can then be used to determine the probabilities of the system being in this or that state.

The paper was quite an effort. The subject-matter is very abstract and the ruse and deceit in the quantum-mechanical argument (that basically assumes we do need all that humbug) is very subtle. It is, therefore, difficult to pinpoint exactly where the argument goes wrong. We managed to find and highlight the main deus ex machina moment, however, which is the substitution of real-valued coefficients by complex-valued functions.

That substitution is not innocent: it smuggles the Planck-Einstein relation in – through the backdoor, so to speak – and makes sure the amplitudes come out alright! The whole argument is, therefore, typical of other mainstream arguments in modern quantum mechanics: one only gets out what was already implicit or explicit in the assumptions, and those are rather random. In other contexts, this would be referred to as garbage in, garbage out.

The paper complements earlier logical deconstructions of some of these arguments, most notably those on the anomalous magnetic moment, the Lamb shift, 720-degree symmetries, the boson-fermion dichotomy and others (for an overview, see the full list of my papers). In fact, we have done so many now that we think we should stop: this last paper should conclude our classical or realist interpretation of quantum mechanics!

It has all been rather exhausting because we feel we had to cover pretty much everything from scratch. We did—and convincingly so, I think. Still, critics – I am quoting from one of the messages I got on ResearchGate here – still tell me that I should continue to “strengthen my arguments/proofs” so to “convince readers.” To those, I usually reply that I will never be able to convince them: if 60+ papers (with thousands of downloads) and a blog on physics (which also gets thousands of hits every month) is not sufficient, then what is? I should probably also refer them to a public comment on one of my papers—written by someone with (a lot) more credentials than me:

“The paper presents sound and solid reasoning. It is sobering and refreshing. The author is not only providing insight into central conceptual problems of modern physics but also recognizing the troubles that indoctrination causes in digesting this insight.”

Let us see how it all goes. I know I am an outsider and, therefore, totally insignificant. I should just stop writing and wait a bit now. This mysterious hyped-up Copenhagen interpretation should become irrelevant by itself: people will realize it is just hocus-pocus or, worse, A Bright Shining Lie.

That may take a long time, however, and I may not last long enough to see it happen. Mainstream physicists will soon be celebrating 100 years of what Paul Ehrenfest referred to as the ‘unendlicher Heisenberg-Born-Dirac-Schrödinger Wurstmachinen-Physik-Betrieb.’

On the other hand, it is not because the indoctrination has, obviously, been very successful, that we should give up. An engineer, alumnus of the University of California, also encouraged me by sending me this quote:

“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions
which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most
people are even incapable of forming such opinions.” (Einstein: A Portrait, Pomegranate Artbooks, Petaluma, CA, 1984, p. 102).

That is as good as it gets, I guess. And if you read these words, it probably means you are part of that group of few people. We will not celebrate 100 years of metaphysical nonsense. We will keep thinking things through for ourselves and, thereby, find truth—even if only for ourselves.

That is enough as a reward for me. 🙂

Planck’s quantum of action

I find it most amazing that – with few physical laws and geometry formulas – we are able to understand reality.

These laws – Maxwell’s equations, Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence relation, and the Planck-Einstein relation – are not easy. The geometry formulas – Euler’s formula, basically – are not easy either. But once you get them, all falls into place—like Enlightenment (or kensho, satori, nirvana, etc. if you’d happen to like Buddhist philosophy). 🙂

All has a resonant frequency: photons, electrons, protons, neutrons, atoms, molecules, complex systems—all that is stable. Unstable particles and systems do not obey the Planck-Einstein relation: ω = E/ħ. They die out: they are short-lived transients or even shorter-lived resonances. We should not refer to them as particles or particle-systems, and we need non-equilibrium math to analyze them.

It is all most beautiful. I will, therefore, not say anything more about it here. I’ve written about the nitty-gritty elsewhere.