*The development of quantum mechanics in the first decades of the twentieth century came as a shock to many physicists. Today, despite the great successes of quantum mechanics, arguments continue about its meaning, and its future.*

1.

The first shock came as a challenge to the clear categories to which physicists by 1900 had become accustomed. There were particles—atoms, and then electrons and atomic nuclei—and there were fields—conditions of space that pervade regions in which electric, magnetic, and gravitational forces are exerted. Light waves were clearly recognized as self-sustaining oscillations of electric and magnetic fields. But in order to understand the light emitted by heated bodies, Albert Einstein in 1905 found it necessary to describe light waves as streams of massless particles, later called photons.

Then in the 1920s, according to theories of Louis de Broglie and Erwin Schrödinger, it appeared that electrons, which had always been recognized as particles, under some circumstances behaved as waves. In order to account for the energies of the stable states of atoms, physicists had to give up the notion that electrons in atoms are little Newtonian planets in orbit around the atomic nucleus. Electrons in atoms are better described as waves, fitting around the nucleus like sound waves fitting into an organ pipe.1 The world’s categories had become all muddled.

Worse yet, the electron waves are not waves of electronic matter, in the way that ocean waves are waves of water. Rather, as Max Born came to realize, the electron waves are waves of probability. That is, when a free electron collides with an atom, we cannot in principle say in what direction it will bounce off. The electron wave, after encountering the atom, spreads out in all directions, like an ocean wave after striking a reef. As Born recognized, this does not mean that the electron itself spreads out. Instead, the undivided electron goes in some one direction, but not a precisely predictable direction. It is more likely to go in a direction where the wave is more intense, but any direction is possible.

Probability was not unfamiliar to the physicists of the 1920s, but it had generally been thought to reflect an imperfect knowledge of whatever was under study, not an indeterminism in the underlying physical laws. Newton’s theories of motion and gravitation had set the standard of deterministic laws. When we have reasonably precise knowledge of the location and velocity of each body in the solar system at a given moment, Newton’s laws tell us with good accuracy where they will all be for a long time in the future. Probability enters Newtonian physics only when our knowledge is imperfect, as for example when we do not have precise knowledge of how a pair of dice is thrown. But with the new quantum mechanics, the moment-to-moment determinism of the laws of physics themselves seemed to be lost.

All very strange. In a 1926 letter to Born, Einstein complained:

Quantum mechanics is very impressive. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory produces a good deal but hardly brings us closer to the secret of the Old One. I am at all events convinced thatAs late as 1964, in his Messenger lectures at Cornell, Richard Feynman lamented, “I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics.”3 With quantum mechanics, the break with the past was so sharp that all earlier physical theories became known as “classical.”Hedoes not play dice.2

The weirdness of quantum mechanics did not matter for most purposes. Physicists learned how to use it to do increasingly precise calculations of the energy levels of atoms, and of the probabilities that particles will scatter in one direction or another when they collide. Lawrence Krauss has labeled the quantum mechanical calculation of one effect in the spectrum of hydrogen “the best, most accurate prediction in all of science.”4 Beyond atomic physics, early applications of quantum mechanics listed by the physicist Gino Segrè included the binding of atoms in molecules, the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei, electrical conduction, magnetism, and electromagnetic radiation.5 Later applications spanned theories of semiconductivity and superconductivity, white dwarf stars and neutron stars, nuclear forces, and elementary particles. Even the most adventurous modern speculations, such as string theory, are based on the principles of quantum mechanics.

Many physicists came to think that the reaction of Einstein and Feynman and others to the unfamiliar aspects of quantum mechanics had been overblown. This used to be my view. After all, Newton’s theories too had been unpalatable to many of his contemporaries. Newton had introduced what his critics saw as an occult force, gravity, which was unrelated to any sort of tangible pushing and pulling, and which could not be explained on the basis of philosophy or pure mathematics. Also, his theories had renounced a chief aim of Ptolemy and Kepler, to calculate the sizes of planetary orbits from first principles. But in the end the opposition to Newtonianism faded away. Newton and his followers succeeded in accounting not only for the motions of planets and falling apples, but also for the movements of comets and moons and the shape of the earth and the change in direction of its axis of rotation. By the end of the eighteenth century this success had established Newton’s theories of motion and gravitation as correct, or at least as a marvelously accurate approximation. Evidently it is a mistake to demand too strictly that new physical theories should fit some preconceived philosophical standard.

In quantum mechanics the state of a system is not described by giving the position and velocity of every particle and the values and rates of change of various fields, as in classical physics. Instead, the state of any system at any moment is described by a wave function, essentially a list of numbers, one number for every possible configuration of the system.6 If the system is a single particle, then there is a number for every possible position in space that the particle may occupy. This is something like the description of a sound wave in classical physics, except that for a sound wave a number for each position in space gives the pressure of the air at that point, while for a particle in quantum mechanics the wave function’s number for a given position reflects the probability that the particle is at that position. What is so terrible about that? Certainly, it was a tragic mistake for Einstein and Schrödinger to step

*away*from

*using*quantum mechanics, isolating themselves in their later lives from the exciting progress made by others.

2.

Even so, I’m not as sure as I once was about the future of quantum mechanics. It is a bad sign that those physicists today who are most comfortable with quantum mechanics do not agree with one another about what it all means. The dispute arises chiefly regarding the nature of measurement in quantum mechanics. This issue can be illustrated by considering a simple example, measurement of the spin of an electron. (A particle’s spin in any direction is a measure of the amount of rotation of matter around a line pointing in that direction.)

All theories agree, and experiment confirms, that when one measures the amount of spin of an electron in any arbitrarily chosen direction there are only two possible results. One possible result will be equal to a positive number, a universal constant of nature. (This is the constant that Max Planck originally introduced in his 1900 theory of heat radiation, denoted

*h*, divided by 4π.) The other possible result is its opposite, the negative of the first. These positive or negative values of the spin correspond to an electron that is spinning either clockwise or counter-clockwise in the chosen direction.

But it is only when a measurement is made that these are the sole two possibilities. An electron spin that has not been measured is like a musical chord, formed from a superposition of two notes that correspond to positive or negative spins, each note with its own amplitude. Just as a chord creates a sound distinct from each of its constituent notes, the state of an electron spin that has not yet been measured is a superposition of the two possible states of definite spin, the superposition differing qualitatively from either state. In this musical analogy, the act of measuring the spin somehow shifts all the intensity of the chord to one of the notes, which we then hear on its own.

This can be put in terms of the wave function. If we disregard everything about an electron but its spin, there is not much that is wavelike about its wave function. It is just a pair of numbers, one number for each sign of the spin in some chosen direction, analogous to the amplitudes of each of the two notes in a chord.7 The wave function of an electron whose spin has not been measured generally has nonzero values for spins of both signs.

There is a rule of quantum mechanics, known as the Born rule, that tells us how to use the wave function to calculate the probabilities of getting various possible results in experiments. For example, the Born rule tells us that the probabilities of finding either a positive or a negative result when the spin in some chosen direction is measured are proportional to the squares of the numbers in the wave function for those two states of the spin.8

The introduction of probability into the principles of physics was disturbing to past physicists, but the trouble with quantum mechanics is not that it involves probabilities. We can live with that. The trouble is that in quantum mechanics the way that wave functions change with time is governed by an equation, the Schrödinger equation,

*that does not involve probabilities*. It is just as deterministic as Newton’s equations of motion and gravitation. That is, given the wave function at any moment, the Schrödinger equation will tell you precisely what the wave function will be at any future time. There is not even the possibility of chaos, the extreme sensitivity to initial conditions that is possible in Newtonian mechanics. So if we regard the whole process of measurement as being governed by the equations of quantum mechanics, and these equations are perfectly deterministic, how do probabilities get into quantum mechanics?

One common answer is that, in a measurement, the spin (or whatever else is measured) is put in an interaction with a macroscopic environment that jitters in an unpredictable way. For example, the environment might be the shower of photons in a beam of light that is used to observe the system, as unpredictable in practice as a shower of raindrops. Such an environment causes the superposition of different states in the wave function to break down, leading to an unpredictable result of the measurement. (This is called decoherence.) It is as if a noisy background somehow unpredictably left only one of the notes of a chord audible. But this begs the question. If the deterministic Schrödinger equation governs the changes through time not only of the spin but also of the measuring apparatus and the physicist using it, then the results of measurement should not in principle be unpredictable. So we still have to ask,

*how do probabilities get into quantum mechanics?*

One response to this puzzle was given in the 1920s by Niels Bohr, in what came to be called the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. According to Bohr, in a measurement the state of a system such as a spin collapses to one result or another in a way that cannot itself be described by quantum mechanics, and is truly unpredictable. This answer is now widely felt to be unacceptable. There seems no way to locate the boundary between the realms in which, according to Bohr, quantum mechanics does or does not apply. As it happens, I was a graduate student at Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen, but he was very great and I was very young, and I never had a chance to ask him about this.

Today there are two widely followed approaches to quantum mechanics, the “realist” and “instrumentalist” approaches, which view the origin of probability in measurement in two very different ways.9 For reasons I will explain, neither approach seems to me quite satisfactory.10

by Steven Weinberg, NYRB | Read more:

Image: Eric J. Heller