Quantum Waves are Still Physical, Regardless of Your Thoughts

Adam Frank, founder of NPR’s science and culture blog 13.7, recently published an essay on Aeon about materialism. It’s a bit confusing to get at what he’s trying to say because of the different focus its two titles have, as well as his own arguments. First, the titles. The title I saw first, which is what is displayed when shared on Facebook, is “Materialism alone cannot explain the riddle of consciousness”. But on Aeon, the title is “Minding matter”, with the sub-title or blurb of “The closer your look, the more the materialist position in physics appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground.” The question of theories of mind is very different than philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics.

This shows up in the article, where I found it confusing because Franks ties together several different arguments and confuses them with various ideas of “realism” and “materialism”. First, his conception of theories of mind is confusing. I’d say the average modern neuroscientist or other scholar of cognition is a materialist, but I’d be hesitant to say the average one is a reductionist who thinks thought depends very hard on the atoms in your brain. Computational theories of mind tend to be some of the most popular ones, and it’s hard to consider those reductionist. I would concede there may be too much of an experimental focus on reductionism (and that’s what has diffused into pop culture), but the debate over how to move from those experimental techniques to theoretical understanding is occurring: see the recent attempt at using neuroscience statistical techniques to understand Donkey Kong.

I also think he’s making a bit of an odd claim on reductionism in the other sciences in this passage:

A century of agnosticism about the true nature of matter hasn’t found its way deeply enough into other fields, where materialism still appears to be the most sensible way of dealing with the world and, most of all, with the mind. Some neuroscientists think that they’re being precise and grounded by holding tightly to materialist credentials. Molecular biologists, geneticists, and many other types of researchers – as well as the nonscientist public – have been similarly drawn to materialism’s seeming finality.

Yes, he technically calls it materialism, but he seems to basically equate it to reductionism by assuming the other sciences seem fine with being reducible to physics. But, first, Frank should know better from his own colleagues. The solid-state folks in his department work a lot with “emergentism” and point out that the supposedly more reductionist particle people now borrow concepts from them. And he should definitely know from his collaborators at 13.7 that the concept of reducibility is controversial across the sciences. Heck, even physical chemists take issue with being reducible to physics and will point out that QM models can’t fully reproduce aspects of the periodic table. Per the above, it’s worth pointing out that Jerry Fodor, a philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist, who does believe in a computational theory of mind disputes the idea of reductionism


This is funny because this tends to be controversial, not because it’s widely accepted.

Frank’s view on the nature of matter is also confusing. Here he seems to be suggesting “materialism” can really only refer to particulate theories of matter, e.g. something an instrument could definitely touch (in theory). But modern fundamental physics does accept fields and waves as real entities. “Shut up and calculate” isn’t useful for ontology or epistemology, but his professor’s pithy response actually isn’t that. Quantum field theories would agree that “an electron is that we attribute the properties of the electron” since electrons (and any particles) can actually take on any value of mass, charge, spin, etc. as virtual particles (which actually do exist, but only temporarily). The conventional values are what one gets in the process of renormalization in the theory. (I might be misstating that here, since I never actually got to doing QFT myself.) I would say this doesn’t mean electrons aren’t “real” or understood, but it would suggest that quantum fields are ontologically more fundamental than the particles are. If it makes more physical sense for an electron to be a probability wave, that’s bully for probability waves, not a lack of understanding. (Also, aside from experiments showing wave-particle duality, we’re now learning that even biochemistry is dependent on the wave nature of matter.)

I’m also not sure the discussion of wave function collapse does much work here. I don’t get why it would inherently undermine materialism, unless a consciousness interpretation were to win out, and as Frank admits, there’s still not much to support one interpretation over the other. (And even then, again, this could still be solved by a materialist view of consciousness.) He’s also ignoring the development of theories of quantum decoherence to explain wavefunction collapse as quantum systems interact with classical environments, and to my understanding, those are relatively agnostic to interpretation. (Although I think there’s an issue with timescales in quantitative descriptions.)

From there, Frank says we should be open to things beyond “materialism” in describing mind. But like my complaint with the title differences, those arguments don’t really follow from the bulk of the article focusing on philosophical issues in quantum mechanics. Also, he seems open to emergentism in the second to last paragraph. Actually, here I think Frank missed out on a great discussion. I think there are some great philosophy of science questions to be had at the level of QFT, especially with regards to epistemology, and especially directed to popular audiences. Even as a physics major, my main understanding of specific aspects of the framework like renormalization are accepted because “the math works”, which is different than other observables we measure. For instance, the anomalous magnetic moment is a very high precision test of quantum electrodynamics, the quantum field theory of electromagnetism, and our calculation is based on renormalization. But the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” can sometimes be wrong and we might lucky in converging to something close. (Though at this point I might be pulling dangerously close to the Duhem-Quine thesis without knowing much of the technical details.) Instead, we got a mediocre crossover between the question of consciousness and interpretations of quantum mechanics, even though Frank tried hard to avoid turning into “woo”.

Weirdly Specific Questions I Want Answers to in Meta-science, part 1

Using “meta-science” as a somewhat expansive term for history, philosophy, and sociology of science. And using my blog as a place to write about something besides the physical chemistry of carbon nanomaterials in various liquids.

  • To what extent is sloppy/misleading terminology an attempt to cash in on buzzwords? Clearly, we know that motive exists – there aren’t two major papers trying to narrow down precise definitions of graphene-related terms for nothing. But as the papers also suggest, at what point is it a legitimate debate in the community about setting a definition? “Graphene” was a term that described a useful theoretical construct for decades before anyone ever thought someone could make a real sheet of it, so maybe it isn’t unreasonable that people started using to describe a variety of physical things related to the original idea.
    • This contains a sort of follow-up: What properties do people use in clarifying these definitions and how much does it vary by background? Personally, I would say I’m way closer to the ideal of “graphene” than lots of people working with more extensively chemically modified graphene derivatives and am fine with using it for almost anything that’s nearly all sp2 carbon with about 10 layers or less. But would a physicist who cares more about the electronic properties, and which vary a lot based on the number of layers even in the lower limit, consider that maddening?
  • Nanoscience is very interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary, but individual researchers can be quite grounded in just one field. How much work is being done where researchers are missing basic knowledge of another field their work is now straddling?
    • For instance, when reading up on polymer nanocomposites, it seems noted by lots of people with extensive polymer science backgrounds that there are many papers that don’t refer to basic aspects of polymer physics. My hunch is that a lot of this comes from the fact that many people in this field started working on the nanoparticles they want to incorporate into the composites and then moved into the composites. They may have backgrounds more in fields like solid-state physics, electrical engineering, or (inorganic/metallic/ceramic) materials science, where they would have been less likely to deal with polymer theory.
    • Similarly, it was noted in one paper I read that a lot of talk about solutions of nanoparticles probably would be more precise if the discussion was framed in terminology of colloids and dispersions.

Oh my gosh, I made fun of the subtitle for like two years, but it’s true

  • Is the ontological status of defects in nanoscience distinct from their treatment in bulk studies of materials? This is a bit related to the first question in that some definitions would preclude the existence of some defects in the referent material/structure.
    • On the other hand, does this stricter treatment make more sense in the few atom limit of many nanomaterials? Chemists can literally specify the type and location of every atom in successful products of well-studied cluster reactions, though these are even pushing the term “nano”.
    • Is this a reflection of applications of defects at the different scales? (More philosophically worded, are defects treated differently because of their teleological nature?) At the bulk level, we work to engineer the nature of defects to help develop the properties we want. At the nanoscale, some structures can basically be ruined for certain applications by the mislocation of a single atom. Is this also a reflection of the current practical process of needing to scale up the ability to make nanomaterials? E.g. as more realistic approaches to large-scale nanotech fabrication are developed, will the practical treatment of defects in nanomaterials converge to that of how we treat defects in the bulk?

Quick Thoughts on Diversity in Physics

Earlier this month, during oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, Chief Justice John Roberts asked what perspective an African-American student would offer in physics classrooms. The group Equity and Inclusion in Physics and Astronomy has written an open letter about why this line of questioning may miss the point about diversity in the classroom. But it also seems worth pointing out why culture does matter in physics (and science more broadly).

So nature is nature and people can develop theoretical understanding of it anywhere and it should be similar (I think. This is actually glossing over what I imagine is a deep philosophy of science question.) But nature is also incredibly vast. People approach studies of nature in ways that can reflect their culture. Someone may choose to study a phenomenon because it is one they see often in their lives. Or they may develop an analogy between theory and some aspect of culture that helps them better understand a concept. You can’t wax philosphical about Kekule thinking of ouroboros when he was studying the structure of benzene without admitting that culture has some influence on how people approach science. There are literally entire books and articles about Einstein and Poincare being influenced by sociotechnical issues of late 19th/early 20th century Europe as they developed concepts that would lead to Einstein’s theories of relativity. A physics community that is a monoculture then misses out on other influences and perspectives. So yes, physics should be diverse, and more importantly, physics should be welcoming to all kinds of people.

It’s also worth pointing out this becomes immensely important in engineering and technology, where the problems people choose to study are often immensely influenced by their life experiences. For instance, I have heard people say that India does a great deal of research on speech recognition as a user interface because India still has a large population that cannot read or write, and even then, they may not all use the same language.

Modern Physics Isn’t All or Nothing

My physics crush, Lisa Randall, was recently interviewed by New Scientist about a “Theory of Everything”.  I feel like there’s some context we’re missing, because the first question (“Doesn’t every physicist dream of one neat theory of everything?”) seems really abrupt. But I like her answer. I might quibble and say I think physicists generally hope there is a “theory of everything”, but it definitely doesn’t drive all work. Work on a theory of  everything is just one branch of physics. There’s also a lot of work that doesn’t depend on a theory of everything (biophysics and condensed matter physics are still trying to work out how to basically go from quantum mechanics to everyday life still) and other work that is important to gathering observations that a theory of everything needs to explain (like astrophysical and cosmological explanations showing there might be preferred directions for structures in the universe). Asking this question would be like asking a heart surgeon if fully understanding the human genome is her dream. It might help her job a bit, but there’s a lot of other problems in her field that also need to be solved and it doesn’t really influence her work.

I also liked her argument against mathematical beauty. Math can guide physics, but empirical observation is also important.  When we moved from a geocentric to a heliocentric model, one of the problems with the heliocentric model was that it didn’t accurately predict where planets were in the sky. This was because Copernicus assumed orbits around the Sun had to be circular, because of obsessions about the “perfection” of circles.

Physics Education, in a Bit More than a Minute

MinutePhysics, an extremely popular YouTube channel that explains physics topics (though typically in a bit more than a minute), posted an “open letter to President Obama” about reforming high school physics.  Here’s the video, and my thoughts are below.

I actually have conflicting feelings about this. First, I would point out we do cover some of that, but not in physics. In my district, the Big Bang and astronomy were covered in an “integrated science” class on Earth and space science and some basic physics. And for some weird historical reason, we’ve decided that atomic structure is a chemistry topic until you get to college (I calculated the energy of nuclear mass defects in my first high school chemistry class, and that is straight-up E=mc^2) while high school physics is just elementary mechanics and E&M, probably out of some combination of bureaucratic inertia and a view of what was considered “practical” when these curricula were standardized. 

I honestly think the way we teach physics and chemistry in high school now prevents us from adequately covering modern physics. Quantum mechanics doesn’t really have any conceptual overlap with mechanics at this basic level and so it’s hard to integrate into the physics curriculum. This is also the view of some of advocates of a so called “Physics First” curriculum; the standard curricular divisions of high school biology, chemistry, and physics don’t really make sense given the way modern science works. One group advocated just really trying to integrate all three subjects and just have a three-year science sequence that isn’t separated as much by field. That would help remove any potential turf war between what parts of atoms are physics or chemistry and what biochemistry is biology or chemistry.

As an aside, relativity actually seems like it would be doable in high school. Or at least the only bit we cover in undergrad physics.  The Lorentz transformation is just algebra, and honestly that’s enough to help you understand a lot of its relevance to life (GPS correction, length contraction, etc). If I could propose one dramatic change to how we approach high school physics, I would honestly be okay with less emphasis on modern physics and more on just the general idea of energy. Physics (and really all of nature) is about minimizing energy.

Hello world!

Yes, this is how WordPress titles your first post anyway. But I thought “Hello world!”, the first command that people commonly learn when picking up a programming language, was an apt intro for a blog that wants to look at science, technology, and how society uses and understands these things.

Why call it “nontrivialproblems”?  Well, I did want there to be a space between “trivial” and “problems”, but that’s what I get for making a blog before understanding how to customize a theme.  But more seriously, “nontrivial” is a term that carries a lot of weight in science, math, and engineering.  The “trivial solution” to a calculation is the solution where all terms are zero.  So, yeah, that probably leads to a mathematically true answer for many equations, but it’s not really interesting from a theoretical or practical point of view.  But trivial  also goes beyond that.  Something immediately obvious or deductible from a proof or theorem can be considered “trivial”. Richard Feynman once joked that mathematicians consider any theorem “trivial” once it has a proof.

So what is nontrivial? The stuff we don’t really understand. String theory is nontrivial, in both a mathematical and cultural sense. Predicting weather. Epigenetics and proteomics can be considered nontrivial.  Any area where we still don’t understand a lot of the rules that govern systems is “nontrivial”.

There’s a flip side to that understanding of nontrivial work, though.  A lot of science and engineering work that isn’t at the cutting edge of theory is considered “trivial” by some researchers.  The thing is, a lot of this work is also the work that’s about ready to hit the real world and affect lay people’s lives.  How carbon nanotubes grow is pretty well-settled, and we can make lots of cool devices with them (computer transistors, low-resistance wires, drug delivery systems, and more), but we still haven’t found a way to get most of these technologies efficiently to market. We have drugs for West Nile and malaria, but not ways to make them cheap enough to prevent outbreaks in developing countries.

Feynman said, “No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.” And so that’s what we’ll be working with.  Whether we’re looking at particle physicists finding the Higgs boson, chemists trying to understand the large-scale order of water molecules, or an engineer hoping to crank out a few more watts from a solar cell, it’s all fascinating in its own way.