The link in yesterday’s post, pointing to the Foundational Attitude Towards QM survey/poll/snapshot, has generated interest elsewhere. Sean Carroll has deemed the histogram of the interpretations of QM The Most Embarrassing Graph in Modern Physics
For quantum mechanics, by contrast, all we really have to do (most people believe) is think about it in the right way. No elaborate experiments necessarily required (although they could help nudge us in the right direction, no doubt about that). But if anything, that makes the embarrassment more acute. All we have to do is wrap our brains around the issue, and yet we’ve failed to do so.
Chad Orzel has responded with Experiments Are Not Afterthoughts
This plays into a pet peeve of mine, which I’ve ranted about before, namely the idea that experiments are somehow an afterthought, just cleaning up the loose ends once theorists have done the hard work of thinking about things.
This is emphatically wrong. Experiment is at least an equal partner in this, and every other scientific question. If we ever do determine that there is One True and Correct Interpretation of quantum mechanics, it will be because that intepretation produces makes concrete predictions that are testable by experiment. Full stop.
(Oooh. Schrödinger’s catfight!. OK, no, not really.)
I’ve already said that this kind of discussion isn’t something I spend a lot of effort on, and that’s probably because I’m an experimentalist, and because I am, I tend to agree with Chad here — the only way you know you’re right is if you compare your model with nature. We’re looking at a black box, labeled what’s really going on here and we aren’t going to simply think our way inside. We have to look at what goes in and what comes out of the box, or come up with a clever way to take a peek inside, but that’s all code for experiment.
A comment I read recently regarding a peripherally related subject (paraphrasing) is that theoretical physicists generally tend to be more prone to blurring the line between models and observation, which I think might be true (I’ve seen it happen, at least, but that’s merely anecdotal) and also might come into play here, in the form that experimentalists may be more demanding of, well, experiment. And since I think of the interpretations as just a tool to help with intuition about what’s going on, and not the theory itself, I see no need for embarrassment. I don’t see this as being much different than picking your favorite analogy to explain a concept, and finding that within a group of physicists, there is more than one analogy that individuals favor. The analogy doesn’t change the underlying physics.
I had mentioned that the commentary on the survey responses was fun to read, and this question’s commentary was
Finally, looking back, we regret not to have included the “shut up and calculate” interpretation
The shut up and calculate “interpretation” (or, if you like, “we don’t need no stinking interpretation”) is another approach I favor on some occasions. I like this simply because it removes the controversy that Sean has pointed to. It ignores any of the worry about what’s really going on inside the black box because, until we can come up with a test — which requires a model that distinguishes the options — we won’t know and can’t know. So why worry about it? The thing to focus on is the answer we get — the result of the QM calculation. If we ever do come up with that model that lets us test an interpretation, it becomes a new black box, inside of which we can’t see. That just pushes the problem back a step.
Sean closes his post by saying that he’s confident this will be resolved, but one has to recognize that this is not a slam-dunk. There is no fine print that says that all of nature will be understandable or double our money back. We have a track record that shows us that science is a great set of tools to help us understand nature and has allowed us to dig deeper and deeper, but success is not guaranteed.