A thousand years from now, the twentieth century will be remembered as the time when we discovered quantum mechanics. Forget wars, computers, bombs, cars and airplanes: quantum mechanics is a deep truth that will continue to be a part of our understanding of the universe into the foreseeable future.
So it’s kind of embarassing that we still don’t understand it. Unlike relativity, which seems complicated but is actually quite crystal clear when you get to know it, quantum mechanics remains somewhat mysterious despite its many empirical successes, as Dennis Overbye writes in today’s New York Times.
Don’t get me wrong: we can use quantum mechanics quite fearlessly, making predictions that are tested to the twelfth decimal place. And we even understand the deep difference between quantum mechanics and its predecessor, classical (Newtonian) mechanics. In classical mechanics, any system is described by some set of quantities (such as the position and velocity), and we can imagine careful experiments that measure these quantities with arbitrary precision. The fundamentally new idea in quantum mechanics is that what we can observe is only a small fraction of what really exists. We think there is an electron with a position and a velocity, because that’s what we can observe; but what exists is a wavefunction that tells us the probability of various outcomes when we make such a measurement. There is no such thing as “where the electron really is,” there is only a wavefunction that tells us the relatively likelihood of observing it to be in different places.
What we don’t understand is what that word “observing” really means. What happens when we observe something? I don’t claim to have the answer; I have my half-baked ideas, but I’m still working through David Albert’s book and my ideas are not yet firm convictions. It’s interesting to note that some very smart people (like Tony Leggett) are sufficiently troubled by the implications of conventional quantum mechanics that they are willing to contemplate dramatic changes in the basic framework of our current picture. The real trouble is that you can’t address the measurement problem without talking about what constitutes an “observer,” and then you get into all these problematic notions of consciousness and other issues that physicists would just as soon try to avoid whenever possible.
I feel strongly that every educated person should understand the basic outline of quantum mechanics. That is, anyone with a college degree should, when asked “what’s the difference between classical mechanics and quantum mechanics?”, be able to say “in classical mechanics we can observe the state of the system to arbitrary accuracy, whereas in quantum mechanics we can only observe certain limited properties of the wave function.” It’s not too much to ask, I think. It would also be great if everyone could explain the distinction between bosons and fermions. Someday I will write a very short book that explains the major laws of modern physics — special relativity, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of particle physics — in bite-sized pieces that anyone can understand. If it sells as many copies as On Bullshit, I’ll be quite happy.