The Decline and Collapse of the Wavefunction Empire

Quantum mechanics is frustrating for everyone—theorists who don’t understand their own equations, experimentalists that have to jump around paradoxes to try and get a measurement, and students who just have no idea what’s happening. It also has the problem of being wrong. With space and time and everything made of particles, QM believers have to accept the enigma of wavefunction collapse (when the probability of states turns into a single state). Does it collapse when we poke at it? Are we somehow controlling the fate of the universe (even if the fate involves only a single photon)?

Experimentalists have had a notoriously hard time with understanding what the hell is going on, the main example being the famous double-slit experiment where electrons act as both particles and waves. In the wave form, electrons pass through both slits to create an interference pattern on the back wall. But when physicists tried to measure exactly which slit the electron passed through the electron turned back into a particle and the interference pattern was lost. It looked like measuring changed the nature of the electron—that we changed the nature of the electron. Crazy enough, buckyballs, which are large soccer-ball shaped collections of carbon atoms, also show wave-particle duality.

Now in a recent Nature paper, Berkeley scientists (of course) have mapped the slow demise of a wavefunction, in the solid state no less. They put a circuit in a superposition (a collection of energy states, i.e. acting as a wave), shoved it in a box, and shot microwaves at it. The energy states alter the microwaves in subtle ways as they pass through the circuit—something researchers can measure without collapsing their experiment. Over microseconds (horribly slow in quantum time), the researchers measured a “collection of snapshots” as the circuit’s wavefunction collapsed. They go on to suggest this measuring-at-a-distance can be used to manipulate wavefunctions, calling it ‘quantum steering.’

Nature wrote a nice article detailing the experiments in terms of quantum mechanics. But people blew up the comments complaining that the research should have been described in quantum field theory terms.  QFT gets rid of the pesky particles and replaces them with fields (like turning a molecule of water into an entire ocean… kind of), completely negating any paradox of wave-particle duality. One commenter, Timothy Eichfeld, had a good explanation of what was happening:

It is not so much as ‘measurement’ as it is the disruption of the very fragile energy states holding the system in place. The ‘wavefunction’ does not know if a human or a frog or stray muon has interfered with its energy system – it does not have a state of being ‘watched’ or not, the issue is that it is unstable and at the top of it’s energy state. It will be knocked back to it’s lowest state depending on what vibration was absorbed by the interaction of the interference pattern on it’s energy signature.

Also in the comments is everyone pitching the book they’ve written on the subject, because, of course, that’s what comment sections on a prestigious scientific website are for.

Just something I want to point out

I don’t know why people think animals are generally stupid. Maybe because they don’t have language (although sperm whales have regional accents, so that must say something) and haven’t taken over the world (opposable thumbs really helped us with that one). Maybe it’s from the religious notion that animals don’t have souls. Either way, it’s left us with an undue pride of being the only truly cognizant species on the planet.

Recent years have shown that animals do think and reason—some researchers even go as far to say animals have rudimentary feelings, though in the scientific literature they are careful in their phrasing. Now, we’ve learned that elephants can understand what a human means when they point. The researchers pointed and the elephants found food. Apparently, they’re the first wild animal to do this. (Wolves are known to follow a human’s gaze,  but don’t understand pointing.) Elephants already use their trunks to point so it makes sense that they understand what a little creature is doing when they wave their two tiny side trunks.

I’m reading Animal Wise by Virginia Morell and she really highlights the ability for animals, even insects, to think and learn. I think (I hope) that in the next few decades we’ll come to realize that how we see the world isn’t so different from how animals see the world. Rather than categorizing their actions under the broad topic of “animal instinct” we’ll realize that these creatures think and learn just like us. Sure, humans have the benefit of being able to mold the world around them, but maybe, just maybe, we’ll realize that we’re not so much better.

Be More Negative

It’s going to take more than just reducing our emission of greenhouse gasses to replenish our atmosphere. That’s where negative-emission technologies comes in.

Negative-emission technology requires the net amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere to decrease. This doesn’t mean that new technologies will go up into the sky and pull out the bad stuff. Instead, carbon dioxide and other gasses can be sequestered from plants and pulp mills and stuck in the ground. Though this seems like a temporary solution—what happens to that land? So far, sequestering hasn’t been studied in tremendous depth and isn’t used industrially.

It is, however, assumed in almost all scenarios involving less than a 2 ºC temperature rise—that’s when the serious consequences of global warming start.

To bring more research attention to this, Tim Kruger (not @TimKrugerXXX) from the University of Oxford set up a conference, happening this week. Kruger suggests regulating carbon dioxide emissions and making plants pay to clean up their atmospheric trash. I stand fully with that, but I can’t see it actually happening in the US. (Insert joke about Congress being worthless.)

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is encouraging such geoengineering, but many people find it risky. It would only take one country, maybe even one research group, to mess things up for everyone. With everyone rushing to find a solution before the world boils, it’s likely someone will be hasty. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Maybe we need to be negative to get positive results.