Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will     Archive   Favorite posts   Twitter: @steve_hsu

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Gell-Mann, Feynman, Everett

This site is a treasure trove of interesting video interviews -- including with Francis Crick, Freeman Dyson, Sydney Brenner, Marvin Minsky, Hans Bethe, Donald Knuth, and others. Many of the interviews have transcripts, which are much faster to read than listening to the interviews themselves.

Here's what Murray Gell-Mann has to say about quantum foundations:
In '63…'64 I worked on trying to understand quantum mechanics, and I brought in Felix Villars and for a while some comments... there were some comments by Dick Feynman who was nearby. And we all agreed on a rough understanding of quantum mechanics and the second law of thermodynamics and so on and so on, that was not really very different from what I'd been working on in the last ten or fifteen years.

I was not aware, and I don't think Felix was aware either, of the work of Everett when he was a graduate student at Princeton and worked on this, what some people have called 'many worlds' idea, suggested more or less by Wheeler. Apparently Everett was, as we learned at the Massagon [sic] meeting, Everett was an interesting person. He… it wasn't that he was passionately interested in quantum mechanics; he just liked to solve problems, and trying to improve the understanding of quantum mechanics was just one problem that he happened to look at. He spent most of the rest of his life working for the Weapon System Evaluation Group in Washington, WSEG, on military problems. Apparently he didn't care much as long as he could solve some interesting problems! [Some of these points, concerning Everett's life and motivations, and Wheeler's role in MW, are historically incorrect.]

Anyway, I didn't know about Everett's work so we discovered our interpretation independent of Everett. Now maybe Feynman knew about… about Everett's work and when he was commenting maybe he was drawing upon his knowledge of Everett, I have no idea, but… but certainly Felix and I didn't know about it, so we recreated something related to it.

Now, as interpreted by some people, Everett's work has two peculiar features: one is that this talk about many worlds and equally… many worlds equally real, which has confused a lot of people, including some very scholarly students of quantum mechanics. What does it mean, 'equally real'? It doesn't really have any useful meaning. What the people mean is that there are many histories of the… many alternative histories of the universe, many alternative course-grained, decoherent histories of the universe, and the theory treats them all on an equal footing, except for their probabilities. Now if that's what you mean by equally real, okay, but that's all it means; that the theory treats them on an equal footing apart from their probabilities. Which one actually happens in our experience, is a different matter and it's determined only probabilistically. Anyway, there's considerable continuity between the thoughts of '63-'64 and the thoughts that, and… and maybe earlier in the ‘60s, and the thoughts that Jim Hartle and I have had more recently, starting around '84-'85.
Indeed, Feynman was familiar with Everett's work -- see here and here.

Where Murray says "it's determined only probabilistically" I would say there is a subjective probability which describes how surprised one is to find oneself on a particular decoherent branch or history of the overall wavefunction -- i.e., how likely or unlikely we regard the outcomes we have observed to have been. For more see here.

Murray against Copenhagen:
... although the so-called Copenhagen interpretation is perfectly correct for all laboratory physics, laboratory experiments and so on, it's too special otherwise to be fundamental and it sort of strains credulity. It's… it’s not a convincing fundamental presentation, correct though… though it is, and as far as quantum cosmology is concerned it's hopeless. We were just saying, we were just quoting that old saw: describe the universe and give three examples. Well, to apply the… the Copenhagen interpretation to quantum cosmology,  you'd need a physicist outside the universe making repeated experiments, preferably on multiple copies of the universe and so on and so on. It's absurd. Clearly there is a definition to things happening independent of human observers. So I think that as this point of view is perfected it should be included in… in teaching fairly early, so that students aren't convinced that in order to understand quantum mechanics deeply they have to swallow some of this…very… some of these things that are very difficult to believe. But in the end of course, one can use the Copenhagen interpretations perfectly okay for experiments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Blog Archive


Web Statistics