Quantum foundations before WWII

The Shtetl Optimizer informs me that there has not been enough contemplation of Quantum Quandaries for his taste recently. Since there has not been a lot of interesting foundational news, the only sensible thing to do is to employ the usual blogger’s trick of cut, paste, link and plagiarize other blogs for ideas.

Scott recently posted a list of papers on quantum computation that a computer science student should read in order to prepare themselves for research in quantum complexity. Now, so far, nobody has asked me for a list of essential readings in the Foundations of Quantum Theory, which is incredibly surprising given the vast numbers of eager grad students who are entering the subject these days. In a way, I am quite glad about this, since there is no equivalent of “Mike and Ike” to point them towards. We are still waiting for a balanced textbook that gives each interpretation a fair hearing to appear. For now, we are stuck trawling the voluminous literature that has appeared on the subject since QM cohered into its present form in the 1920’s. Still, it might be useful to compile a list of essential readings that any foundational researcher worth their salt should have read.

Since this list is bound to be several pages long, today we will stick to those papers written before the outbreak of WWII, when physicists switched from debating foundational questions to the more nefarious applications of their subject. This is not enough to get you up to the cutting edge of modern research, so more specialized lists on particular topics will be compiled when I get around to it. I have tried to focus on texts that are still relevant to the debates going on today, so many papers that were important in their time but fairly uncontroversial today, such as Born’s introduction of the probability rule, have been omitted. Still, it is likely that I have missed something important, so feel free to add your favourites in the comments with the proviso that it must have been published before WWII.

  • P.A.M. Dirac, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, Oxford University Press (1930).
  • J. von Neumann, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, Princeton University Press (1955). This is the first English translation, but I believe the original German version was published prior to WWII.
  • W. Heisenberg, Über den anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoretischen Kinematik und Mechanik, Zeitschrift für Physik, 43, 172-198 (1927). The original uncertainty principle paper.
  • A. Einstein, B. Podolsky, and N. Rosen, Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete? Phys. Rev. 47, 777 (1935).
  • N. Bohr, Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?, Phys. Rev. 48, 696 (1935).
  • N. Bohr, The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr (vols. I and II), Oxbow Press (1987). It is a brave soul who can take this much Bohrdom in one sitting. All papers in vol. I and about half of vol. II were written prior to WWII. There is also a vol. III, but that contains post 1958 papers.
  • E. Schrödinger, Discussion of probability relations between separated systems, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. 31, 555-562 (1935).
  • E. Schrödinger, Die Gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik, Die Naturwissenschaften. 23, 807-812; 824-828; 844-849 (1935). Translated here.
  • Birkhoff, G., and von Neumann, J., The Logic of Quantum Mechanics, Annals of Mathematics 37, 823-843 (1936).

Many of the important papers are translated and reproduced in:

  • J. A. Wheeler and W.H. Zurek (eds.), Quantum Theory and Measurement, Princeton University Press (1983).

Somewhat bizzarely it is out of print, but you should find a copy in your local university library.

I am also informed that Anthony Valentini and Guido Bacciagaluppi have recently finished translating the proceedings of the 5th Solvay conference (1927), which is famous for the Bohr-Einstein debates, and produced one of the most well-known photos in physics. It should be worth a read when it comes out. A short video showing many of the major players at the 1927 Solvay conference is available here.

Update: A draft of the Valentini & Bacciagaluppi book has just appeared here.

8 responses to “Quantum foundations before WWII

  1. Pingback: Quantum Theory at the Crossroads Conference « physics musings

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