Tag Archives: foundations

Q+ Hangout: Renato Renner

Here are the details of the next Q+ hangout.

Date/Time: 29th October 2013 2pm GMT

Speaker: Renato Renner (ETH Zurich)

Title: Does freedom of choice imply that the wave function is real?


The question whether the quantum-mechanical wave function is “real” has recently attracted considerable interest. More precisely, the question is whether the wave function of a system is uniquely determined by any complete description of its “physical state”. In this talk I will present a simple and self-contained proof that this is indeed the case, under an assumption that one may term “freedom of choice”. It demands that arbitrary measurements can be applied to the system, and that these can be chosen independently of all parameters available at the time of measurement (with respect to any relativistic frame). A possible interpretation of this result is that the wave function of a system is as “objective or “real as any other complete description of the system’s state.
(This is based on unpublished work in collaboration with Roger Colbeck.)

To watch the talk live go to http://gplus.to/qplus at the appointed hour.

Note that the change from daylight savings time to standard time will have happened in the UK, but not some other countries like the US and Canada. Therefore, your usual timezone calculation may be out by an hour, e.g. the talk is at 10am in East Coast US and Canada. Please check the time conversion for your location.

To keep up to date with the latest news on Q+ hangouts, you can follow us on:

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Quantum Times Article about Surveys on the Foundations of Quantum Theory

A new edition of The Quantum Times (newsletter of the APS topical group on Quantum Information) is out and I have two articles in it. I am posting the first one here today and the second, a book review of two recent books on quantum computing by John Gribbin and Jonathan Dowling, will be posted later in the week. As always, I encourage you to download the newsletter itself because it contains other interesting articles and announcements other than my own. In particlar, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Ian Durham, current editor of The Quantum Times, is stepping down as editor at some point before the March meeting. If you are interested in getting more involved in the topical group, I would encourage you to put yourself forward. Details can be found at the end of the newsletter.

Upon reformatting my articles for the blog, I realized that I have reached almost Miguel Navascues levels of crankiness. I guess this might be because I had a stomach bug when I was writing them. Today’s article is a criticism of the recent “Snapshots of Foundational Attitudes Toward Quantum Mechanics” surveys that appeared on the arXiv and generated a lot of attention. The article is part of a point-counterpoint, with Nathan Harshman defending the surveys. Here, I am only posting my part in its original version. The newsletter version is slightly edited from this, most significantly in the removal of my carefully constructed title.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Snapshots of Foundational Attitudes Toward Quantum Mechanics

Q1. Which of the following questions is best resolved by taking a straw
poll of physicists attending a conference?

A. How long ago did the big bang happen?

B. What is the correct approach to quantum gravity?

C. Is nature supersymmetric?

D. What is the correct way to understand quantum theory?

E. None of the above.

By definition, a scientific question is one that is best resolved by
rational argument and appeal to empirical evidence.  It does not
matter if definitive evidence is lacking, so long as it is conceivable
that evidence may become available in the future, possibly via
experiments that we have not conceived of yet.  A poll is not a valid
method of resolving a scientific question.  If you answered anything
other than E to the above question then you must think that at least
one of A-D is not a scientific question, and the most likely culprit
is D.  If so, I disagree with you.

It is possible to legitimately disagree on whether a question is
scientific.  Our imaginations cannot conceive of all possible ways,
however indirect, that a question might get resolved.  The lesson from
history is that we are often wrong in declaring questions beyond the
reach of science.  For example, when big bang cosmology was first
introduced, many viewed it as unscientific because it was difficult to
conceive of how its predictions might be verified from our lowly
position here on Earth.  We have since gone from a situation in which
many people thought that the steady state model could not be
definitively refuted, to a big bang consensus with wildly fluctuating
estimates of the age of the universe, and finally to a precision value
of 13.77 +/- 0.059 billion years from the WMAP data.

Traditionally, many physicists separated quantum theory into its
“practical part” and its “interpretation”, with the latter viewed as
more a matter of philosophy than physics.  John Bell refuted this by
showing that conceptual issues have experimental consequences.  The
more recent development of quantum information and computation also
shows the practical value of foundational thinking.  Despite these
developments, the view that “interpretation” is a separate
unscientific subject persists.  Partly this is because we have a
tendency to redraw the boundaries.  “Interpretation” is then a
catch-all term for the issues we cannot resolve, such as whether
Copenhagen, Bohmian mechanics, many-worlds, or something else is the
best way of looking at quantum theory.  However, the lesson of big
bang cosmology cautions against labelling these issues unscientific.
Although interpretations of quantum theory are constructed to yield
the same or similar enough predictions to standard quantum theory,
this need not be the case when we move beyond the experimental regime
that is now accessible.  Each interpretation is based on a different
explanatory framework, and each suggests different ways of modifying
or generalizing the theory.  If we think that quantum theory is not
our final theory then interpretations are relevant in constructing its
successor.  This may happen in quantum gravity, but it may equally
happen at lower energies, since we do not yet have an experimentally
confirmed theory that unifies the other three forces.  The need to
change quantum theory may happen sooner than you expect, and whichever
explanatory framework yields the next theory will then be proven
correct.  It is for this reason that I think question D is scientific.

Regardless of the status of question D, straw polls, such as the three
that recently appeared on the arXiv [1-3], cannot help us to resolve
it, and I find it puzzling that we choose to conduct them for this
question, but not for other controversial issues in physics.  Even
during the decades in which the status of big bang cosmology was
controversial, I know of no attempts to poll cosmologists’ views on
it.  Such a poll would have been viewed as meaningless by those who
thought cosmology was unscientific, and as the wrong way to resolve
the question by those who did think it was scientific.  The same is
true of question D, and the fact that we do nevertheless conduct polls
suggests that the question is not being treated with the same respect
as the others on the list.

Admittedly, polls about controversial scientific questions are
relevant to the sociology of science, and they might be useful to the
beginning graduate student who is more concerned with their career
prospects than following their own rational instincts.  From this
perspective, it would be just as interesting to know what percentage
of physicists think that supersymmetry is on the right track as it is
to know about their views on quantum theory.  However, to answer such
questions, polls need careful design and statistical analysis.  None
of the three polls claims to be scientific and none of them contain
any error analysis.  What then is the point of them?

The three recent polls are based on a set of questions designed by
Schlosshauer, Kofler and Zeilinger, who conducted the first poll at a
conference organized by Zeilinger [1].  The questions go beyond just
asking for a preferred interpretation of quantum theory, but in the
interests of brevity I will focus on this aspect alone.  In the
Schlosshauer et al.  poll, Copenhagen comes out top, closely followed
by “information-based/information-theoretical” interpretations.  The
second comes from a conference called “The Philosophy of Quantum
Mechanics” [2].  There was a larger proportion of self-identified
philosophers amongst those surveyed and “I have no preferred
interpretation” came out as the clear winner, not so closely followed
by de Broglie-Bohm theory, which had obtained zero votes in the poll
of Schlosshauer et al.  Copenhagen is in joint third place along with
objective collapse theories.  The third poll comes from “Quantum
theory without observers III” [3], at which de Broglie-Bohm got a
whopping 63% of the votes, not so closely followed by objective

What we can conclude from this is that people who went to a meeting
organized by Zeilinger are likely to have views similar to Zeilinger.
People who went to a philosophy conference are less likely to be
committed, but are much more likely to pick a realist interpretation
than those who hang out with Zeilinger.  Finally, people who went to a
meeting that is mainly about de Broglie-Bohm theory, organized by the
world’s most prominent Bohmians, are likely to be Bohmians.  What have
we learned from this that we did not know already?

One thing I find especially amusing about these polls is how easy it
would have been to obtain a more representative sample of physicists’
views.  It is straightforward to post a survey on the internet for
free.  Then all you have to do is write a letter to Physics Today
asking people to complete the survey and send the URL to a bunch of
mailing lists.  The sample so obtained would still be self-selecting
to some degree, but much less so than at a conference dedicated to
some particular approach to quantum theory.  The sample would also be
larger by at least an order of magnitude.  The ease with which this
could be done only illustrates the extent to which these surveys
should not even be taken semi-seriously.

I could go on about the bad design of the survey questions and about
how the error bars would be huge if you actually bothered to calculate
them.  It is amusing how willing scientists are to abandon the
scientific method when they address questions outside their own field.
However, I think I have taken up enough of your time already.  It is
time we recognized these surveys for the nonsense that they are.


[1] M. Schlosshauer, J. Kofler and A. Zeilinger, A Snapshot of
Foundational Attitudes Toward Quantum Mechanics, arXiv:1301.1069

[2] C. Sommer, Another Survey of Foundational Attitudes Towards
Quantum Mechanics, arXiv:1303.2719 (2013).

[3] T. Norsen and S. Nelson, Yet Another Snapshot of Foundational
Attitudes Toward Quantum Mechanics, arXiv:1306.4646 (2013).

Q+ Hangout: Bill Wootters

Here are the details of the next Q+ hangout.

Date/time: Tuesday 18th June 2013 2pm BST/UTC+1

Speaker: Bill Wootters (Williams College)

Title: What is the origin of complex probability amplitudes?

Abstract: I begin this presentation with an attempt to explain the origin of probability amplitudes in quantum theory, but the explanation makes sense only if those amplitudes are real. This result provides motivation for studying the real-vector-space variant of quantum theory. I show how a particular model within real-vector-space quantum theory can produce the appearance of complex probability amplitudes. In this model, a special binary subsystem of the universe, called the universal rebit or “ubit,” plays the role of the complex phase factor. In a certain limit the effective theory emerging from the model mimics standard quantum theory, but if we stop short of this limit the model predicts the spontaneous decoherence of isolated systems.

To watch the talk live go to http://gplus.to/qplus at the appointed hour.

To keep up to date on the latest news about Q+ hangouts you can follow us on:

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Q+ Hangout: Roger Colbeck

Here are the details of the next Q+ hangout.

Date: Tuesday 29th January 2013

Time: 2pm GMT/UTC

Speaker: Roger Colbeck (ETH Zurich)

Title: No extension of quantum theory can have improved predictive power


According to quantum theory, measurements generate random outcomes, in stark contrast with classical mechanics. This raises the important question of whether there could exist an extension of the theory which removes this indeterminism, as famously suspected by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen. Under the assumption of free choice within a particular causal structure, Bell’s work showed this to be impossible. However, existing results do not imply that the current theory is maximally informative. Could it be that certain hidden variable theories (for example) allow us to make more accurate predictions about the outcomes?

In this talk, I will discuss this question and show that, under the same free choice assumption, the answer is negative: no extension of quantum theory can give more information about the outcomes of future measurements than quantum theory itself.

I will then show that as a corollary of this result, we can reach the same conclusion as Pusey, Barrett and Rudolph that the wavefunction cannot be thought of as subjective.

(This is based on arXiv:1005.5173, arXiv:1111.6597 and arXiv:1208.4123)

To watch the talk live go to http://gplus.to/qplus at the appointed hour.

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Q+ Hangout: Rob Spekkens

Here are the details of the next Q+ hangout.

Date/time: Tuesday 20th November 2pm GMT/UTC

Speaker: Rob Spekkens (Perimeter Institute)

Title: Quantum correlations from the perspective of causal discovery algorithms

Abstract: If correlation does not imply causation, then what does? The beginning of a rigorous answer to this question has been provided by researchers in machine learning, who have developed causal discovery algorithms. These take as their input facts about correlations among a set of observed variables and return as their output a causal structure relating these variables. We show that any attempt to provide a causal explanation of Bell-inequality-violating correlations must contradict a core principle of these algorithms, namely, that an observed statistical independence between variables should not be explained by fine-tuning of the causal parameters. In particular, we demonstrate the need for such fine-tuning for most of the causal mechanisms that have been proposed to underlie Bell correlations, including superluminal causal influences, superdeterminism (that is, a denial of freedom of choice of settings), and retrocausal influences which do not introduce causal cycles. This work suggests a novel perspective on the assumptions underlying Bell’s theorem: the nebulous assumption of “realism” is replaced with the principle that all correlations ought to be explained causally, and Bell’s notion of local causality is replaced with the assumption of no fine-tuning. Finally, we discuss the possibility of avoiding the fine-tuning by replacing conditional probabilities with a noncommutative generalization thereof.

Based on arXiv:1208.4119.

Joint work with Chris Wood.

To watch the talk live, go to http://gplus.to/qplus at the appointed hour.

Don’t forget to fill out our survey to have your say on who we should invite for future talks.

Q+ Hangout: Markus Mueller

Here are the details of the next Q+ hangout.

Date/time: Tuesday 23rd October 2pm BST

Speaker: Markus Mueller (Perimeter Institute)

Title: Three-dimensionality of space and the quantum bit: an information-theoretic approach

Absract: It is sometimes pointed out as a curiosity that the state space of quantum two-level systems, i.e. the qubit, and actual physical space are both three-dimensional and Euclidean. In this talk, I report on joint work with Lluis Masanes, where we attempt an information-theoretic analysis of this relationship, by proving a particular mathematical result: suppose that physics takes place in d spatial dimensions, and that some events happen probabilistically (not assuming quantum theory in any way). Furthermore, suppose there are systems that behave in some sense as “units of direction information”, interacting via some continuous reversible time evolution. We prove that this uniquely determines spatial dimension d=3 and quantum theory on two qubits. Hence, abstractly postulating the “nice” behavior of a Stern-Gerlach device in information-theoretic terms determines already some important aspects of physics as we know it.

This talk is based on http://arxiv.org/abs/1206.0630

To watch the talk live go to http://qplus.to/qplus at the appointed hour.

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Rerun: Caslav Brukner’s Q+ hangout

We are rerunning Caslav Brukner’s Q+ hangout due to problems with the livestream and video recording in July. Note the earlier than usual starting time.

Date: 18th September 2012

Time: 12noon British Summer Time

Speaker: Caslav Brukner (University of Vienna)

Title: Quantum correlations with indefinite causal order


In quantum physics it is standardly assumed that the background time or definite causal structure exists such that every operation is either in the future, in the past or space-like separated from any other operation. Consequently, the correlations between operations respect definite causal order: they are either signalling correlations for the time-like or no-signalling correlations for the space-like separated operations. We develop a framework that assumes only that operations in local laboratories are described by quantum mechanics (i.e. are completely-positive maps), but relax the assumption that they are causally connected. Remarkably, we find situations where two operations are neither causally ordered nor in a probabilistic mixture of definite causal orders, i.e. one cannot say that one operations is before or after the other. The correlations between the operations are shown to enable performing a communication task (“causal game”) that is impossible if the operations are ordered according to a fixed background time.

To view the seminar live, go to http://gplus.to/qplus at the appointed hour.

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