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Last updated on Tuesday 13th June 2023

The Fundamental Heresy: The view from the cheap seats

“Everything seems simpler from a distance.”

– Gail Tsukiyama, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms

Ptolemy was right. Claudius Ptolemy (Πτολεμαῖος) lived in Alexandria, Egypt, around the year 100CE and is best known for his earth-centred view of solar system.

His presentation of this is highly mathematical and involves circles on circles, epicycles, to predict the movements of astronomical bodies, eclipses and so on. It worked OK and would have worked just fine with better observational data and the use of ellipses rather than circles.

As we all know, Nicholas Copernicus (Mikołaj Kopernik) argued for an alternative picture where the sun was at the centre.  This was a much simpler picture, a picture that pointed Newton to the idea of a constant force, gravity, as a controlling influence.

However, if we take Relativity seriously, we must see our frame of reference as stationery. So, we must measure everything relative to us. The sun does go round our frame of reference: Ptolemy’s picture is mathematically the same and relativisticly more ‘right’ than Copernicus’s. But it is not as simple and less able to inspire further ideas.

The point we, the Quantum Heretics, want to make is that good mathematics provides answers but does not provide a picture of processes or, even an understanding of how they might work. Several different pictures with different physical processes can work just as well with the math and may make understanding simpler and, at times, may generate more fruitful ideas for research.

Fundamental physics is seen as the epitome of mathematical science and the exemplar of what it can achieve. It underlies the gigantic advances of the Twentieth Century, creating a new technology that we are still building on today. People stand in awe of the power and the effectiveness of Quantum Mechanics and its descendants (Quantum Electrodynamics and Quantum Field Theory). They wonder at the strangeness of the Theory of Relativity, with its apparently counter-intuitive principles but powerfully effective predictions.

But the building of this intellectual monument was not a calm, logical construction. Throughout the development of modern physics, arguments raged about whether fundamental things like light or electrons are best described as waves or particles or strings or membranes or whatever. They debated whether the probabilistic calculations of quantum mechanics reflected a probabilistic world or were simply tools for providing correct answers. Einstein gave God character references, “God is subtle, but he is not malicious”; Niels Bohr insisted that what we don’t know, isn’t; Schrodinger mocked the ‘actual fact’ interpretation of probability with a dead-and-alive cat. The different pictures of what the math meant were fought with vigour.

This is not surprising, because math is universal: it is same, regardless of the things it is used to refer to. Three plus three equals six, whether we are talking about three eggs or three elephants. Dividing a cake into eight slices in the physical world requires a knife, dividing an army into eight divisions does not. In the mathematical world, the same process has happened: a single concept has been divided into eight sub-concepts, in the physical world totally different categories of objects and processes are involved. Mathematics tells us the outcome of inputs, not about the substances at the start and the finish. Ptolemy’s picture of the solar system (updated) is mathematically correct, its predictions could work as accurately as Copernicus’ picture (who also used circles, not ellipses). Physics does not have the ‘Hamiltonians’ and ‘Lagrangians’ of math; these do not exist as physical entities any more than addition or multiplication do. While these entities are mathematically essential to generating correct physical predications, none is a description of a physical object or process.

These politely fought but vehemently felt divisions among physicists have calmed down over the last fifty years. A truce has been largely achieved by agreeing that arguing over descriptions is futile, so we had better get on with calculation because it works; it provides correct forecasts for what will happened in specific circumstances, rather than arguments about the meanings of words. Above all, there is work to be done, new devices to create and words don’t help that. If you must use words, then some term like ‘wave-particle’ will do and people must accept that it is so. Terms like ‘quantum weirdness’ cover the existence of difficult ideas from ‘virtual particles’ to ‘superpositions of states’. Even the startling and unexpected discovery of ‘entanglement’ (explained later) in the Twenty-first Century could be swallowed as another aspect of weirdness, a not-a-problem problem.

A small voice also points out that something else has calmed down over the last fifty years: discovery. The last new particles to be found, the W, Z and Higgs, were predicted in the 1960’s. The theoretical structure of sub-atomic particles, the ‘Standard Model’, was created around 1968, its predicted particles now agreed to be unobservable, its original simplicity, like Ptolemy’s, now elaborated to fit recalcitrant observations.

There is a heresy that says that, to reboot progress, we need to look back and think again about the things we think we know. Maybe we have allowed false assumptions to creep unobserved into even the basement of the structure we have built, flaws that weaken the structure until, as it gets higher and higher, it can bear no more development. Maybe, say the Heretics, we can re-imagine how things work, keeping the math the same but, like Copernicus, showing a new, simpler picture, that prompts new research and new theory.

It could be argued that, in modern physics, heretics abound. They dream of ‘supersymmetry’ and ‘strings’, of ‘dark energy’ and ‘false vacuums’ and of other reconstructions of the standard picture, pictures that remove at least some of its difficulties. But our heresy here looks further back then these and starts as early as 1887, with the foundational Michelson-Morley experiment. We, the official Quantum Heretics, point out that the Michelson-Morley experimental result – that the speed of light was constant, regardless of the movement of the emitter – proved, contrary to widespread legend, that the vacuum must have a medium. This is not because the result was wrong but because they wrongly – but very understandably – assumed that a moving source in a stationary background was effectively the same as stationary source in a moving background. In the First Heresy, we show that this assumption is easily and constantly proved wrong – a moving source results in a different wavelength with the same wave-speed (the Doppler effect), a moving medium results in a different wave-speed but the same wave length.

We suggest that many observations in physics can be described in several different ways, ways that are each completely valid but feel very different. To illustrate this point, here are three different ways to describe sound waves. They are all equally accurate and all of them can be used to explain and predict the behaviour of sound waves in air.

  1. Sound is alternating areas of high and low pressure, moving through the air. These areas of high and low pressure are created by, say, a loudspeaker diaphragm moving in and out. The areas of high and low pressure move through the air until they hit your ear, when they cause your eardrum to move in and out, which your brain interprets a sound. Or…
  2. In areas of high pressure, there is a higher probability of finding a molecule than there is in low-pressure areas. In sound waves, areas of alternating high probability and low probability-of-finding-a-molecule move through the air. So, sound is a probability wave moving through air. This has been a very useful way to describe waves in math. Or…
  3. Air molecules are constantly moving and colliding. The sound wave moves through the air because air molecules’ movement is more coordinated in one direction than in others. As a result, they transfer slightly more kinetic energy (the energy of movement) in that direction. So, sound is kinetic energy transferred by asymmetry in the distribution of the kinetic energy in molecules of the air.

All these descriptions are right but, in different contexts, one description may be more useful or more comprehensible than another. All three types of description could apply to light as much as to sound. Much of what is described as ‘quantum weirdness’ comes about because the math of quantum mechanics uses a probability-style description, like the second description above, and this is translated into a view of the actual behaviour of things. But you would not wax mysterious about the collapse of the probability function as a horse passes the winning post and talk of squaring the probability amplitude of virtual winners, coalescing them into an actual winning horse. The Heretics believe that we can avoid this mysticism in physics as well. As we see above, something described in terms of probability can also be described in terms of conventional physical entities. Because probability is a state of knowledge and not of fact, as we see from Heresy Eight, it cannot be simplistically translated into physical reality, however useful as a tool of prediction.

Max Planck first used the term ‘quantum’ in a physics context in 1900 and did so specifically to avoid defining what it was his math was about – ‘quantum’ simply meaning ‘an amount’. The deepest heresy we shall discuss, and the point at which traditional physicists will leave the room, is that we now know enough to say what Max Planck and, later, Albert Einstein, in his 1905 paper on the photo-electric effect, were talking about. We can now describe the different types of quanta (the Latin plural of quantum we still use, alas) in clear, almost everyday terms.

So here are the ‘Quantum Heresies’, a linked collection of essays suggesting different ways of seeing the established facts of fundamental physics. This is another walk-out moment. Essays? Physics doesn’t do essays. Physics does equations, physics provides numerical results; that’s how you know what’s right or wrong in physics. There is a pride that physics uses clear, demonstrable, logical mathematics that links to physical outcomes and the Heretics want to challenge this with ‘essays’?

Without being snide about some of the mathematical gimcrackery that holds quantum mechanics together, or the underlying fact that some of the pillars of the subject – the Schrodinger wave equation springs to mind – were found by guessing, the Heretics simply suggest that there is room for more than one set of tools in the physics toolbox. The startling mathematical appeal of M-theory (né String theory) and its lack of physics outcome over decades is a symptom of the need to add new kit to the tools currently used. The essay can be one.

We shall be arguing that the heretical ways of looking at the facts is not only easier to understand but leads to many fewer conceptual difficulties and contradictions than the current orthodoxy. Richard Feynman, a great physicist of the later Twentieth Century, said ‘the double-slit experiment has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality, it contains the only mystery.’ Our Heresy means that the result of double-slit experiment, an interference pattern, becomes not only unmysterious but banal: of course, it is an interference pattern.

The ideas behind the Heresies are often not new but lie today in the junkyard of once exciting ideas that fell by the wayside, so that most physicists know little other than their rather exotic names, such as DeBroglie-Bohm and Kaluza-Klein. These ideas are mathematically coherent and were once seen as resolving basic issues in the structure of physics. DeBroglie-Bohm was dropped because it required non-locality, something that has moved from past heresy to become the orthodoxy of today, Kaluza-Klein simply did not lead to the further developments hoped for – possibly because of the flawed picture of ‘pilot-waves’ that accompanied it.

Much of the Heretic’s view is only possible because of the discovery of ‘non-local’ effects in experiments on ‘entanglement’, connections that are not restricted to the speed of light. In retrospect, it becomes clear that many of the more ornate convolutions of the orthodox picture were required to make it fit with the constraint of ‘lightspeed’. Finding a mechanism whereby waves could be absorbed instantaneously, despite their size, required elaborate models of ‘probable particles’ that were absorbed faster than the message could be sent to the end of the wave. Since the experiments showing entanglement became unequivocal around 2015, this burden has been removed.

Emboldened, we Quantum Heretics will go beyond looking at the past with new eyes and turns to more speculative ideas – but all of them must fit the existing math and the observational results. We suggest a new way to picture how matter arises and how it gets its distinctive properties of mass and gravity, how electro-magnetism arises from the turbulence of the Field, a less magical picture than the ‘virtual particles’ previously used for apparent action at a distance. We show how these ideas might resolve some long-standing issues. For example, the number of negatively changed electrons in the universe is not matched by the number of positively charged positrons but, instead, by positively charged protons, two thousand times smaller and heavier than either electrons or positrons. We explain how ‘dark matter’ arises and why it accounts for most of the mass in the universe. We even suggest what causes the effect of gravity without using the concept of 3-D space ‘curving’ that Einstein so disliked. So outraged orthodox physicists will not lack for targets.

Throughout the discussion of the physics of the fundamental, we keep in mind issues of Relativity, both Special and General. There is only one apparent heresy we think that applies to Relativity and it is not actually heretical. Relativity requires that there is no absolute viewpoint, that there is nothing that can be described as ‘stationary’, other than the observer’s frame of reference, yet the quantum world requires the vacuum to contain a ‘field’ that can vary and act as a participant in events. The Heretics see no conflict between these two: yes, there must be a field and, no, it does not provide any frame of reference, let alone an absolute one. This is hardly a real heresy and how this works can be seen in the discussion of the Michelson-Morley result in the First Heresy and in the discussion of acceleration and gravity in the Seventh Heresy.

It is not only in the quantum and relativistic realms that the history of physics casts a long and sometimes confusing shadow; the meaning of the term ‘entropy’ is profoundly muddled. In the Eighth Heresy, we trace the history of the term ‘entropy’ through its five main meanings and follow some of the ideas that have become attached to the word ‘entropy’, ideas related to order, information and probability. The concept underlying ‘entropy’, the drive to equilibrium, for energy to spread out evenly, is profoundly important. It drives all the changes in the universe and gives direction to time. However, the varied meanings of ‘entropy’ can all be seen as a consequence of the more fundamental ‘No Special Place’ rule: if two things interact, they become more similar. We will refer to the No Special Place rule or the drive to equilibrium instead of the term ‘entropy’ as far as possible.

The only other rule the heretics accept is the ‘Totalitarian Rule’: if it is not forbidden, it is compulsory. If there is no reason for something to exist, it cannot exist and if there is a reason for it to exist, it must exist. Unless there is a defined reason why it cannot exist, everything exists. This becomes especially important when we are looking at matter and atomic forces. Both these rules, the Totalitarian Rule and the No Special Place Rule, are requirements of logical consistency.

The Heretics recipe for the universe is built from these two rules of logical consistency and a 3-D field that can vary in value in different locations. We add the original injection of energy at the point known as the Big Bang and the effect of mass on the speed of the Field. Then all the forces, all the waves and all the particles we know of arise from just the interactions of these. We still need to spice the mix with a few arbitrary constants, such as the speed of light and the Planck numbers, but this is a considerable economy of concept when compared to the orthodox views.

Finally, much of what we say here is wrong. Nobody is an expert in all the areas we talk about and, even as a group, there are great gaps in our knowledge. As we have put this together, we have found and corrected some absolute, howling, elementary mistakes and likely some remain. But we need to accept that one day you must go public and that cannot wait for the mystical point when you know all the embarrassing mistakes have been removed. Only exposure to comment can do that.

Let us first look, then, at light.

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