The 2015 Physics Nobel, the neutrino, and the quantum entanglement

Okey dokey, so…. Quite a few important things have happened since I wrote my last post. Let me jot them down here, in the order of the decreasing importance:

  1. The teaching part of our UG term has (finally) ended.
  2. The QM papers mentioning Alice, Bob, entanglement or Bell’s inequalities did not get the Nobel recognition, not even this year—and if you ask me, for a very, very good set of reasons, but more on it later; I am not done with my list yet.
  3. Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald did get the Physics Nobel for this year, “for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass.” The official popular explanation is here [(.PDF) ^]
  4. Youyou Tu got half of the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine this year, “for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria.” The press release is here [^]. … Is it just me or you too failed to notice any “China-tva-vadi” thumping his chest in “pride” of the ancient Chinese medical system?

OK. Now, a few personal comments, in the reverse order of the list.


Given my interests, the list could have ended at point no. 3 above. It’s just that, given the emphasis that the supposedly ancient “vimaanashaastra” happened to receive in India over the last year, I was compelled me to add the fourth point too.


I don’t understand Kajita and McDonald’s work really well. That’s why the link I have provided above goes only to the popular explanation, not to the advanced information.

However, that doesn’t mean that I knew nothing about it. For instance, I could appreciate the importance of the phrase “mass eigenstates.” … It’s just that I don’t “get” this theory to the same extent that I get, say, Dan Schechtman’s work for his 2011 Chemistry Nobel.

That way, I have known about neutrinos for quite some time, may be for some 25 years or more. In fact, there also is a small personal story about this word that I could share here.

If you are an Indian of my generation, you would know that it would be impossible for you to ever forget the very first radio which your family had got (it probably was the one on which you listened to your Binaca Geetmaalaa every Wednesday evening), the first (and probably the only) bicycle your father bought for you (the one which you were riding in your bell-bottoms, when the thoughts of somehow having to impress that first crush of yours passed you by), the first PC that you bought…

Oh well, I am jumping ahead of myself. Correction. It should be: The first PC whose OS you installed. …

Chances are high that you got to install—nay, you had to re-install—DOS or Windows on your office or lab machine quite a few times, and chances are even higher that you therefore had become an expert of Windows installation way before you could save enough money to buy your first PC…. You can’t forget things like these.

So, in my case, while the first time I ever touched a PC was way back right in 1983 (I was in the EDP department at Mukand back then—a trainee engineer), the first time I got the opportunity to format a HDD and install a fresh OS on it was as late as in the late-July of 1996. (I happened to buy my first PC just a few months later on.) I was already a software engineer back then. The company I then worked with (Frontier Software) was a startup, and so, there were no policies or manuals concerning what names were to be given to an office PC. So, I was free to choose any which name I liked. While some others had chosen names like “koala” or “viper,” or “bramha” or “shiva,” when it came my turn, as the VGA-resolution screen on a small (13”) CRT monitor kept staring at me, the name I ended up choosing in the heat of the moment was: “neutrino.”

“`Neutrino’? Why `neutrino’? What is `neutrino’?”—the colleague who was watching over my shoulder spontaneously wondered aloud. He had been to California on company work some time earlier, and therefore, my guess at that time was that he perhaps could be guessing that “neutrino” could be some Mexican/Spanish/Italian name or expression. I, therefore, hastened to clarify what neutrino really meant (already wondering aloud why this guy had never heard of the term (even if he would maintain that he was into reading popular science books)). … No, he wasn’t thinking Mexican/Spanish/Italian; he was just wondering if I had made up that name. Alright, following my clarification that some billions of these neutrinos were passing through his body every second—even right at that moment, sitting in the comfort of a office, and right while our conversation was going on… Hearing this left him, say, dazed, sort of.

This instance conclusively proves that I have always known about neutrinos.

My “knowledge” about them hasn’t changed much over the past two decades.

… Anyway, my knowledge of QM has…  Two things, and let me end this section about neutrinos.

(i) If they could hunt for just a few (like just tens of) neutrinos out of billions of billions of them, why can’t they build a relatively much less costly equipment to test the hypothesis that the transient dynamics of the far simpler quantum particles—photons and electrons—isn’t quite the same as that put forth by the mainstream QM? [I have made a prediction about photons, and even if my particular published theory turns out to be wrong, any new theory that I replace it with will always have this tiny difference from the mainstream QM, because my theorization is local, whereas the mainstream QM is global.]

(ii) Can photon have mass? … Think about it. It’s not so stupid a suggestion as it may initially sound. (Of course, this point is nowhere as important as the first one concerning the transient dynamics).


Many, many people have been at least anticipating (if not also “predicting,” or “supporting”) a physics Nobel to something related to quantum entanglement. By “quantum entanglement,” I mean things like: Bell’s inequalities, or Clauser/Aspect/ Zeilinger, or Alice and Bob, … you get the idea.

I am happy that none of these ideas/experiments got to get a Nobel, also this time round. [Even if a lot of Americans were rooting for such an outcome!]

No, I have no enmity towards any of them, not even Bob; I never did. In fact, I carry a ton of a respect for them.

My point is: their work (or at least the work they have done so far) doesn’t merit a physics Nobel. Why?

Because, Nobels for the same theoretical framework have been given to many people already, say, to Planck, Einstein, Compton, Bohr, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Pauli, Dirac, Born, et al. The theoretical framework of QM (and unfortunately, even today, it still remains only a framework, not a theory) as built by these pioneers—and as systematized by John von Neumann—already fully contains the same physics that Bell highlighted.

In other words, Bell’s principle is only a sort of a “corollary” (rather, an implication of the already known physics)—it’s not an independent “theorem” (rather, a discovery of new fact, phenomenon, or principle of physics).

As to the experimentalists working on entanglement, if you take the sum-totality of what they have reported, there is not a single surprise. Forget surprise, there isn’t even an unproved hunch here. For a contrasting example, see what Lubos Motl describes in case of neutrinos, here [^]. Unlike neutrinos, when it comes to quantum entanglement, there literally is nothing new. There has been nothing new, over all these decades—except for the addition of a lot of “press,” esp. in the USA, and esp. in the recent times. [Incidentally, you may want to note that Motl supports string theory—which, IMO, basically has always been, and remains, a post ex facto theory.]

The Nobel committee has once again demonstrated that it has a very solid grasp of what an advance of physics means.

An advance of/in physics is to be contrasted from “mere” deductions of corollaries, no matter how brilliant these may be.

About a century ago, they (the Nobel committee members back then) had shown a very robust sense regarding what the terms like “discovery” and “physics” mean, when they had skipped over the relativity theory even in the act of honoring Einstein—they had instead picked up his work on the photoelectric effect.

The parallels are unmistakable. Relativity theory was “sexy” those days; quantum entanglement is “sexy” today. Relativity theory was only a corollary of James Clerk Maxwell’s synthesis (at least the special relativity certainly was just that); quantum entanglement is just a corollary of the mainstream QM. And, while Maxwell had not pointed out relativity, entanglement indeed was pointed out by Schrodinger himself, and that too as early as before EPR had even thought of writing down their paper. So, the parallels—and the degradation in the American and European cultural standards over time—are quite obvious.

Still, what is to be noted here is the fact that the respective Nobel committees, separated by about a century, in both cases chose not to be taken in by the hype of the day. Congratulations are due to them!

And of course, as far as I am concerned, congratulations are also due to Kajita and McDonald.


BTW, Einstein does not become a lesser physicist because he never got a Nobel for the relativity theory. [And people do argue that he didn’t invent the relativity theory either; cf. Roger Schlafly.] So what? Even if relativity couldn’t possibly have qualified for a Nobel, Einstein sure did. He did a lot of work in quantum mechanics. He explained the photoelectric effect; he explained the temperature dependence of the heat capacity of solids using the quantum hypothesis; he didn’t merely explain but predicted the LASER using the QM decades before they were built (1917, vs. 1947–52). If you ask me, any single one of these achievements would have amply qualified him for a physics Nobel. I don’t say it out of deference to the general physics community. You can see it independently. Just put any of these advances in juxtaposition to some of the other undisputed Nobels, e.g., Jean Perrin’s demonstration of the molecular nature of matter (a work which itself was motivated by Einstein’s analysis of the Brownian motion); or de Broglie’s assertion that matter had a wave character; or Bohr’s “construction” of a model that still went missing on two very obvious and very crucial features: stability of orbits and the nature of quantum transitions. (Come to think of it, Einstein also was the first to assert a spatially finite nature for the photon, a point on which all physicists don’t necessarily agree with Einstein, but I, anyway, do.)

So, to conclude, (i) much of Einstein’s best work wasn’t as “sexy” as E = mc^2 or  the “relativity” theory; (ii) the physics Nobel committee showed enormously good judgment in picking up the photoelectric effect and leaving out relativity theory.

Just the way relativity didn’t deserve a Nobel then, similarly, nothing related to quantum entanglement deserves it now.

It doesn’t mean that Bell wasn’t a genius. It doesn’t mean that the experimental work that Clauser, Aspect, Zeilinger, or others have done wasn’t ingenious or challenging.

What it means is simply this: they have been either (very good/brilliant) engineers or mathematicians, but they have not been discoverers of new physics. Whenever they have been physicists, their work has happened to have remained within the limits of testing a known theory, and finding it to be valid (within the experimental error), again and again. And again. But, somehow, they have not been discoverers of new physics. That’s the bottom line!


To conclude this post, think of the “photogenic” apparatus that helped nail down the issue of the neutrino oscillation (e.g. see here [^]). Then, go back to the point I have made concerning accurately measuring the transient dynamics of QM phenomena (whether involving photons or electrons). Then, think a bit about how relatively modest apparatus could still easily settle that issue. And, how it happens to be a very foundational issue, an issue that takes the decades of mystification of QM head-on.

If someone told you that all local theories of QM are BS, or that all theories of QM lead to the same quantitative predictions, he was wrong, basically wrong. The choice isn’t limited to confirmation of the mainstream QM in experiments on the one hand, and creative affirmations or denials of QM via arm-chair philosophic interpretations (such as MWI) on the other hand. There is a third choice: Verification of quantitative predictions that are different (even if only by a very tiny bit) from those of the mainstream QM. The wrong guy should have told you the right thing. Too bad he didn’t—bad for you, that is.


A Song I Like:
(Marathi) “saavaLe sundara, roopa manohara”
Lyrics: Sant Tukaram
Singer: Pt. Bhimsen Joshi
Music: Shrinivas Khale

[May be one (more) editing pass is due for this post (and also the last post). Done with editing of this post. Will let the last post remain as it is; have to move on. ]

[E&OE]

 

 

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