Absolutely Random Notings on QM—Part 1: Bohr. And, a bad philosophy making its way into physics with his work, and his academic influence

TL;DR: Go—and keep—away.


I am still firming up my opinions. However, there is never a harm in launching yet another series of posts on a personal blog, is there? So here we go…


Quantum Mechanics began with Planck. But there was no theory of quanta in what Planck had offered.

What Planck had done was to postulate only the existence of the quanta of the energy, in the cavity radiation.

Einstein used this idea to predict the heat capacities of solids—a remarkable work, one that remains underappreciated in both text-books as well as popular science books on QM.

The first pretense at a quantum theory proper came from Bohr.


Bohr was thinking not about the cavity radiations, but about the spectra of the radiations emitted or absorbed by gases.

Matter, esp. gases, following Dalton, …, Einstein, and Perin, were made of distinct atoms. The properties of gases—especially the reason why they emitted or absorbed radiation only at certain distinct frequencies, but not at any other frequencies (including those continuous patches of frequencies in between the experimentally evident sharp peaks)—had to be explained in reference to what the atoms themselves were like. There was no other way out—not yet, not given the sound epistemology in physics of those days.

Thinking up a new universe still was not allowed back then in science let alone in physics. One still had to clearly think about explaining what was given in observations, what was in evidence. Effects still had be related back to causes; outward actions still had to be related back to the character/nature of the entities that thus acted.

The actor, unquestionably by now, was the atom. The effects were the discrete spectra. Not much else was known.

Those were the days were when the best hotels and restaurants in Berlin, London, and New York would have horse-driven buggies ushering in the socially important guests. Buggies still was the latest technology back then. Not many people thus ushered in are remembered today. But Bohr is.


If the atom was the actor, and the effects under study were the discrete spectra, then what was needed to be said, in theory, was something regarding the structure of the atom.

If an imagined entity sheer by its material/chemical type doesn’t do it, then it’s the structure—its shape and size—which must do it.

Back then, this still was regarded as one of the cardinal principles of science, unlike the mindless opposition to the science of Homeopathy today, esp. in the UK. But back then, it was known that one important reason that Calvin gets harassed by the school bully was that not just the sheer size of the latter’s matter but also that the structure of the latter was different. In other words: If you consumed alcohol, you simply didn’t take in so many atoms of carbon as in proportion to so many atoms of hydrogen, etc. You took in a structure, a configuration with which these atoms came in.


However, the trouble back then was, none had have the means to see the atoms.

If by structure you mean the geometrical shape and size, or some patterns of density, then clearly, there was no experimental observations pertaining to the same. The only relevant observation available to people back then was what had already been encapsulated in Rutherford’s model, viz., the incontestable idea that the atomic nucleus had to be massive and dense, occupying a very small space as compared to an atom taken as a whole; the electrons had to carry very little mass in comparison. (The contrast of Rutherford’s model of c. 1911 was to the earlier plum cake model by Thomson.)

Bohr would, therefore, have to start with Rutherford’s model of atoms, and invent some new ideas concerning it, and see if his model was consistent with the known results given by spectroscopic observations.

What Bohr offered was a model for the electrons contained in a nuclear atom.


However, even while differing from the Rutherford’s plum-cake model, Bohr’s model emphatically lacked a theory for the nature of the electrons themselves. This part has been kept underappreciated by the textbook authors and science teachers.

In particular, Bohr’s theory had absolutely no clue as to the process according to which the electrons could, and must, jump in between their stable orbits.


The meat of the matter was worse, far worse: Bohr had explicitly prohibited from pursuing any mechanism or explanation concerning the quantum jumps—an idea which he was the first to propose. [I don’t know of any one else originally but independently proposing the same idea.]

Bohr achieved this objective not through any deployment of the best possible levels of scientific reason but out of his philosophic convictions—the convictions of the more irrational kind. The quantum jumps were obviously not observable, according to him, only their effects were. So, strictly speaking, the quantum jumps couldn’t possibly be a part of his theory—plain and simple!

But then, Bohr in his philosophic enthusiasm didn’t stop just there. He went even further—much further. He fully deployed the powers of his explicit reasoning as well as the weight of his seniority in prohibiting the young physicists from even thinking of—let alone ideating or offering—any mechanism for such quantum jumps.

In other words, Bohr took special efforts to keep the young quantum enthusiasts absolutely and in principle clueless, as far as his quantum jumps were concerned.


Bohr’s theory, in a sense, was in line with the strictest demands of the philosophy of empiricism. Here is how Bohr’s application of this philosophy went:

  1. This electron—it can be measured!—at this energy level, now!
  2. [May be] The same electron, but this energy level, now!
  3. This energy difference, this frequency. Measured! [Thank you experimental spectroscopists; hats off to you, for, you leave Bohr alone!!]
  4. OK. Now, put the above three into a cohesive “theory.” And, BTW, don’t you ever even try to think about anything else!!

Continuing just a bit on the same lines, Bohr sure would have said (quoting Peikoff’s explanation of the philosophy of empiricism):

  1. [Looking at a tomato] We can only say this much in theory: “This, now, tomato!”
  2. Making a leeway for the most ambitious ones of the ilk: “This *red* tomato!!”

Going by his explicit philosophic convictions, it must have been a height of “speculation” for Bohr to mumble something—anything—about a thing like “orbit.” After all, even by just mentioning a word like “orbit,” Bohr was being absolutely philosophically inconsistent here. Dear reader, observe that the orbit itself never at all was an observable!

Bohr must have in his conscience convulsed at this fact; his own philosophy couldn’t possibly have, strictly speaking, permitted him to accommodate into his theory a non-measurable feature of a non-measurable entity—such as his orbits of his electrons. Only the allure of outwardly producing predictions that matched with the experiment might have quietened his conscience—and that too, temporarily. At least until he got a new stone-building housing an Institute for himself and/or a Physics Nobel, that is.

Possible. With Herr Herr Herr Doktor Doktor Doktor Professor Professors, anything is possible.


It is often remarked that the one curious feature of the Bohr theory was the fact that the stability of the electronic orbits was postulated in it, not explained.

That is, not explained in reference to any known physical principle. The analogy to the solar system indeed was just that: an analogy. It was not a reference to an established physical principle.

However, the basically marvelous feature of the Bohr theory was not that the orbits were stable (in violation of the known laws of electrodynamics). It was: there at all were any orbits in it, even if no experiment had ever given any evidence for the continuously or discontinuously subsequent positions electrons within an atom or of their motions.

So much for originator of the cult of sticking only to the “observables.”


What Sommerfeld did was to add footnotes to Bohr’s work.

Sommerfeld did this work admirably well.

However, what this instance in the history of physics clearly demonstrates is yet another principle from the epistemology of physics: how a man of otherwise enormous mathematical abilities and training (and an academically influential position, I might add), but having evidently no remarkable capacity for a very novel, breakthrough kind of conceptual thinking, just cannot but fall short of making any lasting contributions to physics.

“Math” by itself simply isn’t enough for physics.

What came to be known as the old quantum theory, thus, faced an impasse.

Under Bohr’s (and philosophers’) loving tutorship, the situation continued for a long time—for more than a decade!


A Song I Like:

(Marathi) “sakhi ga murali mohan mohi manaa…”
Music: Hridaynath Mangeshkar
Singer: Asha Bhosale
Lyrics: P. Savalaram


PS: Only typos and animals of the similar ilk remain to be corrected.

 

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Off the blog. [“Matter” cannot act “where” it is not.]

I am going to go off the blogging activity in general, and this blog in most particular, for some time. [And, this time round, I will keep my promise.]


The reason is, I’ve just received the shipment of a book which I had ordered about a month ago. Though only about 300 pages in length, it’s going to take me weeks to complete. And, the book is gripping enough, and the issue important enough, that I am not going to let a mere blog or two—or the entire Internet—come in the way.


I had read it once, almost cover-to-cover, some 25 years ago, while I was a student in UAB.

Reading a book cover-to-cover—I mean: in-sequence, and by that I mean: starting from the front-cover and going through the pages in the same sequence as the one in which the book has been written, all the way to the back-cover—was quite odd a thing to have happened with me, at that time. It was quite unlike my usual habits whereby I am more or less always randomly jumping around in a book, even while reading one for the very first time.

But this book was different; it was extraordinarily engaging.

In fact, as I vividly remember, I had just idly picked up this book off a shelf from the Hill library of UAB, for a casual examination, had browsed it a bit, and then had began sampling some passage from nowhere in the middle of the book while standing in an library aisle. Then, some little time later, I was engrossed in reading it—with a folded elbow resting on the shelf, head turned down and resting against a shelf rack (due to a general weakness due to a physical hunger which I was ignoring [and I would have have to go home and cook something for myself; there was none to do that for me; and so, it was easy enough to ignore the hunger]). I don’t honestly remember how the pages turned. But I do remember that I must have already finished some 15-20 pages (all “in-the-order”!) before I even realized that I had been reading this book while still awkwardly resting against that shelf-rack. …

… I checked out the book, and once home [student dormitory], began reading it starting from the very first page. … I took time, days, perhaps weeks. But whatever the length of time that I did take, with this book, I didn’t have to jump around the pages.


The issue that the book dealt with was:

[Instantaneous] Action at a Distance.

The book in question was:

Hesse,┬áMary B. (1961) “Forces and Fields: The concept of Action at a Distance in the history of physics,” Philosophical Library, Edinburgh and New York.


It was the very first book I had found, I even today distinctly remember, in which someone—someone, anyone, other than me—had cared to think about the issues like the IAD, the concepts like fields and point particles—and had tried to trace their physical roots, to understand the physical origins behind these (and such) mathematical concepts. (And, had chosen to say “concepts” while meaning ones, rather than trying to hide behind poor substitute words like “ideas”, “experiences”, “issues”, “models”, etc.)

Twenty-five years later, I still remain hooked on to the topic. Despite having published a paper on IAD and diffusion [and yes, what the hell, I will say it: despite claiming a first in 200+ years in reference to this topic], I even today do find new things to think about, about this “kutty” [Original: IITM lingo; English translation: “small”] topic. And so, I keep returning to it and thinking about it. I still am able to gain new insights once in an odd while. … Indeed, my recent ‘net search on IAD (the one which led to Hesse and my buying the book) precisely was to see if someone had reported the conceptual [and of course, mathematical] observation which I have recently made, or not. [If too curious about it, the answer: looks like, none has.]


But now coming to Hesse’s writing style, let me quote a passage from one of her research papers. I ran into this paper only recently, last month (in July 2017), and it was while going through it that I happened [once again] to remember her book. Since I did have some money in hand, I did immediately decide to order my copy of this book.

Anyway, the paper I have in mind is this:

Hesse, Mary B. (1955) “Action at a Distance in Classical Physics,” Isis, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Dec., 1955), pp. 337–353, University of Chicago Press/The History of Science Society.

The paper (it has no abstract) begins thus:

The scholastic axiom that “matter cannot act where it is not” is one of the very general metaphysical principles found in science before the seventeenth century which retain their relevance for scientific theory even when the metaphysics itself has been discarded. Other such principles have been fruitful in the development of physics: for example, the “conservation of motion” stated by Descartes and Leibniz, which was generalized and given precision in the nineteenth century as the doctrine of the conservation of energy; …

Here is another passage, once again, from the same paper:

Now Faraday uses a terminology in speaking about the lines of force which is derived from the idea of a bundle of elastic strings stretched under tension from point to point of the field. Thus he speaks of “tension” and “the number of lines” cut by a body moving in the field. Remembering his discussion about contiguous particles of a dielectric medium, one must think of the strings as stretching from one particle of the medium to the next in a straight line, the distance between particles being so small that the line appears as a smooth curve. How seriously does he take this model? Certainly the bundle of elastic strings is nothing like those one can buy at the store. The “number of lines” does not refer to a definite number of discrete material entities, but to the amount of force exerted over a given area in the field. It would not make sense to assign points through which a line passes and points which are free from a line. The field of force is continuous.

See the flow of the writing? the authentic respect for the intellectual history, and yet, the overriding concern for having to reach a conclusion, a meaning? the appreciation for the subtle drama? the clarity of thought, of expression?

Well, these passages were from the paper, but the book itself, too, is similarly written.


Obviously, while I remain engaged in [re-]reading the book [after a gap of 25 years], don’t expect me to blog.

After all, even I cannot act “where” I am not.


A Song I Like:

[I thought a bit between this song and another song, one by R.D. Burman, Gulzar and Lata. In the end, it was this song which won out. As usual, in making my decision, the reference was exclusively made to the respective audio tracks. In fact, in the making of this decision, I happened to have also ignored even the excellent guitar pieces in this song, and the orchestration in general in both. The words and the tune were too well “fused” together in this song; that’s why. I do promise you to run the RD song once I return. In the meanwhile, I don’t at all mind keeping you guessing. Happy guessing!]

(Hindi) “bheegi bheegi…” [“bheege bheege lamhon kee bheegee bheegee yaadein…”]
Music and Lyrics: Kaushal S. Inamdar
Singer: Hamsika Iyer

[Minor additions/editing may follow tomorrow or so.]