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.



“Philosophical Orientation”

An update on 27 April 2018 06:30 HRS IST, noted at the end:

Here is a beginning of a passage, a section, from a book on QM (now-a-days available through the Dover). The section was the very first one from the very first chapter, and was aptly called “Philosophical Orientation.” It began thus:

\dots For what purpose, dear reader, do you study physics?

To use it technologically? Physics can be put to use; so can art and music. But that’s not why you study them.

It isn’t their social relevance that attracts you. The most precious things in life are the irrelevant ones. It is a meager life, indeed, that is consumed only by the relevant, by the problems of mere survival.

You study physics because you find it fascinating. You find poetry in conceptual structures. You find it romantic to understand the working of nature. You study physics to acquire an intimacy with nature’s way.

Our entire understanding of nature’s way is founded on the subject called quantum mechanics. No fact of nature has ever been discovered that contradicts quantum mechanics. \dots

A good passage to read, that one was. \dots. It was (I guess originally) published as late as in 1987. \dots

An update on 27 April 2018 06:30 HRS IST:

Initially, when I put this post online, I had thought that, sure, people would be able to copy-paste the quote, and thereby get to the book. But looks like they won’t. Hence this update.

The book in question is this:

Chester, Marvin (1987) “Primer of Quantum Mechanics,” Wiley; reproduced as a Dover ed. (2003) from the corrected Krieger ed. (1992).

If you ask for my opinion about the book: It’s a (really) good one, but despite being “philosophical,” like all texts on QM, it still tends to miss the forest for the trees. And it doesn’t even mention entanglement (not in the index, anyway). Entanglement began to appear in the text-books only after the mid-90’s, I gather. Also another thing: It’s not a primer. It’s a summary, meant for the graduate student. But it’s written in a pretty neat way. If you have already had a course on QM, then you should go through it. Several issues (say those related to measurement, and the QM machinery) are explained very neatly here.

A Song I Like:

[Yet another song I liked as a school-boy child; one of those which I still do. \dots Not too sure about the order of the credits though \dots]

(Hindi) “meraa to jo bhi kadam hai…”
Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
Singer: Mohammad Rafi
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri


Yes I know it!

Note: A long update was posted on 12th December 2017, 11:35 IST.

This post is spurred by my browsing of certain twitter feeds of certain pop-sci. writers.

The URL being highlighted—and it would be, say, “negligible,” but for the reputation of the Web domain name on which it appears—is this: [^].

I want to remind you that I know the answers to all the essential quantum mysteries.

Not only that, I also want to remind you that I can discuss about them, in person.

It’s just that my circumstances—past, and present (though I don’t know about future)—which compel me to say, definitely, that I am not available for writing it down for you (i.e. for the layman) whether here or elsewhere, as of now. Neither am I available for discussions on Skype, or via video conferencing, or with whatever “remoting” mode you have in mind. Uh… Yes… WhatsApp? Include it, too. Or something—anything—like that. Whether such requests come from some millionaire Indian in USA (and there are tons of them out there), or otherwise. Nope. A flat no is the answer for all such requests. They are out of question, bounds… At least for now.

… Things may change in future, but at least for the time being, the discussions would have to be with those who already have studied (the non-relativistic) quantum physics as it is taught in universities, up to graduate (PhD) level.

And, you have to have discussions in person. That’s the firm condition being set (for the gain of their knowledge 🙂 ).

Just wanted to remind you, that’s all!

Update on 12th December 2017, 11:35 AM IST:

I have moved the update to a new post.


A Song I Like:

(Western, Instrumental) “Berlin Melody”
Credits: Billy Vaughn

[The same 45 RPM thingie [as in here [^], and here [^]] . … I was always unsure whether I liked this one better or the “Come September” one. … Guess, after the n-th thought, that it was this one. There is an odd-even thing about it. For odd ‘n” I think this one is better. For even ‘n’, I think the “Come September” is better.

… And then, there also are a few more musical goodies which came my way during that vacation, and I will make sure that they find their way to you too….

Actually, it’s not the simple odd-even thing. The maths here is more complicated than just the binary logic. It’s an n-ary logic. And, I am “equally” divided among them all. (4+ decades later, I still remain divided.)… (But perhaps the “best” of them was a Marathi one, though it clearly showed a best sort of a learning coming from also the Western music. I will share it the next time.)]

[As usual, may be, another revision [?]… Is it due? Yes, one was due. Have edited streamlined the main post, and then, also added a long update on 12th December 2017, as noted above.]



Blog-Filling—Part 3

Note: A long Update was added on 23 November 2017, at the end of the post.

Today I got just a little bit of respite from what has been a very tight schedule, which has been running into my weekends, too.

But at least for today, I do have a bit of a respite. So, I could at least think of posting something.

But for precisely the same reason, I don’t have any blogging material ready in the mind. So, I will just note something interesting that passed by me recently:

  1. Catastrophe Theory: Check out Prof. Zhigang Suo’s recent blog post at iMechanica on catastrophe theory, here [^]; it’s marked by Suo’s trademark simplicity. He also helpfully provides a copy of Zeeman’s 1976 SciAm article, too. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of the catastrophe theory; see, for instance, my last post mentioning the topic, here [^].
  2. Computational Science and Engineering, and Python: If you are into computational science and engineering (which is The Proper And The Only Proper long-form of “CSE”), and wish to have fun with Python, then check out Prof. Hans Petter Langtangen’s excellent books, all under Open Source. Especially recommended is his “Finite Difference Computing with PDEs—A Modern Software Approach” [^]. What impressed me immediately was the way the author begins this book with the wave equation, and not with the diffusion or potential equation as is the routine practice in the FDM (or CSE) books. He also provides the detailed mathematical reason for his unusual choice of ordering the material, but apart from his reason(s), let me add in a comment here: wave \Rightarrow diffusion \Rightarrow potential (Poisson-Laplace) precisely was the historical order in which the maths of PDEs (by which I mean both the formulations of the equations and the techniques for their solutions) got developed—even though the modern trend is to reverse this order in the name of “simplicity.” The book comes with Python scripts; you don’t have to copy-paste code from the PDF (and then keep correcting the errors of characters or indentations). And, the book covers nonlinearity too.
  3. Good Notes/Teachings/Explanations of UG Quantum Physics: I ran across Dan Schroeder’s “Entanglement isn’t just for spin.” Very true. And it needed to be said [^]. BTW, if you want a more gentle introduction to the UG-level QM than is presented in Allan Adam (et al)’s MIT OCW 8.04–8.06 [^], then make sure to check out Schroeder’s course at Weber [^] too. … Personally, though, I keep on fantasizing about going through all the videos of Adam’s course and taking out notes and posting them at my Web site. [… sigh]
  4. The Supposed Spirituality of the “Quantum Information” Stored in the “Protein-Based Micro-Tubules”: OTOH, if you are more into philosophy of quantum mechanics, then do check out Roger Schlafly’s latest post, not to mention my comment on it, here [^].

The point no. 4. above was added in lieu of the usual “A Song I Like” section. The reason is, though I could squeeze in the time to write this post, I still remain far too rushed to think of a song—and to think/check if I have already run it here or not. But I will try add one later on, either to this post, or, if there is a big delay, then as the next “blog filler” post, the next time round.

[Update on 23 Nov. 2017 09:25 AM IST: Added the Song I Like section; see below]

OK, that’s it! … Will catch you at some indefinite time in future here, bye for now and take care…

A Song I Like:

(Western, Instrumental) “Theme from ‘Come September'”
Credits: Bobby Darin (?) [+ Billy Vaughn (?)]

[I grew up in what were absolutely rural areas in Maharashtra, India. All my initial years till my 9th standard were limited, at its upper end in the continuum of urbanity, to Shirpur, which still is only a taluka place. And, back then, it was a decidedly far more of a backward + adivasi region. The population of the main town itself hadn’t reached more than 15,000 or so by the time I left it in my X standard; the town didn’t have a single traffic light; most of the houses including the one we lived in) were load-bearing structures, not RCC; all the roads in the town were of single lanes; etc.

Even that being the case, I happened to listen to this song—a Western song—right when I was in Shirpur, in my 2nd/3rd standard. I first heard the song at my Mama’s place (an engineer, he was back then posted in the “big city” of the nearby Jalgaon, a district place).

As to this song, as soon as I listened to it, I was “into it.” I remained so for all the days of that vacation at Mama’s place. Yes, it was a 45 RPM record, and the permission to put the record on the player and even to play it, entirely on my own, was hard won after a determined and tedious effort to show all the elders that I was able to put the pin on to the record very carefully. And, every one in the house was an elder to me: my siblings, cousins, uncle, his wife, not to mention my parents (who were the last ones to be satisfied). But once the recognition arrived, I used it to the hilt; I must have ended up playing this record for at least 5 times for every remaining day of the vacation back then.

As far as I am concerned, I am entirely positive that appreciation for a certain style or kind of music isn’t determined by your environment or the specific culture in which you grow up.

As far as songs like these are concerned, today I am able to discern that what I had immediately though indirectly grasped, even as a 6–7 year old child, was what I today would describe as a certain kind of an “epistemological cleanliness.” There was a clear adherence to certain definitive, delimited kind of specifics, whether in terms of tones or rhythm. Now, it sure did help that this tune was happy. But frankly, I am certain, I would’ve liked a “clean” song like this one—one with very definite “separations”/”delineations” in its phrases, in its parts—even if the song itself weren’t to be so directly evocative of such frankly happy a mood. Indian music, in contrast, tends to keep “continuity” for its own sake, even when it’s not called for, and the certain downside of that style is that it leads to a badly mixed up “curry” of indefinitely stretched out weilings, even noise, very proudly passing as “music”. (In evidence: pick up any traditional “royal palace”/”kothaa” music.) … Yes, of course, there is a symmetrical downside to the specific “separated” style carried by the Western music too; the specific style of noise it can easily slip into is a disjointed kind of a noise. (In evidence, I offer 90% of Western classical music, and 99.99% of Western popular “music”. As to which 90%, well, we have to meet in person, and listen to select pieces of music on the fly.)

Anyway, coming back to the present song, today I searched for the original soundtrack of “Come September”, and got, say, this one [^]. However, I am not too sure that the version I heard back then was this one. Chances are much brighter that the version I first listened to was Billy Vaughn’s, as in here [^].

… A wonderful tune, and, as an added bonus, it never does fail to take me back to my “salad days.” …

… Oh yes, as another fond memory: that vacation also was the very first time that I came to wear a T-shirt; my Mama had gifted it to me in that vacation. The actual choice to buy a T-shirt rather than a shirt (+shorts, of course) was that of my cousin sister (who unfortunately is no more). But I distinctly remember she being surprised to learn that I was in no mood to have a T-shirt when I didn’t know what the word meant… I also distinctly remember her assuring me using sweet tones that a T-shirt would look good on me! … You see, in rural India, at least back then, T-shirts weren’t heard of; for years later on, may be until I went to Nasik in my 10th standard, it would be the only T-shirt I had ever worn. … But, anyway, as far as T-shirts go… well, as you know, I was into software engineering, and so….

Bye [really] for now and take care…]