The self-field, and the objectivity of the classical electrostatic potentials: my analysis

This blog post continues from my last post, and has become overdue by now. I had promised to give my answers to the questions raised last time. Without attempting to explain too much, let me jot down the answers.


1. The rule of omitting the self-field:

This rule arises in electrostatic interactions basically because the Coulombic field has a spherical symmetry. The same rule would also work out in any field that has a spherical symmetry—not just the inverse-separation fields, and not necessarily only the singular potentials, though Coulombic potentials do show both these latter properties too.

It is helpful here to think in terms of not potentials but of forces.

Draw any arbitrary curve. Then, hold one end of the curve fixed at the origin, and sweep the curve through all possible angles around it, to get a 3D field. This 3D field has a spherical symmetry, too. Hence, gradients at the same radial distance on opposite sides of the origin are always equal and opposite.

Now you know that the negative gradient of potential gives you a force. Since for any spherical potential the gradients are equal and opposite, they cancel out. So, the forces cancel out to.

Realize here that in calculating the force exerted by a potential field on a point-particle (say an electron), the force cannot be calculated in reference to just one point. The very definition of the gradient refers to two different points in space, even if they be only infinitesimally separated apart. So, the proper procedure is to start with a small sphere centered around the given electron, calculate the gradients of the potential field at all points on the surface of this sphere, calculate the sum of the forces exerted on the domain contained inside the spherical surface by these forces, and then take the sphere to the limiting of vanishing size. The sum of the forces thus exerted is the net force acting on that point-particle.

In case of the Coulombic potentials, the forces thus calculated on the surface of any sphere (centered on that particle) turn out to be zero. This fact holds true for spheres of all radii. It is true that gradients (and forces) progressively increase as the size of the sphere decreases—in fact they increase without all bounds for singular potentials. However, the aforementioned cancellation holds true at any stage in the limiting process. Hence, it holds true for the entirety of the self-field.

In calculating motions of a given electron, what matters is not whether its self-field exists or not, but whether it exerts a net force on the same electron or not. The self-field does exist (at least in the sense explained later below) and in that sense, yes, it does keep exerting forces at all times, also on the same electron. However, due to the spherical symmetry, the net force that the field exerts on the same electron turns out to be zero.

In short:

Even if you were to include the self-field in the calculations, if the field is spherically symmetric, then the final net force experienced by the same electron would still have no part coming from its own self-field. Hence, to economize calculations without sacrificing exactitude in any way, we discard it out of considerations.The rule of omitting the self-field is just a matter of economizing calculations; it is not a fundamental law characterizing what field may be objectively said to exist. If the potential field due to other charges exists, then, in the same sense, the self-field too exists. It’s just that for the motions of the self field-generating electron, it is as good as non-existent.

However, the question of whether a potential field physically exists or not, turns out to be more subtle than what might be thought.


2. Conditions for the objective existence of electrostatic potentials:

It once again helps to think of forces first, and only then of potentials.

Consider two electrons in an otherwise empty spatial region of an isolated system. Suppose the first electron (e_1), is at a position x_1, and a second electron e_2 is at a position x_2. What Coulomb’s law now says is that the two electrons mutually exert equal and opposite forces on each other. The magnitudes of these forces are proportional to the inverse-square of the distance which separates the two. For the like charges, the forces is repulsive, and for unlike charges, it is attractive. The amount of the electrostatic forces thus exerted do not depend on mass; they depend only the amounts of the respective charges.

The potential energy of the system for this particular configuration is given by (i) arbitrarily assigning a zero potential to infinite separation between the two charges, and (ii) imagining as if both the charges have been brought from infinity to their respective current positions.

It is important to realize that the potential energy for a particular configuration of two electrons does not form a field. It is merely a single number.

However, it is possible to imagine that one of the charges (say e_1) is held fixed at a point, say at \vec{r}_1, and the other charge is successively taken, in any order, at every other point \vec{r}_2 in the infinite domain. A single number is thus generated for each pair of (\vec{r}_1, \vec{r}_2). Thus, we can obtain a mapping from the set of positions for the two charges, to a set of the potential energy numbers. This second set can be regarded as forming a field—in the 3D space.

However, notice that thus defined, the potential energy field is only a device of calculations. It necessarily refers to a second charge—the one which is imagined to be at one point in the domain at a time, with the procedure covering the entire domain. The energy field cannot be regarded as a property of the first charge alone.

Now, if the potential energy field U thus obtained is normalized by dividing it with the electric charge of the second charge, then we get the potential energy for a unit test-charge. Another name for the potential energy obtained when a unit test-charge is used for the second charge is: the electrostatic potential (denoted as V).

But still, in classical mechanics, the potential field also is only a device of calculations; it does not exist as a property of the first charge, because the potential energy itself does not exist as a property of that fixed charge alone. What does exist is the physical effect that there are those potential energy numbers for those specific configurations of the fixed charge and the test charge.

This is the reason why the potential energy field, and therefore the electrostatic potential of a single charge in an otherwise empty space does not exist. Mathematically, it is regarded as zero (though it could have been assigned any other arbitrary, constant value.)

Potentials arise only out of interaction of two charges. In classical mechanics, the charges are point-particles. Point-particles exist only at definite locations and nowhere else. Therefore, their interaction also must be seen as happening only at the locations where they do exist, and nowhere else.

If that is so, then in what sense can we at all say that potential energy (or electrostaic potential) field does physically exist?

Consider a single electron in an isolated system, again. Assume that its position remains fixed.

Suppose there were something else in the isolated system—-something—some object—every part of which undergoes an electrostatic interaction with the fixed (first) electron. If this second object were to be spread all over the domain, and if every part of it were able to interact with the fixed charge, then we could say that the potential energy field exists objectively—as an attribute of this second object. Ditto, for the electric potential field.

Note three crucially important points, now.

2.1. The second object is not the usual classical object.

You cannot regard the second (spread-out) object as a mere classical charge distribution. The reason is this.

If the second object were to be actually a classical object, then any given part of it would have to electrostatically interact with every other part of itself too. You couldn’t possibly say that a volume element in this second object interacts only with the “external” electron. But if the second object were also to be self-interacting, then what would come to exist would not be the simple inverse-distance potential field energy, in reference to that single “external” electron. The space would be filled with a very weird field. Admitting motion to the property of the local charge in the second object, every locally present charge would soon redistribute itself back “to” infinity (if it is negative), or it all would collapse into the origin (if the charge on the second object were to be positive, because the fixed electron’s field is singular). But if we allow no charge redistributions, and the second field were to be classical (i.e. capable of self-interacting), then the field of the second object would have to have singularities everywhere. Very weird. That’s why:

If you want to regard the potential field as objectively existing, you have to also posit (i.e. postulate) that the second object itself is not classical in nature.

Classical electrostatics, if it has to regard a potential field as objectively (i.e. physically) existing, must therefore come to postulate a non-classical background object!

2.2. Assuming you do posit such a (non-classical) second object (one which becomes “just” a background object), then what happens when you introduce a second electron into the system?

You would run into another seeming contradiction. You would find that this second electron has no job left to do, as far as interacting with the first (fixed) electron is concerned.

If the potential field exists objectively, then the second electron would have to just passively register the pre-existing potential in its vicinity (because it is the second object which is doing all the electrostatic interactions—all the mutual forcings—with the first electron). So, the second electron would do nothing of consequence with respect to the first electron. It would just become a receptacle for registering the force being exchanged by the background object in its local neighborhood.

But the seeming contradiction here is that as far as the first electron is concerned, it does feel the potential set up by the second electron! It may be seen to do so once again via the mediation of the background object.

Therefore, both electrons have to be simultaneously regarded as being active and passive with respect to each other. They are active as agents that establish their own potential fields, together with an interaction with the background object. But they also become passive in the sense that they are mere point-masses that only feel the potential field in the background object and experience forces (accelerations) accordingly.

The paradox is thus resolved by having each electron set up a field as a result of an interaction with the background object—but have no interaction with the other electron at all.

2.3. Note carefully what agency is assigned to what object.

The potential field has a singularity at the position of that charge which produces it. But the potential field itself is created either by the second charge (by imagining it to be present at various places), or by a non-classical background object (which, in a way, is nothing but an objectification of the potential field-calculation procedure).

Thus, there arises a duality of a kind—a double-agent nature, so to speak. The potential energy is calculated for the second charge (the one that is passive), in the sense that the potential energy is relevant for calculating the motion of the second charge. That’s because the self-field cancels out for all motions of the first charge. However,

 The potential energy is calculated for the second charge. But the field so calculated has been set up by the first (fixed) charge. Charges do not interact with each other; they interact only with the background object.

2.4. If the charges do not interact with each other, and if they interact only with the background object, then it is worth considering this question:

Can’t the charges be seen as mere conditions—points of singularities—in the background object?

Indeed, this seems to be the most reasonable approach to take. In other words,

All effects due to point charges can be regarded as field conditions within the background object. Thus, paradoxically enough, a non-classical distributed field comes to represent the classical, massive and charged point-particles themselves. (The mass becomes just a parameter of the interactions of singularities within a 3D field.) The charges (like electrons) do not exist as classical massive particles, not even in the classical electrostatics.


3. A partly analogous situation: The stress-strain fields:

If the above situation seems too paradoxical, it might be helpful to think of the stress-strain fields in solids.

Consider a horizontally lying thin plate of steel with two rigid rods welded to it at two different points. Suppose horizontal forces of mutually opposite directions are applied through the rods (either compressive or tensile). As you know, as a consequence, stress-strain fields get set up in the plate.

From an external viewpoint, the two rods are regarded as interacting with each other (exchanging forces with each other) via the medium of the plate. However, in reality, they are interacting only with the object that is the plate. The direct interaction, thus, is only between a rod and the plate. A rod is forced, it interacts with the plate, the plate sets up stress-strain field everywhere, the local stress-field near the second rod interacts with it, and the second rod registers a force—which balances out the force applied at its end. Conversely, the force applied at the second rod also can be seen as getting transmitted to the first rod via the stress-strain field in the plate material.

There is no contradiction in this description, because we attribute the stress-strain field to the plate itself, and always treat this stress-strain field as if it came into existence due to both the rods acting simultaneously.

In particular, we do not try to isolate a single-rod attribute out of the stress-strain field, the way we try to ascribe a potential to the first charge alone.

Come to think of it, if we have only one rod and if we apply force to it, no stress-strain field would result (i.e. neglecting inertia effects of the steel plate). Instead, the plate would simply move in the rigid body mode. Now, in solid mechanics, we never try to visualize a stress-strain field associated with a single rod alone.

It is a fallacy of our thinking that when it comes to electrostatics, we try to ascribe the potential to the first charge, and altogether neglect the abstract procedure of placing the test charge at various locations, or the postulate of positing a non-classical background object which carries that potential.

In the interest of completeness, it must be noted that the stress-strain fields are tensor fields (they are based on the gradients of vector fields), whereas the electrostatic force-field is a vector field (it is based on the gradient of the scalar potential field). A more relevant analogy for the electrostatic field, therefore might the forces exchanged by two point-vortices existing in an ideal fluid.


4. But why bother with it all?

The reason I went into all this discussion is because all these issues become important in the context of quantum mechanics. Even in quantum mechanics, when you have two charges that are interacting with each other, you do run into these same issues, because the Schrodinger equation does have a potential energy term in it. Consider the following situation.

If an electrostatic potential is regarded as being set up by a single charge (as is done by the proton in the nucleus of the hydrogen atom), but if it is also to be regarded as an actually existing and spread out entity (as a 3D field, the way Schrodinger’s equation assumes it to be), then a question arises: What is the role of the second charge (e.g., that of the electron in an hydrogen atom)? What happens when the second charge (the electron) is represented quantum mechanically? In particular:

What happens to the potential field if it represents the potential energy of the second charge, but the second charge itself is now being represented only via the complex-valued wavefunction?

And worse: What happens when there are two electrons, and both interacting with each other via electrostatic repulsions, and both are required to be represented quantum mechanically—as in the case of the electrons in an helium atom?

Can a charge be regarded as having a potential field as well as a wavefunction field? If so, what happens to the point-specific repulsions as are mandated by the Coulomb law? How precisely is the V(\vec{r}_1, \vec{r}_2) term to be interpreted?

I was thinking about these things when these issues occurred to me: the issue of the self-field, and the question of the physical vs. merely mathematical existence of the potential fields of two or more quantum-mechanically interacting charges.

Guess I am inching towards my full answers. Guess I have reached my answers, but I need to have them verified with some physicists.


5. The help I want:

As a part of my answer-finding exercises (to be finished by this month-end), I might be contacting a second set of physicists soon enough. The issue I want to learn from them is the following:

How exactly do they do computational modeling of the helium atom using the finite difference method (FDM), within the context of the standard (mainstream) quantum mechanics?

That is the question. Once I understand this part, I would be done with the development of my new approach to understanding QM.

I do have some ideas regarding the highlighted question. It’s just that I want to have these ideas confirmed from some physicists before (or along-side) implementing the FDM code. So, I might be approaching someone—possibly you!

Please note my question once again. I don’t want to do perturbation theory. I would also like to avoid the variational method.

Yes, I am very comfortable with the finite element method, which is basically based on the variational calculus. So, given a good (detailed enough) account of the variational method for the He atom, it should be possible to translate it into the FEM terms.

However, ideally, what I would like to do is to implement it as an FDM code.

So there.

Please suggest good references and / or people working on this topic, if you know any. Thanks in advance.


A song I like:

[… Here I thought that there was no song that Salil Chowdhury had composed and I had not listened to. (Well, at least when it comes to his Hindi songs). That’s what I had come to believe, and here trots along this one—and that too, as a part of a collection by someone! … The time-delay between my first listening to this song, and my liking it, was zero. (Or, it was a negative time-delay, if you refer to the instant that the first listening got over). … Also, one of those rare occasions when one is able to say that any linear ordering of the credits could only be random.]

(Hindi) “mada bhari yeh hawaayen”
Music: Salil Chowdhury
Lyrics: Gulzaar
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar

 

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The rule of omitting the self-field in calculations—and whether potentials have an objective existence or not

There was an issue concerning the strictly classical, non-relativistic electricity which I was (once again) confronted with, during my continuing preoccupation with quantum mechanics.

Actually, a small part of this issue had occurred to me earlier too, and I had worked through it back then.

However, the overall issue had never occurred to me with as much of scope, generality and force as it did last evening. And I could not immediately resolve it. So, for a while, especially last night, I unexpectedly found myself to have become very confused, even discouraged.

Then, this morning, after a good night’s rest, everything became clear right while sipping my morning cup of tea. Things came together literally within a span of just a few minutes. I want to share the issue and its resolution with you.

The question in question (!) is the following.


Consider 2 (or N) number of point-charges, say electrons. Each electron sets up an electrostatic (Coulombic) potential everywhere in space, for the other electrons to “feel”.

As you know, the potential set up by the i-th electron is:
V_i(\vec{r}_i, \vec{r}) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_i}{|\vec{r} - \vec{r}_i|}
where \vec{r}_i is the position vector of the i-th electron, \vec{r} is any arbitrary point in space, and Q_i is the charge of the i-th electron.

The potential energy associated with some other (j-th) electron being at the position \vec{r}_j (i.e. the energy that the system acquires in bringing the two electrons from \infty to their respective positions some finite distance apart), is then given as:
U_{ij}(\vec{r}_i, \vec{r}_j) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_i\,Q_j}{|\vec{r}_j - \vec{r}_i|}

The notation followed here is the following: In U_{ij}, the potential field is produced by the i-th electron, and the work is done by the j-th electron against the i-th electron.

Symmetrically, the potential energy for this configuration can also be expressed as:
U_{ji}(\vec{r}_j, \vec{r}_i) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_j\,Q_i}{|\vec{r}_i - \vec{r}_j|}

If a system has only two charges, then its total potential energy U can be expressed either as U_{ji} or as U_{ij}. Thus,
U = U_{ji} = U_{ij}

Similarly, for any pair of charges in an N-particle system, too. Therefore, the total energy of an N-particle system is given as:
U = \sum\limits_{i}^{N} \sum\limits_{j = i+1}^{N} U_{ij}

The issue now is this: Can we say that the total potential energy U has an objective existence in the physical world? Or is it just a device of calculations that we have invented, just a concept from maths that has no meaningful physical counterpart?

(A side remark: Energy may perhaps exist as an attribute or property of something else, and not necessarily as a separate physical object by itself. However, existence as an attribute still is an objective existence.)

The reason to raise this doubt is the following.


When calculating the motion of the i-th charge, we consider only the potentials V_j produced by the other charges, not the potential produced by the given charge V_i itself.

Now, if the potential produced by the given charge (V_i) also exists at every point in space, then why does it not enter the calculations? How does its physical efficacy get evaporated away? And, symmetrically: The motion of the j-th charge occurs as if V_j had physically evaporated away.

The issue generalizes in a straight-forward manner. If there are N number of charges, then for calculating the motion of a given i-th charge, the potential fields of all other charges are considered operative. But not its own field.

How can motion become sensitive to only a part of the total potential energy existing at a point even if the other part also exists at the same point? That is the question.


This circumstance seems to indicate as if there is subjectivity built deep into the very fabric of classical mechanics. It is as if the universe just knows what a subject is going to calculate, and accordingly, it just makes the corresponding field mystically go away. The universe—the physical universe—acts as if it were changing in response to what we choose to do in our mind. Mind you, the universe seems to change in response to not just our observations (as in QM), but even as we merely proceed to do calculations. How does that come to happen?… May be the whole physical universe exists only in our imagination?

Got the point?


No, my confusion was not as pathetic as that in the previous paragraph. But I still found myself being confused about how to account for the fact that an electron’s own field does not enter the calculations.

But it was not all. A non-clarity on this issue also meant that there was another confusing issue which also raised its head. This secondary issue arises out of the fact that the Coulombic potential set up by any point-charge is singular in nature (or at least approximately so).

If the electron is a point-particle and if its own potential “is” \infty at its position, then why does it at all get influenced by the finite potential of any other charge? That is the question.

Notice, the second issue is most acute when the potentials in question are singular in nature. But even if you arbitrarily remove the singularity by declaring (say by fiat) a finite size for the electron, thereby making its own field only finitely large (and not infinite), the above-mentioned issue still remains. So long as its own field is finite but much, much larger than the potential of any other charge, the effects due to the other charges should become comparatively less significant, perhaps even negligibly small. Why does this not happen? Why does the rule instead go exactly the other way around, and makes those much smaller effects due to other charges count, but not the self-field of the very electron in question?


While thinking about QM, there was a certain point where this entire gamut of issues became important—whether the potential has an objective existence or not, the rule of omitting the self-field while calculating motions of particles, the singular potential, etc.

The specific issue I was trying to think through was: two interacting particles (e.g. the two electrons in the helium atom). It was while thinking on this problem that this problem occurred to me. And then, it also led me to wonder: what if some intellectual goon in the guise of a physicist comes along, and says that my proposal isn’t valid because there is this element of subjectivity to it? This thought occurred to me with all its force only last night. (Or so I think.) And I could not recall seeing a ready-made answer in a text-book or so. Nor could I figure it out immediately, at night, after a whole day’s work. And as I failed to resolve the anticipated objection, I progressively got more and more confused last night, even discouraged.

However, this morning, it all got resolved in a jiffy.


Would you like to give it a try? Why is it that while calculating the motion of the i-th charge, you consider the potentials set up by all the rest of the charges, but not its own potential field? Why this rule? Get this part right, and all the philosophical humbug mentioned earlier just evaporates away too.

I would wait for a couple of days or so before coming back and providing you with the answer I found. May be I will write another post about it.


Update on 2019.03.16 20:14 IST: Corrected the statement concerning the total energy of a two-electron system. Also simplified the further discussion by couching it preferably in terms of potentials rather than energies (as in the first published version), because a Coulombic potential always remains anchored in the given charge—it doesn’t additionally depend on the other charges the way energy does. Modified the notation to reflect the emphasis on the potentials rather than energy.


A song I like:

[What else? [… see the songs section in the last post.]]
(Hindi) “woh dil kahaan se laaoon…”
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Ravi
Lyrics: Rajinder Kishen


A bit of a conjecture as to why Ravi’s songs tend to be so hummable, of a certain simplicity, especially, almost always based on a very simple rhythm. My conjecture is that because Ravi grew up in an atmosphere of “bhajan”-singing.

Observe that it is in the very nature of music that it puts your mind into an abstract frame of mind. Observe any singer, especially the non-professional ones (or the ones who are not very highly experienced in controlling their body-language while singing, as happens to singers who participate in college events or talent shows).

When they sing, their eyes seem to roll in a very peculiar manner. It seems random but it isn’t. It’s as if the eyes involuntarily get set in the motions of searching for something definite to be found somewhere, as if the thing to be found would be in the concrete physical space outside, but within a split-second, the eyes again move as if the person has realized that nothing corresponding is to be found in the world out there. That’s why the eyes “roll away.” The same thing goes on repeating, as the singer passes over various words, points of pauses, nuances, or musical phrases.

The involuntary motions of the eyes of the singer provide a window into his experience of music. It’s as if his consciousness was again and again going on registering a sequence of two very fleeting experiences: (i) a search for something in the outside world corresponding to an inner experience felt in the present, and immediately later, (ii) a realization (and therefore the turning away of the eyes from an initially picked up tentative direction) that nothing in the outside world would match what was being searched for.

The experience of music necessarily makes you realize the abstractness of itself. It tends to make you realize that the root-referents of your musical experience lie not in a specific object or phenomenon in the physical world, but in the inner realm, that of your own emotions, judgments, self-reflections, etc.

This nature of music makes it ideally suited to let you turn your attention away from the outside world, and has the capacity or potential to induce a kind of a quiet self-reflection in you.

But the switch from the experience of frustrated searches into the outside world to a quiet self-reflection within oneself is not the only option available here. Music can also induce in you a transitioning from those unfulfilled searches to a frantic kind of an activity: screams, frantic shouting, random gyrations, and what not. In evidence, observe any piece of modern American / Western pop-music.

However, when done right, music can also induce a state of self-reflection, and by evoking certain kind of emotions, it can even lead to a sense of orderliness, peace, serenity. To make this part effective, such a music has to be simple enough, and orderly enough. That’s why devotional music in the refined cultural traditions is, as a rule, of a certain kind of simplicity.

The experience of music isn’t the highest possible spiritual experience. But if done right, it can make your transition from the ordinary experience to a deep, profound spiritual experience easy. And doing it right involves certain orderliness, simplicity in all respects: tune, tone, singing style, rhythm, instrumental sections, transitions between phrases, etc.

If you grow up listening to this kind of a music, your own music in your adult years tends to reflect the same qualities. The simplicity of rhythm. The alluringly simple tunes. The “hummability quotient.” (You don’t want to focus on intricate patterns of melody in devotional music; you want it to be so simple that minimal mental exertion is involved in rendering it, so that your mental energy can quietly transition towards your spiritual quest and experiences.) Etc.

I am not saying that the reason Ravi’s music is so great is because he listened his father sing “bhajan”s. If this were true, there would be tens of thousands of music composers having talents comparable to Ravi’s. But the fact is that Ravi was a genius—a self-taught genius, in fact. (He never received any formal training in music ever.) But what I am saying is that if you do have the musical ability, having this kind of a family environment would leave its mark. Definitely.

Of course, this all was just a conjecture. Check it out and see if it holds or not.

… May be I should convert this “note” in a separate post by itself. Would be easier to keep track of it. … Some other time. … I have to work on QM; after all, exactly only half the month remains now. … Bye for now. …


It’s nearing January-end, already!

It’s nearing January-end already [^]… I am trying very hard to stay optimistic [^].

BTW, remember: (i) this blog is in copyright, (ii) your feedback is welcome.


A song I like:

(Hindi) “agar main kahoon”
Music: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Singers: Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan

 

A list of books for understanding the non-relativistic QM

TL;DR: NFY (Not for you).


In this post, I will list those books which have been actually helpful to me during my self-studies of QM.

But before coming to the list, let me first note down a few points which would be important for engineers who wish to study QM on their own. After all, my blog is regularly visited by engineers too. That’s what the data about the visit patterns to various posts says.

Others (e.g. physicists) may perhaps skip over the note in the next section, and instead jump directly over to the list itself. However, even if the note for engineers is too long, perhaps, physicists should go through it too. If they did, they sure would come to know a bit more about the kind of background from which the engineers come.


I. A note for engineers who wish to study QM on their own:

The point is this: QM is vast, even if its postulates are just a few. So, it takes a prolonged, sustained effort to learn it.

For the same reason (of vastness), learning QM also involves your having to side-by-side learn an entirely new approach to learning itself. (If you have been a good student of engineering, chances are pretty good that you already have some first-hand idea about this meta-learning thing. But the point is, if you wish to understand QM, you have to put it to use once again afresh!)

In terms of vastness, QM is, in some sense, comparable to this cluster of subjects spanning engineering and physics: engineering thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, kinetics, fluid mechanics, and heat- and mass-transfer.

I.1 Thermodynamics as a science that is hard to get right:

The four laws of thermodynamics (including the zeroth and the third) are easy enough to grasp—I mean, in the simpler settings. But when it comes to this subject (as also for the Newtonian mechanics, i.e., from the particle to the continuum mechanics), God lies not in the postulates but in their applications.

The statement of the first law of thermodynamics remains the same simple one. But complexity begins to creep in as soon as you begin to dig just a little bit deeper with it. Entire categories of new considerations enter the picture, and the meaning of the same postulates gets both enriched and deepened with them. For instance, consider the distinction of the open vs. the closed vs. the isolated systems, and the corresponding changes that have to be made even to the mathematical statements of the law. That’s just for the starters. The complexity keeps increasing: studies of different processes like adiabatic vs. isochoric vs. polytropic vs. isentropic etc., and understanding the nature of these idealizations and their relevance in diverse practical applications such as: steam power (important even today, specifically, in the nuclear power plants), IC engines, jet turbines, refrigeration and air-conditioning, furnaces, boilers, process equipment, etc.; phase transitions, material properties and their variations; empirical charts….

Then there is another point. To really understand thermodynamics well, you have to learn a lot of other subjects too. You have to go further and study some different but complementary sciences like heat and mass transfer, to begin with. And to do that well, you need to study fluid dynamics first. Kinetics is practically important too; think of process engineering and cost of energy. Ideas from statistical mechanics are important from the viewpoint of developing a fundamental understanding. And then, you have to augment all this study with all the empirical studies of the irreversible processes (think: the boiling heat transfer process). It’s only when you study such an entire gamut of topics and subjects that you can truly come to say that you now have some realistic understanding of the subject matter that is thermodynamics.

Developing understanding of the aforementioned vast cluster of subjects (of thermal sciences) is difficult; it requires a sustained effort spanning over years. Mistakes are not only very easily possible; in engineering schools, they are routine. Let me illustrate this point with just one example from thermodynamics.

Consider some point that is somewhat nutty to get right. For instance, consider the fact that no work is done during the free expansion of a gas. If you are such a genius that you could correctly get this point right on your very first reading, then hats off to you. Personally, I could not. Neither do I know of even a single engineer who could. We all had summarily stumbled on some fine points like this.

You see, what happens here is that thermodynamics and statistical mechanics involve entirely different ways of thinking, but they both are being introduced almost at the same time during your UG studies. Therefore, it is easy enough to mix up the some disparate metaphors coming from these two entirely different paradigms.

Coming to the specific example of the free expansion, initially, it is easy enough for you to think that since momentum is being carried by all those gas molecules escaping the chamber during the free expansion process, there must be a leakage of work associated with it. Further, since the molecules were already moving in a random manner, there must be an accompanying leakage of the heat too. Both turn out to be wrong ways of thinking about the process! Intuitions about thermodynamics develop only slowly. You think that you understood what the basic idea of a system and an environment is like, but the example of the free expansion serves to expose the holes in your understanding. And then, it’s not just thermo and stat mech. You have to learn how to separate both from kinetics (and they all, from the two other, closely related, thermal sciences: fluid mechanics, and heat and mass transfer).

But before you can learn to separate out the unique perspectives of these subject matters, you first have to learn their contents! But the way the university education happens, you also get exposed to them more or less simultaneously! (4 years is as nothing in a career that might span over 30 to 40 years.)

Since you are learning a lot many different paradigms at the same time, it is easy enough to naively transfer your fledgling understanding of one aspect of one paradigm (say, that of the particle or statistical mechanics) and naively insert it, in an invalid manner, into another paradigm which you are still just learning to use at roughly the same time (thermodynamics). This is what happens in the case of the free expansion of gases. Or, of throttling. Or, of the difference between the two… It is a rare student who can correctly answer all the questions on this topic, during his oral examination.

Now, here is the ultimate point: Postulates-wise, thermodynamics is independent of the rest of the subjects from the aforementioned cluster of subjects. So, in theory, you should be able to “get” thermodynamics—its postulates, in all their generality—even without ever having learnt these other subjects.

Yet, paradoxically enough, we find that complicated concepts and processes also become easier to understand when they are approached using many different conceptual pathways. A good example here would be the concept of entropy.

When you are a XII standard student (or even during your first couple of years in engineering), you are, more or less, just getting your feet wet with the idea of the differentials. As it so happens, before you run into the concept of entropy, virtually every physics concept was such that it was a ratio of two differentials. For instance, the instantaneous velocity is the ratio of d(displacement) over d(time). But the definition of entropy involves a more creative way of using the calculus: it has a differential (and that too an inexact differential), but only in the numerator. The denominator is a “plain-vanilla” variable. You have already learnt the maths used in dealing with the rates of changes—i.e. the calculus. But that doesn’t mean that you have an already learnt physical imagination with you which would let you handle this kind of a definition—one that involves a ratio of a differential quantity to an ordinary variable. … “Why should only one thing change even as the other thing remains steadfastly constant?” you may wonder. “And if it is anyway going to stay constant, then is it even significant? (Isn’t the derivative of a constant the zero?) So, why not just throw the constant variable out of the consideration?” You see, one major reason you can’t deal with the definition of entropy is simply because you can’t deal with the way its maths comes arranged. Understanding entropy in a purely thermodynamic—i.e. continuum—context can get confusing, to say the least. But then, just throw in a simple insight from Boltzmann’s theory, and suddenly, the bulb gets lit up!

So, paradoxically enough, even if multiple paradigms mean more work and even more possibilities of confusion, in some ways, having multiple approaches also does help.

When a subject is vast, and therefore involves multiple paradigms, people regularly fail to get certain complex ideas right. That happens even to very smart people. For instance, consider Maxwell’s daemon. Not many people could figure out how to deal with it correctly, for such a long time.

…All in all, it is only some time later, when you have already studied all these topics—thermodynamics, kinetics, statistical mechanics, fluid mechanics, heat and mass transfer—that finally things begin to fall in place (if they at all do, at any point of time!). But getting there involves hard effort that goes on for years: it involves learning all these topics individually, and then, also integrating them all together.

In other words, there is no short-cut to understanding thermodynamics. It seems easy enough to think that you’ve understood the 4 laws the first time you ran into them. But the huge gaps in your understanding begin to become apparent only when it comes to applying them to a wide variety of situations.

I.2 QM is vast, and requires multiple passes of studies:

Something similar happens also with QM. It too has relatively few postulates (3 to 6 in number, depending on which author you consult) but a vast scope of applicability. It is easy enough to develop a feeling that you have understood the postulates right. But, exactly as in the case of thermodynamics (or Newtonian mechanics), once again, the God lies not in the postulates but rather in their applications. And in case of QM, you have to hasten to add: the God also lies in the very meaning of these postulates—not just their applications. QM carries a one-two punch.

Similar to the case of thermodynamics and the related cluster of subjects, it is not possible to “get” QM in the first go. If you think you did, chances are that you have a superhuman intelligence. Or, far, far more likely, the plain fact of the matter is that you simply didn’t get the subject matter right—not in its full generality. (Which is what typically happens to the CS guys who think that they have mastered QM, even if the only “QM” they ever learnt was that of two-state systems in a finite-dimensional Hilbert space, and without ever acquiring even an inkling of ideas like radiation-matter interactions, transition rates, or the average decoherence times.)

The only way out, the only way that works in properly studying QM is this: Begin studying QM at a simpler level, finish developing as much understanding about its entire scope as possible (as happens in the typical Modern Physics courses), and then come to studying the same set of topics once again in a next iteration, but now to a greater depth. And, you have to keep repeating this process some 4–5 times. Often times, you have to come back from iteration n+2 to n.

As someone remarked at some forum (at Physics StackExchange or Quora or so), to learn QM, you have to give it “multiple passes.” Only then can you succeed understanding it. The idea of multiple passes has several implications. Let me mention only two of them. Both are specific to QM (and not to thermodynamics).

First, you have to develop the art of being able to hold some not-fully-satisfactory islands of understanding, with all the accompanying ambiguities, for extended periods of time (which usually runs into years!). You have to learn how to give a second or a third pass even when some of the things right from the first pass are still nowhere near getting clarified. You have to learn a lot of maths on the fly too. However, if you ask me, that’s a relatively easier task. The really difficult part is that you have to know (or learn!) how to keep forging ahead, even if at the same time, you carry a big set of nagging doubts that no one seems to know (or even care) about. (To make the matters worse, professional physicists, mathematicians and philosophers proudly keep telling you that these doubts will remain just as they are for the rest of your life.) You have to learn how to shove these ambiguous and un-clarified matters to some place near the back of your mind, you have to learn how to ignore them for a while, and still find the mental energy to once again begin right from the beginning, for your next pass: Planck and his cavity radiation, Einstein, blah blah blah blah blah!

Second, for the same reason (i.e. the necessity of multiple passes and the nature of QM), you also have to learn how to unlearn certain half-baked ideas and replace them later on with better ones. For a good example, go through Dan Styer’s paper on misconceptions about QM (listed near the end of this post).

Thus, two seemingly contradictory skills come into the play: You have to learn how to hold ambiguities without letting them affect your studies. At the same time, you also have to learn how not to hold on to them forever, or how to unlearn them, when the time to do becomes ripe.

Thus, learning QM does not involve just learning of new contents. You also have learn this art of building a sufficiently “temporary” but very complex conceptual structure in your mind—a structure that, despite all its complexity, still is resilient. You have to learn the art of holding such a framework together over a period of years, even as some parts of it are still getting replaced in your subsequent passes.

And, you have to compensate for all the failings of your teachers too (who themselves were told, effectively, to “shut up and calculate!”) Properly learning QM is a demanding enterprise.


II. The list:

Now, with that long a preface, let me come to listing all the main books that I found especially helpful during my various passes. Please remember, I am still learning QM. I still don’t understand the second half of most any UG book on QM. This is a factual statement. I am not ashamed of it. It’s just that the first half itself managed to keep me so busy for so long that I could not come to studying, in an in-depth manner, the second half. (By the second half, I mean things like: the QM of molecules and binding, of their spectra, QM of solids, QM of complicated light-matter interactions, computational techniques like DFT, etc.) … OK. So, without any further ado, let me jot down the actual list.  I will subdivide it in several sub-sections


II.0. Junior-college (American high-school) level:

Obvious:

  • Resnick and Halliday.
  • Thomas and Finney. Also, Allan Jeffrey

II.1. Initial, college physics level:

  • “Modern physics” by Beiser, or equivalent
  • Optional but truly helpful: “Physical chemistry” by Atkins, or equivalent, i.e., only the parts relevant to QM. (I know engineers often tend to ignore the chemistry books, but they should not. In my experience, often times, chemistry books do a superior job of explaining physics. Physics, to paraphrase a witticism, is far too important to be left to the physicists!)

II.2. Preparatory material for some select topics:

  • “Physics of waves” by Howard Georgi. Excellence written all over, but precisely for the same reason, take care to avoid the temptation to get stuck in it!
  • Maths: No particular book, but a representative one would be Kreyszig, i.e., with Thomas and Finney or Allan Jeffrey still within easy reach.
    • There are a few things you have to relearn, if necessary. These include: the idea of the limits of sequences and series. (Yes, go through this simple a topic too, once again. I mean it!). Then, the limits of functions.
      Also try to relearn curve-tracing.
    • Unlearn (or throw away) all the accounts of complex numbers which remain stuck at the level of how \sqrt{-1} was stupefying, and how, when you have complex numbers, any arbitrary equation magically comes to have roots, etc. Unlearn all that talk. Instead, focus on the similarities of complex numbers to both the real numbers and vectors, and also their differences from each. Unlike what mathematicians love to tell you, complex numbers are not just another kind of numbers. They don’t represent just the next step in the logic of how the idea of numbers gets generalized as go from integers to real numbers. The reason is this: Unlike the integers, rationals, irrationals and reals, complex numbers take birth as composite numbers (as a pair of numbers that is ordered too), and they remain that way until the end of their life. Get that part right, and ignore all the mathematicians’ loose talk about it.
      Study complex numbers in a way that, eventually, you should find yourself being comfortable with the two equivalent ways of modeling physical phenomena: as a set of two coupled real-valued differential equations, and as a single but complex-valued differential equation.
    • Also try to become proficient with the two main expansions: the Taylor, and the Fourier.
    • Also develop a habit of quickly substituting truncated expansions (i.e., either a polynomial, or a sum complex exponentials having just a few initial harmonics, not an entire infinity of them) into any “arbitrary” function as an ansatz, and see how the proposed theory pans out with these. The goal is to become comfortable, at the same time, with a habit of tracing conceptual pathways to the meaning of maths as well as with the computational techniques of FDM, FEM, and FFT.
    • The finite differences approximation: Also, learn the art of quickly substituting the finite differences (\Delta‘s) in place of the differential quantities (d or \partial) in a differential equation, and seeing how it pans out. The idea here is not just the computational modeling. The point is: Every differential equation has been derived in reference to an elemental volume which was then taken to a vanishingly small size. The variation of quantities of interest across such (infinitesimally small) volume are always represented using the Taylor series expansion.
      (That’s correct! It is true that the derivations using the variational approach don’t refer to the Taylor expansion. But they also don’t use infinitesimal volumes; they refer to finite or infinite domains. It is the variation in functions which is taken to the vanishingly small limit in their case. In any case, if your derivation has an infinitesimall small element, bingo, you are going to use the Taylor series.)
      Now, coming back to why you must learn develop the habit of having a finite differences approximation in place of a differential equation. The thing is this: By doing so, you are unpacking the derivation; you are traversing the analysis in the reverse direction, you are by the logic of the procedure forced to look for the physical (or at least lower-level, less abstract) referents of a mathematical relation/idea/concept.
      While thus going back and forth between the finite differences and the differentials, also learn the art of tracing how the limiting process proceeds in each such a case. This part is not at all as obvious as you might think. It took me years and years to figure out that there can be infinitesimals within infinitesimals. (In fact, I have blogged about it several years ago here. More recently, I wrote a PDF document about how many numbers are there in the real number system, which discusses the same idea, from a different angle. In any case, if you were not shocked by the fact that there can be an infinity of infinitesimals within any infinitesimal, either think sufficiently long about it—or quit studying foundations of QM.)

II.3. Quantum chemistry level (mostly concerned with only the TISE, not TDSE):

  • Optional: “QM: a conceptual approach” by Hameka. A fairly well-written book. You can pick it up for some serious reading, but also try to finish it as fast as you can, because you are going to relean the same stuff once again through the next book in the sequence. But yes, you can pick it up; it’s only about 200 pages.
  • “Quantum chemistry” by McQuarrie. Never commit the sin of bypassing this excellent book.
    Summarily ignore your friend (who might have advised you Feynman vol. 3 or Susskind’s theoretical minimum or something similar). Instead, follow my advice!
    A suggestion: Once you finish reading through this particular book, take a small (40 page) notebook, and write down (in the long hand) just the titles of the sections of each chapter of this book, followed by a listing of the important concepts / equations / proofs introduced in it. … You see, the section titles of this book themselves are complete sentences that encapsulate very neat nuggets. Here are a couple of examples: “5.6: The harmonic oscillator accounts for the infrared spectrum of a diatomic molecule.” Yes, that’s a section title! Here is another: “6.2: If a Hamiltonian is separable, then its eigenfunctions are products of simpler eigenfunctions.” See why I recommend this book? And this (40 page notebook) way of studying it?
  • “Quantum physics of atoms, molecules, solids, nuclei, and particles” (yes, that’s the title of this single volume!) by Eisberg and Resnick. This Resnick is the same one as that of Resnick and Halliday. Going through the same topics via yet another thick book (almost 850 pages) can get exasperating, at least at times. But guess if you show some patience here, it should simplify things later. …. Confession: I was too busy with teaching and learning engineering topics like FEM, CFD, and also with many other things in between. So, I could not find the time to read this book the way I would have liked to. But from whatever I did read (and I did go over a fairly good portion of it), I can tell you that not finishing this book was a mistake on my part. Don’t repeat my mistake. Further, I do keep going back to it, and may be as a result, I would one day have finished it! One more point. This book is more than quantum chemistry; it does discuss the time-dependent parts too. The only reason I include it in this sub-section (chemistry) rather than the next (physics) is because the emphasis here is much more on TISE than TDSE.

II.4. Quantum physics level (includes TDSE):

  • “Quantum physics” by Alastair I. M. Rae. Hands down, the best book in its class. To my mind, it easily beats all of the following: Griffiths, Gasiorowicz, Feynman, Susskind, … .
    Oh, BTW, this is the only book I have ever come across which does not put scare-quotes around the word “derivation,” while describing the original development of the Schrodinger equation. In fact, this text goes one step ahead and explicitly notes the right idea, viz., that Schrodinger’s development is a derivation, but it is an inductive derivation, not deductive. (… Oh God, these modern American professors of physics!)
    But even leaving this one (arguably “small”) detail aside, the book has excellence written all over it. Far better than the competition.
    Another attraction: The author touches upon all the standard topics within just about 225 pages. (He also has further 3 chapters, one each on relativity and QM, quantum information, and conceptual problems with QM. However, I have mostly ignored these.) When a book is of manageable size, it by itself is an overload reducer. (This post is not a portion from a text-book!)
    The only “drawback” of this book is that, like many British authors, Rae has a tendency to seamlessly bunch together a lot of different points into a single, bigger, paragraph. He does not isolate the points sufficiently well. So, you have to write a lot of margin notes identifying those distinct, sub-paragraph level, points. (But one advantage here is that this procedure is very effective in keeping you glued to the book!)
  • “Quantum physics” by Griffiths. Oh yes, Griffiths is on my list too. It’s just that I find it far better to go through Rae first, and only then come to going through Griffiths.
  • … Also, avoid the temptation to read both these books side-by-side. You will soon find that you can’t do that. And so, driven by what other people say, you will soon end up ditching Rae—which would be a grave mistake. Since you can keep going through only one of them, you have to jettison the other. Here, I would advise you to first complete Rae. It’s indispensable. Griffiths is good too. But it is not indispensable. And as always, if you find the time and the inclination, you can always come back to Griffiths.

II.5. Side reading:

Starting sometime after finishing the initial UG quantum chemistry level books, but preferably after the quantum physics books, use the following two:

  • “Foundations of quantum mechanics” by Travis Norsen. Very, very good. See my “review” here [^]
  • “Foundations of quantum mechanics: from photons to quantum computers” by Reinhold Blumel.
    Just because people don’t rave a lot about this book doesn’t mean that it is average. This book is peculiar. It does look very average if you flip through all its pages within, say, 2–3 minutes. But it turns out to be an extraordinarily well written book once you begin to actually read through its contents. The coverage here is concise, accurate, fairly comprehensive, and, as a distinctive feature, it also is fairly up-to-date.
    Unlike the other text-books, Blumel gives you a good background in the specifics of the modern topics as well. So, once you complete this book, you should find it easy (to very easy) to understand today’s pop-sci articles, say those on quantum computers. To my knowledge, this is the only text-book which does this job (of introducing you to the topics that are relevant to today’s research), and it does this job exceedingly well.
  • Use Blumel to understand the specifics, and use Norsen to understand their conceptual and the philosophical underpinnings.

II.Appendix: Miscellaneous—no levels specified; figure out as you go along:

  • “Schrodinger’s cat” by John Gribbin. Unquestionably, the best pop-sci book on QM. Lights your fire.
  • “Quantum” by Manjit Kumar. Helps keep the fire going.
  • Kreyszig or equivalent. You need to master the basic ideas of the Fourier theory, and of solutions of PDEs via the separation ansatz.
  • However, for many other topics like spherical harmonics or calculus of variations, you have to go hunting for explanations in some additional books. I “learnt” the spherical harmonics mostly through some online notes (esp. those by Michael Fowler of Univ. of Virginia) and QM textbooks, but I guess that a neat exposition of the topic, couched in contexts other than QM, would have been helpful. May be there is some ancient acoustics book that is really helpful. Anyway, I didn’t pursue this topic to any great depth (in fact I more or less skipped over it) because as it so happens, analytical methods fall short for anything more complex than the hydrogenic atoms.
  • As to the variational calculus, avoid all the physics and maths books like a plague! Instead, learn the topic through the FEM books. Introductory FEM books have become vastly (i.e. categorically) better over the course of my generation. Today’s FEM text-books do provide a clear evidence that the authors themselves know what they are talking about! Among these books, just for learning the variational calculus aspects, I would advise going through Seshu or Fish and Belytschko first, and then through the relevant chapter from Reddy‘s book on FEM. In any case, avoid Bathe, Zienkiewicz, etc.; they are too heavily engineering-oriented, and often, in general, un-necessarily heavy-duty (though not as heavy-duty as Lancosz). Not very suitable for learning the basics of CoV as is required in the UG QM. A good supplementary book covering CoV is noted next.
  • “From calculus to chaos: an introduction to dynamics” by David Acheson. A gem of a book. Small (just about 260 pages, including program listings—and just about 190 pages if you ignore them.) Excellent, even if, somehow, it does not appear on people’s lists. But if you ask me, this book is a must read for any one who has anything to do with physics or engineering. Useful chapters exist also on variational calculus and chaos. Comes with easy to understand QBasic programs (and their updated versions, ready to run on today’s computers, are available via the author’s Web site). Wish it also had chapters, say one each, on the mechanics of materials, and on fracture mechanics.
  • Linear algebra. Here, keep your focus on understanding just the two concepts: (i) vector spaces, and (ii) eigen-vectors and -values. Don’t worry about other topics (like LU decomposition or the power method). If you understand these two topics right, the rest will follow “automatically,” more or less. To learn these two topics, however, don’t refer to text-books (not even those by Gilbert Strang or so). Instead, google on the online tutorials on computer games programming. This way, you will come to develop a far better (even robust) understanding of these concepts. … Yes, that’s right. One or two games programmers, I very definitely remember, actually did a much superior job of explaining these ideas (with all their complexity) than what any textbook by any university professor does. (iii) Oh yes, BTW, there is yet another concept which you should learn: “tensor product”. For this topic, I recommend Prof. Zhigang Suo‘s notes on linear algebra, available off iMechanica. These notes are a work in progress, but they are already excellent even in their present form.
  • Probability. Contrary to a wide-spread impression (and to what one group of QM interpreters say), you actually don’t need much of statistics or probability in order to get the essence of QM right. Whatever you need has already been taught to you in your UG engineering/physics courses.Personally, though I haven’t yet gone through them, the two books on my radar (more from the data science angle) are: “Elementary probability” by Stirzaker, and “All of statistics” by Wasserman. But, frankly speaking, as far as QM itself is concerned, your intuitive understanding of probability as developed through your routine UG courses should be enough, IMHO.
  • As to AJP type of articles, go through Dan Styer‘s paper on the nine formulations (doi:10.1119/1.1445404). But treat his paper on the common misconceptions (10.1119/1.18288) with a bit of caution; some of the ideas he lists as “misconceptions” are not necessarily so.
  • arXiv tutorials/articles: Sometime after finishing quantum chemistry and before beginning quantum physics, go through the tutorial on QM by Bram Gaasbeek [^]. Neat, small, and really helpful for self-studies of QM. (It was written when the author was still a student himself.) Also, see the article on the postulates by Dorabantu [^]. Definitely helpful. Finally, let me pick up just one more arXiv article: “Entanglement isn’t just for spin” by Dan Schroeder [^]. Comes with neat visualizations, and helps demystify entanglement.
  • Computational physics: Several good resources are available. One easy to recommend text-book is the one by Landau, Perez and Bordeianu. Among the online resources, the best collection I found was the one by Ian Cooper (of Univ. of Sydney) [^]. He has only MatLab scripts, not Python, but they all are very well documented (in an exemplary manner) via accompanying PDF files. It should be easy to port these programs to the Python eco-system.

Yes, we (finally) are near the end of this post, so let me add the mandatory catch-all clauses: This list is by no means comprehensive! This list supersedes any other list I may have put out in the past. This list may undergo changes in future.

Done.

OK. A couple of last minute addenda: For contrast, see the article “What is the best textbook for self-studying quantum mechanics?” which has appeared, of all places, on the Forbes!  [^]. (Looks like the QC-related hype has found its way into the business circles as well!) Also see the list at BookScrolling.com: “The best books to learn about quantum physics” [^].

OK. Now, I am really done.


A song I like:
(Marathi) “kiteedaa navyaane tulaa aaThavaave”
Music: Mandar Apte
Singer: Mandar Apte. Also, a separate female version by Arya Ambekar
Lyrics: Devayani Karve-Kothari

[Arya Ambekar’s version is great too, but somehow, I like Mandar Apte’s version better. Of course, I do often listen to both the versions. Excellent.]


[Almost 5000 More than 5,500 words! Give me a longer break for this time around, a much longer one, in fact… In the meanwhile, take care and bye until then…]

Links…

Here are a few interesting links I browsed recently, listed in no particular order:


“Mathematicians Tame Turbulence in Flattened Fluids” [^].

The operative word here, of course, is: “flattened.” But even then, it’s an interesting read. Another thing: though the essay is pop-sci, the author gives the Navier-Stokes equations, complete with fairly OK explanatory remarks about each term in the equation.

(But I don’t understand why every pop-sci write-up gives the NS equations only in the Lagrangian form, never Eulerian.)


“A Twisted Path to Equation-Free Prediction” [^]. …

“Empirical dynamic modeling.” Hmmm….


“Machine Learning’s `Amazing’ Ability to Predict Chaos” [^].

Click-bait: They use data science ideas to predict chaos!

8 Lyapunov times is impressive. But ignore the other, usual kind of hype: “…the computer tunes its own formulas in response to data until the formulas replicate the system’s dynamics. ” [italics added.]


“Your Simple (Yes, Simple) Guide to Quantum Entanglement” [^].

Click-bait: “Entanglement is often regarded as a uniquely quantum-mechanical phenomenon, but it is not. In fact, it is enlightening, though somewhat unconventional, to consider a simple non-quantum (or “classical”) version of entanglement first. This enables us to pry the subtlety of entanglement itself apart from the general oddity of quantum theory.”

Don’t dismiss the description in the essay as being too simplistic; the author is Frank Wilczek.


“A theoretical physics FAQ” [^].

Click-bait: Check your answers with those given by an expert! … Do spend some time here…


Tensor product versus Cartesian product.

If you are engineer and if you get interested in quantum entanglement, beware of the easily confusing terms: The tensor product and the Cartesian product.

The tensor product, you might think, is like the Cartesian product. But it is not. See mathematicians’ explanations. Essentially, the basis sets (and the operations) are different. [^] [^].

But what the mathematicians don’t do is to take some simple but non-trivial examples, and actually work everything out in detail. Instead, they just jump from this definition to that definition. For example, see: “How to conquer tensorphobia” [^] and “Tensorphobia and the outer product”[^]. Read any of these last two articles. Any one is sufficient to give you tensorphobia even if you never had it!

You will never run into a mathematician who explains the difference between the two concepts by first directly giving you a vague feel: by directly giving you a good worked out example in the context of finite sets (including enumeration of all the set elements) that illustrates the key difference, i.e. the addition vs. the multiplication of the unit vectors (aka members of basis sets).

A third-class epistemology when it comes to explaining, mathematicians typically have.


A Song I Like:

(Marathi) “he gard niLe megha…”
Singers: Shailendra Singh, Anuradha Paudwal
Music: Rushiraj
Lyrics: Muralidhar Gode

[As usual, a little streamlining may occur later on.]

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.

 

QM: A couple of defensible statements. Also, a bit on their implications for the QC.

A Special Note (added on 17th June 2018): This post is now a sticky post; it will remain, for some time, at the top of this blog.

I am likely to keep this particular post at the top of this blog, as a sticky post, for some time in the future (may be for a few months or so). So, even if posts at this blog normally appear in the reverse chronological order, any newer entries that I may post after this one would be found below this one.

[In particular, right now, I am going through a biography: “Schrodinger: Life and Thought” by Walter Moore [^]. I had bought this book way back in 2011, but had to keep it aside back then, and then, somehow, I came to forget all about it. The book surfaced during a recent move we made, and thus, I began reading it just this week. I may write a post or two about it in the near future (say within a couple of weeks or so) if something strikes me while I am at it.]


A Yawningly Long Preamble:

[Feel free to skip to the sections starting with the “Statement 1” below.]

As you know, I’ve been thinking about foundations of QM for a long, long time, a time running into decades by now.

I thought a lot about it, and then published a couple of papers during my PhD, using a new approach which I had developed. This approach was used for resolving the wave-particle duality, but only in the context of photons. However, I then got stuck when it came to extending and applying this same approach to electrons. So, I kept on browsing a lot of QM-related literature in general. Then, I ran, notably, into the Nobel laureate W. E. Lamb’s “anti-photon” paper [^], and also the related literature (use Google Scholar). I thought a lot about this paper—and also about QM. I began thinking about QM once again from the scratch, so to speak.

Eventually, I came to abandon my own PhD-time approach. At the same time, with some vague but new ideas already somewhere at the back of my mind, I once again started studying QM, once again with a fresh mind, but this time around much more systematically. …

… In the process, I came to develop a completely new understanding of QM!… It’s been at least months since I began talking about it [^]. … My confidence in this new understanding has only increased, since then.

Today’s post will be based on this new understanding. (I could call it a new theory, perhaps.)


My findings suggest a few conclusions which I think I should not hold back any longer. Hence this post.

I have been trying to locate the right words for formulating my conclusions—but without much satisfaction. Finally, I’ve decided to go ahead and post an entry here anyway, regardless of whether the output comes out as being well formulated or not.

In other words, don’t try to pin me down with the specific words I use here in this post! Instead, try to understand what I am trying to get at. In still other words: the particular words I use may change, but the intended meaning will, from now on, “always” remain the same—ummm…. more or less the same!

OK, so here are the statements I am making today. I think they are well defensible:


Notation:
QM: Quantum Mechanics, quantum mechanically, etc.
CM: Classical Mechanics
QC: Quantum Computer
QS: Quantum Supremacy ([^] and [^])


Statement 1: It is possible to explain all quantum mechanical phenomena on the basis of those principles which are already known (or have already been developed) in the context of classical mechanics.

Informal Explanation 1.1: Statement 1 holds true. It’s just that when it comes to explaining the QM phenomena (i.e., when it comes to supplying a physical mechanism for QM), even if the principles do remain the same, the way they are to be combined and applied is different. These differences basically arise because of a reason mentioned in the next Informal Explanation.

Informal Explanation 1.2: Yes, the tradition of 80+ years, involving an illustrious string of Nobel laureates and others, is, in a way, “wrong.” The QM principles are not, fundamentally speaking, very different from those encountered in the CM. It’s just that some of the objects that QM assumes and talks about are different (only partly different) from those assumed in the CM.


Corollary 1 of Statement 1: A quantum computer could “in principle” be built as an “application layer” on top of the “OS platform” supplied by the classical mechanics.

Informal Explanation 1.C1.1: Hierarchically speaking, QM remains the most fundamental or the “ground” layer. The aspects of the physical reality that CM refers to, therefore, indeed are at a layer lying on top of QM. This part does continue to remain the same.

However, what the Corollary 1 now says is that you can also completely explain the workings of QM in terms of a virtual QM machine that is built on top of the well-known principles of CM.

If someone builds a QC on such a basis (which would be a virtual QC on top of CM), then it would be just a classical mechanically functioning simulator—an analog simulator, I should add—that simulates the QM phenomena.

Informal Explanation 1.C1.2: The phrase “in principle” does not always translate into “easily.” In this case, it in factt is very easily possible that building a big enough a QC of this kind (i.e. the simulating QC) may very well turn out to be an enterprise that is too difficult to be practically feasible.


Corollary 2 of Statement 1: A classical system can be designed in such a way that it shows all the features of the phenomenon of quantum entanglement (when the classical system is seen from an appropriately high-level viewpoint).

Informal Explanation 1.C2.1: There is nothing “inherently quantum-mechanical” about entanglement. The well-known principles of CM are enough to explain the phenomena of entanglement.

Informal Explanation 1.C2.2: We use our own terms. In particular, when we say “classical mechanics,” we do not mean these words in the same sense in which a casual reader of the QM literature, e.g. of Bell’s writings, may read them.

What we mean by “classical mechanics” is the same as what an engineer who has never studied QM proper means, when he says “classical mechanics” (i.e., the Newtonian mechanics + the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian reformulations including variational principles, as well as the more modern developments such as studies of nonlinear systems and the catastrophe theory).


Statement 2: It can be shown that even if the Corollary 1 above does hold true, the kind of quantum computer it refers to would be such that it will not be able to break a sufficiently high-end RSA encryption (such as what is used in practice today, at the high-end).

Aside 2.1: I wouldn’t have announced Statement 1 unless I was sure—absolutely goddamn sure, in fact—about the Statement 2. In fact, I must have waited for at least half a year just to make sure about this aspect, looking at these things from this PoV, then from that PoV, etc.


Statement 3: Inasmuch as the RSA-beating QC requires a controlled entanglement over thousands of qubits, it can be said, on the basis of the new understanding (the one which lies behind the Statement 1 above), that the goal of achieving even “just” the quantum supremacy seems highly improbable, at least in any foreseeable future, let alone achieving the goal of breaking the high-end RSA encryption currently in use. However, proving these points, esp. that the currently employed higher-end RSA cannot be broken, will require further development of the new theory, particularly a quantitative theory for the mechanism(s) involved in the quantum mechanical measurements.

Informal Explanation 3.1: A lot of funding has already gone into attempts to build a QC. Now, it seems that the US government, too, is considering throwing some funds at it.

The two obvious goal-posts for a proper QC are: (i) first gaining enough computational power to run past the capabilities of the classical digital computers, i.e., achieving the so-called “quantum supremacy,” and then, (ii) breaking the RSA encryption as is currently used in the real-world at the high-end.

The question of whether the QC-related researches will be able to achieve these two goals or not depends on the question of whether there are natural reasons/causes which might make it highly improbable (if not outright impossible) to achieve these two goals.

We have already mentioned that it can be shown that it will not be possible for a classical (analog) quantum simulator (of the kind we have in mind) to break the RSA encryption.

Thus, we have already made a conclusive statement about this combination of a QC and a goal-post:

  • Combination 1: CM-based QC Simulator that is able to break the RSA encryption.

We have said that it can be shown (i.e. proved) that the above combination would be impossible to have. (The combination is that extreme.)

However, it still leaves open 3 more combinations of a QC and a goal-post:

  • Combination 2: CM-based QC Simulator that exceeds the classical digital computer
  • Combination 3: Proper QC (working directly off the QM platform) that exceeds the classical digital computer
  • Combination 4: Proper QC (working directly off the QM platform) that is able to break the RSA encryption.

As of today, a conclusive statement cannot be made regarding the last three combinations, not even on the basis of my newest approach to the quantum phenomena, because the mathematical aspects which will help settle questions of this kind, have not yet been developed (by me).

Chances are good that such a theory could be developed, at least in somewhat partly-qualitative-and-partly-quantitative terms, or in terms of some quantitative models that are based on some good analogies, sometime in the future (say within a decade or so). It is only when such developments do occur that we will be able to conclusively state something one way or the other in respect of the last three combinations.

However, relying on my own judgment, I think that I can safely state this much right away: The remaining three combinations would be tough, very tough, to achieve. The last combination, in particular, is best left aside, because the combination is far too complex that it can pose any real threat, at least as of today. I can say this much confidently—based on my new approach. (If you have some other basis to feel confident one way or the other, kindly supply the physical mechanism for the same, please, not just “math.”)


So, as of today, the completely defensible statements are the Statement No. 1 and 2 (with all their corollaries), but not the Statement 3. However, a probabilistic judgment for the Statement 3 has also been given.


A short (say, abstract-like) version:

A physical mechanism to explain QM phenomena has been developed, at least in the bare essential terms. It may perhaps become possible to use such a knowledge to build an analog simulator of a quantum computer. Such a simulator would be a machine based only on the well-known principles of classical mechanics, and using the kind of physical objects that the classical mechanics studies.

However, it can also be easily shown that such a simulator will not be able to break the RSA encryption using algorithm such as Shor’s. The proof rests on an idealized abstraction of classical objects (just the way the ideal fluid is an abstraction of real fluids).

On the basis of the new understanding, it becomes clear that trying to break RSA encryption using a QC proper (i.e. a computer that’s not just a simulator, but is a QC proper that directly operates at the level of the QM platform itself) would be a goal that is next to impossible to achieve. In fact, even achieving just the “quantum supremacy” (i.e., beating the best classical digital computer) itself can be anticipated, on the basis of the new understanding, as a goal that would be very tough to achieve, if at all.

Researches that attempt to build a proper QC may be able to bring about some developments in various related areas such as condensed matter physics, cryogenics, electronics, etc. But it is very highly unlikely that they would succeed in achieving the goal of quantum supremacy itself, let alone the goal of breaking the RSA encryption as it is deployed at the high-end today.


A Song I Like:

(Hindi) “dilbar jaani, chali hawaa mastaanee…”
Music: Laxmikant Pyarelal
Singers: Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi

 


PS: Note that, as is usual at this blog, an iterative improvement of the draft is always a possibility. Done.

Revision History:

  1. First posted on 2018.06.15, about 12:35 hrs IST.
  2. Considerably revised the contents on 2018.06.15, 18:41 hrs IST.
  3. Edited to make the contents better on 2018.06.16, 15:30 hrs IST. Now, am mostly done with this post except, may be, for a minor typo or so, here or there.
  4. Edited (notably, changed the order of the Combinations) on 2018.06.17, 23:50 hrs IST. Also corrected some typos and streamlined the content. Now, I am going to leave this post in the shape it is. If you find some inconsistency or so, simple! Just write a comment or shoot me an email.
  5. 2018.06.27 02:07 hrs IST. Changed the song section.

 

“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

 

“The spiritual heritage of India”

I wrote a few comments at Prof. Scott Aaronson’s blog, in response to his post of the title: “30 of my favorite books”, here [^].

Let me give you the links to my comments: [^], [^], [^] and [^].


Let me reproduce the last one of my four comments, with just so slight bit of editing. [You know I couldn’t have resisted the opportunity, right?]:

Since I mentioned the “upnishad”s above (i.e. here [ ^]), and as far as this topic is concerned, since the ‘net is so full of the reading material on this topic which isn’t so suitable for this audience, let me leave you with a right kind of a reco.

If it has to be just one short book, then the one which I would pick up is this:

Swami Prabhavananda (with assistance of Frederick Manchester), “The Spiritual Heritage of India,” Doubleday, New York, 1963.

A few notes:

1. The usual qualifications apply. For instance, I of course don’t agree with everything that has been said in the book. And, more. I may not even agree that a summary of something provided here is, in fact, a good summary thereof.

2. I read it very late in life, when I was already past my 50. Wish I had laid my hands on it, say, in my late 20s, early 30s, or so. I simply didn’t happen to know about it, or run into a copy, back then.

3. Just one more thing: a tip on how to read the above book:

First, read the Preface. Go through it real fast. (Reading it faster than you read the newspapers would be perfectly OK—by me).

Then, if you are an American who has at least a smattering of a knowledge about Buddhism, then jump directly on to the chapter on Jainism. (Don’t worry, they both advocate not eating meat!) And, vice-versa!!

If you are not an American, or,  if you have never come across any deeper treatment on any Indian tradition before, then: still jump on to the chapter on Jainism. (It really is a very good summary of this tradition, IMHO.)

Then, browse through some more material.

Then, take a moment and think: if you have appreciated what you’ve just read, think of continuing with the rest of the text.

Else, simple: just call it a book! (It’s very inexpensive.)

 


No need to add anything, but looking at the tone of the comments (referring to the string “Ayn Rand”) that got generated on this above-mentioned thread, I find myself thinking that, may be, given my visitor-ship pattern (there are more Americans hits today to my blog than either Indian or British), I should explain a bit of a word-play which I attempted in that comment (and evidently, very poorly—i.e. non-noticeably). It comes near the end of my above-quoted reply.

“Let’s call it a day” is a very neat British expression. In case you don’t know its meaning, please look it up on the ‘net. Here’s my take on it (without looking it up):

Softly folding away a day, with a shade of an anticipation that a day even better might be about to arrive tomorrow, and so, softly reminding yourself that you better leave the party or the function for now, so as to be able to get ready for yet another party, yet another function, some other day, later…

A sense of something like that, is implied by that expression.

I just attempted a word-play, and so, substituted “book” for the “day”.

Anyway, good night. Do read my last post, the document attached to it, and the links therefrom.

Bye for now.


Oh, yes! There is a song that’s been playing off-and-on at the back of my mind for some time. Let me share it with you.


A Song I Like:

(Hindi) “dil kaa diyaa jala ke gayaa…”
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultaanpuri
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Chitragupt

[PS: The order of the listing of the credits, once again, is completely immaterial here.]


Anyway, enjoy the song, and the book mentioned in the quotes (and hopefully, also my past few posts and their attachments)… I should come back soon, with a maths-related puzzle/teaser/question. … Until then, take care and bye!

My small contribution towards the controversies surrounding the important question of “1, 2, 3, …”

As you know, I have been engaged in writing about scalars, vectors, tensors, and CFD.

However, at the same time, while writing my notes, I also happened to think of the “1, 2, 3, …” controversy. Here is my small, personal, contribution to the same.


The physical world evidently consists of a myriad variety of things. Attributes are the metaphysically inseparable aspects that together constitute the identity of a thing. To exist is to exist with all the attributes. But getting to know the identity of a thing does not mean having a knowledge of all of its attributes. The identity of a thing is grasped, or the thing is recognized, on the basis of just a few attributes/characteristics—those which are the defining attributes (including properties, characteristics, actions, etc.), within a given context.

Similarities and differences are perceptually evident. When two or more concretely real things possess the same attribute, they are directly perceived as being similar. Two mangoes are similar, and so are two bananas. The differences between two or more things of the same kind are the differences in the sizes of those attribute(s) which are in common to them. All mangoes share a great deal of attributes between them, and the differences in the two mangoes are not just the basic fact that they are two separate mangoes, but also that they differ in their respective colors, shapes, sizes, etc.

Sizes or magnitudes (lit.: “bigness”) refer to sizes of things; sizes do not metaphysically exist independent of the things of which they are sizes.

Numbers are the concepts that can be used to measure the sizes of things (and also of their attributes, characteristics, actions, etc.).


It is true that sizes can be grasped and specified without using numbers.

For instance, we can say that this mango is bigger than that. The preceding statement did not involve any number. However, it did involve a comparative statement that ordered two different things in accordance with the sizes of some common attribute possessed by each, e.g., the weight of, or the volume occupied by, each of the two mangoes. In the case of concrete objects such as two mangoes differing in size, the comparative differences in their sizes are grasped via direct perception; one mango is directly seen/felt as being bigger than the other; the mental process involved at this level is direct and automatic.

A certain issue arises when we try to extend the logic to three or more mangoes. To say that the mango A is bigger than the mango B, and that the mango B is bigger than the mango C, is perfectly fine.

However, it is clear from common experience that the size-wise difference between A and B may not exactly be the same as the size-wise difference between B and C. The simple measure: “is bigger than”, thus, is crude.

The idea of numbers is the means through which we try to make the quantitative comparative statements more refined, more precise, more accurately capturing of the metaphysically given sizes.

An important point to note here is that even if you use numbers, a statement involving sizes still remains only a comparative one. Whenever you say that something is bigger or smaller, you are always implicitly adding: as in comparison to something else, i.e., some other thing. Contrary to what a lot of thinkers have presumed, numbers do not provide any more absolute a standard than what is already contained in the comparisons on which a concept of numbers is based.


Fundamentally, an attribute can metaphysically exist only with some definite size (and only as part of the identity of the object which possesses that attribute). Thus, the idea of a size-less attribute is a metaphysical impossibility.

Sizes are a given in the metaphysical reality. Each concretely real object by itself carries all the sizes of all its attributes. An existent or an object, i.e., when an object taken singly, separately, still does possess all its attributes, with all the sizes with which it exists.

However, the idea of measuring a size cannot arise in reference to just a single concrete object. Measurements cannot be conducted on single objects taken out of context, i.e., in complete isolation of everything else that exists.

You need to take at least two objects that differ in sizes (in the same attribute), and it is only then that any quantitative comparison (based on that attribute) becomes possible. And it is only when some comparison is possible that a process for measurements of sizes can at all be conceived of. A process of measurement is a process of comparison.

A number is an end-product of a certain mathematical method that puts a given thing in a size-wise quantitative relationship (or comparison) with other things (of the same kind).


Sizes or magnitudes exist in the raw nature. But numbers do not exist in the raw nature. They are an end-product of certain mathematical processes. A number-producing mathematical process pins down (or defines) some specific sense of what the size of an attribute can at all be taken to mean, in the first place.

Numbers do not exist in the raw nature because the mathematical methods which produce them themselves do not exist in the raw nature.

A method for measuring sizes has to be conceived of (or created or invented) by a mind. The method settles the question of how the metaphysically existing sizes of objects/attributes are to be processed via some kind of a comparison. As such, sure, the method does require a prior grasp of the metaphysical existents, i.e., of the physical reality.

However, the meaning of the method proper itself is not to be located in the metaphysically differing sizes themselves; it is to be located in how those differences in sizes are grasped, processed, and what kind of an end-product is produced by that process.

Thus, a mathematical method is an invention of using the mind in a certain way; it is not a discovery of some metaphysical facts existing independent of the mind grasping (and holding, using, etc.) it.

However, once invented by someone, the mathematical method can be taught to others, and can be used by all those who do know it, but only in within the delimited scope of the method itself, i.e., only in those applications where that particular method can at all be applied.


The simplest kind of numbers are the natural numbers: 1, 2, 3, \dots. As an aside, to remind you, natural numbers do not include the zero; the set of whole numbers does that.

Reaching the idea of the natural numbers involves three steps:

(i) treating a group of some concrete objects of the same kind (e.g. five mangoes) as not only a collection of so many separately existing things, but also as if it were a single, imaginary, composite object, when the constituent objects are seen as a group,

(ii) treating a single concrete object (of the same aforementioned kind, e.g. one mango) not only as a separately existing concrete object, but also as an instance of a group of the aforementioned kind—i.e. a group of the one,

and

(iii) treating the first group (consisting of multiple objects) as if it were obtained by exactly/identically repeating the second group (consisting of a single object).

The interplay between the concrete perception on the one hand and a more abstract, conceptual-level grasp of that perception on the other hand, occurs in each of the first two steps mentioned above. (Ayn Rand: “The ability to regard entities as mental units \dots” [^].)

In contrast, the synthesis of a new mental process that is suitable for making quantitative measurements, which means the issue in the third step, occurs only at an abstract level. There is nothing corresponding to the process of repetition (or for that matter, to any method of quantitative measurements) in the concrete, metaphysically given, reality.

In the third step, the many objects comprising the first group are regarded as if they were exact replicas of the concrete object from the second (singular) group.

This point is important. Primitive humans would use some uniform-looking symbols like dots (.) or circles (\bullet) or sticks (`|‘), to stand for the concrete objects that go in making up either of the aforementioned two groups—the group of the many mangoes vs. the group of the one mango. Using the same symbol for each occurrence of a concrete object underscores the idea that all other facts pertaining to those concrete objects (here, mangoes) are to be summarily disregarded, and that the only important point worth retaining is that a next instance of an exact replica (an instance of an abstract mango, so to speak) has become available.

At this point, we begin representing the group of five mangoes as G_1 = \lbrace\, \bullet\,\bullet\,\bullet\,\bullet\,\bullet\, \rbrace, and the single concretely existing mango as a second abstract group: G_2 = \lbrace\,\bullet\,\rbrace.


Next comes a more clear grasp of the process of repetition. It is seen that the process of repetition can be stopped at discrete stages. For instance:

  1. The process P_1 produces \lbrace\,\bullet\,\rbrace (i.e. the repetition process is stopped after taking \bullet once).
  2. The process P_2 produces \lbrace\,\bullet\,\bullet\,\rbrace (i.e. the repetition process is stopped after taking \bullet twice)
  3. The process P_3 produces \lbrace\,\bullet\,\bullet\,\bullet\,\rbrace (i.e. the repetition process is stopped after taking \bullet thrice)
    etc.

At this point, it is recognized that each output or end-product that a terminated repetition-process produces, is precisely identical to certain abstract group of objects of the first kind.

Thus, each of the P_1 \equiv \lbrace\,\bullet\,\rbrace, or P_2 \equiv \lbrace\,\bullet\,\bullet\,\rbrace, or  P_3 \equiv \lbrace\,\bullet\,\bullet\,\bullet\,\rbrace, $\dots$ is now regarded as if it were a single (composite) object.

Notice how we began by saying that P_1, P_2, P_3 etc. were processes, and then ended up saying that we now see single objects in them.

Thus, the size of each abstract group of many objects (the groups of one, of two, of three, of n objects) gets tied to a particular length of a terminated process, here, of repetitions. As the length of the process varies, so does the size of its output i.e. the abstract composite object.

It is in this way that a process (here, of repetition) becomes capable of measuring the size of the abstract composite object. And it does so in reference to the stage (or the length of repetitions) at which the process was terminated.

It is thus that the repetition process becomes a process of measuring sizes. In other words, it becomes a method of measurement. Qua a method of measurement, the process has been given a name: it is called “counting.”

The end-products of the terminated repetition process, i.e., of the counting process, are the mathematical objects called the natural numbers.


More generally, what we said for the natural numbers also holds true for any other kind of a number. Any kind of a number stands for an end-product that is obtained when a well-defined process of measurement is conducted to completion.

An uncompleted process is just that: a process that is still continuing. The notion of an end-product applies only to a process that has come to an end. Numbers are the end-products of size-measuring processes.

Since an infinite process is not a completed process, infinity is not a number; it is merely a short-hand to denote some aspect of the measurement process other than the use of the process in measuring a size.

The only valid use of infinity is in the context of establishing the limiting values of sequences, i.e., in capturing the essence of the trend in the numbers produced by the nature (or identity) of a given sequence-producing process.

Thus, infinity is a concept that helps pin down the nature of the trend in the numbers belonging to a sequence. On the other hand, a number is a product of a process when it is terminated after a certain, definite, length.

With the concept of infinity, the idea that the process never terminates is not crucial; the crucial thing is that you reach an independence  from the length of a sequence. Let me give you an example.

Consider the sequence for which the n-th term is given by the formula:

S_n = \dfrac{1}{n}.

Thus, the sequence is: 1, \dfrac{1}{2}, \dfrac{1}{3}, \dfrac{1}{4}, \dots.

If we take first two terms, we can see that the value has decreased, from 1 to 0.5. If we go from the second to the third term, we can see that the value has decreased even further, to 0.3333. The difference in the decrement has, however, dropped; it has gone from 1 - \dfrac{1}{2} = 0.5 to \dfrac{1}{2} - \dfrac{1}{3} =  0.1666666\dots. Go from the third to the fourth term, and we can see that while the value goes still down, and the decrement itself also has decreased, it has now become 0.08333 . Thus, two trends are unmistakable: (i) the value keeps dropping, but (ii) the decrement also becomes sluggish.  If the values were to drop uniformly, i.e. if the decrement were to stay the same, we would have immediately hit 0, and then gone on to the negative numbers. But the second factor, viz., that the decrement itself is progressively decreasing, seems to play a trick. It seems intent on keeping you afloat, above the 0 value. We can verify this fact. No matter how big n might get, it still is a finite number, and so, its reciprocal is always going to be a finite number, not zero. At the same time, we now have observed that the differences between the subsequent reciprocals has been decreasing. How can we capture this intuition? What we want to say is this: As you go further and further down in the sequence, the value must become smaller and ever smaller. It would never actually become 0. But it will approach 0 (and no number other than 0) better and still better. Take any small but definite positive number, and we can say that our sequence would eventually drop down below the level of that number, in a finite number of steps. We can say this thing for any given definite positive number, no matter how small. So long as it is a definite number, we are going to hit its level in a finite number of steps. But we also know that since n is positive, our sequence is never going to go so far down as to reach into the regime of the negative numbers. In fact, as we just said, let alone the range of the negative numbers, our sequence is not going to hit even 0, in finite number of steps.

To capture all these facts, viz.: (i) We will always go below the level any positive real number R, no matter how small R may be, in a finite number of steps, (ii) the number of steps n required to go below a specified R level would always go on increasing as R becomes smaller, and (iii) we will never reach 0 in any finite number of steps no matter how large n may get, but will always experience decrement with increasing n, we say that:

the limit of the sequence S_n as n approaches infinity is 0.

The word “infinity” in the above description crucially refers to the facts (i) and (ii), which together clearly establish the trend in the values of the sequence S_n. [The fact (iii) is incidental to the idea of “infinity” itself, though it brings out a neat property of limits, viz., the fact that the limit need not always belong to the set of numbers that is the sequence itself. ]


With the development of mathematical knowledge, the idea of numbers does undergo changes. The concept number gets more and more complex/sophisticated, as the process of measurement becomes more and more complex/sophisticated.

We can form the process of addition starting from the process of counting.

The simplest addition is that of adding a unit (or the number 1) to a given number. We can apply the process of addition by 1, to the number 1, and see that the number we thus arrive at is 2. Then we can apply the process of addition by 1, to the number 2, and see that the number we thus arrive at is 3. We can continue to apply the logic further, and thereby see that it is possible to generate any desired natural number.

The so-called natural numbers thus state the sizes of groups of identical objects, as measured via the process of counting. Since natural numbers encapsulate the sizes of such groups, they obviously can be ordered by the sizes they encapsulate. One way to see how the order 1, then 2, then 3, \dots, arises is to observe that in successively applying the process of addition starting from the number 1, it is the number 2 which comes immediately after the number $1$, but before the number 3, etc.

The process of subtraction is formed by inverting the process of addition, i.e., by seeing the logic of addition in a certain, reverse, way.

The process of addition by 1, when repeatedly applied to a given natural number, is capable of generating all the natural numbers greater than the given number. The process of subtraction by 1, when repeatedly applied to a given natural number, is capable of generating all the natural numbers smaller than the given number.

When the process of subtraction by 1 is applied right to the number 1 itself, we reach the idea of the zero. [Dear Indian, now you know that the idea of the number zero was not all that breath-taking, was it?]

In a further development, the idea of the negative numbers is established.


Thus, the concept of numbers develops from the natural numbers (1, 2, 3, \dots) to whole numbers (0, 1, 2, \dots) to integers (\dots, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, \dots).

At each such a stage, the idea of what a number means—its definition—undergoes a definite change; at any such a stage, there is a well-defined mathematical process, of increasing conceptual complexity, of measuring sizes, whose end-products that idea of numbers represents.


The idea of multiplication follows from that of repeated additions; the idea of division follows from that of the repeated subtractions; the two process are then recognized as the multiplicative inverses of each other. It’s only then that the idea of fractions follows. The distinction between the rational and irrational fractions is then recognized, and then, the concept of numbers gets extended to include the idea of the irrational as well as rational numbers.

A crucial lesson learnt from this entire expansion of knowledge of what it means to be a number, is the recognition of the fact that for any well-defined and completed process of measurement, there must follow a certain number (and only that unique number, obviously!).


Then, in a further, distinct, development, we come to recognize that while some process must exist to produce a number, any well-defined process producing a number would do just as well.

With this realization, we then come to a stage whereby, we can think of conceptually omitting specifying any specific process of measurement.

We thus come to retain only the fact while some process must be specified, any valid process can be, and then, the end-product still would be just a number.

It is with this realization that we come to reach the idea of the real numbers.


The purpose of forming the idea of real numbers is that they allow us to form statements that would hold true for any number qua a number.


The crux of the distinction of the real numbers from any of the preceding notion of numbers (natural, whole, integers) is the following statement, which can be applied to real numbers, and only to real numbers—not to integers.

The statement is this: there is an infinity of real numbers existing between any two distinct real numbers R_1 and R_2, no matter how close they might be to each other.

There is a wealth of information contained in that statement, but if some aspects are to be highlighted and appreciated more than the others, they would be these:

(i) Each of the two numbers R_1 and R_2 are recognized as being an end-product of some or the other well-defined process.

The responsibility of specifying what precise size is meant when you say R_1 or R_2 is left entirely up to you; the definition of real numbers does not take that burden. It only specifies that some well-defined process must exist to produce R_1 as well as R_2, so that what they denote indeed are numbers.

A mathematical process may produce a result that corresponds to a so-called “irrational” number, and yet, it can be a definite process. For instance, you may specify the size-measurement process thus: hold in a compass the distance equal to the diagonal of a right-angled isoscales triangle having the equal sides of 1, and mark this distance out from the origin on the real number-line. This measurement process is well-specified even if \sqrt{2} can be proved to be an irrational number.

(ii) You don’t have to specify any particular measurement process which might produce a number strictly in between R_1 and R_2, to assert that it’s a number. This part is crucial to understand the concept of real numbers.

The real numbers get all their power precisely because their idea brings into the jurisdiction of the concept of numbers not only all those specific definitions of numbers that have been invented thus far, but also all those definitions which ever possibly would be. That’s the crucial part to understand.

The crucial part is not the fact that there are an infinity of numbers lying between any two R_1 and R_2. In fact, the existence of an infinity of numbers is damn easy to prove: just take the average of R_1 and R_2 and show that it must fall strictly in between them—in fact, it divides the line-segment from R_1 to R_2 into two equal halves. Then, take each half separately, and take the average of its end-points to hit the middle point of that half. In the first step, you go from one line-segment to two (i.e., you produce one new number that is the average). In the next step, you go from the two segments to the four (i.e. in all, three new numbers). Now, go easy; wash-rinse-repeat! … The number of the numbers lying strictly between R_1 and R_2 increases without bound—i.e., it blows “up to” infinity. [Why not “down to” infinity? Simple: God is up in his heavens, and so, we naturally consider the natural numbers rather than the negative integers, first!]

Since the proof is this simple, obviously, it just cannot be the real meat, it just cannot be the real reason why the idea of real numbers is at all required.

The crucial thing to realize here now is this part: Even if you don’t specify any specific process like hitting the mid-point of the line-segment by taking average, there still would be an infinity of numbers between the end-points.


Another closely related and crucial thing to realize is this part: No matter what measurement (i.e. number-producing) process you conceive of, if it is capable of producing a new number that lies strictly between the two bounds, then the set of real numbers has already included it.

Got it? No? Go read that line again. It’s important.

This idea that

“all possible numbers have already been subsumed in the real numbers set”

has not been proven, nor can it be—not on the basis of any of the previous notions of what it means to be a number. In fact, it cannot be proven on the basis of any well-defined (i.e. specified) notion of what it means to be a number. So long as a number-producing process is specified, it is known, by the very definition of real numbers, that that process would not exhaust all real numbers. Why?

Simple. Because, someone can always spin out yet another specific process that generates a different set of numbers, which all would still belong only to the real number system, and your prior process didn’t cover those numbers.

So, the statement cannot be proven on the basis of any specified system of producing numbers.

Formally, this is precisely what [I think] is the issue at the core of the “continuum hypothesis.”

The continuum hypothesis is just a way of formalizing the mathematician’s confidence that a set of numbers such as real numbers can at all be defined, that a concept that includes all possible numbers does have its uses in theory of measurements.

You can’t use the ideas like some already defined notions of numbers in order to prove the continuum hypothesis, because the hypothesis itself is at the base of what it at all means to be a number, when the term is taken in its broadest possible sense.


But why would mathematicians think of such a notion in the first place?

Primarily, so that those numbers which are defined only as the limits (known or unknown, whether translatable using the already known operations of mathematics or otherwise) of some infinite processes can also be treated as proper numbers.

And hence, dramatically, infinite processes also can be used for measuring sizes of actual, metaphysically definite and mathematically finite, objects.

Huh? Where’s the catch?

The catch is that these infinite processes must have limits (i.e., they must have finite numbers as their output); that’s all! (LOL!).


It is often said that the idea of real numbers is a bridge between algebra and geometry, that it’s the counterpart in algebra of what the geometer means by his continuous curve.

True, but not quite hitting the bull’s eye. Continuity is a notion that geometer himself cannot grasp or state well unless when aided by the ideas of the calculus.

Therefore, a somewhat better statement is this: the idea of the real numbers is a bridge between algebra and calculus.

OK, an improvement, but still, it, too, misses the mark.

The real statement is this:

The idea of real numbers provides the grounds in algebra (and in turn, in the arithmetics) so that the (more abstract) methods such as those of the calculus (or of any future method that can ever get invented for measuring sizes) already become completely well-defined qua producers of numbers.

The function of the real number system is, in a way, to just go nuts, just fill the gaps that are (or even would ever be) left by any possible number system.


In the preceding discussion, we had freely made use of the 1:1 correspondence between the real numbers and the beloved continuous curve of our school-time geometry.

This correspondence was not always as obvious as it is today; in fact, it was a towering achievement of, I guess, Descartes. I mean to say, the algebra-ization of geometry.

In the simplest (1D) case, points on a line can be put in 1:1 correspondence with real numbers, and vice-versa. Thus, for every real number there is one and only one point on the real-number line, and for any point actually (i.e. well-) specified on the real number-line, there is one and only one real number corresponding to it.

But the crucial advancement represented by the idea of real numbers is not that there is this correspondence between numbers (an algebraic concept) and geometry.

The crux is this: you can (or, rather, you are left free to) think of any possible process that ends up cutting a given line segment into two (not necessarily equal) halves, and regardless of the particular nature of that process, indeed, without even having to know anything about its particular nature, we can still make a blanket statement:

if the process terminates and ends up cutting the line segment at a certain geometrical point, then the number which corresponds to that geometrical point is already included in the infinite set of real numbers.


Since the set of real numbers exhausts all possible end-products of all possible infinite limiting processes too, it is fully capable of representing any kind of a continuous change.


We in engineering often model the physical reality using the notion of the continuum.

Inasmuch as it’s a fact that to any arbitrary but finite part of a continuum there does correspond a number, when we have the real number system at hand, we already know that this size is already included in the set of real numbers.

Real numbers are indispensable to us the engineers—theoretically speaking. It gives us the freedom to invent any new mathematical methods for quantitatively dealing with continua, by giving us the confidence that all that they would produce, if valid, is already included in the numbers-set we already use; that our numbers-set will never ever let us down, that it will never ever fall short, that we will never ever fall in between the two stools, so to speak. Yes, we could use even the infinite processes, such as those of the calculus, with confidence, so long as they are limiting.

That’s the [theoretical] confidence which the real number system brings us [the engineers].


A Song I Don’t Like:

[Here is a song I don’t like, didn’t ever like, and what’s more, I am confident, I would never ever like either. No, neither this part of it nor that. I don’t like any part of it, whether the partition is made “integer”-ly, or “real”ly.

Hence my confidence. I just don’t like it.

But a lot of Indian [some would say “retards”] do, I do acknowledge this part. To wit [^].

But to repeat: no, I didn’t, don’t, and wouldn’t ever like it. Neither in its 1st avataar, nor in the 2nd, nor even in an hypothetically \pi-th avataar. Teaser: Can we use a transcendental irrational number to denote the stage of iteration? Are fractional derivatives possible?

OK, coming back to the song itself. Go ahead, listen to it, and you will immediately come to know why I wouldn’t like it.]

(Hindi) “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 \n …” [OK, yes, read the finite sequence before the newline character, using Hindi.]
Credits: [You go hunt for them. I really don’t like it.]


PS: As usual, I may come back and make this post even better. BTW, in the meanwhile, I am thinking of relying on my more junior colleagues to keep me on the track towards delivering on the promised CFD FDP. Bye for now, and take care…