Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 1 February 2014

Quantum mechanics without complex algebra

In my last post I made reference to a comment Noson Yanofsky made in his book, The Outer limits of Reason, whereby he responded to a student’s question on quantum mechanics: specifically, why does quantum mechanics require complex algebra (-1) to render it mathematically meaningful?

Complex numbers always take the form a + ib, which I explain in detail elsewhere, but it is best understood graphically, whereby a exists on the Real number line and b lies on the ‘imaginary’ axis orthogonal to the Real axis. (i = -1, in case you’re wondering.)

In last week’s New Scientist (25 January 2014, pp.32-5), freelance science journalist, Matthew Chalmers, discusses the work of theoretical physicist, Bill Wootters of Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, who has attempted to rid quantum mechanics of complex numbers.

Chalmers introduces his topic by explaining how i (-1) is not a number as we normally understand it – a point I’ve made myself in previous posts. You can’t count an i quantity of anything, and, in fact, I’ve argued that i is best understood as a dimension not a number per se, which is how it is represented graphically. Chalmers also alludes to the idea that i can be perceived as a dimension, though he doesn’t belabour the point. Chalmers also gives a very brief history lesson, explaining how i has been around since the 16th Century at least, where it allowed adventurous mathematicians to solve certain equations. In fact, in its early manifestation it tended to be a temporary device that disappeared before the final solution was reached. But later it became as ‘respectable’ as negative numbers and now it makes regular appearances in electrical engineering and analyses involving polar co-ordinates, as well as quantum mechanics where it seems to be a necessary mathematical ingredient. You must realise that there was a time when negative numbers and even zero were treated with suspicion by ancient scholars.

As I’ve explained in detail in another post, quantum mechanics has been rendered mathematically as a wave function, known as Schrodinger’s equation. Schrodinger’s equation would have been stillborn, as it explained nothing in the real world, were it not for Max Born’s ingenious insight to square the modulus (amplitude) of the wave function and use it to give a probability of finding a particle (including photons) in the real world. The point is that once someone takes a measurement or makes an observation of the particle, Schrodinger’s wave function becomes irrelevant. It’s only useful for making probabilistic predictions, albeit very accurate ones. But what’s mathematically significant, as pointed out by Chalmers, is that Born’s Rule (as it’s called) gets rid of the imaginary component of the complex number, and makes it relevant to the real world with Real numbers, albeit as a probability.

Wootters ambition to rid quantum mechanics of imaginary numbers started when he was a PhD student, but later became a definitive goal. Not surprisingly, Chalmers doesn’t go into the mathematical details, but he does explain the ramifications. Wootters has come up with something he calls the ‘u-bit’ and what it tells us is that if we want to give up complex algebra, everything is connected to everything else.

Wootters expertise is in quantum information theory, so he’s well placed to explore alternative methodologies. If the u-bit is a real entity, it must rotate very fast, though this is left unexplained. Needless to say, there is some scepticism as to its existence apart from a mathematical one. I’m not a theoretical physicist, more of an interested bystander, but my own view is that quantum mechanics is another level of reality – a substrate, if you like, to the world we interact with. According to Richard Ewles (MATHS 1001, pp.383-4): ‘…the wave function Ψ permeates all of space… [and when a measurement or observation is made] the original wave function Ψ is no longer a valid description of the state of the particle.’

Many physicists also believe that Schrodinger’s equation is merely a convenient mathematical device, and therefore the wave function doesn’t represent anything physical. Whether this is true or not, its practical usefulness suggests it can tells us something important about the quantum world. The fact that it ‘disappears’ or becomes irrelevant, once the particle becomes manifest in the physical world, suggests to me that there is a disjunct between the 2 physical realms. And the fact that the quantum world can only be understood with complex numbers simply underlines this disjunction.


Eli Horowitz said...

On a slightly related subject, have you seen those videos that purport to prove that (1+2+3+4...)=-1/12? Several of my friends have brought that up recently. I think I understand some of it, but it has something to do with string theory, and that's where I get lost.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Eli,

We haven't conversed for a while, but, to be honest, I've had some health issues amongst other things. Hasn't stopped me reading though.

No, I haven't come across that particular mathematical conundrum, but if you can't follow it, I doubt I would.

All the best, Paul.

Eli Horowitz said...

Oh - I'm sorry to hear that. I hope that you feel well soon!

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Eli,

I'm just getting old, that's all.

Regards, Paul.