Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Bohmian Rapsody

Visits to a Bohmian village

Over all of my physics life, I have been under the local influence of some Gaul villages that have ideas about physics that are not 100% aligned with the main stream views: When I was a student in Hamburg, I was good friends with people working on algebraic quantum field theory. Of course there were opinions that they were the only people seriously working on QFT as they were proving theorems while others dealt with perturbative series only that are known to diverge and are thus obviously worthless. Funnily enough they were literally sitting above the HERA tunnel where electron proton collisions took place that were very well described by exactly those divergent series. Still, I learned a lot from these people and would say there are few that have thought more deeply about structural properties of quantum physics. These days, I use more and more of these things in my own teaching (in particular in our Mathematical Quantum Mechanics and Mathematical Statistical Physics classes as well as when thinking about foundations, see below) and even some other physicists start using their language.

Later, as a PhD student at the Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam, there was an accumulation point of people from the Loop Quantum Gravity community with Thomas Thiemann and Renate Loll having long term positions and many others frequently visiting. As you probably know, a bit later, I decided (together with Giuseppe Policastro) to look into this more deeply resulting in a series of papers there were well received at least amongst our peers and about which I am still a bit proud.

Now, I have been in Munich for over ten years. And here at the LMU math department there is a group calling themselves the Workgroup Mathematical Foundations of Physics. And let's be honest, I call them the Bohmians (and sometimes the Bohemians). And once more, most people believe that the Bohmian interpretation of quantum mechanics is just a fringe approach that is not worth wasting any time on. You will have already guessed it: I did so none the less. So here is a condensed report of what I learned and what I think should be the official opinion on this approach. This is an informal write up of a notes paper that I put on the arXiv today.

Bohmians don't like about the usual (termed Copenhagen lacking a better word) approach to quantum mechanics that you are not allowed to talk about so many things and that the observer plays such a prominent role by determining via a measurement what aspect is real an what is not. They think this is far too subjective. So rather, they want quantum mechanics to be about particles that then are allowed to follow trajectories.

"But we know this is impossible!" I hear you cry. So, let's see how this works. The key observation is that the Schrödinger equation for a Hamilton operator of the form kinetic term (possibly with magnetic field) plus potential term, has  a conserved current

$$j = \bar\psi\nabla\psi - (\nabla\bar\psi)\psi.$$

So as your probability density is $\rho=\bar\psi\psi$, you can think of that being made up of particles moving with a velocity field

$$v = j/\rho = 2\Im(\nabla \psi/\psi).$$

What this buys you is that if you have a bunch of particles that is initially distributed like the probability density and follows the flow of the velocity field it will also later be distributed like $|\psi |^2$.

What is important is that they keep the Schrödinger equation in tact. So everything that you can do with the original Schrödinger equation (i.e. everything) can be done in the Bohmian approach as well.  If you set up your Hamiltonian to describe a double slit experiment, the Bohmian particles will flow nicely to the screen and arrange themselves in interference fringes (as the probability density does). So you will never come to a situation where any experimental outcome will differ  from what the Copenhagen prescription predicts.

The price you have to pay, however, is that you end up with a very non-local theory: The velocity field lives in configuration space, so the velocity of every particle depends on the position of all other particles in the universe. I would say, this is already a show stopper (given what we know about quantum field theory whose raison d'être is locality) but let's ignore this aesthetic concern.

What got me into this business was the attempt to understand how the set-ups like Bell's inequality and GHZ and the like work out that are supposed to show that quantum mechanics cannot be classical (technically that the state space cannot be described as local probability densities). The problem with those is that they are often phrased in terms of spin degrees of freedom which have Hamiltonians that are not directly of the form above. You can use a Stern-Gerlach-type apparatus to translate the spin degree of freedom to a positional but at the price of a Hamiltonian that is not explicitly know let alone for which you can analytically solve the Schrödinger equation. So you don't see much.

But from Reinhard Werner and collaborators I learned how to set up qubit-like algebras from positional observables of free particles (at different times, so get something non-commuting which you need to make use of entanglement as a specific quantum resource). So here is my favourite example:

You start with two particles each following a free time evolution but confined to an interval. You set those up in a particular entangled state (stationary as it is an eigenstate of the Hamiltonian) built from the two lowest levels of the particle in the box. And then you observe for each particle if it is in the left or the right half of the interval.

From symmetry considerations (details in my paper) you can see that each particle is with the same probability on the left and the right. But they are anti-correlated when measured at the same time. But when measured at different times, the correlation oscillates like the cosine of the time difference.

From the Bohmian perspective, for the static initial state, the velocity field vanishes everywhere, nothing moves. But in order to capture the time dependent correlations, as soon as one particle has been measured, the position of the second particle has to oscillate in the box (how the measurement works in detail is not specified in the Bohmian approach since it involves other degrees of freedom and remember, everything depends on everything but somehow it has to work since you want to produce the correlations that are predicted by the Copenhagen approach).

The trajectory of the second particle depending on its initial position

This is somehow the Bohmian version of the collapse of the wave function but they would never phrase it that way.

And here is where it becomes problematic: If you could see the Bohmian particle moving you could decide if the other particle has been measured (it would oscillate) or not (it would stand still). No matter where the other particle is located. With this observation you could build a telephone that transmits information instantaneously, something that should not exist. So you have to conclude you must not be able to look at the second particle and see if it oscillates or not.

Bohmians  tell you you cannot because all you are supposed to observer about the particles are their positions (and not their velocity). And if you try to measure the velocity by measuring the position at two instants in time you don't because the first observation disturbs the particle so much that it invalidates the original state.

As it turns out, you are not allowed to observe anything else about the particles than that they are distributed like $|\psi |^2$ because if you could, you could build a similar telephone (at least statistically) as I explain the in the paper (this fact is known in the Bohm literature but I found it nowhere so clearly demonstrated as in this two particle system).

My conclusion is that the Bohm approach adds something (the particle positions) to the wave function but then in the end tells you you are not allowed to observe this or have any knowledge of this beyond what is already encoded in the wave function. It's like making up an invisible friend.

PS: If you haven't seen "Bohemian Rhapsody", yet, you should, even if there are good reasons to criticise the dramatisation of real events.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting .... I had not seen that simple derivation before, though I knew of the conserved current. Bohmianism has always seemed useless as you explain.

I've always wondered why people obsess about this in plain quantum mechanics so much.
If you just use plain time evolution using the Hamiltonian operator on Schrodinger picture wave functions (unitary evolution) of "system" plus an "apparatus" that is not at T=0 (i.e. its wave function is the linear sum of many mechanical eigenstates, meaning there is no emission or absorption of free bosons) you get macroscopic "observables" that correspond to the standard Copenhagen results. Note that any real apparatus is in a superposition of energy eigenstates because it is constrained in its angle (its not in the ground rotational state) and in practice you can't get it anywhere near to a vibrational ground state.