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What Is Real?

Whitworth's (1981) Isothermal Free-Energy Surface
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[Timeframe:   May 2019] I am definitely not an authority on quantum mechanics (see my brief bio), but I have for some time been interested in interpretations of the wave function. In an accompanying Ramblings Appendix chapter, I am exploring how this interest might be effectively coupled with my quantitative understanding of digital holography. Very shortly after I began recording in this MediaWiki environment my speculative thoughts on this topic, I stumbled upon a book review published in Science (see Vol. 359, Issue 6383, dated 30 March 2018) by Mélanie Frappier. The book review, itself, carried the title, Questioning quantum mechanics, and it focused on the book by Adam Becker titled, "What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics" (2018, Basic Books). To my delight, I found this book at the main branch of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it for two principal reasons:

  • In his historical recounting of the development of quantum theory, from its infancy all the way up to the present time, Becker describes numerous scientific discoveries and associated philosophical discussions at a level that is perfectly pitched for me, given my own background.
  • He highlights contributions that have been made over the years by individuals whom I have known personally, in the context of professional settings with which I am familiar.

Just for fun, in the paragraphs provided below I provide examples of how my own career in astrophysics has guided me along paths that have either crossed or closely paralleled those individuals whom Becker has identified as important contributors to the developing field of Quantum Mechanics — especially, Quantum Foundations.

University of California

From 1974 - 1978 I was a graduate student in the Astronomy Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz (Lick Observatory). Employing computational-science techniques, my research focused on developing a hydrodynamical algorithm that would facilitate modeling the transformation of interstellar gas clouds into stars. Simulations were conducted in full three-dimensional generality and were especially designed to help astronomers understand how cloud fragmentation happens and, in particular, why stars preferentially form in pairs — as binary star systems. Through my dissertation advisors, Peter Bodenheimer and David Black, I was afforded access to some of the largest computers of the day, at NASA's Ames Research Center.

During this period of time, I also had many opportunities to interact with faculty at UC, Berkeley. In the context of one — perhaps it was more than one — small-group discussion of broad problems that were currently facing astronomers in the star formation arena, I had the pleasure of meeting Charles Townes. On pp. 206 - 207 of his book, "What Is Real?", Adam Becker tells how it came to pass that John Clauser was able to perform experimental tests of Bell's inequality in Charles Townes' research laboratory. (See also Figure 9.2.) Although I was aware that Townes had "… won the Nobel Prize … for inventing the laser …", I had no idea, at the time, that this fundamental test of the behavior of quantum systems was actively being conducted in Townes' group at Berkeley.

Yale, Columbia, and the GISS

From 1978 - 1980 I held a J. Willard Gibbs Instructorship in the Astronomy Department at Yale University. At the time, Yale operated only a very meager computer system to support research, so I sought additional resources in the New England area. Leon Lucy — on the Astronomy faculty at Columbia University — shared my interest in using computational-science techniques to simulate star formation processes. During a brief visit with him at Columbia, Lucy suggested that I contact Richard Stothers at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies to see if I might be granted access to their computing facilities. I followed up on this recommendation and, shortly thereafter, received a pair of type-written letters from Richard Stothers stating, in part, the following …

[6 December 1978]:  "In answer to your recent request for computer time at the Institute for Space Studies, I think we can grant it. Your thesis work, as described in your letter and in a conversation that I had with Leon Lucy, is of considerable interest to us here …"

[24 January 1979]:  "When you intend to come to the Institute for Space Studies for the first time, contact me or Patrick Thaddeus in advance by phone …"

The return address on both of these letter from Stothers reads, Institute for Space Studies, 2880 Broadway, New York, N. Y. 10025. This address is associated with the corner of Broadway and W. 112th Street. It is therefore no surprise that a warm smile broke out across my face when I read the first paragraph of chapter 9 (p. 193) in Adam Becker's "What Is Real?" book. It reads: "It was the Summer of Love [1967] in New York City, and John Clauser was cooped up in a room at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies on 112th Street … Clauser, a physics graduate student at Columbia, was attempting to measure the recently discovered cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation … Clauser and his graduate advisor, Patrick Thaddeus, were intent on being the next to hear the beginning of the universe …"

It was fun to find out that John Clauser first became aware of J. S. Bell's theoretical prediction regarding quantum measurements in the same building — albeit a dozen years earlier — as the one where I had carried out some of my computational simulations early in my professional career. And, although I knew that Pat Thaddeus had been using radio telescopes mounted on the top of buildings in Manhattan to study the properties of interstellar gas clouds, this excerpt from Becker's chapter 9 makes it clear that it was Thaddeus' desire to study the CMB that initially drove him to construct his Manhattan-based radio-frequency detectors.

I should add that I am sincerely grateful to [names withheld] for allowing me to spend a night or two with them in their compact Manhattan apartment the several different times that I was using the GISS computing resources. (Otherwise the "gift" of computing time at GISS would have been unaffordable to me.) [Name withheld's] and my time as UCSC graduate students had overlapped and he was in a postdoctoral position in the Columbia University astronomy department while I was at Yale. [Name withheld] went on to have a successful academic career in astronomy.

Los Alamos National Laboratory

From 1980 - 1982 I held a Director-funded postdoctoral position in Group T-6 (astrophysics) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. My principal LANL mentor, Arthur N. Cox, was able to secure access for me to the Lab's substantial "outside-the-fence" computational resources. In addition, during this time at the Lab, I learned a great deal about numerical hydrodynamics from numerous, experienced Lab scientists. This allowed me to significantly extend my study of star-formation processes.

About the time I was departing LANL in 1982, a new postdoc was hired into Group T-6, but this time the position was being funded via the Lab's J. Robert Oppenheimer Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow program. The new, young researcher was Wojciech Zurek. Over the next few years, I was aware that Zurek had collaborated with another T-6 postdoc, Willy Benz, to model the development of nonaxisymmetric structure in astrophysical accretion disks — see, for example, this article. But it was not until I read Adam Becker's account of Zurek's work (see pp. 228 - 231) that I became aware of Zurek's worldwide prominence as a researcher in the area of Quantum Fundamentals.

Louisiana State University

In 1982 I joined the faculty in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Louisiana State University (LSU). I learned that, on a number of different occasions throughout the decade of the 70s, Eugene Wigner would leave Princeton (in the fall?) and spend a few months at LSU interacting primarily with physicists in the condensed-matter and atomic theory programs. From what I have been able to ascertain from Wigner's published Recollections, he was initially invited to LSU by the dean of LSU's Engineering College, Roger Richardson, who, like Wigner, had been personally involved in the Manhattan project during World War II. It seems clear as well, however, that part of the draw was an opportunity for Wigner to extend his research interactions with Joseph Callaway — see, also, here — who completed his doctoral dissertation research in 1956 under Wigner's direction.

During the early 80s, Wigner made one last extended visit to LSU; it was either during the 1982-83 or 1983-84 academic year. I happened to be scheduled to give a routine departmental seminar that semester and, given the stories that I had heard about Wigner's probing questions, I was a bit nervous when I found out that he would likely be in the audience. The topic of my presentation was galaxy dynamics and, sure enough, relatively early in my presentation, Wigner asked a question. He asked me to clarify what I had just said about the aspect ratios of disk galaxies and the overall linear dimensions involved. After I answered this question, he replied in his heavy Hungarian accent, "Verrrry interesting. I did not know that." He told me afterward that he had enjoyed the talk. I warmly remember this brief interaction with Professor Wigner.

See Also

Whitworth's (1981) Isothermal Free-Energy Surface

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