Monday, November 28, 2011

Bell, EPR, and the Business with the 22.5 degrees

What is the big deal with Quantum Mechanics anyways? Why is there so much talk about the mysteries and the paradoxes? Sure, there are a lot of smug people out there in the world of physics who say there's nothing to worry about, it's the most perfect theory ever devised by man, and just because you can't explain what's happening is no reason to question the result of your calculations.

I don't believe that for a second. Quantum mechanics is messed up because people in the physics community don't make a serious effort to understande what is really happening. At some level, they like having all those mysteries and paradoxes. It gives the ones who can do the calculations virtually the status of priests of some revealed religion, that only they are qualified to interpret.

I first began to suspect something was really wrong back in 1987 when I managed to solve a little problem in antenna theory that had been bothering me for a number of years. I wanted to figure out the maximum theoretical power you could absorb with a small crystal radio set, and I came up with the mind-boggling result that, assuming you had access to ideal materials like perfect conductors, the answer didn't depend on the size of your antenna! You can see how I figured this out by checking out this earlier blogpost of Oct 10 2011 . It's a very cool calculation that doesn't rely on any detailed knowledge of antenna theory or radio engineering, but only on the superposition of two wave patterns: the incoming plane waves from the distant transmitter, and the outgoing re-radiated waves of the receiving antenna.

What caught my attention was the implications for atomic theory. Ever since high school, I remember being taught that the wave theory of light failed to explain the the photo-electric effect. Among other things, the most telling argument came down to the fact that the energy in a beam of light was to diffuse and weak to concentrate the necessary punch into the tiny volume of a single atom, so as to be able to knock out an electron.

But what the crystal radio showed me is that the absorption cross section of a receiving antenna had nothing to do with the physical size of that antenna! In the simplest possible case, the photo-ionization of a hydrogen atom, the effective cross-section for energy absorption was in fact a million times greater than the physical cross section of the atom.

Yet this flawed argument was considered so important in the justification of quantum mechanics that it occupied a key place in the high school curriculum of just about every school division in the world. If the teachers, professors, and textbooks could be so wrong about such a fundamental point, then where else might they be wrong?

Over the years I took up this argument wherever I had the chance, mostly in internet forums. I was usually met with ridicule and accused of being a troll, but occasionally someone with authority would weigh in and point out that my argument was basically the same as that made by respected people like Ed Jaynes in the 1960's. (I eventually found out that my argument was actually a little different, as I explain in this blogpost , but that's another question.) I always appreciated the support but it bothers me still that physics arguments should be arbitrated by recourse to higher authority. Isn't the whole idea of physics that we should be able to hash out these arguments based on their merits?

One thing that my detractors used to do was to say: "Even supposing you are correct about the photo-electric effect, how can you explain the Compton Effect?" The nasty thing about this argument is that they don't actually admit I am right about the photo-electric effect! They say "even if..." which doesn't concede anything, and then refuse to deal with the point I raised until I can deal with a completely different point!

It's unfair because there is no limit to the number of specific complications they can invoke in order to avoid meeting my argument head on. One of the most obnoxious practitioners of this tactic is the well-known ZapperZ of, who would say things like, "even if you can explain some of the more basic features of the photo-electric effect, you cannot explain the detailed scattering-angle dependencies....". My high-school teacher didn't explain the "detailed scattering-angle dependencies" either when he declared that "light is made of photons", but no one objected to that! There is a world of difference between saying "you, Marty Green, have not yet shown that you can calculate a specific result based on your theory" and saying that "your theory is incapable of giving correct results for this calculation", but the argument by ZapperZ and others simply glosses over the distinction and coflates them into one single argument which is impossible for anyone to answer.

I endured almost ten years of indignities at the hands of these people because in the end, I was unable despite my best efforts to explain the Compton Effect using the wave theory of light. And then one day, I did it! I was jubilant and imagined that I was on the verge of overturning the whole paradigm that had dominated physics since the Copenhagen school adopted Max Born's probability interpretation of the wave function in 1927. Sadly, it was not to be, as I explained in my recent blogpost, "How I got Cheated Out of the Nobel Prize" . The problem was not that my argument was flawed, it was that it had already been published by no less than Schroedinger himself in 1927, only to be ignored by the then alpha-males of the physics world: Bohr, Heisenberg, Born, Lorentz, etc.

That's how it goes in physics. You come up with something and everyone says, "you're a quack, you're crazy, you don't know what you're talking about", and then you find a reference in the published literature to support what your saying! Without skipping a beat, the naysayers are singing a new tune: "oh, it's nothing new, it's well known, nobody is interested in that anymore."

You don't normally recover from a setback like that, but incredibly I still have one last shot at immortality. It's my theory of Quantum Siphoning , and if anything is a game-changer this is it. I already said that the density of the wave energy was a key problem that I had overcome in the argument over the photo-electric effect, but in fact I still had a problem with energy density. The problem was the case of light from an extremely distant star falling on a photographic plate. It seems that no matter how weak the light, even if you have to wait hours between events, here and there you get single atoms of silver bromide being reduced to metallic silver. The problem was that the energy required for this chemical transformation was more than anything conceivably available from the incident light in wave form.

What I did was to demonstrate by a brilliant analyis using no more than first-year physical chemistry, that the energy necessary for the transition was already available in the silver bromide crystal! The mistake everyone made was to consider only the enthalpy of the transition and to ignore the entropy component. I calculated the Gibbs Free Energy of the transition at very low concentrations (a few parts per trillion of metallic silver is sufficient to yield a developable image!) and showed that the crystal, considered as a solid solution, was already in a state of near-equilibrium. So only a minimal nudge was necessary to drive the chemical reduction.

The name "quantum siphoning" refers to the detailed mechanism whereby the energy of the crystal is funneled into a single atom. It's a cool name, by analogy with "quantum tunneling", and it's all mine. Google it and I come up first. So I feel I've staked out my territory. If anyone else tries to say that they came up with it first, they'll have a hard time ignoring my prior claim. Call it a long shot if you like, but that's my last and best shot at the Nobel Prize.

Is there nothing I can't explain? Sadly, it turns out there are still many problems I don't know how to solve...yet. But that doesn't mean I or somebody else will never solve them. The problem is that for me to do it personally I'd have to live to be about 400 at the rate I'm going. Still, I can't stop doing what I do. One of the hard cases that I continue to struggle with is the whole business of the EPR paradox, with Bell, Aspect entanglement, and of course the famous crossed polarizers at 22.5 degrees.

This is a problem I havent been able to solve yet, but I have some insights and I'm going to take them up in the next few days.

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