Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Guide to the Perplexed:Part I

I started this blog almost two years ago with a rant about how I didn't feel like I knew what I was doing any more, and quantum mechanics was to blame. Since then, I've posted eighty-something articles, including some pretty cool stuff, and maybe you're wondering: do I feel any better today? That's a tough question. Let's start by going through my old posts and listing the topics I've covered. That will be a useful thing in itself.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was because I felt I had all kinds of original ideas on how to do physics problems, and I wanted to start recording them. How original were these ideas? I don't know, you can judge for yourself. I just thought I did physics differently from other people, and I wanted to stake out my territory. So it's a bit ironic that my first physics post after the inaugural rant was entitled Something I just Figured Out Yesterday . This is what happened. I complained in my first post that I didn't know how to do quantum mechanics. I actually was quite good at doing most of the undergrad level calculations, like the hydrogen atom. More importantly, I felt I wasn't just good at doing the calculations, but I could actually interpret the results with some insight. The big problem was when I came up against two electrons at the same time. I just couldn't begin to handle multi-electron problems.

So I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me that there was one two-electron problem that I had  to be able to solve: the problem of two isolated hydrogen atoms. There are two protons and two electrons. Since I already knew how to solve the single hydrogen atom, how could it be any harder if there were two of them. They key was the shift of perspective: I was going to solve it as a two-electron problem.

I came up with an apparent solution that raised more questions than it answered: it took me quite a while to find  my mistake . In the meantime I put up a very important post called The Clicking Detectors . This one wasn't brand new, it was stuff I'd figured out a long time ago but never written up. People have the idea that you can split a beam of photons with a half-silvered mirror, and the statistics of the detector clicks show that each photon must have gone either one way or another. This is supposed to be a proof of the particle theory of light. In "The Clicking Detectors", I show that any reasonable wave theory of light would give the exact same detector statistics.

I didn't post again for about a month. What had happened in the meantime is that I'd got into a very intense discussion thread at on the nature of wave function collapse, and in the course of that discussion I actually figured out a mechanism whereby you can explain all kinds of collapse phenomena via the ordinary time-evolution of the Schroedinger wave function. I called the mechanism Quantum Siphoning . In my article on the Clicking Detectors, I said that any "reasonable" wave theory would give the right statistics: the catch was, I didn't actually have a reasonable wave theory at that time. Quantum Siphoning turns out to be that theory. If I ever win the Nobel Prize, it will be for Quantum Siphoning.   

My next article was a reposting of something I'd actually written about a year earlier in private correspondence with my physics buddy, Richard Epp, who was in grad school with me and now works at the Perimeter Institute. Ramanujan and the Casimir Effect shows how you can use some of the weird seemingly divergent series studied by Ramanujan to calculate the force between parallel plates due to the Casimir Effect.

In the meantime, I was still engaged in the quest for a two-electron problem that I could actually solve, and I was now working on  The Double-electron Potential Well , which became a series of two articles. Not the third-year physics problem with fictional "non-interacting electrons", but the real thing. I had some preliminary sketches of two-dimensional wave functions that I had posted on and I had written that I was having trouble getting a handle on it when a very smart guy named Peter Atcam suggested I "turn off" the interaction and then turn it back on again very gradually. This was a hugely productive suggestion that not only clarified the situation with the two-electron well, but led to a whole new topic, The Iso-electronic Series of Helium .You can find solutions for the helium atom on the internet, but no one does it with quite as much finesse as I do in this four-part series of articles. In the meantime, my article on the two-electron well holds the distinction of being my most widely-read posting
of all time, according to Google Blogger statistics; which is  a bit ironic since it contains an error of omission which I didn't find and correct until over a year later.

I was just finishing my series on helium when the tin-pot dictators of led by the omniprescent ZapperZ kicked me off the forum for the third and final time. I talk about the circumstances in my article Banned for Life .  All I can say now is I've been banned from better places than, including a couple that I mention in my next article, A Tale of Two Strikes . But back to physics. My next article came in response to a question posted in physicsforums wherein I show how the anomalous specific heats of diatomic gasses at very low temperatures can be intuitively understood as a consequence of the wave nature of matter .

When I talked about Quantum Siphoning, I said it represents my best shot at getting a Nobel Prize. I wasn't joking. You might think it's not much of a shot, and maybe it isn't but if it's one in two hundred, it's still a better shot than anyone else who's every read any of my blog posts. It's a shot because if it's right (and it is right) then it's a paradigm breaker just like relativity or the uncertainty principle: it's not just a different calculation but a whole new way of looking at physical reality. What makes me think I'm capable of making a breakthrough of this magnitude when people smarter than me have tried and failed?

I'm a bit of a student of the history of quantum mechanics, and from my readings I know that there was no one who would have been more sympathetic to my viewpoint that Schroedinger, who was himself ridiculed by the "mean physicists" (Born, Heisenberg, Lorentz etc.) for trying to find real-time, causal mechanisms for quantum phenomena: and make no mistake, these would be wave-theory mechanisms, not particles. The particle concept is the source of all evil in physics: the quantum leap, the collapse of the wave function, the Alice-and-Bob correlation of entangled particles. No one hated particles more than Schroedinger: so if quantum siphoning is the answer to these paradoxes, why didn't Schroedinger invent quantum siphoning? 

The pathway to the truth is fraught with obstacles; and what makes me different is I have always done things my own way. Over a lifetime of tinkering with ideas, I have put together my own unique bag of tricks. These are mostly things that other people already knew; people much smarter than me, including Schroedinger. But no one single person, not even Schroedinger, ever knew exactly all the little things I knew. It is the strange uniqueness of my own personal bag of tricks that has placed me in the fortuituous position of being the paradigm breaker.

I'm not going to list all of my tricks right now: after all, that's why I started this blog in the first place. But my next series of articles, spread over three months and beginning with the post Karma and Carbon Monoxide , tells the story of one of the most unlikely links in the chain which led to Quantum Siphoning. If you read through the previously-mentioned physicsforums thread where I ended up getting banned for life , you will see that at one point in the argument I was dealt a near-death blow relating to the activation energy needed to drive the chemistry of the photographic process. Incredibly, I recovered from this blow with an ingenious thermodynamic argument where I showed that despite the unfavorable enthalpy, that at the very low concentrations of metallic silver in a developable exposure, we were entitled to treat the silver halide crystal as a solid solution, and taking into account the Gibbs Free Energy of the total system, it could be shown that the thermodynamics of the transition was actually borderline favorable! This argument led directly to Quantum Siphoning, and I never would have been able to make it if not for the story told in this series of posts about a project I was given as a junior engineer in my very first job out of university at a government research station in Pinawa, Manitoba: hence, Karma and Carbon Monoxide.

This brings us up to August 2011, except for one article from the summer of 2011 which I haven't yet commented on: Why do Solids Absorb Light . This turns out to be one of my most-often googled posts, and not without good reason. It is a question which is asked all the time, and people never give a decent answer. The standard answer about electronic transition levels is fine for explaining why light would be scattered, but where is the mechanism for absorption? I have to admit my answer is a bit sketchy, but I'm pretty sure it is a semi-classical mechanism very similar to the one Schroedinger demonstrated for the Compton effect. That in itself is another very important paradigm which is buried in obscurity in the conventional group-think, but more on that later.

After my Carbon Monoxide series ended, I stopped posting for about six months, not to resume again until 2011. I think we'll stop this recap as well for now, and continue next time from where we leave off today.


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