Physicists publish solution to the quantum measurement problem

Jul 17, 2013

( —Quantum mechanics is a highly successful theory, but its interpretation has still not been settled. In their recent opus magnum, Theo Nieuwenhuizen (Institute of Physics, UvA) and colleagues claim to have found a solution to the so-called quantum measurement problem.

This subject of measurement in was studied by many prominent scientists, including Heisenberg, von Neumann, Wigner and van Kampen. As the only point of contact between theory and reality lies in measurements, a proper theoretical understanding of seems mandatory. In their 166-pages article, Nieuwenhuizen and his colleagues Armen Allahverdyan (Yerevan Physics Institute) and Roger Balian (IPhT, Saclay), take up this challenge.

After reviewing the literature on measurement models, they focus on the so-called Curie-Weiss model for quantum measurements. The joint dynamics of the tested system coupled to the measurement apparatus now produces results that explain the measurement postulates. It shows that the off-diagonal terms ("cat-terms") disappear in a physical process due to the coupling to the apparatus, on a basis selected by the interaction Hamiltonian. The registration of the measurement outcomes by the pointer of the apparatus occurs because the measurement triggers the transition from the initial to one of the stable final states; the apparatus being large, this means an amplification of the signal. The transition of the pointer variable from its initial metastable state to one of the final stable states is a process with classical features, such as the dumping of excess in the bath.

'Mathematical embarrassment'

Still, for theorists the task is not over then. It is known that due to quantum oddities, the state of the apparatus and tested system at the end of the measurement, cannot be associated with the single outcome that one observes in practice. This poses the infamous "quantum measurement problem", for which the authors seek, as they call it, "a physical way out of a mathematical embarrassment". They find an answer in subtle dynamical instabilities inside the apparatus near the end of the measurement. The only stable states are the ones known from the measurement postulates. Hence only these are relevant, which leads to ordinary probabilities, that can be connected to individual measurements.

Altogether, nothing else than standard quantum theory appears required for understanding ideal measurements. The quantum physics postulates of textbooks, the collapse of the wave packet and the registration with Born probabilities, derive from the quantum rules themselves, so in essence they are not needed. The statistical formulation of quantum mechanics, though abstract and minimalist, is sufficient to explain all relevant features. Since alternative interpretations involve unnecessary assumptions of one kind or another, the authors advocate the usage of the statistical formulation in physics education of mechanics.

Explore further: The importance of three-way atom interactions in maintaining coherence

More information: Physics Reports (2013), 525, 1, 1–166.… ii/S0370157312004085

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User comments : 5

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5 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2013
My main beef w/PhysOrg: Citing this 166pg tome in a private journal, when A mercifully shortened 5 page summary of their result is available free online: Nobody is going to read the original, aside from experts, & Nobody is actually going to merge this very sophisticated & detailed analysis into a standard course in QM, unless they truly hate their students..
2 / 5 (4) Jul 17, 2013
So why did it take 166pages to conclude that the measured system and the measurement system are, at the finest scale, interacting quantum objects and therefore at that scale are defined by a QM interaction.
Doesn't this leave us back where we started. (But at least it excludes all the 'conscious observer makes a difference' spooky nonsense.)
1 / 5 (2) Jul 18, 2013
"So why did it take 166pages to conclude that the measured system and the measurement system are, at the finest scale, interacting quantum objects and therefore at that scale are defined by a QM interaction."

You wouldn't suppose that studying the paper you might give you the answer to that would you? Assuming, of course, that you've climbed the hill far enough to understand it.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 18, 2013
I honestly do not understand the problem.
Saying a cat is alive and dead at the same time is exactly equivalent to saying we do not know the state of the cat, but how is this a surprise?

Can someone explain it to me?
not rated yet Jul 18, 2013
So.. this is a really poor analogy (since it's over-reliant on classical ideas), but imagine like a ball with a dot on it. That dot can be pointing in whatever direction. But we can make a measurement that meausures whether the dot is in positive or negative x, y, or z. "Making a measurement" is an open question that these theorists propose is solved by turning the ball to its closest axis under measurement (eliminating the off-diagonal terms) and then amplifying the outcome (say emitting a light when the dot is entirely lined up with an axis).

The quantum bit is that it's not precisely clear that the dot has a defined location anywhere on the ball at all. Or even more precisely, suppose we measure the dot to be along the z axis, and then ask about x or y. There's no information to be had about the x or y from the z measurement.

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