Monthly Archives: July 2020

The sound of quantum jumps

Before I finally go on holidays, I put on arxiv an essay on quantum jumps, in fact rather on collapse models, that I initially submitted to the FQXI essay contest.

In this essay/paper, I just make a simple point which I have made orally for years at conferences. Every time, people looked quite surprised and so I thought it made sense to write it down.

The argument is simple enough that I can try to reproduce it here. Collapse models are stochastic non-linear modifications of the Schrödinger equation. The modification is meant to solve the measurement problem. The measurement problem is the fact that in ordinary quantum mechanics, what happens in measurement situations is postulated rather than derived from the dynamics. This is a real problem (contrary to what some may say), the dynamics should say what can be measured and how, it makes no sense to have an independent axiom (and it could bring contradictions). Decoherence explains why the measurement problem does not bring contradictions for all practical purposes, but again contrary to what some may say, it certainly does not solve the measurement problem. So the measurement problem is a real problem and collapse models provide a solution that works.

The stochastic non-linearity brought by collapse models creates minor deviations from the standard quantum mechanical predictions (it makes sense, the dynamics has been modified). This is often seen, paradoxically perhaps, as a good thing, because it makes the approach falsifiable. It is true that collapse models are falsifiable. What is not true, is that collapse models modify the predictions of quantum mechanics understand broadly. This is what is more surprising, sometimes seems contradictory with the previous point, and is the subject of my essay.

How is it possible? Collapse models are non-linear and stochastic, surely ordinary quantum mechanics cannot reproduce that? But in fact it can. As was understood when collapse models were constructed in the eighties, the non-linearity of collapse models, which is useful to solve the measurement problem, has to vanish upon averaging the randomness away. Since we have no a priori access to this randomness, all the things we can measure in practice can be deduced from linear equations, even in the context of collapse models. This linear equation is not the Schrödinger equation, but one that does not preserve purity, the Lindblad equation. However, it is also known that by enlarging the Hilbert space (essentially assuming hidden particles), Lindblad dynamics can be reproduced by Schrödinger dynamics. Hence, the predictions of collapse models can always be reproduced exactly by a purely quantum theory (linear and deterministic) at the price enlarging the Hilbert space with extra degrees of freedom. Collapse models do not deviate from quantum theory, they deviate from the Standard Model of particle physics, which is an instantiation of quantum theory. Even if experiments showed precisely the kind of deviations predicted by collapse models, one could still defend orthodox quantum mechanics (not that it would necessarily be advisable to do so).

Collapse models are still useful in that they solve the measurement problem, which is an ontological problem (what the theory says the world is like or what the world is made of). However, the empirical content of collapse models (what the theory predicts) is less singular that one might think. In the essay, I essentially make this point in a more precise way, and illustrate it on what I believe is the most shocking example, the sound of quantum jumps, borrowed from a paper by Feldmann and Tumulka. I doesn’t make sense to write more here since I will end up paraphrasing the essay, but I encourage whoever is interested to read it here.