Quantum Mechanics and Its Interpretations

By Hodgson, Peter E. | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Quantum Mechanics and Its Interpretations


Hodgson, Peter E., Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


QUANTUM MECHANICS IS AN ELEGANT and indeed beautiful formalism, and enables the results of many physical measurements to be calculated with great accuracy. But from the earliest days there has been intense debate about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, and it shows no signs of being settled; if anything, it is becoming more intense over the years. It should therefore be evident that the most that can be done here is to try to show where the real difficulties lie, and how the failure to recognize that quantum mechanics is an essentially statistical theory has led to a series of confusing quantum paradoxes. It is just these paradoxes that have often been used to support theological speculations.

The Discovery of the Quantum

The quantum nature of the physical world was discovered by Max Planck in the early years of the twentieth century. He was studying thermodynamics and his attention was drawn to the frequency distribution of black-body radiation. This radiation is emitted from a small hole in a heated enclosure with rough walls, which ensures that the radiation reaches statistical equilibrium before emission. The frequency distribution is found to be independent of the material lining the walls of the oven, so Planck realized that it must be a fundamental characteristic of all matter. This frequency distribution had been measured by several experimentalists, and Planck resolved to try to see how it can be derived theoretically.

Already Rayleigh and Jeans had used classical radiation theory to derive an expression that fitted the data well at low frequencies but tended to infinity at high energies, which was of course unacceptable. The physicistWien had derived a formula that fitted the data at high frequencies but failed at low frequencies.

Planck used an ingenious argument based on entropy to interpolate between these two formulae and obtained a formula, now known as the Planck distribution, that fitted the data perfectly. His next task was to understand the physics behind his formula. He used the familiar technique of assuming that the energy is emitted in small finite amounts, and then let their size tend to zero, so as to represent a continuous distribution. To his great surprise, the intermediate formula with discrete amounts of energy, called quanta, gave the Planck distribution, but the final result, with infinitely small quanta, did not.

All his instincts as a physicist rebelled against this conclusion. Surely energy must be emitted continuously. He tried hard to find a way to avoid this unwelcome conclusion, but without success. He had to admit that it is a feature of the world. Soon it was confirmed by Einstein's interpretation of the photoelectric effect.

This story shows clearly that physicists do not impose their ideas on the world, but recognize and accept what they find, whether or not it agrees with their original ideas. The world is made by God in ways that often we cannot imagine.

The Old Quantum Theory

A few years later Rutherford discovered that the atom has a small central nucleus containing most of its mass surrounded by a number of electrons. Bohr used the idea of the quantum to build his model of the atom. He assumed that the electrons go around the nucleus in discrete orbits, and that radiation is emitted when an electron falls from one orbit to a lower one. With this model, he was able to calculate to high accuracy the frequencies of the radiation emitted from an excited hydrogen atom. This was a great achievement, but to get his result he had to assume that the electrons stayed in their orbits, whereas classical theory predicted that they would continuously lose energy and rapidly spiral into the nucleus.

Quantum Mechanics and its Interpretations

These problems were solved by the development of quantum mechanics in the 1920s by Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Dirac, and others. This enabled what is called the wave function to be calculated for any physical system, and from the wave function the probabilities of occurrence of measurable quantities can be found. …

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