Monday, August 13, 2018

Book Review: “Through Two Doors at Once” by Anil Ananthaswamy

Through Two Doors at Once: The Elegant Experiment That Captures the Enigma of Our Quantum Reality Hardcover 
By Anil Ananthaswamy
Dutton (August 7, 2018)

The first time I saw the double-slit experiment, I thought it was a trick, an elaborate construction with mirrors, cooked up by malicious physics teachers. But no, it was not, as I was soon to learn. A laser beam pointed at a plate with two parallel slits will make 5 or 7 or any odd number of dots aligned on the screen, their intensity fading the farther away they are from the middle. Light is a wave, this experiment shows, it can interfere with itself.

But light is also a particle, and indeed the double-slit experiment can, and has been, done with single photons. Perplexingly, these photons will create the same interference pattern; it will gradually build up from single dots. Strange as it sounds, the particles seem to interfere with themselves. The most common way to explain the pattern is that a single particle can go through two slits at once, a finding so unintuitive that physicists still debate just what the results tell us about reality.

The double-slit experiment is without doubt one of the most fascinating physics experiments ever. In his new book “Through Two Doors at Once,” Anil Anathaswamy lays out both the history and the legacy of the experiment.

I previously read Anil’s 2013 book “The Edge of Physics” which got him a top rank on my list of favorite science writers. I like Anil’s writing because he doesn’t waste your time. He says what he has to say, doesn’t make excuses when it gets technical, and doesn’t wrap the science into layers of flowery cushions. He also has a good taste in deciding what the reader should know.

A book about an experiment and its variants might sound like a washing list of technical detail with increasing sophistication, but Anil has picked only the best of the best. Besides the first double-slit experiment, and the first experiment with single particles, there’s also the delayed choice, the quantum eraser, weak measurement, and interference of large molecules (“Schrödinger’s cat”). The reader of course also learns how to detect a live bomb without detonating it, what Anton Zeilinger did on the Canary Islands, and what Yves Couder’s oil droplets may or may not have to do with any of that.

Along with the experiments, Anil explains the major interpretations of quantum mechanics, Copenhagen, Pilot-Wave, Many Worlds, and QBism, and what various people have to say about this. He also mentions spontaneous collapse models, and Penrose’s gravitationally induced collapse in particular.

The book contains a few equations and Anil expects the reader to cope with sometimes rather convoluted setups of mirrors and beam splitters and detectors, but the heavier passages are balanced with stories about the people who made the experiments or who worked on the theories. The result is a very readable account of the past and current status of quantum mechanics. It’s a book with substance and I can recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the foundation of quantum mechanics.

[Disclaimer: free review copy]

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Dear Dr B: Is it possible that there is a universe in every particle?

“Is it possible that our ‘elementary’ particles are actually large scale aggregations of a different set of something much smaller? Then, from a mathematical point of view, there could be an infinite sequence of smaller (and larger) building blocks and universes.”

                                                                      ~Peter Letts
Dear Peter,

I love the idea that there is a universe in every elementary particle! Unfortunately, it is really hard to make this hypothesis compatible with what we already know about particle physics.

Simply conjecturing that the known particles are made up of smaller particles doesn’t work well. The reason is that the masses of the constituent particles must be smaller than the mass of the composite particle, and the lighter a particle, the easier it is to produce in particle accelerators. So why then haven’t we seen these constituents already?

One way to get around this problem is to make the new particles strongly bound, so that it takes a lot of energy to break the bond even though the particles themselves are light. This is how it works for the strong nuclear force which holds quarks together inside protons. The quarks are light but still difficult to produce because you need a high energy to tear them apart from each other.

There isn’t presently any evidence that any of the known elementary particles are made up of new strongly-bound smaller particles (usually referred to as preons), and many of the models which have been proposed for this have run into conflict with data. Some are still viable, but with such strongly bound particles you cannot create something remotely resembling our universe. To get structures similar to what we observe you need an interplay of both long-distance forces (like gravity) and short-distance forces (like the strong nuclear force).

The other thing you could try is to make the constituent particles really weakly interacting with the particles we know already, so that producing them in particle colliders would be unlikely. This, however, causes several other problems, one of which is that even the very weakly interacting particles carry energy and hence have a gravitational pull. If they are produced at any substantial rates at any time in the history of the universe, we should see evidence for their presence but we don’t. Another problem is that by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, particles with small masses are difficult to keep inside small regions of space, like inside another elementary particle.

You can circumvent the latter problem by conjecturing that the inside of a particle actually has a large volume, kinda like Mary Poppins’ magical bag, if anyone recalls this.


Sounds crazy, I know, but you can make this work in general relativity because space can be strongly curved. Such cases are known as “baby universes”: They look small from the outside but can be huge on the inside. You then need to sprinkle a little quantum gravity magic over them for stability. You also need to add some kind of strange fluid, not unlike dark energy, to make sure that even though there are lots of massive particles inside, from the outside the mass is small.

I hope you notice that this was already a lot of hand-waving, but the problems don’t stop there. If you want every elementary particle to each have a universe inside, you need to explain why we only know 25 different elementary particles. Why aren’t there billions of them? An even bigger problem is that elementary particles are quantum objects: They get constantly created and destroyed and they can be in several places at once. How would structure formation ever work in such a universe? It is also a generally the case in quantum theories that the more variants there are of a particle, the more of them you produce. So why don’t we produce humongous amounts of elementary particles if they’re all different inside?

The problems that I listed do not of course rule out the idea. You can try to come up with explanations for all of this so that the model does what you want and is compatible with all observations. But what you then end up with is a complicated theory that has no evidence speaking for it, designed merely because someone likes the idea. It’s not necessarily wrong. I would even say it’s interesting to speculate about (as you can tell, I have done my share of speculation). But it’s not science.

Thanks for an interesting question!

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Trostpreis (I’ve been singing again)

I promised my daughters I would write a song in German, so here we go:


“Trostpreis” means “consolation prize”. This song was inspired by the kids’ announcement that we have a new rule for pachisi: Adults always lose. I think this conveys a deep truthiness about life in general.

 After I complained the last time that the most frequent question I get about my music videos is “where do you find the time?” (answer: I don’t), I now keep getting the question “Do you sing yourself?” The answer to this one is, yes, I sing myself. Who else do you think would sing for me?

(soundcloud version here)