Archive for September 2006

Why not von Neumann?

27th September 2006

Anyone who read the comments on my last post will know that von Neumann is something of a hero of mine. Here’s a question that sometimes bothers me – why didn’t von Neumann think of quantum computing? Compare his profile with that of Feynman, who did think up quantum computing, and then ask yourself which one of them you would have bet on to come up with the idea.

  • von Neumann: Worked on a variety of different subjects thoughout his career, including interdisciplinary ones. Was well aware of the work by Turing, Church, Post and others that later became the foundation for computer science and of the role of logic in this work. Is credited with the design of the basic architechture of modern computers. Worked on the mathematical and conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics and is responsible for the separable Hilbert space formulation of quantum theory that we still use today. Finally, at some point he was convinced that the best way to understand quantum theory was as a probability theory over logical structures (lattices) that generalize some of those from classical logic.
  • Feynmann: Spent most of his career working on mainstream topics in quantum field theory and high energy physics. Only towards the end of his career did his interests significantly diversify to include the theories of computation, quantum gravity and the foundations of quantum theory. Conceived of quantum theory mainly in the “sum over paths” formalism, where one looks at quantum theory as a rule for attaching amplitudes to possible histories as opposed to the probabilities used in classical theories.

None of this is meant as a slight against Feynman – he was certainly brilliant at everything he did scientifically – but it is clear that von Neumann was better positioned to come up with the idea much earlier on. Here are some possible explanations that I can think of:

  • The idea of connecting quantum mechanics to computing just never occurred to von Neumann. They occupied disjoint portions of his brain. Ideas that seem simple in hindsight are really not so obvious, and even the greatest minds miss them all the time.
  • von Neumann did think of something like quantum computing, but it was not obvious that it was interesting, since the science of computational complexity had not been developed yet. Without the distinction between exponential and polynomial time, there is no way to identify the potential advantage that quantum computers might offer over their classical counterparts.
  • The idea of some sort of difference in computing when quantum mechanics is thrown into the mix did occur to von Neumann, but he was unable to come up with a relevant model of computing because he was working with the wrong concepts. As alluded to in a paper of mine, Birkhoff-von Neumann quantum logic is definitely the wrong logic for thinking about quantum computing because the truth of quantum logic propositions on finite Hilbert spaces may be verified on a classical computer in polynomial time. The basic observation was pointed out to me by Scott Aaronson, but one needs to set up the model quite carefully to make it rigorous. I might write this up at some point, especially if people continue to produce papers that use quantum computing as a motivation for studying concrete BvN quantum logic on Hilbert spaces. Anyway, the point is that if von Neumann thought that replacing classical logic with his notion quantum logic was the way to come up with a model of quantum computing, then he would not have arrived at anything useful.
  • As a mathematician, von Neumann was not able to think of any practical problem to do with quantum mechanics that looks hard to do on a classical computer, but could be done efficiently in the quantum world. As a physicist, Feynman was much better placed to realize that simulating quantum dynamics was a useful thing to do, and that it might require exponential resources on a classical computer.

As a von Neumann fan, I’d like to think that something other than the first explanation is true, but I am prepared to admit that he might have missed something that ought to have been obvious to him. Hopefully, someday a historian of science will take it upon themselves to trawl the von Neumann archives looking for the answer.



24th September 2006

Here’s what this year’s foundational conference calendar looks like at the moment:

  • November 2-5: PSA 2006, Vancouver, Canada. This is the Biennial meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association and there are a few sessions on quantum theory.
  • November 28 – December 3: QCMC 2006, Tsukuba, Japan.  This is really a quantum information, computation and optics meeting, but there are often a few talks relevant to foundations.
  • March 5-9: APS March Meeting 2007, Denver, Colorado.  The Topical Group in Quantum Information organized special sessions on the foundations of quantum theory last year, so I imagine it won’t be a major focus this time round.  However, I haven’t seen the list of sessions for this year yet, it’s a good opportunity to find out what’s going on in the rest of physics, and at least there will be some quantum information.
  • March 26-28: Quantum Interaction, Stanford, USA.  This is a bit of an oddball meeting aimed at applying ideas from QM to Artificial Intelligence.
  • March 29-31: 15th UK and European Meeting on the Foundations of Physics, Leeds, UK.  With a special session on quantum information.
  • April: Operational Probabilistic Theories as Foils to Quantum Theory, Cambridge, UK.  This one is an invitation only 2-week event, so please don’t write to the organizers asking to come or they will get very annoyed with me.
  • June 11-16: Quantum Theory: reconsideration of foundations-4: The 80 years of the Copenhagen Interpretation, Vaxjo, Sweden.  This will be the last in this conference series.  Apparently, you can only reconsider the foundations so many times.  No info on the website yet, but it will probably appear soon.
  • I haven’t seen any official announcements yet, but apparently there will be TWO meetings in celebration of 50 years since the publication of Everett’s paper on the relative state interpretation of QM, better known as many-worlds, one at Perimeter Institute and one at Oxford University.

If anyone knows of any other relevant meetings then please let me know and I’ll post an update.

Quantum foundations before WWII

24th September 2006

The Shtetl Optimizer informs me that there has not been enough contemplation of Quantum Quandaries for his taste recently. Since there has not been a lot of interesting foundational news, the only sensible thing to do is to employ the usual blogger’s trick of cut, paste, link and plagiarize other blogs for ideas.

Scott recently posted a list of papers on quantum computation that a computer science student should read in order to prepare themselves for research in quantum complexity. Now, so far, nobody has asked me for a list of essential readings in the Foundations of Quantum Theory, which is incredibly surprising given the vast numbers of eager grad students who are entering the subject these days. In a way, I am quite glad about this, since there is no equivalent of “Mike and Ike” to point them towards. We are still waiting for a balanced textbook that gives each interpretation a fair hearing to appear. For now, we are stuck trawling the voluminous literature that has appeared on the subject since QM cohered into its present form in the 1920’s. Still, it might be useful to compile a list of essential readings that any foundational researcher worth their salt should have read.

Since this list is bound to be several pages long, today we will stick to those papers written before the outbreak of WWII, when physicists switched from debating foundational questions to the more nefarious applications of their subject. This is not enough to get you up to the cutting edge of modern research, so more specialized lists on particular topics will be compiled when I get around to it. I have tried to focus on texts that are still relevant to the debates going on today, so many papers that were important in their time but fairly uncontroversial today, such as Born’s introduction of the probability rule, have been omitted. Still, it is likely that I have missed something important, so feel free to add your favourites in the comments with the proviso that it must have been published before WWII.

  • P.A.M. Dirac, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, Oxford University Press (1930).
  • J. von Neumann, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, Princeton University Press (1955). This is the first English translation, but I believe the original German version was published prior to WWII.
  • W. Heisenberg, Über den anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoretischen Kinematik und Mechanik, Zeitschrift für Physik, 43, 172-198 (1927). The original uncertainty principle paper.
  • A. Einstein, B. Podolsky, and N. Rosen, Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete? Phys. Rev. 47, 777 (1935).
  • N. Bohr, Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?, Phys. Rev. 48, 696 (1935).
  • N. Bohr, The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr (vols. I and II), Oxbow Press (1987). It is a brave soul who can take this much Bohrdom in one sitting. All papers in vol. I and about half of vol. II were written prior to WWII. There is also a vol. III, but that contains post 1958 papers.
  • E. Schrödinger, Discussion of probability relations between separated systems, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. 31, 555-562 (1935).
  • E. Schrödinger, Die Gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik, Die Naturwissenschaften. 23, 807-812; 824-828; 844-849 (1935). Translated here.
  • Birkhoff, G., and von Neumann, J., The Logic of Quantum Mechanics, Annals of Mathematics 37, 823-843 (1936).

Many of the important papers are translated and reproduced in:

  • J. A. Wheeler and W.H. Zurek (eds.), Quantum Theory and Measurement, Princeton University Press (1983).

Somewhat bizzarely it is out of print, but you should find a copy in your local university library.

I am also informed that Anthony Valentini and Guido Bacciagaluppi have recently finished translating the proceedings of the 5th Solvay conference (1927), which is famous for the Bohr-Einstein debates, and produced one of the most well-known photos in physics. It should be worth a read when it comes out. A short video showing many of the major players at the 1927 Solvay conference is available here.

Update: A draft of the Valentini & Bacciagaluppi book has just appeared here.