Have We Been Interpreting Quantum Mechanics Wrong This Whole Time?

By Natalie Wolchover

For nearly a century, “reality” has been a murky concept. The laws of quantum physics seem to suggest that particles spend much of their time in a ghostly state, lacking even basic properties such as a definite location and instead existing everywhere and nowhere at once. Only when a particle is measured does it suddenly materialize, appearing to pick its position as if by a roll of the dice.

PrintOriginal story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent division of SimonsFoundation.org *whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.*This idea that nature is inherently probabilistic — that particles have no hard properties, only likelihoods, until they are observed — is directly implied by the standard equations of quantum mechanics. But now a set of surprising experiments with fluids has revived old skepticism about that worldview. The bizarre results are fueling interest in an almost forgotten version of quantum mechanics, one that never gave up the idea of a single, concrete reality.

The experiments involve an oil droplet that bounces along the surface of a liquid. The droplet gently sloshes the liquid with every bounce. At the same time, ripples from past bounces affect its course. The droplet’s interaction with its own ripples, which form what’s known as a pilot wave, causes it to exhibit behaviors previously thought to be peculiar to elementary particles — including behaviors seen as evidence that these particles are spread through space like waves, without any specific location, until they are measured.

Particles at the quantum scale seem to do things that human-scale objects do not do. They can tunnel through barriers, spontaneously arise or annihilate, and occupy discrete energy levels. This new body of research reveals that oil droplets, when guided by pilot waves, also exhibit these quantum-like features.

To some researchers, the experiments suggest that quantum objects are as definite as droplets, and that they too are guided by pilot waves — in this case, fluid-like undulations in space and time. These arguments have injected new life into a deterministic (as opposed to probabilistic) theory of the microscopic world first proposed, and rejected, at the birth of quantum mechanics.

“This is a classical system that exhibits behavior that people previously thought was exclusive to the quantum realm, and we can say why,” said John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has led several recent bouncing-droplet experiments. “The more things we understand and can provide a physical rationale for, the more difficult it will be to defend the ‘quantum mechanics is magic’ perspective.”

Magical Measurements

The orthodox view of quantum mechanics, known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” after the home city of Danish physicist Niels Bohr, one of its architects, holds that particles play out all possible realities simultaneously. Each particle is represented by a “probability wave” weighting these various possibilities, and the wave collapses to a definite state only when the particle is measured. The equations of quantum mechanics do not address how a particle’s properties solidify at the moment of measurement, or how, at such moments, reality picks which form to take. But the calculations work. As Seth Lloyd, a quantum physicist at MIT, put it, “Quantum mechanics is just counterintuitive and we just have to suck it up.”

When light illuminates a pair of slits in a screen (top), the two overlapping wavefronts cooperate in some places and cancel out in between, producing an interference pattern. The pattern appears even when particles are shot toward the screen one by one (bottom), as if each particle passes through both slits at once, like a wave.

Akira Tonomura/Creative Commons

A classic experiment in quantum mechanics that seems to demonstrate the probabilistic nature of reality involves a beam of particles (such as electrons) propelled one by one toward a pair of slits in a screen. When no one keeps track of each electron’s trajectory, it seems to pass through both slits simultaneously. In time, the electron beam creates a wavelike interference pattern of bright and dark stripes on the other side of the screen. But when a detector is placed in front of one of the slits, its measurement causes the particles to lose their wavelike omnipresence, collapse into definite states, and travel through one slit or the other. The interference pattern vanishes. The great 20th-century physicist Richard Feynman said that this double-slit experiment “has in it the heart of quantum mechanics,” and “is impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way.”