Episode Nine – An Interview with the Physicist Juanma


17) There are, of course, other interpretations of quantum physics than the Copenhagen one. To what extent are they taken seriously?
Well, generally speaking, fundamental physicists can be divided into two big groups, aside from sparse exceptions. On the one hand we have neo-Positivists, who disregard anything that contains the words “explanation”, “interpretation”, “physical meaning” or anything of the sort.

On the other hand, there are mystics who enjoy pretending that science-fiction is actually real. These, interestingly, only take seriously whatever is deranged, and disregard any serious attempt at explaining things.

They get really picky when you try to say electrons have a physically determinate position, but they are totally okay with it, somehow crossing two slits at the same time.

That’s just going by emotion: instead of considering facts, they stick to whatever picture seems more appealing to them.

Ashna: I imagine of Bohr was alive, he would tell us to try blend all these approaches together somehow.

18) Tell us about some of the most troublesome trends you have encountered in your studies and/or research?
I have really struggled with the ‘shut up and compute’ paradigm, because I simply cannot work like that: if I don’t fully understand what I’m doing, I get blocked, because my mind is unable to focus on anything other than understanding it. I can’t go on if I don’t get a sense, at least a sense, of what I’m doing, and when nobody provides such conceptual explanations, I’m in serious trouble.


Here is what the Shut Up and Compute paradigm does for me …

On a more technical level, there’s one huge mistake that pops up everywhere in physics education. Many absorb it inadvertently, but it’s quite harmful. Some people implicitly think in terms of Aristotle’s “final causes”.

That is, reality acts in some way so that something else happens or remains true.

For example, many people will state that “the system evolves in order to reach the state of minimum energy”.

They will also say that “electric charges move around a conductor so that the field inside is zero”. Or that “some random events will happen to compensate some others in probability”.

In other words, to them, the laws of the universe, perhaps “written in mathematical language” in some mystical way, are literally obeyed by reality.

Sometimes they’re quite literal about this, stating that “the equation must hold, so this must happen”. This is a blatant reversal of the cause and the effect principle, or premises and implications for that matter.

I think that is a total misunderstanding of causality, and people who get used to thinking that way usually lose their ability to think causally. And many people do that, let me tell you, many people do.

Ashna: My brain works that way.  If I am reading something and I cannot understand it my brain freezes and says “you are not going on until you figure out what that was all about”.

But, sometimes I know it there is not much to understand, because is not explained, so I just have to move on.

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