Quantum debrief

A week ago, I finished my first time teaching our second-year course in quantum mechanics. After a bit of a taster in the first year, the class concentrates on the famous Schrödinger equation, which describes the properties of a particle under the influence of an external force. The simplest version of the equation is just Schrodinger This relates the so-called wave function, ψ, to what we know about the external forces governing its motion, encoded in the Hamiltonian operator, Ĥ. The wave function gives the probability (technically, the probability amplitude) for getting a particular result for any measurement: its position, its velocity, its energy, etc. (See also this excellent public work by our department’s artist-in-residence.)

Over the course of the term, the class builds up the machinery to predict the properties of the hydrogen atom, which is the canonical real-world system for which we need quantum mechanics to make predictions. This is certainly a sensible endpoint for the 30 lectures.

But it did somehow seem like a very old-fashioned way to teach the course. Even back in the 1980s when I first took a university quantum mechanics class, we learned things in a way more closely related to the way quantum mechanics is used by practicing physicists: the mathematical details of Hilbert spaces, path integrals, and Dirac Notation.

Today, an up-to-date quantum course would likely start from the perspective of quantum information, distilling quantum mechanics down to its simplest constituents: qbits, systems with just two possible states (instead of the infinite possibilities usually described by the wave function). The interactions become less important, superseded by the information carried by those states.

Really, it should be thought of as a full year-long course, and indeed much of the good stuff comes in the second term when the students take “Applications of Quantum Mechanics” in which they study those atoms in greater depth, learn about fermions and bosons and ultimately understand the structure of the periodic table of elements. Later on, they can take courses in the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, and, yes, on quantum information, quantum field theory and on the application of quantum physics to much bigger objects in “solid-state physics”.

Despite these structural questions, I was pretty pleased with the course overall: the entire two-hundred-plus students take it at the beginning of their second year, thirty lectures, ten ungraded problem sheets and seven in-class problems called “classworks”. Still to come: a short test right after New Year’s and the final exam in June. Because it was my first time giving these lectures, and because it’s such an integral part of our teaching, I stuck to to the same notes and problems as my recent predecessors (so many, many thanks to my colleagues Paul Dauncey and Danny Segal).

Once the students got over my funny foreign accent, bad board handwriting, and worse jokes, I think I was able to get across both the mathematics, the physical principles and, eventually, the underlying weirdness, of quantum physics. I kept to the standard Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics, in which we think of the aforementioned wavefunction as a real, physical thing, which evolves under that Schrödinger equation — except when we decide to make a measurement, at which point it undergoes what we call collapse, randomly and seemingly against causality: this was Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” which seemed to indicate nature playing dice with our Universe, in contrast to the purely deterministic physics of Newton and Einstein’s own relativity. No one is satisfied with Copenhagen, although a more coherent replacement has yet to be found (I won’t enumerate the possibilities here, except to say that I find the proliferating multiverse of Everett’s Many-Worlds interpretation ontologically extravagant, and Chris FuchsQuantum Bayesianism compelling but incomplete).

I am looking forward to getting this year’s SOLE results to find out for sure, but I think the students learned something, or at least enjoyed trying to, although the applause at the end of each lecture seemed somewhat tinged with British irony.