Nautilus

Is Quantum Theory About Reality or What We Know?

Does the quantum state ultimately represent some objective aspect of reality, or is it a way of characterizing something about us, namely, something about what some person knows about reality?Photograph by Ben Scholzen / Flickr

Physicists know how to use quantum theory—your phone and computer give plenty of evidence of that. But knowing how to use it is a far cry from fully understanding the world the theory describes—or even what the various mathematical devices scientists use in the theory are supposed to mean. One such mathematical object, whose status physicists have long debated, is known as the quantum state.

One of the most striking features of quantum theory is that its predictions are, under virtually all circumstances, probabilistic. If you set up an experiment in a laboratory, and then you use quantum theory to predict the outcomes of various measurements you might perform, the best the theory can offer is probabilities—say, a 50 percent chance that you’ll get one outcome, and a 50 percent chance that you’ll get a different one. The role the quantum state plays in the theory is to determine, or at least encode, these probabilities. If you know the quantum state, then you can compute the probability of getting any possible outcome to

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus10 min read
Why Red Means Red in Almost Every Language: The confounding consistency of color categories.
When Paul Kay, then an anthropology graduate student at Harvard University, arrived in Tahiti in 1959 to study island life, he expected to have a hard time learning the local words for colors. His field had long espoused a theory called linguistic re
Nautilus9 min read
This Simple Structure Unites All Human Languages: Language builds meaning through self-similarity.
Take a deep breath. As you breathe in, your lungs fill with air. The air is carried through every part of your lungs by tubes. These tubes are organized in a particular way. They branch off, one into the left lung, one into the right. The tubes fill
Nautilus6 min read
The Problem with the Frozen Poop Knife Study
When, some weeks ago, I was first contacted by an online scientific publication asking me to review a submission on the subject of “shit knives”, I initially thought it was a hoax or some kind of practical joke. I had in mind the deliberately nonsens