Physics as a Philosophical Quest at Harvard: A Look at Quantum Theory

By Juan Siliezar
Harvard Editor/The Harvard Gazette

Step into Jacob Barandes’ new class and the topic of discussion could be a philosophical exploration of whether a cat can be simultaneously alive and dead. Visiting on a different day may result in the speaker filling out the blackboard with a math equation that spans 20 feet before continuing on a new line over and over again. Or students could be dissecting an example of classical physics like Newton’s Laws of Motion.

So what kind of class is it exactly?

It’s officially called Physics 137, “Conceptual Foundations of Quantum Mechanics,” but it’s actually part physics and part philosophy, with a healthy dose of math and logic.

The subject falls within a much larger field called the philosophy of science, a branch of study that examines the theoretical foundations, methods, and implications of science in the real world. In this case, Barandes applies the class inquiry to quantum theory.

“It’s physics by exam,” said Barandes, who is also co-director of graduate studies in the Department of Physics. “It’s about taking our best scientific theories, dissecting them, disassembling them, looking at the pieces piece by piece, trying to figure them out and figure out how they fit together, and the larger wholes than ‘they form.’

Quantum theory, which explains the nature and behavior of matter and energy at the atomic and subatomic levels, is often described as the best-tested and most predictive theory in science, one that makes precision technologies such as atomic clocks and particle accelerators. Much of our modern technology – including smartphones, lasers, LEDs and MRI machines – depends on it.

But when it comes to painting a picture of the real world, quantum theory can seem cumbersome and counter-intuitive. Take, for example, the notion of particles being in several places at the same time.

The course aims to explore why quantum theory contains so many strange and exotic mathematical structures and seemingly illogical possibilities and to get a sense of the different ways the world would appear depending on how aspects of the theory are interpreted.

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