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  1. #1
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    radioactive decay and determinism

    Is radioactive decay problematic for determinism?

    Let's say some nucleus fires off a beta particle so that it's atomic number changes. There is a very precise, constant probability that this event would occur, but why did that particular nucleus fire off at that particular instant?

    As far as I can tell, they don't really know and I think that some interpretations suggest that nothing actually "caused it". It just happened. Or at least, from our standpoint inside real time and space, it happened for no reason. To obtain something like a mechanistic explanation, one would have to extend the frame of reference beyond real time and space. The "consciousness causes the collapse" interpretation of von Neumann and Wigner seem to be a development of this idea.

    It seems to me, though, that if a consciousness is needed to bring about collapse of quantum states, then there would have to be some sort of ubiquitous consciousness that brings about collapse of quantum states on all the planets of all the stars and galaxies in the physical universe. Sounds sort of like that thing we refer to as God.

  2. #2
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    um, no. there is a reason, a cause, for a particular object to do anything. just because you don't know the reason does not mean it is magic.

  3. #3
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    I am not saying that it is "magic". I am saying it is outside the bounds of real time and space and offering a rationale which, though not conclusive, is at least suggestive as found in The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Physics by John von Neumann. I am trying to understand this myself so feel free to correct me.

  4. #4
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    ...which may not be so easy. Richard Feynman said something like, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."

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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    "outside the bounds of real time and space" = magic

  6. #6
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    Quote Originally Posted by tungs10 View Post
    Is radioactive decay problematic for determinism?

    Let's say some nucleus fires off a beta particle so that it's atomic number changes. There is a very precise, constant probability that this event would occur, but why did that particular nucleus fire off at that particular instant?

    As far as I can tell, they don't really know and I think that some interpretations suggest that nothing actually "caused it". It just happened. Or at least, from our standpoint inside real time and space, it happened for no reason.
    Your understanding is correct. At a quantum level, the universe is not deterministic. There is no 'cause and effect' for why one nucleus fired and one did not, at least according to almost all interpretations of quantum mechanics.

    The experimental confirmation of the Bell inequality implies that one of two things is true:
    - The principle of locality is not true.
    - The universe is non-deterministic.
    Most interpretations assume that the second is true, because the first would also contradict the laws of special relativity, which have been found to agree with QM to a high degree of accuracy.


    To obtain something like a mechanistic explanation, one would have to extend the frame of reference beyond real time and space. The "consciousness causes the collapse" interpretation of von Neumann and Wigner seem to be a development of this idea.

    It seems to me, though, that if a consciousness is needed to bring about collapse of quantum states, then there would have to be some sort of ubiquitous consciousness that brings about collapse of quantum states on all the planets of all the stars and galaxies in the physical universe. Sounds sort of like that thing we refer to as God.
    The collapse of the wave-function is still an unknown in physics. Whether or not it requires consciousness, what sort of consciousness, what exactly the collapse is etc.... is still not understood. While there is plenty of speculation, we still don't have experimental verification of any particular interpretation.

    The most common interpretation, and one of the ones that has a place for consciousness, is the Copenhagen interpretation. You can find a list of different interpretations here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpr...ntum_mechanics

  7. #7
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    In 1926, Einstein wrote a letter to Max Born stating:

    Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the 'old one'. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.
    which is apparently the source of the famous quote about God and dice. I guess we are only a bit closer in 2010 than we were in 1926.

  8. #8
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    Quote Originally Posted by tungs10 View Post
    Let's say some nucleus fires off a beta particle so that it's atomic number changes. There is a very precise, constant probability that this event would occur, but why did that particular nucleus fire off at that particular instant?
    I could be wrong here, but doesn't your question also apply to anything, for which there must be a probability?

    "Let's say some man in New York trips over and is killed by a bus. There is a very precise, constant probability that this event would occur, but why did that particular person trip at that particular instant?"

    I might not be understanding what you are saying though.

  9. #9
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    Quote Originally Posted by thistle View Post
    I could be wrong here, but doesn't your question also apply to anything, for which there must be a probability?

    "Let's say some man in New York trips over and is killed by a bus. There is a very precise, constant probability that this event would occur, but why did that particular person trip at that particular instant?"

    I might not be understanding what you are saying though.
    This is where quantum mechanics differs from the world that you and I know.

    In your example, we could look very closely at what happened and come up with a reason why that person tripped - his shoelace was undone, he wasn't looking where he was going, a dog ran out in front of him, he was clumsy... In any case, there was a cause. There will always be some difference between the person that tripped, and the person who didn't trip, and that explains why things happened the way they did.

    In the example of a decaying nucleus however, this is not the case. No matter how closely you look at the two nuclei, you will find they are absolutely identical in every way. They are completely indistinguishable. Every subatomic particle in them is arranged in exactly the same way. Even theoretically, there is no way you could put the two of them in a box, shake it up, and then till which one was which.

    And yet.... One of them decays and the other doesn't.

    Quantum mechanics is truly random, in a way that nothing in our common experience is. The implications of this are enormous, because if there is nothing different between the two nuclei then there was no cause for why one decayed and the other didn't. Cause-and-effect is actually not a universal principle, it is simply one that arises out of statistical averages, and because we only see lots of particles at a time, we think it applies everywhere.


    Anyway, there's a sticky at the top of this forum where I've gone through this idea in a lot more detail with pictures and stuff. Feel free to ask me any questions about it.

  10. #10
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    Quote Originally Posted by tungs10 View Post
    In 1926, Einstein wrote a letter to Max Born stating:

    which is apparently the source of the famous quote about God and dice. I guess we are only a bit closer in 2010 than we were in 1926.
    In many ways we are not much further in our understanding, but in this Einstein was wrong. Einstein believed that the universe must be deterministic. However, he died before the conclusive experiments were performed, which showed that he was wrong.

    I always like Born's response to this, though:
    Einstein, stop telling god what to do.

  11. #11
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    However, he died before the conclusive experiments were performed, which showed that he was wrong.
    I am not sure what you are referring to.
    Last edited by tungs10; 05-13-2010 at 06:36 PM.

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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    Quote Originally Posted by tungs10 View Post
    I am not sure what you are referring to.
    Oh, I mean the Bell-inequality experiments.

    Einstein felt that the universe was deterministic, and that the uncertainty principle merely represented our inability to accurately measure subatomic particles. He thought, for example, that ultimately an electron has both a well-defined position and a well-defined momentum, it's just that any attempt to measure one means you can't measure the other one.

    The two views make different experimental predictions. It's possible to test whether or not the universe really is deterministic, and that's what the Bell-inequality experiments did. However, Einstein died before these were completed, so he never found out about their result. They showed pretty conclusively that either the universe is non-deterministic or non-local (and Einstein hated the idea of non-locality even more...).

  13. #13
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    when I was in school and studied QM I understood enough of it to pass the exam, (oftentimes that is a pretty superficial understanding). Then I took general topology and it seemed to tie in with QM. I always wondered if the tie-in was valid or not.

    so this is it: there are at least two types of infinity. Denumerable and non-denumerable. An example of denumerable infinity is the set of all integers. An example of non-denumerable would be the number of points in a line segment. If you try to count the number of points in a line segment, you will be stuck on the endpoint forever whereas given an infinite amount of time, all integers could be counted. Of course, the formal definitions are more rigorous.

    The problem with trying to model a hydrogen atom in Euclidean space is that the number of points in a volume of Euclidean space is non-denumerable infinity whereas the number of points in a volume of real space is more like denumerable infinity. There is a topological incompatibility between the model and the reality. So Schrodinger got around the problem by imagining the electron as a sort of cloud of probability. I know a guy who works at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia, Illinois. His comment on my idea was basically, "Huh?"

  14. #14
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    wait a minute, i thought non locality was a proven theory!?(electrons) in which case determinism is also proven!? going by your either or bell experiment!? tell me i'm mixing apples and oranges!? :cwm2: : :
    i do not endorse/recommend any advertising on scam.com associated with my name /posts or otherwise. thank you

  15. #15
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    Fascinating stuff, kazza.

  16. #16
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    Re: radioactive decay and determinism

    on thinking about this more:
    even if the universe is non deterministic, it seems to me like there still needs to be a WHY at the bottom of it all. QM provides the WHAT but it does not provide the WHY. Maybe determinism or non-determinism is too simplistic. Some mathematical abstraction of meta causality is needed.

    If he were alive, I think Einstein would agree with Bell but he would point out that it is still not the ultimate secret of the "old one".

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