The Clock and the Quantum

Finally having time to write again. I have been traveling since September 11, for a couple of conferences, in Europe and Canada. Yeah, some people asked “are you getting a flight to London with stops in two muslim countries on September 11??”. But hey, it was the cheapest date around! I was more scared of the fact that the muslim-owned airline prayed to Allah before the plane departed. I would much prefer if they just trusted their engineers on that account. But I admit I was a slightly surprised when the border officer in London told us that a fire had closed the Eurostar tunnel connecting London to Brussels. It was apparently just a freak accident, but I’m sure it sparked some tension.

We had a great conference at the Perimeter Institute, in Waterloo, Canada. It was the first PIAF conference, with the grandiose name “The Clock and the Quantum”. PIAF is the Perimeter Institute – Australia Foundations collaboration. It is a collaboration between the Perimeter Institute and three australian universities — including Griffith University, where I work.

There were lots of very interesting talks, but most of all I enjoyed the experience of spending a few days with some of the smartest and most influential people in the field, all puzzling around the big questions on the foundations of physics, in particular of quantum mechanics. Perhaps the best part was the discussion panels. It makes me very excited to see the sorts of questions that were seriously asked and addressed. Not so much by the answers that were provided, but the sheer fact that those well-known physicists were not embarassed to select (out of a pool of questions hand-written by the audience) often neglected fundamental, and often philosophical, questions about the impact of the quantum ideas on the issues about the nature of space and time.

This seems to reflect an apparent change in mentality in the last few years. For decades, philosophical questions in the foundations of physics were neglected by mainstream practicing physicists, even treated with scorn. Better spend your time doing useful things, they would say. It was all to understandable, as physics has progressed at great strides since the revolutions of the first quarter of the century. But the apparent slow down on the pace of fundamental discoveries seems to be bringing an awareness that we need to return to a more “professional” attitude, as Bell would say.

It is unprofessional, for example, for a physicist to defend a “shut-up-and-calculate interpretation” of quantum mechanics and argue that philosophy is unnecessary or useless in the development of science. I don’t mean that one cannot give a serious philosophical spin on this kind of idea, but what is unprofessional is to pretend one is not doing philosophy when arguing for it. I don’t mind the shut-up-and-calculate people, as long as they shut up.

So it is encouraging that half of the audience, even a great part of the invited speakers, were philosophers. Even if we don’t get back on track in solving the puzzles ahead, it is nice to know we’re correcting this particular bias and opening up for collaboration with our colleagues from the philosophy department. I’m all for it. At the very least there will be some nice conversations at the pub.


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