National Enquirer? Nope- American Institute of Physics reporting

This just in: physicists finally understand a principle they’ve been using for over 80 years!

Technically, the AIP isn’t really to blame for the various reformulations of its article’s title, but let’s start with my favorite one anyway: “Proving uncertainty: First rigorous formulation supporting Heisenberg’s famous 1927 principle”. 1 Now, of course my first reaction was pure outrage, as doing problems in e.g., the excellent 1000 Solved Problems in Physics practice problem book had me using the uncertainty principle to solve problems with mathematical precision. Then basic cognitive function returned and I realized how prima facie idiotic the whole article was. And although in fairness the AIP article’s title is “Proving Uncertainty: New Insight into Old Problem” 2 it still has the subtitle “In “Journal of Mathematical Physics,” International Group of Scientists Provides First Rigorous Formulation Supporting Heisenberg’s Famous 1927 Uncertainty Principle”. All the elements of the phys.org title are there, and the article is the same. So, what’s the problem?

First, there’s only one way to prove something in the sciences and that is to do so without reference to the physical world; in other words, proofs are for mathematics (logic included). So either Heisenberg didn’t originally formulate much of anything and we’ve spent the last 80+ years using a guessing what the relation between the position and momentum for “particles” in quantum physics is, or physicists have a pretty good idea and the first “rigorous formulation” was in 1927. By Heisenberg.

Second, I like Bohm’s “indeterminacy principle” for a reason: you can’t “prove” uncertainty you and that particular formulation has misled just about everyone who hasn’t studied quantum mechanics.

Person 1: “How much don’t you know about physics?”
Person 2: “I’ve written it all down in these volumes. Each one rigorously describes precisely what I don’t know”.

Of course, you can rigorously formulate uncertainty. And Heisenberg did (in fact, he initially did so mathematically but was then asked, I think by Bohr, to explain it better and came up with a thought experiment to supplement his work). It’s just that nobody seems to care much about what the uncertainty principle says outside of physicists so an article like the one at phys.org can seem plausible. The uncertainty principle is, at least in principle (bad pun intended) straightforward: it tells you that the more you know about where some quantum whatchamacallit is the less you know about its momentum.

Third, physics is pretty much the oldest science and it was the fundamental indeterminacy of quantum mechanics that wiped the smirk off of all their smug faces. The idea that an absolute limit (of any type) to our ability to know even in theory the precise behavior of a system over time was sacrilege. So Heisenberg’s principle has been subject to enormous scrutiny.

Fourth, in the article itself we find reference to earlier work by an “M. Ozawa in Japan”. What we don’t find is e.g., Busch, P., Heinonen, T., & Lahti, P. (2007). Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Physics Reports, 452(6), 155-176.
How did I come upon this miraculous piece that somehow the AIP news people missed? I looked at the journal article the AIP report was about. In it, I found that for “a review of uncertainty up to 2006, we recommend to consult” followed by a citation of a paper on uncertainty with the same lead author written 7 years ago. In that paper, the authors “formally” (code for “rigorously”) treat Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. In the paper the AIP article is on, they mention another rigorous formulation too.

Fifth, they conclude “We have formulated and proved a family of measurement uncertainty relations for canonical pairs of observables. This gives one possible rigorous interpretation of Heisenberg’s 1927 statements.” Heisenberg, of course, didn’t leave physics after 1927 (his book on the principles of QM was published 3 years later). Nor, as the authors are clear to point out, were rigorous formulations of the uncertainty relations absent in physics. What the authors provided is what virtually all good contributions to the sciences consist of: something that extends previous work a little more, ensuring progress rather than pseudoscience and increased knowledge rather than misinformation. However, apparently the AIP didn’t like this idea, and went with misinformation.

1 http://phys.org/news/2014-04-uncertainty-rigorous-heisenberg-famous-principle.html#nwlt
2 http://publishing.aip.org/publishing/journal-highlights/proving-uncertainty-new-insight-old-problem?TRACK=Gallery

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