Legendre transform

The way that most physicists teach and talk about partial differential equations is horrible, and has surprisingly big costs for the typical understanding of the foundations of the field even among professionals. The chief victims are students of thermodynamics and analytical mechanics, and I’ve mentioned before that the preface of Sussman and Wisdom’s Structure and Interpretation of Classical Mechanics is a good starting point for thinking about these issues. As a pointed example, in this blog post I’ll look at how badly the Legendre transform is taught in standard textbooks,I was pleased to note as this essay went to press that my choice of Landau, Goldstein, and Arnold were confirmed as the “standard” suggestions by the top Google results. a   and compare it to how it could be taught. In a subsequent post, I’ll used this as a springboard for complaining about the way we record and transmit physics knowledge.

Before we begin: turn away from the screen and see if you can remember what the Legendre transform accomplishes mathematically in classical mechanics.If not, can you remember the definition? I couldn’t, a month ago. b   I don’t just mean that the Legendre transform converts the Lagrangian into the Hamiltonian and vice versa, but rather: what key mathematical/geometric property does the Legendre transform have, compared to the cornucopia of other function transforms, that allows it to connect these two conceptually distinct formulations of mechanics?… [continue reading]

Toward relativistic branches of the wavefunction

I prepared the following extended abstract for the Spacetime and Information Workshop as part of my continuing mission to corrupt physicists while they are still young and impressionable. I reproduce it here for your reading pleasure.

Finding a precise definition of branches in the wavefunction of closed many-body systems is crucial to conceptual clarity in the foundations of quantum mechanics. Toward this goal, we propose amplification, which can be quantified, as the key feature characterizing anthropocentric measurement; this immediately and naturally extends to non-anthropocentric amplification, such as the ubiquitous case of classically chaotic degrees of freedom decohering. Amplification can be formalized as the production of redundant records distributed over spatial disjoint regions, a certain form of multi-partite entanglement in the pure quantum state of a large closed system. If this definition can be made rigorous and shown to be unique, it is then possible to ask many compelling questions about how branches form and evolve.

A recent result shows that branch decompositions are highly constrained just by this requirement that they exhibit redundant local records. The set of all redundantly recorded observables induces a preferred decomposition into simultaneous eigenstates unless their records are highly extended and delicately overlapping, as exemplified by the Shor error-correcting code.… [continue reading]

Branches and matrix-product states

I’m happy to use this bully pulpit to advertise that the following paper has been deemed “probably not terrible”, i.e., published.

When the wave function of a large quantum system unitarily evolves away from a low-entropy initial state, there is strong circumstantial evidence it develops “branches”: a decomposition into orthogonal components that is indistinguishable from the corresponding incoherent mixture with feasible observations. Is this decomposition unique? Must the number of branches increase with time? These questions are hard to answer because there is no formal definition of branches, and most intuition is based on toy models with arbitrarily preferred degrees of freedom. Here, assuming only the tensor structure associated with spatial locality, I show that branch decompositions are highly constrained just by the requirement that they exhibit redundant local records. The set of all redundantly recorded observables induces a preferred decomposition into simultaneous eigenstates unless their records are highly extended and delicately overlapping, as exemplified by the Shor error-correcting code. A maximum length scale for records is enough to guarantee uniqueness. Speculatively, objective branch decompositions may speed up numerical simulations of nonstationary many-body states, illuminate the thermalization of closed systems, and demote measurement from fundamental primitive in the quantum formalism.
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Comments on Cotler, Penington, & Ranard

One way to think about the relevance of decoherence theory to measurement in quantum mechanics is that it reduces the preferred basis problem to the preferred subsystem problem; merely specifying the system of interest (by delineating it from its environment or measuring apparatus) is enough, in important special cases, to derive the measurement basis. But this immediately prompts the question: what are the preferred systems? I spent some time in grad school with my advisor trying to see if I could identify a preferred system just by looking at a large many-body Hamiltonian, but never got anything worth writing up.

I’m pleased to report that Cotler, Penington, and Ranard have tackled a closely related problem, and made a lot more progress:

Locality from the Spectrum
Jordan S. Cotler, Geoffrey R. Penington, Daniel H. Ranard
Essential to the description of a quantum system are its local degrees of freedom, which enable the interpretation of subsystems and dynamics in the Hilbert space. While a choice of local tensor factorization of the Hilbert space is often implicit in the writing of a Hamiltonian or Lagrangian, the identification of local tensor factors is not intrinsic to the Hilbert space itself. Instead, the only basis-invariant data of a Hamiltonian is its spectrum, which does not manifestly determine the local structure.
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Singular value decomposition in bra-ket notation

In linear algebra, and therefore quantum information, the singular value decomposition (SVD) is elementary, ubiquitous, and beautiful. However, I only recently realized that its expression in bra-ket notation is very elegant. The SVD is equivalent to the statement that any operator \hat{M} can be expressed as

(1)   \begin{align*} \hat{M} = \sum_i \vert A_i \rangle \lambda_i \langle B_i \vert \end{align*}

where \vert A_i \rangle and \vert B_i \rangle are orthonormal sets of vectors, possibly in Hilbert spaces with different dimensionality, and the \lambda_i \ge 0 are the singular values.

That’s it.… [continue reading]

Comments on Bousso’s communication bound

Bousso has a recent paper bounding the maximum information that can be sent by a signal from first principles in QFT:

I derive a universal upper bound on the capacity of any communication channel between two distant systems. The Holevo quantity, and hence the mutual information, is at most of order E\Delta t/\hbar, where E the average energy of the signal, and \Delta t is the amount of time for which detectors operate. The bound does not depend on the size or mass of the emitting and receiving systems, nor on the nature of the signal. No restrictions on preparing and processing the signal are imposed. As an example, I consider the encoding of information in the transverse or angular position of a signal emitted and received by systems of arbitrarily large cross-section. In the limit of a large message space, quantum effects become important even if individual signals are classical, and the bound is upheld.

Here’s his first figure:

This all stems from vacuum entanglement, an oft-neglected aspect of QFT that Bousso doesn’t emphasize in the paper as the key ingredient.I thank Scott Aaronson for first pointing this out. a   The gradient term in the Hamiltonian for QFTs means that the value of the field at two nearby locations is always entangled.… [continue reading]

How to think about Quantum Mechanics—Part 1: Measurements are about bases

[This post was originally “Part 0”, but it’s been moved. Other parts in this series: 1,2,3,4,5,6.]

In an ideal world, the formalism that you use to describe a physical system is in a one-to-one correspondence with the physically distinct configurations of the system. But sometimes it can be useful to introduce additional descriptions, in which case it is very important to understand the unphysical over-counting (e.g., gauge freedom). A scalar potential V(x) is a very convenient way of representing the vector force field, F(x) = \partial V(x), but any constant shift in the potential, V(x) \to V(x) + V_0, yields forces and dynamics that are indistinguishable, and hence the value of the potential on an absolute scale is unphysical.

One often hears that a quantum experiment measures an observable, but this is wrong, or very misleading, because it vastly over-counts the physically distinct sorts of measurements that are possible. It is much more precise to say that a given apparatus, with a given setting, simultaneously measures all observables with the same eigenvectors. More compactly, an apparatus measures an orthogonal basis – not an observable.We can also allow for the measured observable to be degenerate, in which case the apparatus simultaneously measures all observables with the same degenerate eigenspaces.[continue reading]

Bleg: Classical theory of measurement and amplification

I’m in search of an authoritative reference giving a foundational/information-theoretic approach to classical measurement. What abstract physical properties are necessary and sufficient?

Motivation: The Copenhagen interpretation treats the measurement process as a fundamental primitive, and this persists in most uses of quantum mechanics outside of foundations. Of course, the modern view is that the measurement process is just another physical evolution, where the state of a macroscopic apparatus is conditioned on the state of a microscopic quantum system in some basis determined by their mutual interaction Hamiltonian. The apparent nonunitary aspects of the evolution inferred by the observer arises because the measured system is coupled to the observer himself; the global evolution of the system-apparatus-observer system is formally modeled as unitary (although the philosophical meaningfulness/ontology/reality of the components of the wavefunction corresponding to different measurement outcomes is disputed).

Eventually, we’d like to be able to identify all laboratory measurements as just an anthropocentric subset of wavefunction branching events. I am very interested in finding a mathematically precise criteria for branching.Note that the branches themselves may be only precisely defined in some large-N or thermodynamic limit. a   Ideally, I would like to find a property that everyone agrees must apply, at the least, to laboratory measurement processes, and (with as little change as possible) use this to find all branches — not just ones that result from laboratory measurements.… [continue reading]

Comments on an essay by Wigner

[PSA: Happy 4th of July. Juno arrives at Jupiter tonight!]

This is short and worth reading:

The sharp distinction between Initial Conditions and Laws of Nature was initiated by Isaac Newton and I consider this to be one of his most important, if not the most important, accomplishment. Before Newton there was no sharp separation between the two concepts. Kepler, to whom we owe the three precise laws of planetary motion, tried to explain also the size of the planetary orbits, and their periods. After Newton's time the sharp separation of initial conditions and laws of nature was taken for granted and rarely even mentioned. Of course, the first ones are quite arbitrary and their properties are hardly parts of physics while the recognition of the latter ones are the prime purpose of our science. Whether the sharp separation of the two will stay with us permanently is, of course, as uncertain as is all future development but this question will be further discussed later. Perhaps it should be mentioned here that the permanency of the validity of our deterministic laws of nature became questionable as a result of the realization, due initially to D.
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My talk on ideal quantum Brownian motion

I have blogged before about the conceptual importance of ideal, symplectic covariant quantum Brownian motion (QBM). In short: QBM is to open quantum systems as the harmonic oscillator is to closed quantum systems. Like the harmonic oscillator, (a) QBM is universal because it’s the leading-order behavior of a taylor series expansion; (b) QBM evolution has a very intuitive interpretation in terms of wavepackets evolving under classical flow; and (c) QBM is exactly solvable.

If that sounds like a diatribe up your alley, then you are in luck. I recently ranted about it here at PI. It’s just a summary of the literature; there are no new results. As always, I recommend downloading the raw video file so you can run it at arbitrary speed.

Abstract: In the study of closed quantum system, the simple harmonic oscillator is ubiquitous because all smooth potentials look quadratic locally, and exhaustively understanding it is very valuable because it is exactly solvable. Although not widely appreciated, Markovian quantum Brownian motion (QBM) plays almost exactly the same role in the study of open quantum systems. QBM is ubiquitous because it arises from only the Markov assumption and linear Lindblad operators, and it likewise has an elegant and transparent exact solution.
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Redundant consistency

I’m happy to announce the recent publication of a paper by Mike, Wojciech, and myself.

The Objective Past of a Quantum Universe: Redundant Records of Consistent Histories
C. Jess Riedel, Wojciech H. Zurek, and Michael Zwolak
Motivated by the advances of quantum Darwinism and recognizing the role played by redundancy in identifying the small subset of quantum states with resilience characteristic of objective classical reality, we explore the implications of redundant records for consistent histories. The consistent histories formalism is a tool for describing sequences of events taking place in an evolving closed quantum system. A set of histories is consistent when one can reason about them using Boolean logic, i.e., when probabilities of sequences of events that define histories are additive. However, the vast majority of the sets of histories that are merely consistent are flagrantly nonclassical in other respects. This embarras de richesses (known as the set selection problem) suggests that one must go beyond consistency to identify how the classical past arises in our quantum universe. The key intuition we follow is that the records of events that define the familiar objective past are inscribed in many distinct systems, e.g., subsystems of the environment, and are accessible locally in space and time to observers.
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KS entropy generated by entanglement-breaking quantum Brownian motion

A new paper of mine (PRA 93, 012107 (2016), arXiv:1507.04083) just came out. The main theorem of the paper is not deep, but I think it’s a clarifying result within a formalism that is deep: ideal quantum Brownian motion (QBM) in symplectic generality. In this blog post, I’ll refresh you on ideal QBM, quote my abstract, explain the main result, and then — going beyond the paper — show how it’s related to the Kolmogorov-Sinai entropy and the speed at which macroscopic wavefunctions branch.

Ideal QBM

If you Google around for “quantum Brownian motion”, you’ll come across a bunch of definitions that have quirky features, and aren’t obviously related to each other. This is a shame. As I explained in an earlier blog post, ideal QBM is the generalization of the harmonic oscillator to open quantum systems. If you think harmonic oscillator are important, and you think decoherence is important, then you should understand ideal QBM.

Harmonic oscillators are ubiquitous in the world because all smooth potentials look quadratic locally. Exhaustively understanding harmonic oscillators is very valuable because they are exactly solvable in addition to being ubiquitous. In an almost identical way, all quantum Markovian degrees of freedom look locally like ideal QBM, and their completely positive (CP) dynamics can be solved exactly.… [continue reading]

My talk on dark matter decoherence detection

I gave a talk recently on Itay’s and my latests results for detecting dark matter through the decoherence it induces in matter interferometers.

Quantum superpositions of matter are unusually sensitive to decoherence by tiny momentum transfers, in a way that can be made precise with a new diffusion standard quantum limit. Upcoming matter interferometers will produce unprecedented spatial superpositions of over a million nucleons. What sorts of dark matter scattering events could be seen in these experiments as anomalous decoherence? We show that it is extremely weak but medium range interaction between matter and dark matter that would be most visible, such as scattering through a Yukawa potential. We construct toy models for these interactions, discuss existing constraints, and delineate the expected sensitivity of forthcoming experiments. In particular, the OTIMA interferometer developing at the University of Vienna will directly probe many orders of magnitude of parameter space, and the proposed MAQRO satellite experiment would be vastly more sensitive yet. This is a multidisciplinary talk that will be accessible to a non-specialized audience.
[Download MP4]If you ever have problems finding the direct download link for videos on PI’s website (they are sometimes missing), this Firefox extension seems to do the trick.[continue reading]

Comments on Myrvold’s Taj Mahal

Last week I saw an excellent talk by philosopher Wayne Myrvold.

The Reeh-Schlieder theorem says, roughly, that, in any reasonable quantum field theory, for any bounded region of spacetime R, any state can be approximated arbitrarily closely by operating on the vacuum state (or any state of bounded energy) with operators formed by smearing polynomials in the field operators with functions having support in R. This strikes many as counterintuitive, and Reinhard Werner has glossed the theorem as saying that “By acting on the vacuum with suitable operations in a terrestrial laboratory, an experimenter can create the Taj Mahal on (or even behind) the Moon!” This talk has two parts. First, I hope to convince listeners that the theorem is not counterintuitive, and that it follows immediately from facts that are already familiar fare to anyone who has digested the opening chapters of any standard introductory textbook of QFT. In the second, I will discuss what we can learn from the theorem about how relativistic causality is implemented in quantum field theories.

(Download MP4 video here.)

The topic was well-defined, and of reasonable scope. The theorem is easily and commonly misunderstood.… [continue reading]

How fast do macroscopic wavefunctions branch?

Over at PhysicsOverflow, Daniel Ranard asked a question that’s near and dear to my heart:

How deterministic are large open quantum systems (e.g. with humans)?

Consider some large system modeled as an open quantum system — say, a person in a room, where the walls of the room interact in a boring way with some environment. Begin with a pure initial state describing some comprehensible configuration. (Maybe the person is sitting down.) Generically, the system will be in a highly mixed state after some time. Both normal human experience and the study of decoherence suggest that this state will be a mixture of orthogonal pure states that describe classical-like configurations. Call these configurations branches.

How much does a pure state of the system branch over human time scales? There will soon be many (many) orthogonal branches with distinct microscopic details. But to what extent will probabilities be spread over macroscopically (and noticeably) different branches?

I answered the question over there as best I could. Below, I’ll reproduce my answer and indulge in slightly more detail and speculation.

This question is central to my research interests, in the sense that completing that research would necessarily let me give a precise, unambiguous answer.… [continue reading]