Rebuilding Quantum Theory from Scratch

Some researchers want to know why quantum mechanics has the form it does, and they are engaged in an ambitious program to find out. It is called quantum reconstruction, and it amounts to trying to rebuild the theory from scratch based on a few simple principles.

Quantum Mechanics arose out of attempts to understand how atoms and molecules interact with light and other radiation, phenomena that classical physics couldn’t explain. Quantum theory was empirically motivated, and its rules were simply ones that seemed to fit what was observed. It uses mathematical formulas that, while tried and trusted, were essentially pulled out of a hat by the pioneers of the theory in the early 20th century.

Compare this with the ground rules, or axioms, of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which was as revolutionary in its way as quantum mechanics. Before Einstein, there was an untidy collection of equations to describe how light behaves from the point of view of a moving observer. Einstein dispelled the mathematical fog with two simple and intuitive principles: that the speed of light is constant, and that the laws of physics are the same for two observers moving at constant speed relative to one another. Grant these basic principles, and the rest of the theory follows. Not only are the axioms simple, but we can see at once what they mean in physical terms.

Some researchers suspect that ultimately the axioms of a quantum reconstruction will be about information: what can and can’t be done with it. One such derivation of quantum theory based on axioms about information was proposed in 2010 by Chiribella.

Their principles state that information should be localized in space and time, that systems should be able to encode information about each other, and that every process should in principle be reversible, so that information is conserved.

A further approach in the spirit of quantum reconstruction is called quantum Bayesianism, or QBism.

So how do we choose between the options available? “My suspicion now is that there is still a deeper level to go to in understanding quantum theory,” Hardy said. And he hopes that this deeper level will point beyond quantum theory, to the elusive goal of a quantum theory of gravity.

Right now, quantum reconstruction has few adherents — which pleases Hardy, as it means that it’s still a relatively tranquil field. But if it makes serious inroads into quantum gravity, that will surely change. In the 2011 poll, about a quarter of the respondents felt that quantum reconstructions will lead to a new, deeper theory. A one-in-four chance certainly seems worth a shot.