Physics for Dummies [Resources]

The purpose of this thread is to to help members without a science background have a basic understanding of the physics concepts that often play an important role in many of the discussions that go on in this forum so that they may better be able to follow and participate in the higher level discussions.

This thread is to post articles or videos presenting basic physics concepts, arguments, interpretations in a lay-friendly, educative manner, geared for the general public.

As with other resource threads, this thread should not be for discussion.

To start it off:

What is the Wave Function - Instant Egghead #50
What is a Field - Instant Egghead #42


The Theoretical Minimum

A number of years ago I became aware of the large number of physics enthusiasts out there who have no venue to learn modern physics and cosmology. Fat advanced textbooks are not suitable to people who have no teacher to ask questions of, and the popular literature does not go deeply enough to satisfy these curious people. So I started a series of courses on modern physics at Stanford University where I am a professor of physics. The courses are specifically aimed at people who know, or once knew, a bit of algebra and calculus, but are more or less beginners.

Separating interpretation from learning physics, there's physics stuff in the Information & Reality thread.
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This seemed like the best place for this - Arouet if you think it distracts let me know will move it.

Can Quantum Computing Reveal the True Meaning of Quantum Mechanics?

But the Many-Worlders don’t need to take this lying down. They could respond, for example, by pointing to other, more specialized communication problems, in which it’s been proven that Alice and Bob can solve using exponentially fewer qubits than classical bits. Here’s one example of such a problem, drawing on a 1999 theorem of Ran Raz and a 2010 theorem of Boaz Klartag and Oded Regev: Alice knows a vector in a high-dimensional space, while Bob knows two orthogonal subspaces. Promised that the vector lies in one of the two subspaces, can you figure out which one holds the vector? Quantumly, Alice can encode the components of her vector as amplitudes—in effect, squeezing n numbers into exponentially fewer qubits. And crucially, after receiving those qubits, Bob can measure them in a way that doesn’t reveal everything about Alice’s vector, but does reveal which subspace it lies in, which is the one thing Bob wanted to know.

So, do the Many Worlds become “real” for these special problems, but retreat back to being artifacts of the math for ordinary information transmission?

To my mind, one of the wisest replies came from the mathematician and quantum information theorist Boris Tsirelson, who said: “a quantum possibility is more real than a classical possibility, but less real than a classical reality.” In other words, this is a new ontological category, one that our pre-quantum intuitions simply don’t have a good slot for. From this perspective, the contribution of quantum computing is to delineate for which tasks the giant amplitude wave acts “real and Many-Worldish,” and for which other tasks it acts “formal and Copenhagenish.” Quantum computing can give both sides plenty of fresh ammunition, without handing an obvious victory to either.

So then, is there any interpretation that flat-out doesn’t fare well under the lens of quantum computing? While some of my colleagues will strongly disagree, I’d put forward Bohmian mechanics as a candidate. Recall that David Bohm’s vision was of real particles, occupying definite positions in ordinary three-dimensional space, but which are jostled around by a giant amplitude wave in a way that perfectly reproduces the predictions of quantum mechanics. A key selling point of Bohm’s interpretation is that it restores the determinism of classical physics: all the uncertainty of measurement, we can say in his picture, arises from lack of knowledge of the initial conditions. I’d describe Bohm’s picture as striking and elegant—as long as we’re only talking about one or two particles at a time.

My conclusion is that, if you believe in the reality of Bohmian trajectories, you believe that Nature does even more computational work than a quantum computer could efficiently simulate—but then it hides the fruits of its labor where no one can ever observe it. Now, this sits uneasily with a principle that we might call “Occam’s Razor with Computational Aftershave.” Namely: In choosing a picture of physical reality, we should be loath to posit computational effort on Nature’s part that vastly exceeds what could ever in principle be observed. (Admittedly, some people would probably argue that the Many Worlds interpretation violates my “aftershave principle” even more flagrantly than Bohmian mechanics does! But that depends, in part, on what we count as “observation”: just our observations, or also the observations of any parallel-universe doppelgängers?)
Go Deeper
Editor’s picks for further reading

Nature News: Quantum Physics: What is really real?
Science writer Zeeya Merali discusses new experiments designed to rule out, or confirm, different interpretations of quantum mechanics.

The Nature of Reality: Debating the Meaning of Quantum Mechanics
An introduction to some of the leading interpretations of quantum mechanics.


Quantum computing for the determined

To work through the videos you need to be comfortable with basic linear algebra, and with assimilating new mathematical terminology. If you’re not, working through the videos will be arduous at best! Apart from that background, the main prerequisite is determination, and the willingness to work more than once over material you don’t fully understand.

In particular, you don’t need a background in quantum mechanics to follow the videos.

The videos are short, from 5-15 minutes, and each video focuses on explaining one main concept from quantum mechanics or quantum computing. In taking this approach I was inspired by the excellent Khan Academy.

The course is not complete — I originally planned about 8 more videos. The extra videos would complete my summary of basic quantum mechanics (+2 videos), and cover reversible computing (+2 videos), and Grover’s quantum search algorithm (+4 videos). Unfortunately, work responsibilities that couldn’t be put aside meant I had to put the remaining videos on hold. If lots of people work through the existing videos and are keen for more, then I’ll find time to finish them off. As it is, I hope the incomplete series is still useful.