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Quantum Reality Poll Redux: Young Guns

As the strange yet successful field of quantum mechanics has grown over the past century, its many philosophical interpretations have also mushroomed. Physicists remain divided over how to interpret quantum mechanics, with philosophies ranging from the "many-worlds" hypothesis to the "shut up and calculate" mindset.

A few months ago, quantum physicist Maximillian Schlosshauer (University of Portland) and his colleagues published a poll among a group of physicists, philosophers, and mathematicians on their views of quantum mechanics and the nature of reality.

Now another physicist, Christoph Sommer (University of Munster, Germany) has posed the same questions to a younger crowd: graduate students. While the students' philosophical views often mirror those of their older counterparts, they diverge on several key questions from the 16-question poll on the foundations of quantum mechanics.

One of the questions from the graduate student poll. Image Credit: Christoph Sommer

For the original questionnaire, Schlosshauer et al. polled 48 scientists and philosophers at a conference on the foundations of quantum mechanics. The latest poll, however, featured responses from 33 attendees to a different conference — almost exclusively graduate students.

Several differences emerged between the students and the more experienced researchers, as exemplified in their reactions to the measurement problem. Physicists and philosophers continue to debate how or if wavefunctions collapse — a problem made clear by the Schrodinger's Cat thought experiment.

Although such thought experiments raise worries about the standard Copenhagen interpretation for some, many of the younger physicists think the measurement problem has been definitively solved. As you can see, the older researchers aren't so quick to dismiss this problem.

Graduate Student Responses

Seasoned Researcher Responses

The first group of researchers were also more likely than their younger colleagues to commit to a specific interpretation of quantum mechanics. Over 40 percent of the graduate students had no preferred interpretation while only 12 percent of the first group remained uncommitted.

On many other questions, the percentages for graduate students largely agreed with the first group. Despite this agreement, the responses within the respective groups varied widely, suggesting that many of these philosophical debates remain unsettled in the community.

At the end of the questionnaire, pollster Sommer asked the attendees if these debates and conferences would happen 50 years from now. Many thought they would, and some even suggested they'll organize a conference no matter what (maybe the catering is just that good).

This poll may not be a perfect representation of the wider physics and philosophy community in graduate school; there's some self-selection bias when you poll attendees at a conference on the foundations of quantum mechanics. For instance, I imagine many graduate students in physics don't engage with these questions very often and prefer to stick to the physics and calculations of their field.

Nonetheless, it's interesting to see the divide, albeit small, between current and future leaders within the foundations community. Hopefully, physicists will keep polling their colleagues so we can see how these views evolve over time. For now, you can see all of the poll responses and even how responses correlated with each other in Sommer's arXiv paper.


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