# What does the act of observing do exactly?

• I
• benorin
In summary: I digressed but i got the idea that some participants in this thread are of the opinion that science has closed most chapters. No, we can only describe what we observe and at this point it's almost as if the fundamental mechanics of reality are invisible.I would say that science has not yet closed any chapters, but it is closing them at an exponential rate.

#### benorin

Homework Helper
My question is simple though I fear the answer may be complex: What does the act of observing do exactly? I hear observing does some unexpected things in quantum (I wouldn't doubt there is a religon based on it).

I am a math major with a love of physics though I'm not that versed in it so please do pile on the formulas if you wish but be nice with the physics. Thanks for responding in advance,

-Ben Orin

It may range from checking whether a silver spot is on the left or right to a click in a photodetector to recording a number in the memory of a computer. It even may mean doing months of calculations and checks based on collision experiments to measure the mass of the Higgs particle.

That the act of observing does something to the observed system is of the same kind as that observing timid game. However, microscopic events are sometimes so timid that one usually (i.e., except in nondemolition experiments) cannot avoid at all affecting the observed with the observation.

The claims of the Copenhagen interpretation that an observation forces the state vector to collapse to an eigenstate of the operator observed corrsponding to the eigenvalue measured is an approximate idealized description of the measurement process, appropriate in simple cases (only).

The claim ignores that observations take time, that measurement results ae often inaccurate, and that many real measurements are not related to an operator but rather to a POVM. It also ignores that observation is done in the frame of an observer, and that different observers may therefore - in the same situation - measure different things. Finally, it completely abstracts from what it means to make a measurement/observation.

As a mathematician you'll probably like my online book on quantum mechanics.

dlgoff, QuantumQuest and bhobba
benorin said:
(I wouldn't doubt there is a religon based on it).
You'll see that interpretations of quantum mechanics are like religion - fiercely debated, without the possibility to reach agreement. The agnostic part is called shut-up-and-calculate, but it leaves unanswered all important questions of how the math relates to reality - or answered ad hoc on a subjective case-by-case basis in terms of pieces of unreflected material from one or more of the established religions.

Last edited:
bhobba
benorin said:
It should read: ''Thanks in advance for responding'' - unless you think we have time machines.

Demystifier and AlexCaledin
A. Neumaier said:
It should read: ''Thanks in advance for responding'' - unless you think we have time machines.
:-) Relativistic??

benorin said:
My question is simple though I fear the answer may be complex: What does the act of observing do exactly?

From my reading of W. Heisenberg and H. Stapp (who subscribes to Whitehead's view) I got the simplest answer: the act of observing does physical reality - that is, the physical reality consists of observation acts (events); but events are connected by the underworld ("realm") of potentiality which is what QM calculates.

AlexCaledin said:
the physical reality consists of observation acts (events); but events are connected by the underworld ("realm") of potentiality
And what about the reality before there were observers? Did our universe emerge from the preexisting underworld the moment when the first human (or the first amoeba?) observed something?

Well, yes, when the observation process started, the universe emerged;
how exactly it started is not a scientific question...

People generally act different when they know they are observed.

Demystifier and 1oldman2
AlexCaledin said:
Well, yes, when the observation process started, the universe emerged;
how exactly it started is not a scientific question...

Huh?

houlahound said:
People generally act different when they know they are observed.
So do photons in a double slit experiment.

BCHC and Demystifier
Most deep questions are not scientific. One cannot build anything from just fundamental particles as most classical processes emerge and are not resultant of properties of fundamental particles. Embrace emergence, it's already established as science.

Bruno81 said:
most classical processes emerge and are not resultant of properties of fundamental particles.
All classical processes emerge as good approximations of the interplay of fundamental quantum fields.

Nothing can emerge unless it results from more fundamental processes.

Fundamental processes is not the same as fundamental particles in your usage, right? Because if not, pretty much nothing that we observe can be derived from the properties of electrons and quarks. I digressed but i got the idea that some participants in this thread are of the opinion that science has closed most chapters. No, we can only describe what we observe and at this point it's almost as if the fundamental mechanics of reality are invisible.

How so?

Bruno81 said:
Fundamental processes is not the same as fundamental particles in your usage, right?
For each level that is not fundamental there is a more fundamental level below from which that level emerges as a n effective theory.

Of course it will always be unknown whether what we regard as fundamental is not also only a level with more below. But I wouldn't be surprised if with quantum gravity plus the standard model we already reached the bottom.

Yes. And taken at both ends, we can never deduce what we observe from the lowest level of fundamental particles. Just looking at electrons and quarks you'd never deem possible the emergence of vision, metabolism, hunger, appetite, bacteria, rain, computers, grannies, etc

But all those phenomena can only be explained coherently because of knowledge of quarks

That's why science is the best explaining g tool humans have invented, nothing g Is better or even close.

Quite the opposite - 'knowing of quarks' explains nothing of the observed behaviours i referenced above. QM would be the worst example one can find for describing observed reality in ALL fields of science. Period.

I disagree, we can explain chemical bonds by QM, that = everything.

Bruno81 said:
Quite the opposite - 'knowing of quarks' explains nothing of the observed behaviours i referenced above.

It proceeds by each layer explaining the one above. The standard model explains atoms which explains chemistry etc etc. Why anyone would think otherwise has me beat.

Thanks
Bill

A. Neumaier said:
Nothing can emerge unless it results from more fundamental processes.

tautological: that's the definition of emergence

A. Neumaier said:
I wouldn't be surprised if with quantum gravity plus the standard model we already reached the bottom.

I would. I'll wager 1000 bragging points that in 2 decades you'll see I was right. But since I won't be around to collect my winnings, at that time you'll have to take 1000 anti-bragging points yourself ... are we on?

Bruno81 said:
Just looking at electrons and quarks you'd never deem possible the emergence of vision, metabolism, hunger, appetite, bacteria, rain, computers, grannies, etc

very true

Bruno81 said:
QM would be the worst example one can find for describing observed reality in ALL fields of science.

now you're overdoing it

bhobba said:
The standard model explains atoms which explains chemistry etc etc. Why anyone would think otherwise has me beat.

Their reasons can be summed up by the phenomenon called emergence - I suppose

so emergence is just a catch all label for splaining everything from the bottom up except with none of the splaining ie, just the label that sits on top.

amiright?

houlahound said:
so emergence is just a catch all label for splaining everything from the bottom up except with none of the splaining ie, just the label that sits on top.

I don't quite understand your point.

But as practical matter its done that way. Of course in principle you could use the standard model to directly explain say biochemistry but you would have rocks in your head to try that.

Gell Mann has an interesting take:
https://www.ted.com/talks/murray_gell_mann_on_beauty_and_truth_in_physics?language=en

Thanks
Bill

Last edited:
Dear benorin,

The mathematical formalism adopted by Werner Heisenberg leaves clear that in the instant the observation of one particle is made, all probabilities disappear. Strangely, since the formulation made to this day, numerous discussions about the significance of this disappearance occur, maintaining that there is something misterious in it (Copenhagen interpretation). Nevertheless, when we have a dice in hand before we throw it the possibility of each face falling upside is one to six. In the moment it falls upon the table and immobilize, to us it's clear one can no more speak of probabilities, as one of the faces was defined. Its obvious, there is nothing misterious in it, as even Einstein and Niels Bohr concurred. A supposed “observator's influence” is therefore nonsense.

benorin and marcophys
I find the question in this thread extremely justified. In all humility I for myself have arranged myself starting from the point of view that physics does not deal with reality but with models that allow to predict an observed behaviour. So for myself I do live with the fact for me, that reality has not been perceived by us, but that the physics of creating models that allow to predict correctly and even discover where they do no fit is helping us to improve our models. The experiment with the photon and the 2 slits for me is a valid prove that we have not yet approached what reality is and even the notion of reality could be questioned.
I think humanity has find out how much we have to still research when you consider what a small amount of the universe we have been able to perceive at all. Black energy and black matter being the topic.
Reflecting about our universe in the context of the 6 numbers so crucial for the universe being as it is, according to our physical models, and adding to this the concept of a multiverse as sheets next to each other, why not trying to identify how parameters would have to be to achieve a goal, like getting from one place to another without the limitation of the speed of light! Why not trying to find more parameters of our universe that having a certain value would make the above achievable for a civilization as ours. Basically not only looking for parameters that explain what we observe, but also parameters that make objectives feasible! Why could it not be that we happen to be that sheet in a multiverse where those parameters apply?

benorin
I greatly enjoyed "Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality" by Manjit Kumar. Two of the greatest minds of the 20th century couldn't agree on an answer to your question. But the book (and it's not the only one) is more about philosophy with a great deal of fascinating history. I haven't studied any of this in many years, but for what it's worth I had problems with both viewpoints. There's something extremely weird (to us macroscopic beings) going on at that size.

Charles Carter said:
I greatly enjoyed "Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality" by Manjit Kumar..

I have a copy of that, and yes I also enjoyed it also.

Another book you may not have come across is 'The Quantum Story' by Jim Baggott. I also enjoyed that.

houlahound said:
I disagree, we can explain chemical bonds by QM, that = everything.
Can QM predict the density of water?

Zafa Pi said:
Can QM predict the density of water?

There are a number of parameters that we don't know how to determine, from first principles:
1. The charge of the electron.
2. The mass of the electron.
3. The mass of a hydrogen nucleus.
4. The mass of an oxygen nucleus.
But I think that quantum mechanics can in principle determine all the other properties of water from these parameters. In practice, I'm not sure how much is actually doable.

The act of observing proves we are here. Would then the anthropic principle then set some tight tolerances on the charge of the electron in natural units?

What does the act of observing do exactly?
Some interesting philosophical replies in this thread, however, my guess is that you were looking for a rational explanation.
Here is how an engineer would view it (pompously speaking on behalf of engineers, so please forgive me):

Using 'two slits' as the ideal
We have a light sensor attached to a computer - a 'gate open' records, a 'gate closed' we don't record.

We passively observe the results of impact.

The impact has occurred... our observation changes nothing because the impact has already happened.​

We passively observe the projectile, on course, prior to impact.

If this was a large solid object, it would be reflecting light.
We would be observing reflected light - not the object.
Therefore, this would be no different to observing the results of impact.
Ie. No change​

Even an extremely small solid object reflects, or blocks light.
Whether the gate is open or closed... no change occurs.​

We now examine the passage of a photon.

Does it block light, or reflect light?
If another photon hits it... does it change course?

The question is:
Can we observe the photon by observing it's interaction with it's immediate environment?

Let us say we can observe the consequences of interaction.
Other photons are disturbed, and these enter the sensor.
In effect, these are physical results that indicate the passage of the monitored photon.
Whether the gate is open or closed, has no bearing on the photon.
The photon is doing what it is doing, regardless of our recording of the event.

As long as we change nothing, we record the physical event.
The photons random nature is irrelevant to us.
We observed 'it'.
Whether the gate was open or closed... the photon was there.​

The problems occur when we cannot monitor interaction.

Let's say that we must apply a force, which the photon passage must alter.
The force must impact upon the photon.
But... if the force is ever present... the photon must do what it will do, in the presence of this force.
This, regardless of whether our distant gate is open or closed.
Therefore, we still record reality, only that it is a reality modified by our applied force.​

The concept that 'the position of the photon would change according to whether the gate is open or closed' is purely theoretical.

We will have recorded the physical reality.

That is the engineer's view ( er nice ) of observation.

Tollendal said:
numerous discussions about the significance of this disappearance occur, maintaining that there is something misterious in it (Copenhagen interpretation).

Things have moved on a lot since the early pioneers musings.

Decoherence has illuminated things. The issue now is why do we get any outcomes at all or technically how an improper mixed state becomes a proper one. The formalism is silent on it. My ignorance ensemble interpretation simply assumes it does. Other interpretations have their own take eg in BM its trivial because particles have real properties at all times.

The modern version of Copenhagen is consistent/decoherent histories where QM is the stochastic theory of histories. Interestingly its often described as many worlds without the many worlds.

Thanks
Bill

marcophys said:
What does the act of observing do exactly?

Its simply an interaction that leads to decoherence.

Thanks
Bill

benorin said:
My question is simple though I fear the answer may be complex: What does the act of observing do exactly? I hear observing does some unexpected things in quantum (I wouldn't doubt there is a religon based on it).

I am a math major with a love of physics though I'm not that versed in it so please do pile on the formulas if you wish but be nice with the physics. Thanks for responding in advance,

-Ben Orin

Well, it is said that the act of observing something will alter it. Basically, my impression is that, in order to get information about what's happening, there must be interaction, and interaction alters the inputs. This is not a specifically quantum mechanical idea, but it does become important there.

For example, while it may seem that macro-scale objects are not being altered as we observe them, every photon striking the surface is altering the object, and the object is altering the photons. The frequency of the light changes i.e. the color changes, and when said photons enter a person's eye they can see the different colors of all the objects around them.

It's just that a photon being so tiny relative to an average macro-scale object, the changes are not significant to that object. This is great on the macro-scale, but in quantum mechanics one is obviously concerned with the behavior of the very small, and there's nothing smaller to observe it with. An average hardcover book, for example, could be said to be about 10^17 larger than a particular photon. But if you want to observe a photon, there's nothing out there 10^17 smaller than a photon.

Last edited: