As Theories Age

I’ve been noticing that some theories in physics are being misunderstood in publications and perhaps by some of the scientists working on them, and I wonder if this is a natural phenomena or something different.

Let’s take the physics theory of Superposition as an example. This theory describes what amounts to a useful statiscal framework for modeling particles which we cannot by any means fully measure. This begins with the Heisenburg uncertainty principle and propagates out from that. Occassionally averaging away as matter is aggregated. (i.e. You can measure the position and velocity of a baseball together and at high accuracy, But you could never measure both the position and velocity of any of the electrons in its atoms at the same time.) Schrodinger described a thought experiment in which the effect of the uncertainty was multiplied such that if a radioactive element decayed (which would be a time random occurance) it would trigger the release of poisonous gas into a box containing a cat. He then said that while the box was closed, and we can’t see into it, there exists some probability that the cat is dead, and some probability that the cat is fine, and as good scientists, we must account for both possibilities simultaneously, weighted by their probabilities.

The problem was that it was an attractive concept to say that while it was in the box, The cat existed as both alive and dead. That of course, is not happening, as can be proven by installing a window in the box and looking in. If you watch through the window, the cat stays alive, unless, at some point the poison is released and it dies. There would be no observable superposition state.

For certain particles in physics, they always have a probability distribution which includes all of their possible positions and momentums (often more easily dealt with as energy levels). In this way, each one can be said to be like Schrodinger’s cat, except no window can ever be installed (without shaking the foundations of modern physics, that is). Now, since no window can ever be installed, and good physicists must account for all probabilities, they will often say, that the particle exists as those probabilities Superimposed, because it doesn’t matter if they are or are not. We will always have to treat them like they are the Superposition. But it is still a fundamental and important distinction that no one can disprove that at any given time the particle can be in one and only one of the many possible states.

So when I hear about studies claiming to have proved Superposition, it grinds my gears, because the only way to do that first involves installing an impossible window, and then observing that something was in more than one state simultaneously (weighted by probability). And every time someone makes such a claim it always involves a measurement at or after the collapse of the wave function anyway, and thereby not proving anything other than statistics.

Back to my original point of this misunderstanding being a sort of natural phenomena for people, I guess I just wonder if years of oversimplifying a beautiful and complex theory could lead to something which is anethema to good science, hard core belief in certain theories. My view is that we should treat scientific theories like we treat electrons. They each have some probability of being correct based on our measurements, and as good physicists, we should account for them all (weighted by probability, of course). Then, as we get more measurements, perhaps some theories become more probable and others less so, no harm, no foul, no belief, just science.

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