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Glossary · History
The Copenhagen interpretation is one of the earliest and most commonly taught interpretations of quantum mechanics. It holds that quantum mechanics does not yield a description of an objective reality but deals only with probabilities of observing, or measuring, various aspects of energy quanta, entities which fit neither the classical idea of particles nor the classical idea of waves. According to the interpretation, the act of measurement causes the set of probabilities to immediately and randomly assume only one of the possible values. This feature of the mathematics is known as wavefunction collapse. The essential concepts of the interpretation were devised by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others in the years 1924–27.
Classical physics draws a distinction between particles and energy, holding that only the latter exhibit waveform characteristics, whereas quantum mechanics is based on the observation that matter has both wave and particle aspects and postulates that the state of every subatomic particle can be described by a wavefunction—a mathematical representation used to calculate the probability that the particle, if measured, will be in a given location or state of motion.
In the early work of Max Planck, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, the existence of energy in discrete quantities had been postulated, in order to explain phenomena, such as the spectrum of black-body radiation, the photoelectric effect, and the stability and spectrum of atoms such as hydrogen, that had eluded explanation by, and even appeared to be in contradiction with, classical physics. Also, while elementary particles showed predictable properties in many experiments, they became highly unpredictable in certain contexts, for example, if one attempted to measure their individual trajectories through a simple physical apparatus.
The Copenhagen interpretation is an attempt to explain the mathematical formulations of quantum mechanics and the corresponding experimental results. Early twentieth-century experiments on the physics of very small-scale phenomena led to the discovery of phenomena which could not be predicted on the basis of classical physics, and to the development of new models (theories) that described and predicted very accurately these micro-scale phenomena. These models could not easily be reconciled with the way objects are observed to behave on the macro scale of everyday life. The predictions they offered often appeared counter-intuitive and caused much consternation among the physicists—often including their discoverers.
Werner Heisenberg had been an assistant to Niels Bohr at his institute in Copenhagen during part of the 1920s, when they helped originate quantum mechanical theory. In 1929, Heisenberg gave a series of invited lectures at the University of Chicago explaining the new field of quantum mechanics. The lectures then served as the basis for his textbook, The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory, published in 1930. In the book's preface, Heisenberg wrote:
On the whole the book contains nothing that is not to be found in previous publications, particularly in the investigations of Bohr. The purpose of the book seems to me to be fulfilled if it contributes somewhat to the diffusion of that 'Kopenhagener Geist der Quantentheorie' [i.e., Copenhagen spirit of quantum theory] if I may so express myself, which has directed the entire development of modern atomic physics.
The term 'Copenhagen interpretation' suggests something more than just a spirit, such as some definite set of rules for interpreting the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics, presumably dating back to the 1920s. However, no such text exists, apart from some informal popular lectures by Bohr and Heisenberg, which contradict each other on several important issues. It appears that the particular term, with its more definite sense, was coined by Heisenberg in the 1950s, while criticizing alternate "interpretations" (e.g., David Bohm's) that had been developed. Lectures with the titles 'The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory' and 'Criticisms and Counterproposals to the Copenhagen Interpretation', that Heisenberg delivered in 1955, are reprinted in the collection Physics and Philosophy.
Because it consists of the views developed by a number of scientists and philosophers during the second quarter of the 20th Century, there is no definitive statement of the Copenhagen interpretation. Thus, various ideas have been associated with it; Asher Peres remarked that very different, sometimes opposite, views are presented as "the Copenhagen interpretation" by different authors. Nonetheless, there are several basic principles that are generally accepted as being part of the interpretation:
The Copenhagen Interpretation denies that the wave function is anything more than a theoretical concept, or is at least non-committal about its being a discrete entity or a discernible component of some discrete entity.
The subjective view, that the wave function is merely a mathematical tool for calculating the probabilities in a specific experiment, has some similarities to the Ensemble interpretation in that it takes probabilities to be the essence of the quantum state, but unlike the ensemble interpretation, it takes these probabilities to be perfectly applicable to single experimental outcomes, as it interprets them in terms of subjective probability.
There are some who say that there are objective variants of the Copenhagen Interpretation that allow for a "real" wave function, but it is questionable whether that view is really consistent with logical positivism and/or with some of Bohr's statements. Bohr emphasized that science is concerned with predictions of the outcomes of experiments, and that any additional propositions offered are not scientific but meta-physical. Bohr was heavily influenced by positivism. On the other hand, Bohr and Heisenberg were not in complete agreement, and they held different views at different times. Heisenberg in particular was prompted to move towards realism.
Even if the wave function is not regarded as real, there is still a divide between those who treat it as definitely and entirely subjective, and those who are non-committal or agnostic about the subject. An example of the agnostic view is given by Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, who, while participating in a colloquium at Cambridge, denied that the Copenhagen interpretation asserted: "What cannot be observed does not exist." He suggested instead that the Copenhagen interpretation follows the principle: "What is observed certainly exists; about what is not observed we are still free to make suitable assumptions. We use that freedom to avoid paradoxes."
All versions of the Copenhagen interpretation include at least a formal or methodological version of wave function collapse, in which unobserved eigenvalues are removed from further consideration. (In other words, Copenhagenists have always made the assumption of collapse, even in the early days of quantum physics, in the way that adherents of the Many-worlds interpretation have not.) In more prosaic terms, those who hold to the Copenhagen understanding are willing to say that a wave function involves the various probabilities that a given event will proceed to certain different outcomes. But when one or another of those more- or less-likely outcomes becomes manifest the other probabilities cease to have any function in the real world. So if an electron passes through a double slit apparatus there are various probabilities for where on the detection screen that individual electron will hit. But once it has hit, there is no longer any probability whatsoever that it will hit somewhere else. Many-worlds interpretations say that an electron hits wherever there is a possibility that it might hit, and that each of these hits occurs in a separate universe.
An adherent of the subjective view, that the wave function represents nothing but knowledge, would take an equally subjective view of "collapse".
According to a poll at a Quantum Mechanics workshop in 1997, the Copenhagen interpretation is the most widely-accepted specific interpretation of quantum mechanics, followed by the many-worlds interpretation. Although current trends show substantial competition from alternative interpretations, throughout much of the twentieth century the Copenhagen interpretation had strong acceptance among physicists. Astrophysicist and science writer John Gribbin describes it as having fallen from primacy after the 1980s.
The nature of the Copenhagen Interpretation is exposed by considering a number of experiments and paradoxes.
The completeness of quantum mechanics (thesis 1) was attacked by the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen thought experiment which was intended to show that quantum physics could not be a complete theory.
The Copenhagen Interpretation gives special status to measurement processes without clearly defining them or explaining their peculiar effects. In his article entitled "Criticism and Counterproposals to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory," countering the view of Alexandrov that (in Heisenberg's paraphrase) "the wave function in configuration space characterizes the objective state of the electron." Heisenberg says,
Of course the introduction of the observer must not be misunderstood to imply that some kind of subjective features are to be brought into the description of nature. The observer has, rather, only the function of registering decisions, i.e., processes in space and time, and it does not matter whether the observer is an apparatus or a human being; but the registration, i.e., the transition from the "possible" to the "actual," is absolutely necessary here and cannot be omitted from the interpretation of quantum theory.
Many physicists and philosophers have objected to the Copenhagen interpretation, both on the grounds that it is non-deterministic and that it includes an undefined measurement process that converts probability functions into non-probabilistic measurements. Einstein's comments "I, at any rate, am convinced that He (God) does not throw dice." and "Do you really think the moon isn't there if you aren't looking at it?" exemplify this. Bohr, in response, said "Einstein, don't tell God what to do".
All this familiar story is true, but it leaves out an irony. Bohr's version of quantum mechanics was deeply flawed, but not for the reason Einstein thought. The Copenhagen interpretation describes what happens when an observer makes a measurement, but the observer and the act of measurement are themselves treated classically. This is surely wrong: Physicists and their apparatus must be governed by the same quantum mechanical rules that govern everything else in the universe. But these rules are expressed in terms of a wave function (or, more precisely, a state vector) that evolves in a perfectly deterministic way. So where do the probabilistic rules of the Copenhagen interpretation come from? Considerable progress has been made in recent years toward the resolution of the problem, which I cannot go into here. It is enough to say that neither Bohr nor Einstein had focused on the real problem with quantum mechanics. The Copenhagen rules clearly work, so they have to be accepted. But this leaves the task of explaining them by applying the deterministic equation for the evolution of the wave function, the Schrödinger equation, to observers and their apparatus.
E. T. Jaynes, from a Bayesian point of view, pointed out probability is a measure of a human's information about the physical world. Quantum mechanics under the Copenhagen Interpretation interpreted probability as a physical phenomenon, which is what Jaynes called a Mind Projection Fallacy. A similar view is adopted in Quantum Information Theories.
The Ensemble interpretation is similar; it offers an interpretation of the wave function, but not for single particles. The consistent histories interpretation advertises itself as "Copenhagen done right". Although the Copenhagen interpretation is often confused with the idea that consciousness causes collapse, it defines an "observer" merely as that which collapses the wave function.
If the wave function is regarded as ontologically real, and collapse is entirely rejected, a many worlds theory results. If wave function collapse is regarded as ontologically real as well, an objective collapse theory is obtained. Dropping the principle that the wave function is a complete description results in a hidden variable theory.
Many physicists have subscribed to the instrumentalist interpretation of quantum mechanics, a position often equated with eschewing all interpretation. It is summarized by the sentence "Shut up and calculate!". While this slogan is sometimes attributed to Paul Dirac or Richard Feynman, it is in fact due to David Mermin.