It is not usually recognized that Quantum Field Theory gives a simple answer to the “measurement problem” which was discussed on the September letters page of Physics Today. But by QFT I do not mean Feynman’s particle-based theory; I imply Schwinger’s QFT where “there are no particles, there are only fields”.1.

The fields exist in the form of quanta, i.e., chunks or units of field, as Planck pictured over a century ago. Field quanta evolve in a deterministic way defined by the field equations of QFT, aside from when a quantum abruptly deposits some or all of its energy or momentum into an absorbing atom. This is called “quantum collapse” and it is not defined by the field equations. As a matter of fact there is no principle that describes it. Everything we understand is that the likelihood of it occurring depends upon the field strength at a given location. Or, if it is an interior collapse, like a shift in angular momentum, the likelihood depends on the component of angular momentum in the given direction. In QFT this collapse is a physical event, not a mere shift in probabilities as in Quantum Mechanics.

Many physicists are bothered by the non-locality of quantum collapse in which a spread-out field (or perhaps two correlated quanta) unexpectedly vanishes or transforms its internal state. Yet non-locality is needed if quanta are to work as a unit, and it has been experimentally proven. It does not result in inconsistencies or paradoxes. It may not be what we anticipated, but just as we accepted that the world is round, that the planet orbits the sun, that matter is built from atoms, we ought to be able to acknowledge that quanta can collapse.

In some cases quantum collapse can bring about a macroscopic change or “measurement”. Yet the measurement outcome, i.e., the “decision”, was determined at the quantum level. Everything after the collapse follows without doubt. There is no “superposition” or “environment-driven process of decoherence.”.

Take Schrödinger’s cat as an example. If a radiated quantum collapses and transfers its energy into 1 or more atoms of the Geiger counter, that starts a Townsend discharge that leads inexorably to the demise of the cat. In Schrödinger’s words, “the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer which shatters a little flask of hydrocyanic acid” and the cat dies. On the other hand, if it does not collapse in the Geiger counter then the cat lives.

Obviously we don’t know the outcome until we look, but we never know anything until we look, no matter if it’s throwing dice or picking a sock blindfolded. The fate of the cat was determined at the time of quantum collapse, just like the result of throwing dice is determined when they hit the table and the color of the sock is determined when it is taken out of the drawer. After the quantum collapse there is no entanglement, no superposition, no decoherence, only ignorance. What could be easier?

Along with delivering a simple solution to the measurement problem, Quantum Field Theory offers a reasonable explanation for the paradoxes of Relativity (Lorentz contraction, time dilation, etc.) and Quantum Mechanics (wave-particle duality, etc.). It is regrettable that so few physicists have accepted QFT in the Schwinger sense.

Follow the Fields of Color Blog for more info from Dr. Rodney A. Brooks.