The Quantum Mechanics of Voting

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 23, 2017 by telescoper

Now that I’ve finished a marathon session of report-writing I thought I’d take a few minutes out this Friday afternoon, have a cup of tea and pass on a rather silly thought I had the other day about the relationship between Quantum Mechanics (and specifically the behaviour of spin therein) and voting behaviour in elections and referendums.

Gratuitous picture of a Stern-Gerlach experiment

For a start here’s a brief summary of the usual quantum-mechanical context as it relates to, e.g., electrons (rather than elections). Being fermions, electrons possess half-integer spin. This attribute has the property that a measurement of its component in any direction has only two possible values, ±½ in units of Planck’s constant. In the Stern-Gerlach experiment illustrated above, which measures the spin in the vertical direction of silver atoms emerging from a source, the outcome is either “up” or “down”, not some spread of values in between. Silver has a single unpaired electron which is why its atoms behave in this respect in the same way as an individual electron.

The way this is often described in physics textbooks is to say that the operator corresponding to spin in the z-direction has only two eigenstates  (call these ↑ and ↓) ; the act of measurement has to select one of them, not some intermediate state. If the source is thermal then the spins of individual atoms have no preferred direction so 50% turn out to be ↑ and 50% to be ↓ as shown in the cartoon.

Once such measurement has been made, a given particle remains in the same eigenstate, which means that if it is passed through another similar measuring device it will always turn out to have spin pointing in the same direction. If you like, the particle has been `prepared’ in a given state by the act of measurement.

This applies as long as no attempt is made to make a measurement of the spin in a different direction, which is when the fun starts. If we start with a particle in the ↑ state and then pass it through an experiment that measures spin (say) with respect to the x-axis instead of the z-axis then the two allowed eigenstates are then not ↑ and ↓ but ← and →.  A particle that was definitely spin-up would then be forced to decide between spin-left and spin-right (each would have a  50% probability).

Suppose now we took our long-suffering particle that began with spin ↑ after a measurement in the z-direction, then turned out to be spin → when we measured it in the x-direction. What would happen if we repeated the z-measurement? The answer is that “preparing” the particle in the → state destroys the information about the fact that it was previously prepared in the ↑ state –  the outcome of this second z-measurement is that the particle that was previously definitely ↑ now has a 50% chance of being either ↑ or ↓.

So what does all this have to do with voting? It is clear than an election (or a referendum) is very far from a simple act of measurement. During the campaign the various sides of the debate make attempts to prepare a given voter in a given state. In the case of last year’s EU referendum the choice of eigenstates was `Leave’ or `Remain’;  no other possibilities were allowed. The referendum then `prepared’ each voter in one or other of these possibilities.

If voters behaved quantum mechanically each would stay in their chosen state until some other measurement were attempted. But that’s exactly what did happen. Earlier this month there was a General Election. More than two parties were represented, but let’s simplify and assume there were only two options, `Labour’ and `Conservative’.

Now it is true that the `Leave’ camp was dominated by the right wing of the Conservative party, and the majority of Labour voters voted `Remain’, but there were a significant number of Labour Leave voters and a significant number of Tories voted Remain. While these pairs of states are therefore not exactly orthogonal, they are clearly not measuring the same thing so the situation is somewhat analogous to the spin measurement problem.

So along came the General Election result which `prepared’ voters in a state of `Labour’ or `Conservative’, with a slight preference for the latter whereas the earlier referendum had prepared a them in a state of `Leave’ versus `Remain’ with a slight preference for the former. From a quantum mechanical perspective, however, you can further argue that the General Election prepared the voters in such a way that should have erased memories of their vote in the referendum so the previous BrExit vote is now invalid.

There’s only one way to test this quantum-mechanical interpretation of voting patterns, and that is by repeating the EU Referendum…

A Quite Interesting Question: How Loud Was the Big Bang?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on March 16, 2017 by telescoper

I just found out this morning that this blog got a mention on the QI Podcast. It’s taken a while for this news to reach me, as the item concerned is two years old! You can find this discussion here, about 16 minutes in. And no, it’s not in connection with yawning psychopaths. It was about the vexed question of how loud was the Big Bang?

I’ve posted on this before (here and here)but since I’m very busy again today I  should recycle the discussion, and update it as it relates to the cosmic microwave background, which is what one of the things I work on on the rare occasions on which I get to do anything interesting.

As you probably know the Big Bang theory involves the assumption that the entire Universe – not only the matter and energy but also space-time itself – had its origins in a single event a finite time in the past and it has been expanding ever since. The earliest mathematical models of what we now call the  Big Bang were derived independently by Alexander Friedman and George Lemaître in the 1920s. The term “Big Bang” was later coined by Fred Hoyle as a derogatory description of an idea he couldn’t stomach, but the phrase caught on. Strictly speaking, though, the Big Bang was a misnomer.

Friedman and Lemaître had made mathematical models of universes that obeyed the Cosmological Principle, i.e. in which the matter was distributed in a completely uniform manner throughout space. Sound consists of oscillating fluctuations in the pressure and density of the medium through which it travels. These are longitudinal “acoustic” waves that involve successive compressions and rarefactions of matter, in other words departures from the purely homogeneous state required by the Cosmological Principle. The Friedman-Lemaitre models contained no sound waves so they did not really describe a Big Bang at all, let alone how loud it was.

However, as I have blogged about before, newer versions of the Big Bang theory do contain a mechanism for generating sound waves in the early Universe and, even more importantly, these waves have now been detected and their properties measured.

The above image shows the variations in temperature of the cosmic microwave background as charted by the Planck Satellite. The average temperature of the sky is about 2.73 K but there are variations across the sky that have an rms value of about 0.08 milliKelvin. This corresponds to a fractional variation of a few parts in a hundred thousand relative to the mean temperature. It doesn’t sound like much, but this is evidence for the existence of primordial acoustic waves and therefore of a Big Bang with a genuine “Bang” to it.

A full description of what causes these temperature fluctuations would be very complicated but, roughly speaking, the variation in temperature you corresponds directly to variations in density and pressure arising from sound waves.

So how loud was it?

The waves we are dealing with have wavelengths up to about 200,000 light years and the human ear can only actually hear sound waves with wavelengths up to about 17 metres. In any case the Universe was far too hot and dense for there to have been anyone around listening to the cacophony at the time. In some sense, therefore, it wouldn’t have been loud at all because our ears can’t have heard anything.

Setting aside these rather pedantic objections – I’m never one to allow dull realism to get in the way of a good story- we can get a reasonable value for the loudness in terms of the familiar language of decibels. This defines the level of sound (L) logarithmically in terms of the rms pressure level of the sound wave Prms relative to some reference pressure level Pref

L=20 log10[Prms/Pref].

(the 20 appears because of the fact that the energy carried goes as the square of the amplitude of the wave; in terms of energy there would be a factor 10).

There is no absolute scale for loudness because this expression involves the specification of the reference pressure. We have to set this level by analogy with everyday experience. For sound waves in air this is taken to be about 20 microPascals, or about 2×10-10 times the ambient atmospheric air pressure which is about 100,000 Pa.  This reference is chosen because the limit of audibility for most people corresponds to pressure variations of this order and these consequently have L=0 dB. It seems reasonable to set the reference pressure of the early Universe to be about the same fraction of the ambient pressure then, i.e.

Pref~2×10-10 Pamb.

The physics of how primordial variations in pressure translate into observed fluctuations in the CMB temperature is quite complicated, because the primordial universe consists of a plasma rather than air. Moreover, the actual sound of the Big Bang contains a mixture of wavelengths with slightly different amplitudes. In fact here is the spectrum, showing a distinctive signature that looks, at least in this representation, like a fundamental tone and a series of harmonics…

If you take into account all this structure it all gets a bit messy, but it’s quite easy to get a rough but reasonable estimate by ignoring all these complications. We simply take the rms pressure variation to be the same fraction of ambient pressure as the averaged temperature variation are compared to the average CMB temperature,  i.e.

Prms~ a few ×10-5Pamb.

If we do this, scaling both pressures in logarithm in the equation in proportion to the ambient pressure, the ambient pressure cancels out in the ratio, which turns out to be a few times 10-5. With our definition of the decibel level we find that waves of this amplitude, i.e. corresponding to variations of one part in a hundred thousand of the reference level, give roughly L=100dB while part in ten thousand gives about L=120dB. The sound of the Big Bang therefore peaks at levels just a bit less than 120 dB.

As you can see in the Figure above, this is close to the threshold of pain,  but it’s perhaps not as loud as you might have guessed in response to the initial question. Modern popular beat combos often play their dreadful rock music much louder than the Big Bang….

A useful yardstick is the amplitude  at which the fluctuations in pressure are comparable to the mean pressure. This would give a factor of about 1010 in the logarithm and is pretty much the limit that sound waves can propagate without distortion. These would have L≈190 dB. It is estimated that the 1883 Krakatoa eruption produced a sound level of about 180 dB at a range of 100 miles. The QI podcast also mentions  that blue whales make a noise that corresponds to about 188 decibels. By comparison the Big Bang was little more than a whimper..

PS. If you would like to read more about the actual sound of the Big Bang, have a look at John Cramer’s webpages. You can also download simulations of the actual sound. If you listen to them you will hear that it’s more of  a “Roar” than a “Bang” because the sound waves don’t actually originate at a single well-defined event but are excited incoherently all over the Universe.

Still Thinking of Applying for a PhD Place in Physics or Astronomy?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2017 by telescoper

Last term I gave a short talk to interested students within the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University about postgraduate research in which I aimed to pass on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. Since the time is rapidly approaching when applications need to be sent in, I thought I’d repeat here a few general remarks that might be useful to people elsewhere who are thinking of taking the plunge when they graduate. I’m aiming this primarily at UK students applying for places in the UK; special considerations apply for students wanting to do graduate research abroad.

What is a PhD? The answer to that is relatively easy; it’s a postgraduate research degree. In order to obtain a PhD you have to present a thesis like that shown on the left (which happens to be mine, vintage 1988), typically in the range 100-250  pages long. A thesis has to satisfy two conditions for the award of the degree: it should contain original research, which is publishable in an academic journal; and it should present a coherent discussion of that original work within the context of ongoing work in the area of study. In Physics & Astronomy, the PhD is pretty much a prerequisite for any career in academic research, and it usually takes between 3 and 4 years to complete. After submission of the thesis you will have to undergo a viva voce examination conducted by two examiners, one internal and one external. This is quite a tough test, which  can last anywhere between about 2 and about 6 hours, during which you can be asked  detailed questions about your research and wide-ranging questions about the general area.

The Money Side. In the UK most PhDs are supported financially by the research councils, either EPSRC (most physics) or STFC (nuclear & particle physics, astronomy). These generally award quotas of studentships to departments who distribute them to students they admit. A studentship will cover your fees and pay a stipend, currently £14296 pa. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but you should at least remember that it is a stipend rather than a wage; it is therefore not taxed and there is no national insurance payable. There is a fee (currently £4121) payable for a PhD course, but that only comes into play if you are planning to fund yourself. If you receive a studentship it will normally cover the fee as an additional component. What I mean by that is you don’t need to pay it out of the stipend, it is separate. In top of that, research council funding also supplies a Research Training Grant which covers, e.g., travel and small items of equipment so you don’t need to pay for those out of your stipend either.

How do I choose a PhD? During the course of a postgraduate degree you are expected to become an expert in the area in which you specialize. In particular you should reach the point where you know more about that specific topic than your supervisor does. You will therefore have to work quite a lot on your own, which means you need determination, stamina and enthusiasm. In my view the most important criterion in your choice of PhD is not the institution where you might study but the project. You need to be genuinely excited by the topic in order to drive yourself to keep through the frustrations (of which there will be many). So, find an area that interests you and find the departments that do active research in that area by looking on the web. Check out the recent publications by staff in each department, to ensure that they are active and to have something to talk about at interview!

Qualifications. Most universities have a formal requirement that candidates for admission to the PhD should have a “good honours degree”, which basically means at least an Upper Second Class Honours degree. Some areas are more competitive than others, however, and in many disciplines you will find you are competing with a great many applicants with First Class degrees.

How to apply successfully. The application procedure at most universities is quite simple and can be done online. You will need to say something about the area in which you wish to do research (e.g. experiment/theory, and particular field, e.g. cosmology or star formation). You’ll also need a CV and a couple of references. Given the competition, it’s essential that you prepare. Give your curriculum vitae some attention, and get other people (e.g. your personal tutor) to help you improve it. It’s worth emphasizing particular skills (e.g. computing). If you get the chance, make use of your summer vacations by taking on an internship or other opportunity to get a taste of research; things like that will undoubtedly give your CV an edge.

The Interview. Good applicants will be invited for an interview, which is primarily to assess whether you have the necessary skills and determination, but also to match applicants to projects and supervisors. Prepare for your interview! You will almost certainly be asked to talk about your final-year project, so it will come across very badly if you’re not ready when they ask you. Most importantly, mug up about your chosen field. You will look really silly if you haven’t the vaguest idea of what’s going on in the area you claimed to be interested in when you wrote your  application!

How many places should I apply for? Some research areas are more fashionable than others so the level of competition varies with field. As a general rule I would advise applying for about half-a-dozen places, chosen because they offer research in the right area. Apply to fewer than that and you might lose out to the competition. Apply to many more and you might not have time to attend the interviews.

What’s the timetable?  Most applications come in early in the new year for entry to the PhD in the following September/October. The Christmas break is therefore a pretty good time to get your applications sorted out. Interviews are normally held in February or March, and decisions made by late March. STFC runs a deadline system whereby departments can not force students to accept or decline offers before the end of March, so there should be ample time to visit all your prospective departments before having to make any decisions.

That’s all I can think of for now. I hope at least some of these comments are useful to undergraduates anywhere in the UK thinking of applying for a PhD. If there are any further questions, please feel free to ask through the comments box. Likewise if I’ve missed anything important, please feel free to suggest additions in the same manner…

Does the fine structure constant vary?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 16, 2016 by telescoper

Thinking of Applying for a PhD Place in Physics or Astronomy?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on October 12, 2016 by telescoper

This morning I am to give a short talk to interested students within the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University about postgraduate research in which I aim to pass on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. Since I’ve finished writing the talk more than the usual few minutes before I have to deliver it, I thought I’d jot down here a few general remarks that might be useful to people elsewhere who are thinking of taking the plunge when they graduate. I’m aiming this primarily at UK students applying for places in the UK; special considerations apply for students wanting to do graduate research abroad.

What is a PhD? The answer to that is relatively easy; it’s a postgraduate research degree. In order to obtain a PhD you have to present a thesis like that shown on the left (which happens to be mine, vintage 1988), typically in the range 100-250  pages long. A thesis has to satisfy two conditions for the award of the degree: it should contain original research, which is publishable in an academic journal; and it should present a coherent discussion of that original work within the context of ongoing work in the area of study. In Physics & Astronomy, the PhD is pretty much a prerequisite for any career in academic research, and it usually takes between 3 and 4 years to complete. After submission of the thesis you will have to undergo a viva voce examination conducted by two examiners, one internal and one external. This is quite a tough test, which  can last anywhere between about 2 and about 6 hours, during which you can be asked  detailed questions about your research and wide-ranging questions about the general area.

The Money Side. In the UK most PhDs are supported financially by the research councils, either EPSRC (most physics) or STFC (nuclear & particle physics, astronomy). These generally award quotas of studentships to departments who distribute them to students they admit. A studentship will cover your fees and pay a stipend, currently £14296 pa. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but you should at least remember that it is a stipend rather than a wage; it is therefore not taxed and there is no national insurance payable. There is a fee (currently £4121) payable for a PhD course, but that only comes into play if you are planning to fund yourself. If you receive a studentship it will normally cover the fee as an additional component. What I mean by that is you don’t need to pay it out of the stipend, it is separate. In top of that, research council funding also supplies a Research Training Grant which covers, e.g., travel and small items of equipment so you don’t need to pay for those out of your stipend either.

How do I choose a PhD? During the course of a postgraduate degree you are expected to become an expert in the area in which you specialize. In particular you should reach the point where you know more about that specific topic than your supervisor does. You will therefore have to work quite a lot on your own, which means you need determination, stamina and enthusiasm. In my view the most important criterion in your choice of PhD is not the institution where you might study but the project. You need to be genuinely excited by the topic in order to drive yourself to keep through the frustrations (of which there will be many). So, find an area that interests you and find the departments that do active research in that area by looking on the web. Check out the recent publications by staff in each department, to ensure that they are active and to have something to talk about at interview!

Qualifications. Most universities have a formal requirement that candidates for admission to the PhD should have a “good honours degree”, which basically means at least an Upper Second Class Honours degree. Some areas are more competitive than others, however, and in many disciplines you will find you are competing with a great many applicants with First Class degrees.

How to apply successfully. The application procedure at most universities is quite simple and can be done online. You will need to say something about the area in which you wish to do research (e.g. experiment/theory, and particular field, e.g. cosmology or star formation). You’ll also need a CV and a couple of references. Given the competition, it’s essential that you prepare. Give your curriculum vitae some attention, and get other people (e.g. your personal tutor) to help you improve it. It’s worth emphasizing particular skills (e.g. computing). If you get the chance, make use of your summer vacations by taking on an internship or other opportunity to get a taste of research; things like that will undoubtedly give your CV an edge.

The Interview. Good applicants will be invited for an interview, which is primarily to assess whether you have the necessary skills and determination, but also to match applicants to projects and supervisors. Prepare for your interview! You will almost certainly be asked to talk about your final-year project, so it will come across very badly if you’re not ready when they ask you. Most importantly, mug up about your chosen field. You will look really silly if you haven’t the vaguest idea of what’s going on in the area you claimed to be interested in when you wrote your  application!

How many places should I apply for? Some research areas are more fashionable than others so the level of competition varies with field. As a general rule I would advise applying for about half-a-dozen places, chosen because they offer research in the right area. Apply to fewer than that and you might lose out to the competition. Apply to many more and you might not have time to attend the interviews.

What’s the timetable?  Most applications come in early in the new year for entry to the PhD in the following September/October. The Christmas break is therefore a pretty good time to get your applications sorted out. Interviews are normally held in February or March, and decisions made by late March. STFC runs a deadline system whereby departments can not force students to accept or decline offers before the end of March, so there should be ample time to visit all your prospective departments before having to make any decisions.

That’s all I can think of for now. I hope at least some of these comments are useful to undergraduates anywhere in the UK thinking of applying for a PhD. If there are any further questions, please feel free to ask through the comments box. Likewise if I’ve missed anything important, please feel free to suggest additions in the same manner…

Worrying Times for UK Physics

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on August 19, 2016 by telescoper

As I’m more-or-less in between jobs at the moment, this is the first August in many that I haven’t been involved the clearing and confirmation process that helps students find places at university after the A-level results are released. I know how stressful it is for admissions staff and prospective students alike, so I’m not sorry to be out of it for once!

On the other hand I did notice something worrying that seems to be the continuation of a trend I noticed last year.  I quote from a piece issued by the Institute of Physics about the number of students taking A-level physics last year:

Although there was an overall rise of 2% in the number of A-level entries, the number taking physics fell to 36,287 compared with 36,701 last year – the first time numbers have fallen since 2006. The number of girls taking physics rose by 0.5%, however.

That decline is slight, of course, and it was  obviously too early to decide whether it indicated whether or not the UK has reached “Peak Physics”. Well, this year has confirmed that trend. According to a piece by the Wellcome Trust the number of entrants for physics A-level has fallen further this year, from 36,287 in 2015 to 35,344 in 2016. The Institute of Physics has also commented.

Virtually all students who get a Physics A-level do go to university, but by no means all do physics. It is also a qualifying subject for engineering and technology programmes, as well as medicine. It’s not clear yet whether the decline in A-level entry reflects a decline in the number of students going to start physics degrees at University this year, but this seems probable. This is good news if you’re an applicant with a Physics A-level, of course, because it increases the chances of you getting a place, but it’s no so good for physics as academic discipline.

Physics departments in UK universities are already competing for a very small pool of students with a Physics A-level.  The removal of student number controls allows  large universities to recruit as many students as they like, so the competition between universities for such a small number of applicants is extremely intense. Moreover, some universities, e.g. Newcastle and Hull, have opened up physics courses that they had previously closed, and others have started  new programmes based on what was anticipated to be an overall increase in demand. To support this expansion, many institutions have recruited extra numbers of teaching faculty assuming the salary costs would be covered from tuition fees. If the decline in overall student numbers continues then the budgets of many physics departments are going to look pretty grim, with potentially serious  consequences for the long-term sustainability of physics in many institutions.

I have to confess I’m worried. The physics community urgently needs to find out what is behind this fall. It’s not restricted to physics, in fact. Both biology and chemistry have also experienced a decline in the number of A-level entrants (from 44,864 to 43,242 and from 52,644 to 51,811 respectively), but the effect on physics is likely to be greater for the reasons I discussed above.

Mathematics numbers have also fallen, but by a much smaller percentage and from a much higher level: from 92,711 to 92,163.  I‘ve argued before that there’s a case on a number of grounds for scrapping the physics A-level as a requirement for entry to university as long as the student has mathematics. That may be a step too far for some, but it’s clear that if physics is to prosper we all have to think more creatively about how to increase participation. But how? Answers on a postcard – or through the comments box – please!