There’s a new paper on the arXiv:
• John Baez and Blake Pollard, Quantropy.
Blake is a physics grad student at U. C. Riverside who plans to do his thesis with me.
And in fact, Blake came up with a lot of new stuff for this paper! He studied the quantropy of the harmonic oscillator, and tweaked the analogy between statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics in an interesting way. Unfortunately, we needed to put a version of this paper on the arXiv by a deadline, and our writeup of this new work wasn’t quite ready (my fault). So, we’ll put that other stuff in a new version—or, I’m thinking now, a separate paper.
But here are two new things.
First, putting this paper on the arXiv had the usual good effect of revealing some existing work on the same topic. Joakim Munkhammar emailed me and pointed out this paper, which is free online:
• Joakim Munkhammar, Canonical relational quantum mechanics from information theory, Electronic Journal of Theoretical Physics 8 (2011), 93–108.
You’ll see it cites Garrett Lisi’s paper and pushes forward in various directions. There seems to be a typo where he writes the path integral
In order to fit the purpose Lisi concluded that the Lagrange multiplier value In similarity with Lisi’s approach we shall also assume that the arbitrary scaling-part of the constant is in fact
I’m pretty sure he means given what he writes later. However, he speaks of ‘maximizing entropy’, which is not quite right for a complex-valued quantity; Blake and I prefer to give this new quantity a new name, and speak of ‘finding a stationary point of quantropy’.
But in a way these are small issues; being a mathematician, I’m more quick to spot tiny technical defects than to absorb significant new ideas, and it will take a while to really understand Munkhammar’s paper.
Second, while writing our paper, Blake and I noticed another similarity between the partition function of a classical ideal gas and the partition function of a quantum free particle. Both are given by an integral like this:
where is a quadratic function of Here is the number of degrees of freedom for the particles in the ideal gas, or the number of time steps for a free particle on a line (where we are discretizing time). The only big difference is that
for the ideal gas, but
for the free particle.
In both cases there’s an ambiguity in the answer! The reason is that to do this integral, we need to pick a measure The obvious guess is Lebesgue measure
on But this can’t be right, on physical grounds!
The reason is that the partition function needs to be dimensionless, but has units. To correct this, we need to divide by some dimensionful quantity to get
In the case of the ideal gas, this dimensionful quantity involves the ‘thermal de Broglie wavelength’ of the particles in the gas. And this brings Planck’s constant into the game, even though we’re not doing quantum mechanics: we’re studying the statistical mechanics of a classical ideal gas!
That’s weird and interesting. It’s not the only place where we see that classical statistical mechanics is incomplete or inconsistent, and we need to introduce some ideas from quantum physics to get sensible answers. The most famous one is the ultraviolet catastrophe. What are all rest?
In the case of the free particle, we need to divide by a quantity with dimensions of lengthn to make
dimensionless, since each has dimensions of length. The easiest way is to introduce a length scale and divide each by that. This is commonly done when people study the free particle. This length scale drops out of the final answer for the questions people usually care about… but not for the quantropy.
Similarly, Planck’s constant drops out of the final answer for some questions about the classical ideal gas, but not for its entropy!
So there’s an interesting question here, about what this new length scale means, if anything. One might argue that quantropy is a bad idea, and the need for this new length scale to make it unambiguous is just proof of that. However, the mathematical analogy to quantum mechanics is so precise that I think it’s worth going a bit further out on this limb, and thinking a bit more about what’s going on.
Some weird sort of déjà vu phenomenon seems to be going on. Once upon a time, people tried to calculate the partition functions of classical systems. They discovered they were infinite or ambiguous until they introduced Planck’s constant, and eventually quantum mechanics. Then Feynman introduced the path integral approach to quantum mechanics. In this approach one is again computing partition functions, but now with a new meaning, and with complex rather than real exponentials. But these partition functions are again infinite or ambiguous… for very similar mathematical reasons! And at least in some cases, we can remove the ambiguity using the same trick as before: introducing a new constant. But then… what?
Are we stuck in an infinite loop here? What, if anything, is the meaning of this ‘second Planck’s constant’? Does this have anything to do with second quantization? (I don’t see how, but I can’t resist asking.)