The summer before last, I invited Brendan Fong to Singapore to work with me on my new ‘network theory’ project. He quickly came up with a nice new proof of a result about mathematical chemistry. We blogged about it, and I added it to my book, but then he became a grad student at Oxford and got distracted by other kinds of networks—namely, Bayesian networks.
So, we’ve just now finally written up this result as a self-contained paper:
• John Baez and Brendan Fong, Quantum techniques for studying equilibrium in reaction networks.
Check it out and let us know if you spot mistakes or stuff that’s not clear!
The idea, in brief, is to use math from quantum field theory to give a somewhat new proof of the Anderson–Craciun–Kurtz theorem.
This remarkable result says that in many cases, we can start with an equilibrium solution of the ‘rate equation’ which describes the behavior of chemical reactions in a deterministic way in the limit of a large numbers of molecules, and get an equilibrium solution of the ‘master equation’ which describes chemical reactions probabilistically for any number of molecules.
The trick, in our approach, is to start with a chemical reaction network, which is something like this:
and use it to write down a Hamiltonian describing the time evolution of the probability that you have various numbers of each kind of molecule: A, B, C, D, E, … Using ideas from quantum mechanics, we can write this Hamiltonian in terms of annihilation and creation operators—even though our problem involves probability theory, not quantum mechanics! Then we can write down the equilibrium solution as a ‘coherent state’. In quantum mechanics, that’s a quantum state that approximates a classical one as well as possible.
All this is part of a larger plan to take tricks from quantum mechanics and apply them to ‘stochastic mechanics’, simply by working with real numbers representing probabilities instead of complex numbers representing amplitudes!
I should add that Brendan’s work on Bayesian networks is also very cool, and I plan to talk about it here and even work it into the grand network theory project I have in mind. But this may take quite a long time, so for now you should read his paper:
• Brendan Fong, Causal theories: a categorical perspective on Bayesian networks.