I have been trying to ask about this over on the Physics Stack Exchange, but they aren't really interested in questions that are this speculative. Does anyone here have any ideas about what quantum particles "are"?

  • Some argue that a quantum coherent state is an entirely different state of being which transcends existing categories of being, so perhaps the answer to your question is that a quantum particle is like a "quantum particle".
    – Nick
    Apr 2 at 17:24
  • Haha entirely possible but definitely unsatisfying.
    – Jeff Bass
    Apr 2 at 18:08
  • 1
    "Anyone here have any ideas" invites opinion based answers that would be off-topic here. And this is a bit too broad, physicists have plenty of speculations about the nature of quantum objects, Bohr's wave–particle duality, Wheeler's "it from bit", Bohm's particles with non-local pilot wave, etc.
    – Conifold
    Apr 2 at 20:56
  • 1
    @Nick: smbc-comics.com/comic/the-talk-3
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 4 at 23:13
  • 1
    @CriglCragl We've all been there, and what I know about QT could probably be written on the back of a postage stamp.
    – Nick
    Apr 5 at 17:16

The way you asked the questions seems to imply that you subscribe to a substance metaphysics. But it seems to me that the way modern physics has progressed, it presents us with a manifestly process-based metaphysics. Thus, as a general rule of thumb, if you're asking really fundamental questions like "what is a particle" physicists will not be able to tell what it is as well as they will be able to tell you what it does given a certain situation. So if you want a real answer to your question, you need to give an operationally-defined question. (For example, what happens to electrons when they are fired straight at a metal under the influence of a strong E field? What if they were fired at a crystal? Hint: very different things will happen.). Nevertheless, since physicists in general do not pay attention to philosophical matters, they find themselves asking your very question, and although their answers are fascinating, they could also be described as abstract nonsense.

  • I'll need to look at that article a little more, but I am very interested in your distinction between the substance and process metaphysics. I am definitely a substance focused person haha. I actually feel like I have a decent grasp on the process side of quantum phenomena, but it's the substance side that's messing me up (and apparently I'm not alone)
    – Jeff Bass
    Apr 5 at 0:31
  • @JeffBass Personally I think you need both substance and process. Look, substances obviously exist in physics. Like, iron is clearly a substance. But when you get as far down as you're asking, it's all process, dude.
    – psitae
    Apr 5 at 3:03
  • Although separating substance and process metaphysics is useful to answer OP's question, but even down in QA realm, a physicist still needs to bear both in mind as 2 sides of a coin. If only focusing on math functional description based approach, it cannot help form a wholistic picture for most people, that's why Feynman diagram is needed for most people. Feynman always used some metaphors like potential well, jiggling balls to lecture students or laypeople. Also all the algebraic manifold/fiber bundle constructs used in QM/Strings are substances like (not processes)... Apr 5 at 3:22
  • ...Similarly as manifested in the process-based functional theory of consciousness in philosophy, sometimes even several different processes themselves will generate the same conscious phenomena (say pain). So process only metaphysics can even lead to self-contradictory... Apr 5 at 3:30
  • @psitae To be honest, I'm not really sure I understand what it would mean for there to be process without substance. Does there not need to be something that is having a processes done to it?
    – Jeff Bass
    Apr 5 at 12:25

Nobody knows. We model them as wave-like perturbations of the appropriate zero-point field for the characteristics we are interested in. But a zero-point field is just a label to hang the basic mathematics on, we have no idea whether that makes any ontological sense either. And as I have been discovering on the Physics SE, there are many fundamental questions for which this quantum field theory (QFT) has no direct model and just fudges its way past.

The standard approach is to simply ignore the ontological issues and just use the math, fudges and all, to predict experimental results.

Any attempt at a real physical concept is known as an interpretation of the theory. Provided the interpretation is logically consistent with the maths, it cannot be falsified. There are a great many such interpretations, as I am sure you have discovered. The Copenhagen interpretation states that there is no such underlying reality of relevance to scientific enquiry, and because all those attempts cannot be falsified they are of interest only to metaphysicians.

Actually, it's worse than that. Historically, the ontological reality of the things which appear in the equations (such as the quantum fields), temporal causality, and the exclusion of faster-than-light or nonlocal influences, have all been taken for granted. However we have discovered through the famous entanglement phenomenon that these three - causality, localism and realism - cannot all be true. Physicists are left scratching their heads over which one or more of them is false and what they might want to test for in the lab. Since this has philosophical implications at least as profound as its scientific ones, Einstein's observation that scientists make bad philosophers is rather coming home to roost at the moment.

Again, part of that problem is that the quantum field equations are set on the pre-existing stage of Einstein's spacetime. Some physicists suggest that actually, space and/or time may be emergent properties of dynamic quantum systems. In such case, the quantum equations must be recast accordingly, but we have no idea what to aim for. So we don't even know what playing field we are on, never mind what game is being played on it. Despite this, the rulebook that we have compiled for the game is probably humankind's greatest intellectual achievement to date.

  • Have you ever considered that Bohmian mechanics (i.e. there is a global field that interacts locally with each particle) may provide an alternative to the philosophically untenable copenhagen interpretation?
    – user21820
    May 1 at 3:32
  • @user21820 I do have a copy of Bohm & Hiley's The Undivided Universe. It is important to understand that their reformulation of the quantum equations is mathematically equivalent and predicts exactly the same experimental results. But the reinterpretation it suggests, of pointlike particles guided by a pilot wave enfolded in the implicate order, is no more falsifiable (or tenable) than any other interpretation. Copenhagen is a baseline non-interpretation; "shut up [about interpretations] and calculate". You may use Bohm's equations for that if you wish, just don't interpret them. May 1 at 9:38
  • It's not about falsifiability here. It is about the philosophical untenability of the copenhagen interpretation, because there has been absolutely no meaningful definition given so far of the so-called "wavefunction collapse". But I gave you a misleading remark; I was not intending to refer to Bohm's pilot-wave interpretation but rather the general possibility that it may be possible to have a global field of some kind that interacts only locally with each particle.
    – user21820
    May 1 at 10:54
  • @user21820 There we have it. Your best argument is to bold your text. However my answer here is indeed about falsifiability. You may offer your own answer about whatever you wish. As for your global field, the zero-point fields of standard quantum field theory appear to be what you are looking for. May 1 at 11:25
  • I bolded the text that you failed to understand. I never once talked about falsifiability. Instead, I pointed out that nobody has given any meaningful definition of the "copenhagen interpretation", so it is meaningless. Your best response is to fail to respond. Look, I have no idea what is your problem. I'm not even trying to argue for any particular alternative, but simply stating that the most commonly 'accepted interpretation' is meaningless.
    – user21820
    May 1 at 11:33

Quantum particles are modeled as excitations of the underlying quantum field. So an electron is an excitation of the electron field, a muon is an excitation of the muon field, and so on. This is called quantum field theory and is a well-developed branch of physics.

  • Yeah, I'm mostly just asking about a single quantum particle, but diving into QFT is the next big jump.
    – Jeff Bass
    Apr 2 at 18:10
  • If you are not a mathematician, I will warn you that the jump will be more of a dive. QFT is a description of particle physics which is unambiguously written in the language of abstract mathematics. It is far too hard for me. Apr 2 at 18:13
  • I was a math major, but I've flipped through a QFT book and it was definitely intimidating.
    – Jeff Bass
    Apr 2 at 18:36
  • Muon field? Muons are just like electrons except in mass, and because of that they are unstable - but unusually can only decay by weak interactions, making them relatively easy to observe. It's like the way the heavy quarks decay, & the Higgs decays extremely quickly. The Standard Model has 3 fields, & quantum-gravity is expected to add a 4th.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 5 at 0:03
  • @CriglCragl, are you suggesting an edit? Apr 5 at 1:54

Quantum entities completely break our intuition when we try to understand them (reason for which Feynman stated in a lecture that "if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics"). It is quite difficult to define what is a quantum entity. Like a sphere is something that is not the rest of the space delimited by it, an entity is something that is not the rest of the universe, but, where, when, what, how are the limits of quantum entities? For now, there's not an agreement on that. It is perhaps acceptable to say that a quantum entity is basically a mathematical model, an idea, a concept, which, when used to predict some specific behaviors, works extremely well.

Try not to approach quantum entities as things of our daily experience. They are not. So, you might have departed with the wrong foot when asked "what is __ like": there are few similarities. Here, a couple of hints that might help you starting (hope being right, I'm far from being an expert):

Statics: existence in the quantum universe is radically different.

Nature, at a quantum scale, is different from what the nature we are used to perceive, the macroscopic scale. Macroscopic entities have shapes, occupy space, remain static in time, don't move, don't disappear, can be broken in parts, etc.

But small entities, at the quantum mechanics scale "are" just different. I've quoted the word "are", because they exist in a different way. Part of their existence is determined by the observer (you, when you "observe" a quantum entity), and part of it is determined by rules, not perceptions. So, in simple words, the existence of a quantum entity, for you, depends on what you do and on certain rules. That is quite different to a beach ball, which will remain in the sand if there's no wind, if you don't look, or if it does not lose air pressure. If a beach ball would behave like a quantum entity, it would not be something that we could touch, but moreover something we feel in the air (they don't really exist in space); it would not lie on the beach, but probably lie on the beach all the time (according to a wavefunction); it would be like a breeze, and at the same time, a storm; not one or the other but both at the same time (superposition); once you've hit it --something that could happen or not--, it might just appear on the other side of the beach without traversing all the space over it (quantum leap); it might exist simultaneously in multiple spaces or behave depending on another ball of the same beach (entanglement), etc. It might even change past actions when you kick it (see Wheeler's experiment)!

Notice that I've quoted "observe", and said "what you do", and not "what you perceive". That is because we cannot directly look at quantum entities, because they are of the size of the same photons we get into our eyes. This leads to the next hint:

Dynamics: "to observe"/"to measure" a quantum entity, in books, means really "to interact with".

Since we can't directly observe or measure quantum entities --not even with a microscope--, we need to interact with them. So, observing, in quantum mechanics, is not a passive process, but an active one.

We do this, essentially by "launching" other "particles" against a quantum entity, which is like throwing rocks against a rock to know its color (luckily, we've had extremely intelligent scientists that found ways to answer equivalent answers in equivalent conditions). I've quoted "particles", because a quantum entity is not really a particle, but an excitation on something called a field, which is more or less like what is sound to air. And I've quoted "launching", because we can't really "launch" something that is not a particle, but we know how to produce some phenomenon that allows an interaction between two quantum entities, which is something quite complex. Following our analogy, it is not like listening a sound from a punctual spot in space, but producing an additional sound and assess the effect in the surrounding context.

Notions of interaction (action, reaction, causality, sequence, etc.) of our daily experience do not have direct equivalences in QM.

  • "Try not to approach quantum entities as things of our daily experience" Surely we need to do the opposite, try to stop seeing biases from our scale as 'intuitive', and instead recover them from what we now know is fundamental.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 4 at 23:22

The analogy I generally use is that particles are like knots or purls in a fabric. If you think of an energy field as a smooth continuum (a three-dimensional equivalent of a two-dimensional sheet of fabric), and then imagine that somehow the fabric got snagged or tangled into a lump than, well... that lump seems like something different than the surrounding smooth field. But that's mainly a trick of topology.

I mean, what is the essence of a knot before it gets tied? Measurement 'ties the knot', so to speak, and before that all we have is the potential of a knot.

  • That's sort of fine, but should be related to definite proposals. Like spin as topological shapes in fields.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 4 at 23:33
  • 1
    @CriglCragl: It's an analogy not a theoretical proposition. I'm a philosopher, not a physicist. Apr 5 at 1:03

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.