Ney Awarded NSF Grant for 'Wave Function Realism' Project

By Ben Hinshaw - Alyssa Ney, an associate professor of philosophy at UC Davis, has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to carry out a philosophical interpretation of the wave function in quantum theories.

Although quantum theory was developed in the early twentieth century and its mathematics are well understood, no realistic interpretation of quantum mechanics has been widely accepted within the physics community. Indeed, Richard Feynman famously declared: “I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum theory.”

Nevertheless, Ney, who has previously authored and co-edited books including Metaphysics: An Introduction and The Wave Function: Essays in the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics, intends to further develop an existing realistic interpretation known as wave function realism in order to provide a novel and persuasive account of the relationship between the quantum wave function and observable macroscopic objects.

Such an interpretation was first proposed in 1925, when Erwin Schrödinger, along with others including Louis de Broglie, developed his wave equation for quantum mechanics. But Schrödinger’s interpretation was soon rejected in favor of the instrumentalist Copenhagen account proposed by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Physicists and philosophers of physics have been divided ever since.

Developing a realistic interpretation

Although quantum mechanics does generate predictions that are consistent with observed phenomena, there is no question that it presents a great challenge to our conception of how the world works. The frankly bizarre implications of quantum theory make it challenging to fully understand in the context of observable, everyday phenomena. But the alternative, Ney says, is for physicists and philosophers to simply bury their heads in the sand and refuse to even try to understand it.

Ney’s project, due to begin in September 2016, is titled Conceptual Analysis of Quantum Theories: Developing a Realistic Interpretation of the Wave Function. The results of her research will be a rigorous and intelligible interpretation of quantum theory that provides some comprehensible options for explaining how this important theory applies to the world as we know it. This interpretation, Ney believes, has the potential to capture the public imagination. Through it, she hopes to promote wider understanding of ideas typically regarded as simply incomprehensible.

In applying for this NSF grant, Professor Ney received grant writing support from ISS Grant Writer, Belinda Martineau.

Learn more about Alyssa Ney at her faculty webpage.