Friday, May 7, 2010

The Many-Worlds Theory of Socks

I just started reading The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe, by the novelist and playwright Michael Frayn. He discusses the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and, in a footnote, he writes:

Reading [David] Deutsch [a prominent physicist and defender of the many-worlds interpretation] has encouraged me to adapt his approach to solving another mystery which has vexed theorists for many years - the single sock problem. This is the converse of quantum interference, where a single particle apparently acquires virtual partners. It is a matter of common knowledge that pairs of socks, while passing unobserved through the closed system of a washing machine, are repeatedly reduced to single socks, or at any rate to pairs consisting of one actual sock and one virtual sock undetectable by observation. The most likely explanation for this, it now dawns on me, by analogy with Deutsch, is that the missing socks are abstracted by fairy folk, and taken off to fairyland to be unwoven and reworked into garments for elves and pixies. This does, it's true, involve postulating an extensive fairy economic system about which we know little, but it does solve the problem of the virtual socks - and it does actually explain another mystery, which is where elves and pixies get their clothes from, a question that neither classical nor quantum physics has ever been able to answer satisfactorily.

And at least it requires the existence of only  one fairyland, not trillions of fairylands.....

Not even flying-saucer theory and the vanishing sock postulate require metaphysical hardware on this stupendous scale [i.e., that of the many-worlds interpretation], even though they are both attempting explanations for phenomena that bulk a lot larger than those puzzling but faint shadows on the laboratory screen. (pp. 440-441)

Well said, Michael. 

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