Discussions with Einstein
on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics. Part 3

by Niels Bohr (1949)

From: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/dk/bohr.htm

In the study of phenomena in the account of which we are dealing with detailed momentum balance, certain parts of the whole device must naturally be given the freedom to move independently of others. Such an apparatus is sketched in Fig. 5, where a diaphragm with a slit is suspended by weak springs from a solid yoke bolted to the support on which also other immobile parts of the arrangement are to be fastened. The scale on the diaphragm together with the pointer on the bearings of the yoke refer to such study of the motion of the diaphragm, as may be required for an estimate of the momentum transferred to it, permitting one to draw conclusions as to the deflection suffered by the particle in passing through the slit. Since, however, any reading of the scale, in whatever way performed, will involve an uncontrollable change in the momentum of the diaphragm, there will always be, in conformity with the indeterminacy principle, a reciprocal relationship between our knowledge of the position of the slit and the accuracy of the momentum control.

In the same semi-serious style, Fig. 6 represents a part of an arrangement suited for the study of phenomena which, in contrast to those just discussed, involve time coordination explicitly. It consists of a shutter rigidly connected with a robust clock resting on the support which carries a diaphragm and on which further parts of similar character, regulated by the same clock-work or by other clocks standardised relatively to it, are also to be fixed. The special aim of the figure is to underline that a clock is a piece of machinery, the working of which can completely be accounted for by ordinary mechanics and will be affected neither by reading of the position of its hands nor by the interaction between its accessories and an atomic particle. In securing the opening of the hole at a definite moment, an apparatus of this type might, for instance, be used for an accurate measurement of the time an electron or a photon takes to come from the diaphragm to some other place, but evidently, it would leave no possibility of controlling the energy transfer to the shutter with the aim of drawing conclusions as to the energy of the particle which has passed through the diaphragm.

If we are interested in such conclusions we must, of course, use an arrangement where the shutter devices can no longer serve as accurate clocks, but where the knowledge of the moment when the hole in the diaphragm is open involves a latitude connected with the accuracy of the energy measurement by the general relation (4).

The contemplation of such more or less practical arrangements and their more or less fictitious use proved most instructive in directing attention to essential features of the problems. The main point here is the distinction between the objects under investigation and the measuring instruments which serve to define, in classical terms the conditions under which the phenomena appear. Incidentally, we may remark that, for the illustration of the preceding considerations, it is not relevant that experiments involving an accurate control of the momentum or energy transfer from atomic particles to heavy bodies like diaphragms and shutters would be very difficult to perform, if practicable at all. It is only decisive that, in contrast to the proper measuring instruments, these bodies together with the particles would in such a case constitute the system to which the quantum-mechanical formalism has to be applied. As regards the specification of the conditions for any well-defined application of the formalism, it is moreover essential that the whole experimental arrangement be taken into account. In fact, the introduction of any further piece of apparatus, like a mirror, in the way of a particle might imply new interference effects essentially influencing the predictions as regards the results to be eventually recorded.

The extent to which renunciation of the visualisation of atomic phenomena is imposed upon us by the impossibility of their subdivision is strikingly illustrated by the following example to which Einstein very early called attention and often has reverted. If a semi-reflecting mirror is placed in the way of a photon, leaving two possibilities for its direction of propagation, the photon may either be recorded on one, and only one, of two photographic plates situated at great distances in the two directions in question, or else we may, by replacing the plates by mirrors, observe effects exhibiting an interference between the two reflected wave-trains. In any attempt of a pictorial representation of the behaviour of the photon we would, thus, meet with the difficulty: to be obliged to say, on the one hand, that the photon always chooses one of the two ways and, on the other hand, that it behaves as if it had passed both ways.

It is just arguments of this kind which recall the impossibility of subdividing quantum phenomena and reveal the ambiguity in ascribing customary physical attributes to atomic objects. In particular, it must be realised that besides in the account of the placing and timing of the instruments forming the experimental arrangement all unambiguous use of space-time concepts in the description of atomic phenomena is confined to the recording of observations which refer to marks on a photographic plate or to similar practically irreversible amplification effects like the building of a water drop around an ion in a cloud-chamber. Although, of course, the existence of the quantum of action is ultimately responsible for the properties of the materials of which the measuring instruments are built and on which the functioning of the recording devices depends, this circumstance is not relevant for the problems of the adequacy and completeness of the quantum-mechanical description in its aspects here discussed.

These problems were instructively commented upon from different sides at the Solvay meeting, in the same session where Einstein raised his general objections. On that occasion an interesting discussion arose also about how to speak of the appearance of phenomena for which only predictions of statistical character can be made. The question was whether, as to the occurrence of individual effects, we should adopt a terminology proposed by Dirac, that we were concerned with a choice on the part of "nature" or, as suggested by Heisenberg, we should say that we have to do with a choice on the part of the "observer" constructing the measuring instruments and reading their recording. Any such terminology would, however, appear dubious since, on the one hand, it is hardly reasonable to endow nature with volition in the ordinary sense, while, on the other hand, it is certainly not possible for the observer to influence the events which may appear under the conditions he has arranged. To my mind, there is no other alternative than to admit that, in this field of experience, we are dealing with individual phenomena and that our possibilities of handling the measuring instruments allow us only to make a choice between the different complementary types of phenomena we want to study.

The epistemological problems touched upon here were more explicitly dealt with in my contribution to the issue of Naturunssenschaften in celebration of Planck's 70th birthday in 1929. In this article, a comparison was also made between the lesson derived from the discovery of the universal quantum of action and the development which has followed the discovery of the finite velocity of light and which, through Einstein's pioneer work, has so greatly clarified basic principles of natural philosophy. In relativity theory, the emphasis on the dependence of all phenomena on the reference frame opened quite new ways of tracing general physical laws of unparalleled scope. In quantum theory, it was argued, the logical comprehension of hitherto unsuspected fundamental regularities governing atomic phenomena has demanded the recognition that no sharp separation can be made between an independent behaviour of the objects and their interaction with the measuring instruments which define the reference frame.

In this respect, quantum theory presents us with a novel situation in physical science, but attention was called to the very close analogy with the situation as regards analysis and synthesis of experience, which we meet in many other fields of human knowledge and interest. As is well known, many of the difficulties in psychology originate in the different placing of the separation lines between object and subject in the analysis of various aspects of psychical experience. Actually, words like "thoughts" and "sentiments," equally indispensable to illustrate the variety and scope of conscious life, are used in a similar complementary way as are space-time co-ordination and dynamical conservation laws in atomic physics. A precise formulation of such analogies involves, of course, intricacies of terminology, and the writer's position is perhaps best indicated in a passage in the article, hinting at the mutually exclusive relationship which will always exist between the practical use of any word and attempts at its strict definition. The principal aim, however, of these considerations, which were not least inspired by the hope of influencing Einstein's attitude, was to point to perspectives of bringing general epistemological problems into relief by means of a lesson derived from the study of new, but fundamentally simple physical experience.

At the next meeting with Einstein at the Solvay Conference in 1930, our discussions took quite a dramatic turn. As an objection to the view that a control of the interchange of momentum and energy between the objects and the measuring instruments was excluded if these instruments should serve their purpose of defining the space-time frame of the phenomena Einstein brought forward the argument that such control should be possible when the exigencies of relativity theory were taken into consideration. In particular, the general relationship between energy and mass, expressed in Einstein's famous formula

E = mc2,(5)

should allow, by means of simple weighing, to measure the total energy of any system and, thus, in principle to control the energy transferred to it when it interacts with an atomic object.

As an arrangement suited for such purpose, Einstein proposed the device indicated in Fig. 7, consisting of a box with a hole in its side, which could be opened or closed by a shutter moved by means of a clock-work within the box.

If, in the beginning, the box contained a certain amount of radiation and the clock was set to open the shutter for a very short interval at a chosen time, it could be achieved that a single photon was released through the hole at a moment known with as great accuracy as desired. Moreover, it would apparently also be possible, by weighing the whole box before and after this event, to measure the energy of the photon with any accuracy wanted, in definite contradiction to the reciprocal indeterminacy of time and energy quantities in quantum mechanics.

This argument amounted to a serious challenge and gave rise to a thorough examination of the whole problem. At the outcome of the discussion, to which Einstein himself contributed effectively, it became clear, however, that this argument could not be upheld. In fact, in the consideration of the problem, it was found necessary to look closer into the consequences of the identification of inertial and gravitational mass implied in the application of relation (5). Especially, it was essential to take into account the relationship between the rate of a clock and its position in a gravitational field well known from the red-shift of the lines in the sun's spectrum following from Einstein's principle of equivalence between gravity effects and the phenomena observed in accelerated reference frames.

Our discussion concentrated on the possible application of an apparatus incorporating Einstein's device and drawn in Fig. 8 in the same pseudo-realistic style as some of the preceding figures. The box, of which a section is shown in order to exhibit its interior, is suspended in a spring-balance and is furnished with a pointer to read its position on a scale fixed to the balance support. The weighing of the box may thus be performed with any given accuracy Dm by adjusting the balance to its zero position by means of suitable loads. The essential point is now that any determination of this position with a given accuracy Dq will involve a minimum latitude Dp in the control of the momentum of the box connected with Dq by the relation (3). This latitude must obviously again be smaller than the total impulse which, during the whole interval T of the balancing procedure, can be given by the gravitational field to a body with a mass Dm, or

Dp approx=h / Dq T . g . Dm, (6)

where g is the gravity constant. The greater the accuracy of the reading q of the pointer, the longer must, consequently, be the balancing interval T, if a given accuracy Dm of the weighing of the box with its content shall be obtained.

Now, according to general relativity theory, a clock, when displaced in the direction of the gravitational force by an amount of Dq, will change its rate in such a way that its reading

in the course of a time interval T will differ by an amount DT given by the relation

DT / T= (1/c2) gDq,(7)

By comparing (6) and (7) we see, therefore, that after the weighing procedure there will in our knowledge of the adjustment of the clock be a latitude

DT > h / (c2 Dm) ,  

Together with the formula (5), this relation again leads to

DT . DE > h,  

in accordance with the indeterminacy principle. Consequently, a use of the apparatus as a means of accurately measuring the energy of the photon will prevent us from controlling the moment of its escape.

The discussion, so illustrative of the power and consistency of relativistic arguments, thus emphasised once more the necessity of distinguishing, in the study of atomic phenomena, between the proper measuring instruments which serve to define the reference frame and those parts which are to be regarded as objects under investigation and in the account of which quantum effects cannot be disregarded. Notwithstanding the most suggestive confirmation of the soundness and wide scope of the quantum-mechanical way of description, Einstein nevertheless, in a following conversation with me, expressed a feeling of disquietude as regards the apparent lack of firmly laid down principles for the explanation of nature, in which all could agree. From my viewpoint, however, I could only answer that, in dealing with the task of bringing order into an entirely new field of experience, we could hardly trust in any accustomed principles, however broad, apart from the demand of avoiding logical inconsistencies and, in this respect, the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics should surely meet all requirements.

The Solvay meeting in 1930 was the last occasion where, in common discussions with Einstein, we could benefit from the stimulating and mediating influence of Ehrenfest, but shortly before his deeply deplored death in 1933 he told me that Einstein was far from satisfied and with his usual acuteness had discerned new aspects of the situation which strengthened his critical attitude. In fact, by further examining the possibilities for the application of a balance arrangement, Einstein had perceived alternative procedures which, even if they did not allow the use he originally intended, might seem to enhance the paradoxes beyond the possibilities of logical solution. Thus, Einstein had pointed out that, after a preliminary weighing of the box with the clock and the subsequent escape of the photon, one was still left with the choice of either repeating the weighing or opening the box and comparing the reading of the clock with the standard time scale. Consequently, we are at this stage still free to choose whether we want to draw conclusions either about the energy of the photon or about the moment when it left the box. Without in any way interfering with the photon between its escape and its later interaction with other suitable measuring instruments, we are, thus, able to make accurate predictions pertaining either to the moment of its arrival or to the amount of energy liberated by its absorption. Since, however, according to the quantum-mechanical formalism, the specification of the state of an isolated particle cannot involve both a well-defined connection with the time scale and an accurate fixation of the energy, it might thus appear as if this formalism did not offer the means of an adequate description.

Once more Einstein's searching spirit had elicited a peculiar aspect of the situation in quantum theory, which in a most striking manner illustrated how far we have here transcended customary explanation of natural phenomena. Still, I could not agree with the trend of his remarks as reported by Ehrenfest. In my opinion, there could be no other way to deem a logically consistent mathematical formalism as inadequate than by demonstrating the departure of its consequences from experience or by proving that its predictions did not exhaust the possibilities of observation, and Einstein's argumentation could be directed to neither of these ends. In fact, we must realize that in the problem in question we are not dealing with a single specified experimental arrangement, but are referring to two different, mutually exclusive arrangements. In the one, the balance together with another piece of apparatus like a spectrometer is used for the study of the energy transfer by a photon; in the other, a shutter regulated by a standardised clock together with another apparatus of similar kind, accurately timed relatively to the clock, is used for the study of the time of propagation of a photon over a given distance. In both these cases, as also assumed by Einstein, the observable effects are expected to be in complete conformity with the predictions of the theory.

The problem again emphasises the necessity of considering the whole experimental arrangement, the specification of which is imperative for any well-defined application of the quantum-mechanical formalism. Incidentally, it may be added that paradoxes of the kind contemplated by Einstein are encountered also in such simple arrangements as sketched in Fig. 5. In fact, after a preliminary measurement of the momentum of the diaphragm, we are in principle offered the choice, when an electron or photon has passed through the slit, either to repeat the momentum measurement or to control the position of the diaphragm and, thus, to make predictions pertaining to alternative subsequent observations. It may also be added that it obviously can make no difference as regards observable effects obtainable by a definite experimental arrangement, whether our plans of constructing or handling the instruments are fixed beforehand or whether we prefer to postpone the completion of our planning until a later moment when the particle is already on its way from one instrument to another.