Can Thermodynamics Resolve the Measurement Problem?


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At the recent Quantum Thermodynamics conference in Vienna (coming next year to the University of Maryland!), during an expert panel Q&A session, one member of the audience asked “can quantum thermodynamics address foundational problems in quantum theory?”

That stuck with me, because that’s exactly what my research is about. So naturally, I’d say the answer is yes! In fact, here in the group of Marcus Huber at the Technical University of Vienna, we think thermodynamics may have something to say about the biggest quantum foundations problem of all: the measurement problem.

It’s sort of the iconic mystery of quantum mechanics: we know that an electron can be in two places at once – in a ‘superposition’ – but when we measure it, it’s only ever seen to be in one place, picked seemingly at random from the two possibilities. We say the state has ‘collapsed’.

What’s going on here? Thanks to Bell’s legendary theorem, we know that the answer can’t just be that it was always actually in one place and we just didn’t know which option it was – it really was in two places at once until it was measured1. But also, we don’t see this effect for sufficiently large objects. So how can this ‘two-places-at-once’ thing happen at all, and why does it stop happening once an object gets big enough?

Here, we already see hints that thermodynamics is involved, because even classical thermodynamics says that big systems behave differently from small ones. And interestingly, thermodynamics also hints that the narrative so far can’t be right. Because when taken at face value, the ‘collapse’ model of measurement breaks all three laws of thermodynamics.

Imagine an electron in a superposition of two energy levels: a combination of being in its ground state and first excited state. If we measure it and it ‘collapses’ to being only in the ground state, then its energy has decreased: it went from having some average of the ground and excited energies to just having the ground energy. The first law of thermodynamics says (crudely) that energy is conserved, but the loss of energy is unaccounted for here.

Next, the second law says that entropy always increases. One form of entropy represents your lack of information about a system’s state. Before the measurement, the system was in one of two possible states, but afterwards it was in only one state. So speaking very broadly, our uncertainty about its state, and hence the entropy, is reduced. (The third law is problematic here, too.)

There’s a clear explanation here: while the system on its own decreases its entropy and doesn’t conserve energy, in order to measure something, we must couple the system to a measuring device. That device’s energy and entropy changes must account for the system’s changes.

This is the spirit of our measurement model2. We explicitly include the detector as a quantum object in the record-keeping of energy and information flow. In fact, we also include the entire environment surrounding both system and device – all the lab’s stray air molecules, photons, etc. Then the idea is to describe a measurement process as propagating a record of a quantum system’s state into the surroundings without collapsing it.

A schematic representation of a system spreading information into an environment (from Schwarzhans et al., with permission)

But talking about quantum systems interacting with their environments is nothing new. The “decoherence” model from the 70s, which our work builds on, says quantum objects become less quantum when buffeted by a larger environment.

The problem, though, is that decoherence describes how information is lost into an environment, and so usually the environment’s dynamics aren’t explicitly calculated: this is called an open-system approach. By contrast, in the closed-system approach we use, you model the dynamics of the environment too, keeping track of all information. This is useful because conventional collapse dynamics seems to destroy information, but every other fundamental law of physics seems to say that information can’t be destroyed.

This all allows us to track how information flows from system to surroundings, using the “Quantum Darwinism” (QD) model of W.H. Żurek. Whereas decoherence describes how environments affect systems, QD describes how quantum systems impact their environments by spreading information into them. The QD model says that the most ‘classical’ information – the kind most consistent with classical notions of ‘being in one place’, etc. – is the sort most likely to ‘survive’ the decoherence process.

QD then further asserts that this is the information that’s most likely to be copied into the environment. If you look at some of a system’s surroundings, this is what you’d most likely see. (The ‘Darwinism’ name is because certain states are ‘selected for’ and ‘replicate’3.)

So we have a description of what we want the post-measurement state to look like: a decohered system, with its information redundantly copied into its surrounding environment. The last piece of the puzzle, then, is to ask how a measurement can create this state. Here, we finally get to the dynamics part of the thermodynamics, and introduce equilibration.

Earlier we said that even if the system’s entropy decreases, the detector’s entropy (or more broadly the environment’s) should go up to compensate. Well, equilibration maximizes entropy. In particular, equilibration describes how a system tends towards a particular ‘equilibrium’ state, because the system can always increase its entropy by getting closer to it.

It’s usually said that systems equilibrate if put in contact with an external environment (e.g. a can of beer cooling in a fridge), but we’re actually interested in a different type of equilibration called equilibration on average. There, we’re asking for the state that a system stays roughly close to, on average, over long enough times, with no outside contact. That means it never actually decoheres, it just looks like it does for certain observables. (This actually implies that nothing ever actually decoheres, since open systems are only an approximation you make when you don’t want to track all of the environment.)

Equilibration is the key to the model. In fact, we call our idea the Measurement-Equilibration Hypothesis (MEH): we’re asserting that measurement is an equilibration process. Which makes the final question: what does all this mean for the measurement problem?

In the MEH framework, when someone ‘measures’ a quantum system, they allow some measuring device, plus a chaotic surrounding environment, to interact with it. The quantum system then equilibrates ‘on average’ with the environment, and spreads information about its classical states into the surroundings. Since you are a macroscopically large human, any measurement you do will induce this sort of equilibration to happen, meaning you will only ever have access to the classical information in the environment, and never see superpositions. But no collapse is necessary, and no information is lost: rather some information is only much more difficult to access in all the environment noise, as happens all the time in the classical world.

It’s tempting to ask what ‘happens’ to the outcomes we don’t see, and how nature ‘decides’ which outcome to show to us. Those are great questions, but in our view, they’re best left to philosophers4. For the question we care about: why measurements look like a ‘collapse’, we’re just getting started with our Measurement-Equilibration Hypothesis – there’s still lots to do in our explorations of it. We think the answers we’ll uncover in doing so will form an exciting step forward in our understanding of the weird and wonderful quantum world.

Members of the MEH team at a kick-off meeting for the project in Vienna in February 2023. Left to right: Alessandro Candeloro, Marcus Huber, Emanuel Schwarzhans, Tom Rivlin, Sophie Engineer, Veronika Baumann, Nicolai Friis, Felix C. Binder, Mehul Malik, Maximilian P.E. Lock, Pharnam Bakhshinezhad

Acknowledgements: Big thanks to the rest of the MEH team for all the help and support, in particular Dr. Emanuel Schwarzhans and Dr. Lock for reading over this piece!)

Here are a few choice references (by no means meant to be comprehensive!)

Quantum Thermodynamics (QTD) Conference 2023:
QTD 2024:
Bell’s Theorem:
The first MEH paper:
A review of decoherence:
Quantum Darwinism:
Measurements violate the 3rd law:
More on the 3rd and QM:
Equilibration on average:

  1. There is a perfectly valid alternative with other weird implications: that it was always just in one place, but the world is intrinsically non-local. Most physicists prefer to save locality over realism, though. ↩
  2. First proposed in this paper by Schwarzhans, Binder, Huber, and Lock: ↩
  3. In my opinion… it’s a brilliant theory with a terrible name! Sure, there’s something akin to ‘selection pressure’ and ‘reproduction’, but there aren’t really any notions of mutation, adaptation, fitness, generations… Alas, the name has stuck. ↩
  4. I actually love thinking about this question, and the interpretations of quantum mechanics more broadly, but it’s fairly orthogonal to the day-to-day research on this model. ↩