The Kochen-Specker argument, and the spectral theory script

Somewhat later than I had hoped, I have updated the script of my spectral theory course. The version currently found online is complete as far as the material I intended to put in is concerned, but there are a few places where I haven’t written down all details (in particular for the proof of the Weyl law for the Dirichlet Laplace operator in an open subset of Euclidean space). I am also aware of quite a few small problems in the last chapter on Quantum Mechanics, due partly to notation problems (for the Fourier transforms, and for “physical” versus mathematical normalizations). I will need to re-read the whole text carefully to correct this; on the other hand, thanks to lists of corrections that I have already received from a few students, the number of typos is much less than before… I will however continue updating the PDF file as I continue checking parts of the text.

What delayed this version for a long time was the write-up of the last section on “The interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”; of course it’s in some sense an extraneous part of the script, since spectral theory barely enters in it, but I found it important to at least try to connect the mathematical framework with the actual physics. (This partly explains all the reading I’ve done recently about these issues). It is equally obvious that I am not the most knowledgeable person for such a discussion, but after all, there are good authorities that claim that no one really understands this question anyway…

What I end up discussing contains however one little mathematical result, which is cute and interesting independently of its use in Quantum Mechanics; it is a theorem of S. Kochen and E.P. Specker which states the following:

There does not exist any map
f\,:\, \mathbf{S}^2\rightarrow \{0,1\}
where S2 is the sphere in R3 with the property that, whenever
are pairwise orthogonal unit vectors, we have
or in other words, two of the three values are equal to 1, and the other is equal to 0.

How this result enters into discussions of the interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is described by M. Jammer in his book on the subject (not the same as his book on the development of Quantum Mechanis, but another one, equally evanescent as far as the internet is concerned); more recently, J. Conway and S. Kochen have combined it with the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen argument (or paradox) to derive what they call the “Free Will Theorem”, which is an even stronger version of the unpredictability of properties of Spin 1 particles (those to which the Kochen-Specker argument applies). Conway has given lectures in Princeton on this result and its history and consequences, which are available as videos online.

Coming back to the result above, considered purely from the mathematical point of view, it is interesting to notice that both the original proof and the version used by Conway-Kochen (which is due to A. Peres) show that the hypothetical map does not exist even for some finite sets of points on the sphere. It is of some interest to get a smallest possible set of such points. The proof I gave in the script, however, which is taken from Jammer’s book (who attributes it to R. Friedberg) is maybe theoretically slightly more complicated, but it is also somewhat more conceptual in that one doesn’t have to be puzzled so much at the reason why one finite set of vectors or another is really fundamental.

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

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