One of the more underrated lines in the history of Physics may well be Neils Bohr’s line “God Does Not Play Dice.” It is one of the most efficient and elegant rebuttals to another famous line that lives in Physics lore. However, just to get this out of the way, neither Bohr or Einstein was talking about the existence of ‘God’, nor was that the subject of the debate.
This quote was made, from one legendary physicist to another, by Niels Bohr in almost simultaneous response to Albert Einstein.
This quote was made at the fifth Solvay conference which took place October 24 to 29th, 1917. The five-day conference is among the most famous and noteworthy within the physics community. To spoil the ending, Bohr is now widely seen as having gotten the better of the engagement.
Niels Bohr Said It. What’s the Story?
Einstein was skeptical that Quantum Mechanics was the correct formulation of physics and was criticizing Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Einstein thought that, on its face, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle appeared to be incompatible with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (which, at this point, had tremendous empirical validity). Einstein viewed Quantum Mechanics as being “less secure in its mathematical foundations than Relativity.” What does that mean?
Essentially, the problem was twofold. Not only does the mathematical prediction give way to statistical variability based on the observer (who and how one observes something impacts the fundamental world in a seemingly nondeterministic way) but it also lead to a problem.
If the world cannot, at a fundamental level, be understood empirically, what is the point?
In the nearly century since this quote was made Niels Bohr’s defense of the uncertainty principle has been repeatedly determined to be true. However, Einstein’s concerns were somewhat misplaced. For a few decades after this disagreement took place, the young Physicist Richard Feynman would win a nobel prize for discovering that while it is true that one cannot know the absolute position of a particle at any moment, the uncertainty…is calculable.
What have other’s said about the quote?
So it’s true that nobody liked the philosophical implications of Quantum Mechanics, but it seemed to be correct in spite of anybody’s preferences or difficulties. It is important to understand that there were viable alternatives to the Copenhagen Interpretation, for example the de Broglie–Bohm theory, that were rejected on philosophical grounds, i.e. the principal of Occam’s razor, as introducing unnecessary theoretical elements.
Bohr meant that the consensus of the physics community had grown to accept Quantum Mechanics and in particular the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Bohr was criticizing Einstein’s position by reminding him that empirical results take precedence over theoretical considerations. Perhaps most importantly, one must realize that the empirical results (while paradoxical) were absolutely clear.
And many still seem to regard Einstein’s remark as a self-inflicted wound: an indication of his stubborn unwillingness to change, his lamentably archaic attitude in the face of the new physics.