Campus & Community

Philosopher serious about science

2 min read

Cause and effect, quantum theory targets of Ned Hall’s mind

Whether teasing out inconsistencies in quantum theory or figuring out what it means for one event to cause another, Ned Hall is asking questions about the forces that rule the world around him and seeking consistency in the answers he knows are out there.

Hall, a newly appointed professor of philosophy, came to Harvard from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in July. With a focus on the philosophy of science, Hall said he was attracted to Harvard in part because of the opportunity to work across discipline boundaries with scientists.

“Philosophical work in quantum mechanics has become so technical that to do cutting-edge work is [similar] to do[ing] research in physics,” Hall said.

The theory of quantum mechanics is one focus for Hall and he’s considering writing an introductory text on the subject. He is examining the problems related to measurement in quantum mechanics, one of the least elegant parts of the theory. This theoretical messiness indicates that our understanding is imperfect, he said.

“Philosophers of science have always been bothered by these messy parts of the theory. How do you tidy it up?” Hall said. “It may not make a difference to physicists, because it doesn’t affect their results, but the textbook story as it stands is not a very plausible one.”

Teachers often gloss over the inconsistencies in the theory, Hall said, but bright students realize something is amiss.

“Bright students always spot the trouble areas. They don’t understand how the theory is supposed to work. They ask questions, but they’re often told, ‘Shut up and calculate,’” Hall said.