This semester, I am taking a course on relativistic quantum mechanics. Currently we are covering the "hole interpretation" of negative energy solutions to the Dirac equation.
I've done this stuff before, as an undergraduate, in private study, and in various grad-level courses. So I'm used to the interpretation being given. But I decided recently that it is perfectly absurd.
|Other schemes have failed
The oil companies will go bankrupt!
To prevent this absurdity, Dirac made the very rational step of proposing an infinite number of negative-energy electrons everywhere at all points in space filling up the infinitely-many negative energy states, preventing electrons from falling in to them. But because all space is filled with these negative-energy electrons, then we just call them "vacuum" and only pay attention to what is on top of them.
This infinite collection of electrons existing everywhere in every possible negative-energy state is called "the Dirac sea".
The first few times I heard of this, I sort of let it go as a kind of mathematical abstraction to help the equations make sense. But then I started to realize that physicists actually believe in the existence of an infinite "sea" of electrons that fills all space with every possible energy, as a real thing that really ontologically exists.
One thing I want to get cleared away, is that this Dirac sea is where we get the interpretation of spontaneous creation of electron-positron pairs in quantum mechanics. I hear a lot of arts-degree-atheists bring up this sort of quantum behavior of the "vacuum" to explain away Christian assertions that "something cannot come from nothing". And it can't. In the Dirac interpretation, there is an infinite number of electrons everywhere already existing; a photon excites one of them from negative to positive energy, so now we can see not only the electron itself, but the lack of negative-energy electron in the "sea" which we call a positron. So things apparently come from "nothing" only because we define "nothing" to be infinitely-many things. Likewise, in the Heisenberg interpretation of field theory, the mathematics forces us to have a "vacuum" not with infinitely-many particles but infinite energy, and we call this infinite energy "vacuum" (or "nothing") and so it appears that "something" (electron-positron pairs) comes from "nothing" (infinite particles and energy everywhere in all space and time).
After that, is the mathematical absurdity of the hole theory. The negative energy states are said to be all "filled"; all infinity of them are. They're so filled that there is no room for observed electrons to collapse to negative energy. That's the idea. But mathematically, infinity and infinity+1 are the "same" thing. For a neat parable on this, read "Hilbert's Hotel". A basic summary of the story, if you have a hotel with infinitely-many rooms, and all of the rooms are filled -- all infinity of them, filled -- and another guest comes along, you can still make room for him by asking everyone to scootch down one room. If infinitely-many guests come along looking for rooms, you can still make room for all of them in your filled hotel by asking everyone to take their room number, double it, and move to that room. If infinitely-many busses, each of which has infinitely-many passengers shows up at your hotel that is already filled with infinitely-many occupants, then you can still make room for the new-arrivals through a complicated procedure of labeling the rooms.
Applying Hilbert's Hotel isn't entirely one-to-one because the energy spectrum of negative energy solutions is continuously-infinite and not denumerably infinite... which actually only makes the situation even worse, from a mathematical standpoint; accommodating a single discrete electron should be much more possible for the continuous spectrum than the discrete spectrum of Hilbert's Hotel. After all, every positive integer from 0 to infinity can be mapped to the interval between 0 and 1, and with plenty of elbow room to spare.
So the proposal of infinitely-many electrons filling all the negative energy states does not even solve the problem of cascading; it just obscures it.
|turtles --> electrons
So I've started objecting loudly in class about this. Sadly, there is a language barrier between my professor and I and I do not get my answers across very well. He has recommended, if I don't like it, to find my own interpretation. Maybe I will.
But seriously, what the heck?
|Schematic Diagram of Dirac Hole Theory