Beretta, Gian Paolo (1992) Quantum thermodynamics: new light upon the physicl meaning of entropy and the origin of irreversibility. Accademia Peloritana dei Pericolanti, Classe di Scienze FF. MM. NN., LXX . pp. 61-99.
atti_3_1992_61.pdf - Submitted Version
What is the physical significance of entropy? What is the physical origin of irreversibility? Do entropy and irreversibility exist only for complex and macroscopic systems? The bulk of the physics community accepts and teaches that all these fundamental questions are rationalized within statistical mechanics. Indeed, for everyday laboratory physics, the mathematical formalism of statistical mechanics (canonical and grandcanonica1, Boltzmann, Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac distributions) allows a successful description of the thermodynamic equilibrium properties of matter, including entropy values. But an ever growing handful of physicists (Schrodinger among the first) have realized that, even in its explanation of the meaning of entropy, statistical mechanics is impaired by ambiguities and logical inconsistencies. They have started to search for a better theory to eliminate these stumbling blocks while maintaining the mathematical formalism that has been so successful in so many applications. This handful of upstreamers must not be confused with the many schools of physicists that have thrived on the more renowned incompleteness of statistical mechanics, namely, the lack of a quantitative (and the weakness of the qualitative) explanation of the origin of irreversibility. In these studies the thrust is provided by the discovery that the macroscopic dynamics of certain complex systems may be modeled using a few-degrees-of-freedom nonlinear Hamiltonian with singularities that give rise to bifurcations and chaotic behavior. These results have generated successful ways to describe irreversible behavior, but their link to the origin of irreversibility is still only heuristic (what is the connection between the nonlinear model Hamiltonian and the true full Hamiitonian?) and does not provide yet a rigorous resolution of the century-old paradox of the conflict between the irreversibiiity of macroscopic behavior, and the reversibility of the laws of mechanics. To resolve both the problem of the meaning of entropy and that of the origin of irreversibility we have built entropy and irreversibility into the laws of mechanics. The result is a theory that we call quantum thermodynamics that has all the necessary properties to combine mechanics and thermodynamics uniting all the successful results of both theories, eliminating the logical inconsistencies of statistical mechanics and the paradox on irreversibiiity, and providing an entirely new perspective on the microscopic origin of irreversibility, nonlinearity and therefore chaotic behavior. The mathematical formalism of quantum thermodynamics differs from that of statistical mechanics mainly in the equation of motion which is nonlinear but has solutions identical to those of the Schrodinger equation for all the states for which statistical mechanics reduces to quantum mechanics. The physical meaning of the formalism of quantum thermodynamics differs more drastically from that of statistical mechanics. The significance of the state operator of quantum thermodynamics is entirely different from that of the density operator of statistical mechanics, even though the two are mathematically equivalent. Indeed they obey different equations of motion. In particular, quantum thermodynamics is concerned only with those systems for which quantum mechanics would describe the states with vectors in Hilbert space or, equivalently, projection operators. Using a well known jargon, we can say that quantum thermodynamics like quantum mechanics is concerned only with pure quantum states. However, it postulates that the set of pure quantum states of a system is much broader than contemplated by quantum mechanics. Pure quantum states must be described by operators defined by all the features of projection operators except the condition of idempotence. As a result, an operator that within statistical mechanics would describe a mixed quantum state (that is, the average state of a statistical mixture of identical systems in different pure quantum states) in quantum thermodynamics describes a pure quantum state, a state that neither quantum mechanics non statistical mechanics would contemplate. Conceptually, the increased richness of pure quantum states is a new revolutionary postulate of quantum physics. But from the point of view of the statistical mechanics practitioners the new theory is not as traumatic as it seems. Whenever one uses a nonidempotent density operator to describe a thermodynamic equilibrium state one simply has to reinterpret it as one of the new pure quantum states. One even saves the usual ad hoc arguments on thermal baths and reservoirs that are usually required in statistical mechanics to justify the use of a nonidempotent density operator to describe the state of a system. In this paper we discuss the background and formalism of quantum thermodynamics including its nonlinear equation of motion and the main general results. Our objective is to show in a not-too-technical manner that this theory provides indeed a complete and coherent resolution of the century-old dilemma on the meaning of entropy and the origin of irreversibility. As a byproduct, we discuss a long set of criteria that a theory should meet in order to afford the same claim.
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