Philosophy of Physics Seminar (Week 1, MT18)

Philosophy of Physics

Spontaneous symmetry breaking (SSB) in quantum systems, such as ferromagnets, is normally described as (or as arising from) degeneracy of the ground state; however, it is well established that this degeneracy only occurs in spatially infinite systems, and even better established that ferromagnets are not spatially infinite. I review this well-known paradox, and consider a popular solution where the symmetry is explicitly broken by some external field which goes to zero in the infinite-volume limit; although this is formally satisfactory, I argue that it must be rejected as a physical explanation of SSB since it fails to reproduce some important features of the phenomenology. Motivated by considerations from the analogous classical system, I argue that SSB in finite systems should be understood in terms of the approximate decoupling of the system's state space into dynamically-isolated sectors, related by a symmetry transformation; I use the formalism of decoherent histories to make this more precise and to quantify the effect, showing that it is more than sufficient to explain SSB in realistic systems and that it goes over in a smooth and natural way to the infinite limit.

Philosophy of Physics Seminar Convenor: Dr Adam Caulton