Saturday, October 19, 2013

Van Kampen, a pro-QM warrior: 1921-2013

Nicolaas 'Nico' Godfried van Kampen, a Dutch physicist and an uncle of Gerard 't Hooft, died in Nieuwegein two weeks ago, on Sunday, October 6th.

He was born in Leiden in 1921 and studied there under Kramers (yes, this Hendrik Anthony one who worked with Bohr on the interactions of electromagnetic waves with matter). He figured out how to deal with singularities in quantum scattering problems; Kramers would say that this insight was important in the development of renormalization.

Later, he would move to Utrecht (for the whole career) and do research on statistical physics in general and stochastic processes in particular. For example, the book you see (and you may buy) on the left side has collected 10 thousand citations. Wow.

Van Kampen was also an uncle of Gerard 't Hooft. He encouraged his nephew to study in Utrecht.

How did I learn about him? Well, it was in the quantum wars. In a weird corner of the Internet where I was sent, a crackpot has attacked Van Kampen's essay
The Scandal of Quantum Mechanics (first page preview, second after a free registration, The American Journal in Physics 2008, 15 cits)
where he argues that quantum mechanics is fully consistent, well-defined, complete, and the real scandal is that there are still writers (authors of articles, essays, popular books, and even textbooks) who keep on obscuring this point more than 80 years later. He points out that it's wrong to adjust the reality to your ideas; scientists should do it the other way around. Quantum mechanics may be counter-intuitive but it works perfectly. The only special thing occurring during the measurement is the disappearance of interference due to the presence of many microstates, i.e. decoherence.

(The second page of the paper above is short and only contains references. You may register a free account on Deepdyve – a commercial website offering science articles for discounted prices – by logging in via Facebook – you may preview one article a day for five minutes for free.)

The word "scandal" may be counted among the more dramatic descriptions of the activity of anti-quantum zealots. If you want to hear my guess – and it's just a guess – why Van Kampen was among those who get more irritated by the anti-quantum junk than others, I think that it's because he was exposed to the anti-quantum delusions through his nephew which had to be a disappointing and annoying experience. The more one gets exposed to this pseudoscientific anti-quantum movement, the more irritated one may get when he sees it again.

Van Kampen was an uncle of a famous fellow but his own uncle was also famous: Frits Zernike earned the 1953 Nobel prize in physics. The evidence suggests that it is a dynasty where exceptional skills are inherited by nephews.

RIP, Mr Van Kampen.


  1. Makes me wonder: Does our Nature apply affirmative action by preferring to pass on such exceptional skills via intermediate mothers (or does 'she' do it with equal probability via fathers)? (You, Lumo, are likely to correctly guess my premise.)

  2. Lubosh, your second paragraph needs editing: there are some typos. It is Kramers, not Kampan, who would deal with the electromagnetic mass. So the closing bracket should be placed at the paragraph end, I guess.

  3. No, there is no typo in the paragraph of the type you suggest. It was Van Kampen who worked out the singularities in scattering.

  4. OK, I know a lot about Kramers, but nothing about Kampen in this respect. What did Kampen suggest?

  5. You know nothing about most things in the world. Why don't you search for the papers etc. yourself? Start e.g. with

  6. As far as I understand, his PhD work was finished in 1952 whereas Kramers worked on the electromagnetic mass well before. Maybe Kampen work was in line with the renormalization prescription at that time, but it was not he who "worked our singularities in scattering" in a decisive way.

  7. New_Born_PhysicistOct 19, 2013, 4:56:00 PM

    Van Kampen's book Stochastic processes in physics and chemistry is really delightful and highly recommended.

    RIP prof. Van Kampen.

    Somehow related news to this sad one is that Markus Büttiker also died some weeks ago. He was also very well-known between cond-mat people.

  8. Perhaps we can apply vocabulary from relatively recent psychological research to a certain mind's continued resistance to quantum mechanics.

    Kahneman's book 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' has a chapter 'Causes trump statistics' where you can find the lines 'A mind that is hungry for causal stories finds nothing to chew on.......can deal with stories in which the elements are causally linked, but is weak in statistical reasoning......'

    The chapter doesn't deal with quantum statistics, but I think it's related. That is, to the evolved human mind, classical physics simply offers a better 'causal narrative' than quantum physics. (Of course, quantum physics doesn't violate causality, I am talking about a particular story-telling quality of classical physics versus that of quantum physics.)

    Not only are humans bad intuitive statisticians, we also prefer causal stories.

    Anyways, it's just a thought. Here's another: Great blog!


  9. Nope Lùböŝḧ, "exceptional skills are inherited by nephews." you're insanely wrong. More wrong than Garrett Lisi's theory or Lee Smolin's belief. There is no "genius magic gene" that gets inherited. Only creationist believe such insane and fairytale saying.

  10. Vladimir, come on admit it, you're as bad as Uncle Al in trying to publicize your theory on every forum possible, when you can ;)

    Still, the fact that the 4/3 "problem" and classical self reaction is still being discussed today in Physical Review is itself interesting.

  11. With asking Lubosh here, I just wanted to get some information on how Van Kapmen saw the problem, nothing else. I want to learn different opinions on this subject. 4/3 is not a problem to me because it has been resolved by many researchers, by Fermi, for example. It is true that I do not accept the self-action idea (self-induction in CED, if you like, that prevents the charge from changing its state v = const and we remove it by hand). It is true that I have another idea, but I did not advertised it in this post.

  12. It's not any perfect correlation - after all, one only inherits genes from direct ancestors - but there's undoubtedly a positive correlation between an uncle's and his nephew's chance to be extremely smart. Denying it means to deny all of genetics. It's really ironic for a denier of genetics to say that genetics is only creationism.

  13. He was saying that there is no relation between "smart" and "genes".

  14. Very clever! Is that true that an "analogous" aunt-to-niece transmission cannot exist because women have XX i.e. the pair of the same types of this chromosome?

  15. Robertson SmithwoodsOct 20, 2013, 9:24:00 PM

    Yes. The asymmetry is real. You are suggesting that the greater variability in men over women may be due to women having two X chromosomes.

    This certainly makes sense if gene effects are simply averaged - a certain regression to the mean would result. Of course, it cannot be quite that simple because the gene effects must interact in very complex ways.

    Genotyping the entire human genome is becoming cheaper at a rate that outstrips Moore's Law for electronics. I understand there are studies underway to find genes associated with cognitive ability.

  16. Thanks for the answer!

    These are exciting things. Just yesterday, I read that yeti seems to be an ancient polar bear, by some DNA tests. ;-)

    I am still afraid of asking for an analysis of my DNA because I would probably discover too many obscure and potentially pessimistically fateful mutations. ;-)

  17. The fact is there is no link between genetics and "smartness". Deal with that.

  18. The 4/3 problem was not resolved Mr. VŁÆÐıMı®.

  19. " I understand there are studies underway to find genes associated with cognitive ability."
    Unless the grants for such studies implied that the results would show that women have greater genetic gifts of cognition than men, the PC police would file the grant application in the trash.
    Anyway, epigenetic influences have a huge effect on which portions of the gene are activated or repressed.