When Asked About Quantum Mechanics (2016May16)

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May 16th, 2016

The simple answer is that quantum physics is newer, and therefore more advanced than what we call mechanical physics (or ‘regular’ physics). However, modern quantum mechanics, our present-day method of studying physics (nuclear, chemical, or astronomical) is so complex that its 1st quarter-century, from 1900-1925, is now referred to as ‘Old Quantum Theory’. In that first, primitive form, Niels Bohr and a bunch of other guys noticed that electrons orbit a nucleus at different levels—never in-between the levels. They called the ‘steps’ from one level to another ‘quanta’ (the plural of ‘quantum’, both from the Latin quantus ‎(“how much”).

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Actually, they used ‘quantum’ to refer to the miniscule amount of energy lost or gained when an electron moved from one orbit to another. They realized that quanta are limited—down at that level, energy doesn’t slide smoothly up and down a scale, but jumps from one quantum level to another. And this is just one of the ways in which very-small-scale (or nuclear) physics differ from what we call macroscopic physics (like throwing a baseball or flying a plane).

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Another example is indeterminacy—usually referred to as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. What Heisenberg said was: you can’t see a thing without bouncing something off of it—usually a photon of light. But when things get very, very tiny you can’t bounce something off of it without moving it, or changing it somehow. So he concluded that you can’t look at something without changing the thing you’re looking at. It’s a great principle because it’s true of sub-atomic particles, but it’s also true of people—even of groups of people—if you watch them, they notice you’re watching them—and they change their behavior. But that’s not physics—it’s more like a coincidence.

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The biggest obstacle to understanding quantum mechanics is that it’s based on the idea that there are more dimensions than we know of, or are aware of—the usual three dimensions of Space, and the fourth dimension of Time. They theorize that there are many more dimensions—maybe eleven or twelve, nobody really knows yet. The dimensions we know of seem so basic, so much a part of reality, that’s it’s nearly impossible to imagine what a fifth or sixth dimension would do, or where it would go. But mathematics can let theoretical physicists play around with the idea and try to get something out of it that humans can understand, at least partly. Still, you can see why there aren’t a lot of theoretical physicists—it’s kind of a headache.

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Also, Multiple Dimensions pose the same problem as Dark Matter or Dark Energy—we only have so much empirical evidence to work with—the rest is all theories—and those theories, being about things we don’t see, or can’t comprehend, make it hard to come up with real-world experiments that could prove the theories.

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To prove the existence of the Higgs boson (the ‘God’ particle) CERN had to build the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the border between Switzerland and France—it is a circular structure 17 miles in circumference. It took ten years to build it. Peter Higgs came up with the theory in 1964—but he didn’t win the Nobel Prize until 2013. There were several other scientists involved, but I don’t want to complicate this more than I have to. The famous Stephen Hawking experienced the same sort of thing—he theorized the Big Bang in his graduate thesis, and described theoretical properties of Black Holes—and had to wait many years before people stopped laughing at him and started respecting him for being right—just like Higgs.

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This is not the first time theory came long before experimental confirmation—when Einstein wanted to prove that gravity bent light, he devised an experiment that measured the apparent position of Mercury just before it passed behind the Sun. Because that light would have to pass by a big gravity-well like the Sun, the light gets bent and the apparent position of Mercury would differ from the known position of Mercury. The experiment had to be delayed because World War I U-boats made it impossible to go to the exact place on Earth where the observations had to be made—Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity wasn’t published until after the war, when the experiment could finally be done. And that was before Quantum Physics even came into the picture.

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So, if pressed, I would have to say that the main difference between Mechanical Physics and Quantum Physics is that Mechanical Physics is human-oriented—Newton based his Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation on careful observation—he described what he saw, and pointed out the mathematical relationships of physical phenomena, for instance, that gravity decreased in proportion to the square of the distance between two objects.

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Quantum Mechanics, on the other hand, is based on accepting that human limits are not the end of the story—that the universe is a strange place with more to it than we can see, or even imagine. It even opens up the possibility that a human brain may not ever be able to fully understand the universe—which makes Quantum Mechanics a glorious, even quixotic, quest for knowledge.

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The Irrational Humanist (2015Jan17)

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Saturday, January 17, 2015                              5:39 PM

Lately, I’ve been trying to slog my way through “Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel” by Rebecca Goldstein; I’ve watched “Predestination” on VOD (based on Robert Heinlein’s classic short story, “All You Zombies”—a delirious exploration of the inherent paradox of human time-travel; on Kindle, I’m deep into “Echopraxia” by Peter Watts; and I just this morning discovered online the delightful “Cartoon History of Humanism”’s first sixteen episodes—and I can’t wait for more. Wonderful historical insights, philosophical history datapoints, and a great reading list, making Dale DeBakcsy my new favorite author.

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But then it started to happen again. I’m sure it happens to you, too. You’re reading Melville’s “Moby Dick”, absorbing a fire-hose’s output of historical data about whale biology, the terminology of seamanship, details of 19th –century whaling, aboriginal tattoos, and more. You feel very cozy about communing with this great but long-dead author about out-of-the-way factoids that are completely outside of your everyday thoughts—or anyone else’s. You feel as much a part of 19th century coastal New England culture and society as you do your own present day neighborhood—you feel a little bit special.

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Suddenly, whales come up in every conversation; there’s a PBS special on TV about whales and whaling; a Facebook friend who’s taken a recent coastal tour posts photos of their boating party amidst a pod of spouting, tail-slapping cetaceans; a new biography of Hermann Melville is reviewed in the New York Times’ Book section—whales are everywhere!

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That’s bad enough, but when it comes to something philosophical, like Gödel’s 2nd Incompleteness Theorem, its universal ‘karmic’ backwash can be a little overwhelming. In the course of reading cartoons (no less) I learn that the hidden humanist influences of early first-millennium Christianity not only disproved the existence of the soul, but laid the groundwork for future meditations on the conflict between the rational and the intuitive, the scientific and the ‘true’. Words I had to look up (like ‘apriority’ and ‘formalism’) when I began to read the Gödel book, start popping up in every context. Worse still, these ideas and concepts are applicable—meaning that as I take my daily walk down the block, I’m considering my own perceptions and my own sense of reality—it’s really all too unsettling.

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But history is so broad—it can never cover one subject without touching upon its influences, far and near, past and future. In a sense, any history is a piece of all history, and can lead to further consideration in infinite directions.

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While I’m floundering amidst the flood of reflections which the universe bounces back at me, due to my focus on the question of the incompleteness of consistent systems, and the suggested corollaries that make us question our ability to ‘know’ anything—I am struck by another fact that pops up with even more frequency—misunderstanding.

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Central to Ms. Goldstein’s premise in her partial biography of Kurt Gödel is her insight into the lack of understanding Gödel received from his peers. Almost unanimously, Gödel peers (and scientists and thinkers up to and including the present) saw his proof of the incompleteness of consistent systems as proof that humans are the final arbiters of reality. In point of fact, Gödel had proved the opposite—that the universe is what it is, regardless of human perception (or misperception). Ms. Goldstein points to this as the great tragedy of Gödel’s life and career—that a famously demure genius found a way to say what he wanted to say in irrefutable and unambiguous language—and was, nevertheless, completely misunderstood, both then and now.

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At first, upon reading the beginning of the book, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s the way of the world—when someone is smarter than everyone around him or her, no one will understand what that person tries to say.” And that is certainly true in most cases. But in the course of the last few days, it has occurred to me that human history, all of it, is a collection of the many times, the many ways, and the many reasons why people misunderstand each other. In this context, it is no great surprise that we also habitually misunderstand the universe, reality, perception, science, and reason.

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In the course of the last forty-eight hours, I’ve read and seen multiple examples of great thinkers producing original, important thoughts—and not one of them added to human understanding—on the contrary, misunderstandings about them only increased the chaos. And many times in history, in many places, there have been created brief oases of rational, or at least more-rational, communities—all of which ended, not just in their own erasure from popular history, but in an increase of irrational views left in their wake.

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To me, this is cause for no little amount of despair. Here I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand my existence, and to understand the world and the people around me. But now I understand that, even if I miraculously became ‘enlightened’ as to ‘the meaning of life, the universe, and everything’—I still wouldn’t be able to share my thoughts with other people. I mean, I would—but they would most assuredly misunderstand me completely. They wouldn’t understand me, but they would disagree with me and argue with me. My absolute knowledge of perfect truth would be useless—and would most likely get me in a lot of trouble—think Jesus.

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Facebook has a lot of ‘quotes’ on its walls—and many of them are spurious, or mis-sourced. Recently I saw a quote purportedly said by Einstein (Facebook’s accreditation of quotations always leans towards the more-household names) but then saw the same quote during my reading, but tagged ‘apocryphal’, ascribed to Gödel (a close friend of Einstein’s) by Ms. Goldstein: “The more I think about language, the more it amazes me that people ever understand each other.” I would reply, “Don’t be amazed, Kurt. Look at the history of civilization, of science, of philosophy—look at your own life story. People don’t ever understand each other.”

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