Scientists Are Playing Catch-Up With The Universe–There’s No Going Back To Kansas Anymore

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Discussion: The Tao Of Physics

June 4, ‘80

After toast and coffee, I joined Lisa and Jade, and we mounted up and started biking north. My knee was tender, but in sparse traffic, under warm sunshine, and biking with friends, I was able to forget about it for a while. When the tenderness turned into pain after about thirty miles, we all agreed to make Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park our last stop for the day. For me that meant spending the rest of the day sitting around camp with my knee packed in ice, while Jade and Lisa went exploring. Don and I, (Don, a young idealist college student from some preppy East coast school) were just a bit envious when they returned with their hiking stories after sunset. Don was also camping on the beach, and he had joined me for dinner and the sunset. He was spending his summer in California, and took a few days off work to enjoy the sights. After listening to Jade, though, he decided to spend an extra day at this park. If I wanted to keep bicycling, I had no choice, I had to stay off my knee and let it heel.

Jade and Lisa were super human beings, and Don was good company, too. He had a quick wit, and was funny. We disagreed a lot, but that made conversation even better. I hadn’t had any social interaction like this since Michigan. That evening, in fact, was particularly good because Don, Jade, and I ended up talking on a subject that I found extremely interesting. Lisa turned in early, leaving us boys with the twelve pack of beer that Jade had brought back to camp after his day on the hiking trails.

When Jade said he had just finished reading the book The Tao Of Physics by Fritjof Capra, my attention peaked since I had read the book too, but a long time ago. According to Jade, Capra was inspired to write the book while watching waves roll in after sitting on an ocean beach one sunny afternoon. Being a physicist, he already knew about the ‘cosmic dance of energy,’ and skilled in meditation and a seeker after mystical truth, he also knew that there was more to the story than just ‘dancing energy.’ That’s when he decided to write his book.

“That’s neat,” I said, adding that I had also read the book. “In fact, wouldn’t it be nice if that stuff could be taught in the classroom right along side of physics?”

“Not going to happen,” came the reply, “not in our lifetime, anyway.”

“I read somewhere, I said, “that it takes fifty years or more for society to catch up to revolutionary concepts in science.”

“That’s probably right,” said Jade, “ but in this case it might even take scientists that long to catch up.”

“What are you guys talking about,” said Don, “Catch up to what? How can a scientist catch up to science?”

“Catch up to the universe,” I said. “Science–the scientist– has to catch up to what’s happening in the universe. There’s no going back to Kansas anymore. That’s what Capra was telling us in his book. We just don’t live in a world divided up into the squeaky clean categories of mass and energy anymore, not to mention cause and effect.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Don. “It sounds like you guys, Capra included, have been smoking to much of that ropy stuff for too long.”

“Not really,” Jade replied, “Capra is a well respected physicist who just happens to be on the cutting edge of new age thinking. He really knows what he’s talking about.”

Jade’s right,” I said, “The new physics has turned waves into particles and particles into waves. Hell, we don’t even know for sure if the world exists separate from the way we look at it anymore. According to Capra, at the quantum level, the universe looks and behaves differently from the way we typically perceive it. At that level, we loose track of independently existing things. Physical phenomena appears, on the quantum level, to show signs of being interconnected, which means that we are interconnected with everything else, which means that the sages of the East were right all along. Ultimately, we are all part of some mystical ‘oneness,’ but we just don’t know it. In reality, we’re just one big happy family.”

“Quantum physics says all that,” replied Don, “I don’t mean to be a party pooper fellows, but didn’t anybody ever tell you that splitting up the “small stuff” resulted in the ‘now you see ‘em, now you don’t’ cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I mean
the family that bombs together doesn’t necessarily stay together, let alone live in bliss!”

“Well, yeah,” Jade replied, “I guess it doesn’t hurt to keep a perspective on things. I think what is being said here is that the world that gave us a better bomb, on a fundamental level, just doesn’t exist anymore. It exists locally, yeah, but even so, we still can’t go back to Kansas. Everything has changed.”

“Like what exactly,” replied Don.

“Like we can’t think of the universe as just a collection of objects anymore,” Jade responded. “Rather, it’s more like a complicated web of relations. Some physicists even go as far as to say that it is a complicated web of relations between the various parts of a unified whole. And that is what Dave meant when he said that Eastern mystics were there first. In fact, Capra is saying the same thing. According to him, even the language used by physicists and the language used by mystics is starting to sound the same. Nagarjuna, a first or second century Buddhist, preached that things were nothing in themselves; instead, they derived their being from a mutual dependence with other things. A particle physicist might say the very same thing about the results of a cloud chamber experiment that records the trajectories of colliding particles. Under certain conditions, an elementary particle is no more than a set of relationships that reach outward to other things. The world, on that level, is no more than a complicated tissue of events that determines the texture of the whole.”

“Big deal,” snapped Don. “So what the hell is all that supposed to mean? Physicists still do physics don’t they? They still make killer weapons don’t they, weapons that when sold, produce mega bucks for the seller. Who cares where destruction comes from? It’s still destruction. Right!”

What’s Happening In Science Today Is The Rediscovery Of Our Lost Identity

“Wait a minute.” I interrupted. “We need to start over, I know what you’re getting at Don, and I totally agree. And I know Jade does too. That’s why I said that it takes time, lots of it, for the implications of new concepts to be fully digested. Maybe a hundred years for all I know, but digested they will be, and when that happens the world will be better off. That’s all I’m trying to say. What is happening in physics today is a far cry from what happened in the past, and its telling us new and exciting things about the universe, and maybe even about ourselves! This new vision does not exclude, it includes, and therein lies the hope. When humanity is brought into the mix with everything else, a whole new ballgame arises; the center of balance shifts, possibilities open, even if, in the short run, the rules remain the same. If you ask me, humanity will be in for immense benefits if this new vision catches on. Think about it. What’s happening in science today is the rediscovery of our lost identity, and that can’t be all bad.”

“How many beers are left?” said Don.

“What?”

“If we’re gunna start over,” Don replied, “and if you’re gunna get metaphysical on me, I need to know just how patient I want to be. So how many beers patient will I be?”

“Well,” Jade said after looking into the twelve pack, and handing everyone another beer, “I’d say about two or three, depending of course on how patient you want to be!”

“That sounds about right,” Don said. “Educate me. I’m ready now.”

“Jade, you’re the science teacher. You start,” I said.

“You don’t need me,” came the response, “you need Neil’s Bohr or Warner Heisenberg.”

“That sounds good,” I said. “Start with those guys. Think of it as practice. After all, in the classroom you won’t have such a patient audience. We won’t heckle. Go for it.”

“All right already, enough,” Jade said. “As best I can remember,” Jade began, “it all started with Max Planck’s black body radiation experiments at the turn of the century. He discovered that radiation or light propagates in discrete packets. Those packets are called the quantum of action. The energy in a quantum of action varies, but its discreteness doesn’t. That discreteness is known as Planck’s constant. Particles in classical physics evolve in a continuous manner, and in three dimensions of space, but in atomic physics that just doesn’t seem to be the case. With the discovery of the quantum of action, there was a merging of the dynamic state of the elements under study with their localization. The particles’ independence dissolved, as it became impossible to simultaneously determine position and momentum, an impossibility for which the uncertainty relations of Heisenberg became the precise expression. After the uncertainty principle, Cartesian space and time co-ordinates ceased to be applicable, and physicists were forced into learning new rules for a new game. In fact, all the conjugate variables of analytical mechanics–energy, time, momentum, position, had to be dealt with as approximations, they had to be dealt with in terms of statistical analysis. Ultimately, with the loss of space and time localization, physicists were forced to abandon their concept of a deterministic physical universe.”

“Oh yeah, and what about Einstein,” Don said. “Did he abandon the concept of determinism? What happened to his space and time?”

“Well, not exactly,” Jade replied. “His space and time are still there, only it’s not just his space-time any longer, it’s everybody’s.”

(More Next Week…)

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2 Responses to “Scientists Are Playing Catch-Up With The Universe–There’s No Going Back To Kansas Anymore”

  1. 365daysofcourage Says:

    wonderful writing and great topic…thanks for sharing!

    • bwinwnbwi Says:

      Thanks for the encouragement! Is it me or has there always been a reply to click on after a comment? Before, it was just add a comment to the page–go figure?

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