Posts Tagged ‘measurement’

Quantum Strangeness Structurally Explained The Problem

April 25, 2010

The Problem

Part 1 of 4 posts

Sometimes thoughts and ideas arise out of thin air and that’s what happened the other day when I got the idea to blog about Quantum Strangeness, and how it becomes less strange when viewed through the prism of what I call the structure of existence. So, welcome to my theory of everything (TOE).

Life is lived in terms of a series of events: appointments, muscle aches, down time, paychecks, road trips, shopping, phone calls, work, work, etc., etc. My TOE, however, is suggesting a more meaningful universe. You see, in the same way that the constancy of light’s velocity moved Einstein to think “outside the box,” (actually he imagined the constancy of the velocity of light since in 1905 that phenomenon had not yet been confirmed)leading him to deduce the required relationship between an observer’s reference frame and the predictability of events, so too, in my thinking about quantum phenomena, existential phenomenology, and religion’s aesthetic traditions, I was lead to think “outside the physical event.” What could possibly exist outside a physical event you ask? That something is logic, and, in my case, that something is structured in such a way as to account for our experience of temporality, rationality, and predictable events; furthermore, that structure is a lot easier to understand than Einstein’s theories. Logically speaking, the structure I am suggesting is the simplest possible structure imaginable, and yet it is flexible enough to contain the whole of the space-time continuum (Einstein, 1915). This structure exists on three levels, the two higher levels preserving the integrity of the bottom level. It’s not as if this structured existence will change the way science gets done, but, in the overall scheme of things, the reality explained by science is not as emotionally gratifying (or encompassing) as the reality suggested by this structure.

My theory, as with most structuralism, has two components, a diachronic timeline of events (think evolution here), and the frozen in time structural aspect of experience (think logic and mathematics here). Because the universe, in my theory, takes place in the space that separates, embeds and connects—connects to the “space of logical implication,” the universe is comprehensible. Whoops, I’ve put the cart before the horse, so to speak, so I now digress to a brief discussion of the strangeness of quantum phenomena.

At the quantum level, the universe looks and behaves differently from the way we typically perceive it. At the level of the very small, we loose track of independently existing things. For some physicists, it becomes difficult to think of the universe as a collection of objects because it’s more like a complicated web of relations, a web of relations existing between the various parts of a unified whole. An elementary particle, under certain conditions, is no more than a set of relationships that reach outward to other things. What’s 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 of reality is inclusive, as opposed to exclusive. When humanity is brought into the mix with everything else, a whole new ballgame arises. The center of balance shifts, and overtime, possibilities open, even if in the short run, the rules remain the same. Humanity will be in for immense benefits if this new vision catches on. Here’s a little bit of the history behind this strange new science.

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 does not, and 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 and, because of that, Einstein spent the rest of his life (after publishing his major accomplishments) trying to put “determinism” back into the universe.

It’s true that our knowledge, at the quantum level, is limited by statistical analysis, but it works, and it works well. That, according to Niles Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, was pretty important in itself. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, the model attributed to Bohr and Heisenberg, it doesn’t matter what’s going on at the quantum level, what matters is that in all possible experimental situations we can, within certain limits, predict the outcomes. Understanding reality, according to the Copenhagen Interpretation, lies beyond the capabilities of rational thought. The laws governing individual events are, at the quantum level, completely discarded. Only mathematical laws governing aggregations apply. According to quantum mechanics, it is not possible, even in principle, to know enough about the present to make a complete prediction about the future. Even with the best possible measuring devices, it is still not possible. Overcoming all the history that’s still building in quantum mechanics is a daunting task for anyone. Einstein wasn’t the only physicist who disliked the theory. Many have tried to dislodge the Copenhagen interpretation. In every instance, however, the physical world has intervened and said, “Your questions are meaningless.” No physicist likes to hear that! When a wave behaves like a particle and a particle behaves like a wave, the concepts that used to define the physical world no longer apply. Nature now requires a marriage of ideas that in the past were designed to live apart. Neil’s Bohr just got tired of fighting the inevitable. That’s when he started seeing things in a complimentary light. He basically said that there are no waves out there. There are no particles running around, either. That strange animal that interacts with the experiments, the quantum of action, is all there is. Because Bohr believed that, he introduced the idea of complementarity. He considered the particle picture and the wave picture as two complementary descriptions of the same reality, each description being only partly correct and having a limited range of application. For Bohr, the entity “electron,”–just like the other elementary entities of physics—had two irreconcilable aspects, which must be invoked in order to explain, in turn, the properties of the entity. To give a full description of atomic reality, each picture is needed, and both descriptions are to be applied within the limitations given by the uncertainty principle. In fact, when the queen of England knighted Bohr for his work in physics, he was forced to pick a family coat of arms, and so he picked the Chinese symbol of Tai-chi. Because he believed that reality had to be visualized in both its complimentary and contradictory aspects, but not at the same time, he felt that, at least at the level of the quantum of action, the basic idea of Eastern mysticism’s yin/yang reality had been confirmed. But, there is more to quantum strangeness than yin/yang reality! There’s another level to this relationship of mutually exclusive opposites coming together in same reality and it’s called “observer-generated reality.”

The classical notions of space, time, causality,–objective reality, — break down at the quantum level. Remember there are no waves propagating. According to most physicists, the wave function is not quite a thing, it is more like an idea that occupies a strange middle ground between idea and reality, where all things are possible but none are actual. An electron is not a particle either, it is more like a process, always forming, always dissolving. It can’t be detected until it interacts with a measuring device and even if it does interact we don’t know if it interacts with the device per se, or if it interacts with the last link in the chain of events that define the experiment—the consciousness of the human observer. The physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, devised a thought experiment to illustrate that point.

You put a cat in a box with some poison gas. When the gas is released, the cat dies. The release of the gas is triggered by radiation decay that is totally random (cannot be predicted). In classical physics, the cat dies at the time of the decay, but in quantum mechanics the cat dies when the observation is made, when the last link in the chain of events that defines the experiment occurs. At the time of observation when the box is opened the wave function collapses and probability becomes actuality. Of course, common sense tells us that can’t be true, but that’s precisely the point, common sense breaks down at the quantum level, things are “different” at that level. So the question remains: Is it (or when is it) necessary to include human consciousness in our descriptions of the world? Or, put another way: What role does measurement play in an experiment? Does it provide a description of the world under study or does it actually create that world? Quantum Mechanics has a hard time answering questions like these. Maybe one day that situation will be better understood, but until that day comes, talk about “objectivity” is probably best left to the Buddhists. They don’t have a problem with “independent reality” because, for Buddhists, there isn’t any; everything is interdependent. The subjective world and the objective world are, for an enlightened Buddhist, just words referring to mutually conditioned relations woven into one fabric. Keeping the Buddha in mind, along with the strange universe described above, I want to begin my discussion of structured existence by revealing the shape of my TOE—it’s shaped like a V, yes, it looks like the letter v, but that’s just the beginning.