Saturday, November 04, 2006

Popular Quantum Mechanics

As I was going to Saint Ives, I met a man with the Mental Health Services Department. How many wives he had, I'll never know. But he was not wearing any pajamas. He did, however, upon hearing about my interest in all things scientific, recommend a movie to me: "What the Bleep Do We Know?" I liked the fellow, so I rented it...

I must mention to begin with, that I am a cinephile. Yes, I do obscene things to films. Mostly, I like to watch. In any case, of all the thousands of films I have watched, there were only 2 that I can remember walking out on after paying to see them. One was "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." The other was "What the Bleep Do We Know?". I don't remember exactly when I watched the first 15 minutes of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," but it was when it was first released, and I was in a movie theater. Thankfully, I had only rented "What the Bleep Do We Know?," so I saved myself a few extra bucks.

The fact that the film was recommended to me by a man with the Mental Health Services Department tends to prove Einstein's statement regarding infinites: "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." I'm not sure where they got their so-called "scientists," but one of them was apparently Ramtha (J.Z.Knight).

The film was ostensibly an AOL-User-Level explanation of Quantum Physics. However, I never did hear anything about Quantum Physics, during the 30 minutes of the film that I did watch. I did hear a lot of references to Quantum Physics, but no actual science. Instead, I heard a lot of hair-brained presumptuous conclusions that were drawn from the lack of understanding that Science still has regarding Quantum Physics. The study of Quantum Physics is at this point still at the stage of Ten Blind Men examining an elephant. If The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith, or Richard Feynman were (still) around, one or both of them would straighten all of those so-called scientists out. The fact that one can make predictions about behaviors of something with a certain uncertainty does not indicate that one understands what one is observing. Any gambler can tell you the odds of rolling snake-eyes. Nobody can (yet) tell you why those odds are what they are. And anyone that pretends to tell you is a fool, or a con artist.

Science, like Religion, is a search for Truth, the ultimate nature of reality. It is a search for the underlying Principles that govern existence. And coincidentally, there are as many charlatans involved in the field of Science as there are in the field of Religion. These people are opportunists, taking advantage of the principle What You Seek Is What You Get, and luring the weak-minded into their orbit, in their own search for self-aggrandizement. And like everyone else, What They Seek Is What They Get. They do not get the Truth; they get a cult of worshipful followers.

What I mean is this: Everybody wants to know the ultimate nature of reality. However, most people are lazy. They are not willing to discipline themselves and accept the Truth regardless of how much it hurts. Therefore, they settle for less, because their desire to not work and discipline themselves is greater than their desire for the Truth. One of the hardest Truths to admit is simply "I do not know." Therefore, in both Science and Religion, there are those who are willing to supply a ready explanation for almost anything. From pseudo-Quantum-Physics to the Doctrine of Transubstantiation, explanations abound for things which are not yet explained, or those Truths that are the hardest to swallow.

I am going to go just a little deeper now, and discuss some of the particular ideas expressed in the film. Some of these ideas are quite popular, and even taken for granite (pun intended), but erroneous just the same. One of these was the idea that on a sub-atomic level, atoms are composed of extremely small particles in a relatively extremely large vacuum. Now, I suppose that depends on what one means by "particles," and what one means by "a vacuum."

The word vacuum is defined as "a space entirely devoid of matter." But what exactly is "matter?" The word matter is defined as "the substance or substances of which any physical object consists or is composed." But what is "substance?" The word substance is defined as "that of which a thing consists; physical matter or material." And so, like the science of Physics itself, we discover that even language is relative, because we have now come full circle, from defining the word "vacuum" as being relative to the absence of "matter," and "matter" as "substance," and finally "substance" as "matter." In the end, we have defined a way to talk about things of which we know absolutely nothing. We have a perfectly circular reference.

So, how about the word "particle?" The word particle is defined as "a minute portion, piece, fragment, or amount; a tiny or very small bit." Of course, this definition begs the question "a piece of what?" Why, matter, of course! In fact, the science of Physics is not so much about the ultimate nature of things, but about how to measure them. And measurement is always relative, as Einstein so eloquently pointed out.

So, where am I going with this? Well, first of all, doesn't it seem a bit ridiculous that the universe is composed almost entirely of nothing? Why, if it was composed of all of these separated particles with vast expanses of absolutely nothing surrounding them, how on earth would they have any influence upon one another? It shocks the senses to think of it. It sounds like magic. These "particles" would have to be entirely telepathic with regards to one another.

Don't get me wrong; there are good reasons for thinking in terms of "particles" and "vacuums" and these circular definitions of things like "matter." In fact, we owe a lot to the sciences, and the various disciplines of Physics in particular. We are able to interact with the universe more successfully and accurately as a result. That is, we are able to obtain those things we seek with greater success.The mathematics which describe Physics are accurate as far as they are able to go, and that indicates a degree of accuracy in the science itself.

However, it seems to me that we should constantly be aware that these words, and our thoughts themselves are not the things about which we think. They are simply conveniences, constructs which we use to communicate in our minds and with one another about these things. Which brings me to my second point, the discussion in the film of "uncertainty."

From the film, it would appear that all is uncertain, that uncertaintly opens up a realm of possibilities regarding life itself, consciousness, perception, and our ability to "create our reality." These sorts of ideas are pure rubbish. Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle is astounding in and of itself, with plenty of far-reaching implications, without having to encroach on the "macro world" in which we live. In fact, it purely relates to the sub-atomic level of things, and to the concept of measurement in particular. Now, before I continue, I want to make it clear that this does not imply that the sub-atomic level of things is irrelevant in the "macro world" - only that it is a specific realm, and that the conditions within that sub-atomic realm are necessarily different than the conditions in the "macro realm" of existence. Certainly, sub-atomic conditions have an influence, but that influence is not necessarily of the magnitude that is often implied.

In a nutshell, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that there is an inverse relationship in the accuracy of the measurement of position versus momentum of a physical object. On a sub-atomic level, this indicates that the position of a sub-atomic particle may be measured, but that if the position is measured, the momentum will not be known. Conversely, if the momentum of a particle is measured, the position will not be known.

That explanation is both simple and complex, depending on how you look at it. It is important first to understand what is meant by "position," and what is meant by "momentum," and these concepts in and of themselves are difficult to comprehend, because they involve 4 dimensions, the last of which is that mysterious dimension we call "time," a dimension unlike any of the other 3, in that it seems to travel in one direction only, and that is forwards. Of course, it is not time that travels, but we who travel in time. But I digress.

In order to understand Physics, one must necessarily include Time in all equations. For example, the classic Newtonian formula of F = ma (Force = mass * accelleration) necessarily involves time. Accelleration is the increase in velocity of an object over time. Velocity is the rate of change in position of an object relative to another arbitrary object over time. For example, one cannot describe the speed of a car without using time. If a car is moving at 50 miles per hour, this means that in the time span of one hour, a car will have changed its position relative to the earth's surface by 50 miles. So, while the number "50" suffices to communicate the speed of the car, the actual mathematical formula for the speed of the car is (50 * 1 mile) / 1 hour. Think about it. How does one divide miles by hours? And yet, the math holds true.

But, if one is measuring the position of an object, one must necessarily speak of the position of that object at a given point in time. Let me repeat myself: To measure the position of an object, one can only do so by measuring the position at a single point in time. The concept is not as simple as it sounds, because time is a continuum. It does not stop. It cannot be subdivided into distinct moments, for each of those moments can be subdivided infinitely into smaller and smaller segments. There is no such things as a "particle of time," any more than there is such a thing as a "particle of matter." It is a convenience, a means of thinking and communicating about the phenomenon. Yet, paradoxically, we continually seem to exist at a point in time which is constantly in motion. We are trapped as it were, between the "past" and the "future." There is no present; it is infinitely small. Yet, it is only in the present that we seem to exist, due to the nature of the way we perceive reality.

Let me give another example, that of taking a photograph. As you may know, to take a photograph, a light-sensitive medium is exposed to light for a brief period of time, determined by the shutter speed of the camera taking the picture. The "sharpness" of the photograph is affected by the length of the interval of time during which the shutter was opened. We see what seems to be a moment frozen in time in the photograph. But that is not at all what we see. We are seeing a brief interval of time frozen in the photograph. We are seeing the visual effects of a continuous interval of time in which light was allowed to bombard the surface of the film, and during that interval, everything in the photograph was in motion. Yet, if the shutter speed was quick enough, it looks for all the world as if we are seeing a single "moment" in time. On the other hand, if it were possible to open the shutter for the infinitessimally small point between the past and the future, what would we see? Nothing. No activity could have taken place, for motion cannot exist without time. Motion is the change in position that takes place during an interval of time.

Now, this all relates both to the Uncertainty Principle, and to the Wave-Particle Duality problem with which theoretical Physicists have been wrestling for many years. This problem is centered around the fact that, depending upon how one measures, a sub-atomic particle such as an electron or a photon will behave like a particle, a distinct "piece" of something, and a wave, a continuum in a medium which has mathematical characteristics of frequency and amplitude. Sub-atomic particles indeed seem to behave like either of the 2, depending upon how one measures them. That is, if one measures the frequency of a light wave, there is no position, as the position must change over a period of time, and therefore is unknowable. On the other hand, if one measures the position of a particle of light, theoretically, one must discard time, since the position will change with time, and if the position changes, the position is not known. Yet, it is sometimes convenient to speak of photons and electrons as particles, and sometimes convenient to think of them as waves.

This brings me back to the idea that atoms consist mostly of empty space. This is purely a crock of s**t. In fact, there is no such thing as empty space, since empty space is nothing, and nothing is the absense of anything, including space. The pure fact is, if there is nothing between this and that, this and that are in contact with one another, by definition. So, in fact, the fact that whatever is between electrons, protons and neutrons is not measurable does not imply that it does not exist. It simply implies that it is not (yet) measurable. There is nothing we know of which can perceive its existence.

These concepts are indeed difficult to understand, and theoretical physicists have been wrangling over them for decades now, without any final success, as of yet. Anyone giving serious thought to these ideas is likely to wind up dizzy. Anyone without sufficient discipline of thought is likely to go wildly astray, and at that point, they are no longer scientists; they are simply kooks. Which brings me back to the film (at last!).

This is a film filled with kooks. It was kooky to think that Quantum Physics could be explained to the average AOL User, Joe SixPack, or your average everyday couch-potato. Anyone watching this film is likely to be lured into some sort of New Age Cult, or simply confused and/or disgusted (I was disgusted). It was kooky for any of the people who apparently thought of themselves as "scientists" to participate in the making of the film, since it is patently obvious to any real scientist that these concepts are unresolved, paradoxical, and require years of discipline to understand at all. It was insane for anyone in the film to think that one might apply the concepts of Quantum Physics to life in the "macro world" in which we live, at least as far as its having some influence over our day-to-day life. These concepts are only applicable with any real influence on a sub-atomic level.

And so, we are left with a modern-day, quasi-scientific equivalent of a bunch of pajama-clad Hari Krishnas, dancing madly backwards in an airport, selling copies of the Bhagavad Gita to unwary travellers.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to throw up.

1 comment:

Ed Jason said...

I have seen the film and it is more inspirational than science. Some physicists were misrepresented (editing)

So the film has a feel good intention but negates this by confusing issues

Our project moves between art, magic and science and is devoted to open source time travel

kooky stuff