Quantum Suchness

Written by on February 23, 2013 in Commentary with 0 Comments

My high school years are well behind me now. They are just a faded collection of quasi memories and jumbled anecdotes, and for the better I suppose as much of my teenage years were the rockiest in my life.

Although I shouldn’t complain too much, I managed to get good grades despite a bad attendance record and never got into too much trouble, none that I was caught on anyway. I recall one morning I decided to cut class and go down to the Information center at the Nuclear Plant. There I watched the kiosk movies on nuclear fission. Not your typical hang out for bad-ass school skippers but I wasn’t a typical teenager either. I was a geek with a rebellious streak.

All in all I don’t remember much of my high school lessons but I did enjoy art, science and mathematics. I recall being taught the structure of the atom in science, which was interesting, especially because they equated it to a little solar system—you may remember this—where the nucleus was the Sun, and the electrons orbited like little planets.

Known as the Rutherford Model, this analogy to a solar system became very iconic for many generations of layman science enthusiats, and as far as I know this perception still pervades today … despite being wrong.

If you remember a TV show called WKRP in Cincinnati then you are of the same vintage as I. In one particular episode the structure of the atom was used as a main feature in the storyline. This had Venus Flytrap making a bet with a young gang member, Arnold, that if he could teach him about the atom in two minutes and have him understand then Arnold would agree to abandon gang life and return to school.

Venus began his lesson by associating the atom to an inner city neighbourhood where each of the sub-atomic particles was a fictitious gang. This captured Arnold’s attention. He then went on to show how each gang related to the others and how the neighbourhood functioned. After a short while Arnold easily picked up on the analogy and demonstrated to Venus that he understood. He then agreed to return to school to fulfill Venus’ bet.

It was a good show and a good episode, however from a quantum mechanical standpoint the ‘solar system model’ is fundamentally wrong, and is at best a conventional illusion that would get you a passing grade in a high school exam but would do little to extend the truth of what the atomic world is like—actually the atomic world in not ‘like’ anything at all, nothing in human experience can adequately describe it.

Quantum Mechanics is the study of the physics of the atom. It has been in development for only about 100 years which is not long with respect to the entire history of science. Many of the early pioneers of Quantum Theory struggled with its strange experimental findings, which were often counter intuitive and seemingly crazy. As a good general example, the electron was not found to be a ‘point-like’ particle in orbit around a nucleus as was most commonly understood, but rather something more ambiguous, having both wave-like and a particle-like properties at the same time.

This is a paradoxical because as we know a wave and particle are mutually exclusive physical phenomenon. If you were to throw a rock into a pond, of course the rock is a rock and the waves on the water are another thing entirely. However in the quantum world these ideas are interconnected and interdependent with each other. This is known as the wave-particle duality.

So, what an electron is then? Well, to borrow a line from Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything, the electron is ‘everywhere and nowhere at the same time’. With only a probability of it being in a certain place at a certain time. Essentially the reality of the electron (albeit all atomic constituents) are uncertain and relate better to a statistical possibility rather than absolute and determinate reality … sorry for that gaping rabbit hole, but so it is.

With the atomic world being inherently uncertain, it begs the question; what is matter? Simply put, science doesn’t really know. What is has come up with instead can be expounded in something called the Uncertainty Principle which generally this states that the more precisely you know about one property of an electron, you will know less precisely about another. For instance, the more accurately you discover where an electron is, the less accurately you will know where it going and what it is doing.

This has important implications, for if you knew where an electron was and where it was going precisely, you could in theory calculate the evolution of an entire system of atoms and their interactions using the classic laws of motion. To do this is to also be able to calculate the entire history of the universe from a specific atomic condition, which is of course impossible.

What does an electron look like?

We can never know. The atomic world is simply too small, it is beyond sensory perception. The human eye in order to ‘see’ requires light to bounce off an object and into our retina. The atom is smaller than the smallest wave length of visible light, so a single atom cannot reflect its whereabouts.

To seek out an atom then is to shorten the wavelength of electromagnetic energy you fire at it. This ensures a signal will bounce back and show you the whereabouts of your target. However when you shorten the wavelength of energy you are essentially increasing the energy you use, and therefor necessarily affect what ever you try to detect.

Think of it like being in a bowling alley with all the lights out. There is a bowling pin somewhere out on the lane that you are trying to find. You throw a bowling ball in the direction you think it lies and then listen for the strike. When you do hit the pin and here the sound you’ve also displaced the pin from its location and therefor lost any ability for further information about the system.

Okay, let’s return to the original point. So, if an electron is both a wave and particle who cares as long as it effectively acts like a particle, right? Well, this brings up a strange occurrence—in some experiments the electron will behave exclusively like a wave when you’re not trying to detect it (not rolling bowling balls at it). This was discovered by Thomas Young in the famous experiment called the Double-Slit.

This experiment is well worth the effort to follow along with as it demonstrates the core strangeness of Quantum Theory. So, straighten your glasses and give the next part a good read…

Consider a setup with a laser (or light source) at one end, a measuring screen or  photographic plate at the other, and a barrier in between. The barrier in this case has two vertical slits that are very close together and allow the electrons from the light source to pass through.

When the laser light beam strikes the barrier with one slit closed the pattern projected on the screen is what you’d expect; more or less a single column of light aligned with the slit.

However, when both slits are open the expected pattern changes. Instead of having two bands of projected light on the screen you instead have a broad pattern of alternating bright and dark bands. This is strange. The effect suggests that light propagates as waves beyond the two open slits, waves that interfere with one another and create the banded pattern we see on the screen.

Think of it like ocean waves that eminate through a hole in a breakwater. The waves that traverse the hole radiate outwards in a circular pattern. Imagining two holes in the breakwater and both the waves would interfere with each other on the other side creating a pattern of interference. This happens due to waves canceling each other out when a trough & crest combine, and others amplifying when a crest & crest or trough & trough combine.

Yet after examining the photographic screen one can see that the resultant pattern is formed not from smeared out waves but from the absorption of discrete particles. We have light behaving as a wave in transit to the screen but impacting the detector as a particle.

This isn’t even the shocking part …

Even if only one photon is shot at the barrier at a time, ensuring that no two photons can interfere with each other during transit, the accumulative result is the same. The same interference pattern eventually accumulates! How can one photon interfere with itself?

Well, if it’s reasoned that a single photon passes through both slits simultaneously as a spread out wave, it could. Shoot many single photons, one at a time, and each will interfere and deflect randomly to create the same pattern we had seen originally.

In 2002, the double-slit experiment was voted “the most beautiful experiment” by readers of Physics World.

To continue – the more skeptical of you might want to put a detector at the slits to witness how the photon goes through both. However nature does not allow for peeking – trying to observe quantum wave effects necessarily changes their behavior to be more particle-like. This of course eliminates the possibility of a interference pattern and the strangeness from the system.

In a poetic sense we are very much part of the experiment, we can never be completely objective observers apart from the nature we witness. Our perception and experience is then a boundary that moves along with our consciousness. Our perceived world is a limited one. All that we have come to know and understand about it is flavoured by our sense perception. We want so desperately to know the universe in a classical way, as we know things naturally through our senses, but the essential nature of things is not classical. The atomic world is so far removed from our conventional awareness that it is of no wonder it seems so strange.

If anything, human perception is the odd phenomenon here. We are the ones that create machines to gather the echoes of this apparent distant reality, but the distance is actually as close as anything can be because atoms make up everything there is. There is no vantage point apart from the world of atoms so that may be measured objectively. They are the essential reality. Our awareness is merely a slice through it, an inclusion that floats in its clarity. We are immersed in an immeasurable ocean of energy with no depth and no surface. Simply put we suffer from a crisis of perception that keeps us apart for the wholeness of the universe.

Science and religion are the same mistake, they both manufacture answers to invalid questions. There is no creator sitting apart from the created, there is no atom apart from any other, there are only the lines of distinction we decide to delude ourselves with. Know this and then know that we know nothing, and it is within this nothing that peace will find us. I double dare you to give it a try.



 By The Way: a mini-meditation

On a winter’s morning, the frost on my window is natural art. Do you stop to take a look? This art is done without doing, effortless, pure, and without ego. Is it possible for one to strive for such perfection? I think ‘striving’ would be the problem.

Think on this for awhile.


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