Implications of quantum physics

There are some extremely interesting developments going on in quantum physics, with enormous and profound spiritual implications.

Let's take a look:

As Neils Bohr, the co-founder of quantum mechanics, liked to say, "if someone says that he can think about quantum physics without becoming dizzy, that shows only that he has not understood anything whatever about it."

We'll recall that the general equations of quantum electrodynamics are perhaps the most successful in scientific history, predicting with an almost unheard-of precision virtually everything to which they have been applied.

The problem comes when we try to interpret what they mean. There, a distinction arises immediately between classical physics, including Einstein's special and general relativity, and the new and puzzling world of quantum mechanics, sometimes called quantum weirdness.

Classical physics is described as local physics, because it says that no system can influence another system without brushing up against it and interacting with it somehow. And that this communication or interaction between the systems cannot occur faster than the speed of light.

We humans are relatively large creatures, able to see the stars but not able to see the atoms of which the stars are composed. And classical physics has reflected this, making very successful predictions about large macro systems such as a falling peach or the swirling of a galaxy.

The problem, or the opportunity, comes when we try to peer into the world of atomic and sub-atomic particles and the space and time in which they supposedly reside. There, locality seems to be breaking down, so that physicists are increasingly describing the effects of the quantum world as non-local.

A typical quantum physics experiment produces a paradox, because things apparently happen that are not supposed to happen, or that are not supposed to happen in that way.

Suppose we take a stream of particles of light, that is, photons, and divide them into two beams with a beam-splitter. We separate the beams as far as we like, across the arms of the galaxy if we like.

Then we notice that as soon as we make a measurement of some property of beam A, it affects what we measure in beam B. Indeed, the properties of the two beams are found to affect each other instantaneously, far faster than light could have communicated anything between them.

What is going on? Nobody knows, but there are three interpretations that have been offered by physicists who have pondered the matter most deeply.

The first interpretation is called the Copenhagen interpretation, originally promulgated by Neils Bohr and still the standard interpretation among quantum physicists.

The equations of the wave function are statistical, that is, they describe a range of probabilities for the location or momentum or any other property of a quantum event or particle. And, as Heisenberg showed, quantum indeterminacy reigns. There's a limit, even in principle, to what we can know.

If we measure an electron's location, our ability to measure its momentum, or the other half of any other dual quality, is instantaneously limited.

The Copenhagen interpretation says that the two properties actually don't have any value until a measurement is made by an observer. Then that measurement is said to "collapse the wave function" of the particle, and its properties appear in reality.

The Copenhagen interpretation elevates the observer to a supreme function, saying that the measurement itself actually determines what the properties are found to be.

Further, that there's no need to know what's going on in reality before the measurements are made, because the equations successfully predict the probabilities of the final results. We can't know how anything on the quantum level exists until we observe it, so who cares what's going on behind the scenes?

There's a certain tough-mindedness to this interpretation, but, as some observers have noted, it constitutes a radical undermining of the very idea of an objective physical reality, which, as Timothy Ferris has bitingly observed, "has long been regarded as the very point of science."

So some theorists have turned to the many worlds interpretation, or its first cousin, the many histories formulation. This says that the world is deterministic again and that the sub-atomic properties actually exist before they are measured.

It achieves this, however, at a high price, by saying that the universe actually splits into separate universes whenever a measurement is made, one in which the measurement was found to be what it was, and the others in all the other possibilities of what could have been found.

The problem with this interpretation is that so many countless gazillions of universes are formed that, as the theorist Phillip Pearle drily observed, existence becomes "uneconomical."

Consequently, the third and most radical interpretation is gaining adherents among physicists. This is the implicate order interpretation of the theorist David Bohm and others. Though it is dimly understood, it seems to be pointing through the mists to a new understanding of reality with such breathtaking implications that it has been called "the most profound discovery in science."

The theorist John Stewart Bell devised a ground-breaking series of experiments that could actually test the reality of non-locality.

These experiments have since been carried out in advanced form by others, and what's known as Bell's theorem has been found to be true in every case. That is, fiddling with one particle over here really does alter its sister particle instantaneously over there, even when the particles are so far apart as to be beyond the reach of communication by light or anything else.

Since Bell's Theorem is now a proven theory, Nature must indeed be seen as non-local in the sub-atomic world.

The implicate order interpretation embraces this non-locality. It says that in the initial conditions of the "big bang," that all times were one time, that all places were one place and so on, and that in some way that is not understood nothing has changed. In other words, that reality is somehow interwoven with itself in such a way that behind the scenes it is all actually just one thing.

This would mean that time and space themselves are somehow subordinate to a deeper substrate of reality in which they don't actually exist. It means that existence is somehow enfolded in itself in such a way that underneath the surface it is present everywhere as one single non-locatable essence.

Those who have woken up have been saying this for centuries.

They point to a reality in which the infinite is everything and everywhere, doing everything, and in which the whole notion of any personal or individual existence is seen to be empty. Freedom is deeply realizing that this separate doer/decider/self that we so cherish is actually non-existent.

ójim sloman, 01/10/01 for Jan 10

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