This article was originally published on January 22nd, 2009. And the world is just as weird…
“Why do you like to study quantum physics?”
That’s what my sister asked, the last time I was trying to explain the inner workings of the dual-slit experiment and indeterminacy. It was a valid question since science doesn’t really have a direct connection with what I do on a daily basis. As I explained to her, studying quantum physics gives my brain some exercise – it’s not easy stuff to grasp. More importantly, though, it’s a way for me to try to understand, as Einstein put it, the “underlying nature of reality” from the viewpoint of Western science as compared to the esoteric ideas of Eastern philosophy.
In Where Does the Weirdness Go? He starts from a basic explanation of how quantum mechanics works, and then builds from there, showing how a process called decoherence can account for the seeming normality of physical surroundings (you have to read the book if you want to understand decoherence, it’s a little over my head – but really fascinating).
In Uncertainty, David tells the story of the development of quantum physics in the beginning of the twentieth century. Culminating with the “uncertainty principal” developed by Werner Heisenberg, it shows how the different scientists (and their personalities) shaped the evolution of a completely new way of thinking. It’s hard to imagine it from our relatively unified viewpoint in the early twenty-first century, but early quantum physicists were completely reshaping how we saw the nature of reality.
Where Does the Weirdness Go? – David is exploring the answer to the questions: “If it’s true that reality is not the solid, indisputable object we used to think it was, then why does it seem, for all intents and purposes, to behave as if it were.” (pg 163). He shows that while probability never goes away, the process of decoherence prevents us from seeing the really random outcomes.
Uncertainty – The birth and evolution of quantum physics was a messy affair. While it ushered in a new way of perceiving the world and how it works, it was the struggle between the actors to define what it actually meant.
Ideas, Implications, and Questions
- The most powerful impression I got while reading Uncertainty is of the chaos surrounding the development of the new science. When I read about an idea in quantum physics now, it seems like it just sprang fully-formed from someone’s mind and was immediately accepted by everyone. That wasn’t the case at all, and there were many missteps, omissions, and false starts. It reminds me that as I work to understand the world, and make my own way through it, it’s OK to not get everything right the first time; and to always be open to new ideas.
- In the past, there has been an attempt to force social sciences (e.g. psychology, sociology) into a rigid structure of laws like the natural sciences (e.g. physics, chemistry). This is most apparent in the desire to ascribe to social sciences the same cause/effect patterns that you find in Newtonian science. I think understanding quantum physics is interesting because, just as quantum probability undercuts Newtonian physics, so too does it show the need for more wiggle room in the other sciences.
- This uncertainty is crucial to understand in the study of business. Too many people used the inflexible Newtonian way of thinking when explaining how business works, and it’s never that simple. For example, when learning how to manage people, you have to understand that they don’t respond the same way to the same stimulus every time – there’s a little probability in the mix. (see The Halo Effect for more on the Delusion of Organizational Physics)
- I used to argue with my high school physics teacher (Fr. Stang) that you shouldn’t rule out the possibility of all of the air molecules in the room jumping into a corner just because it’s really, really improbable. In learning the idea of decoherence, I felt somewhat vindicated, because it leaves open the possibility for the exponentially improbable. I know that all the air molecules aren’t going to leap into the corner, but it makes me feel strangely peaceful to know that they could.
- David explains one of the basic tenets of quantum physics when he says “probability cannot be expunged from quantum measurements” (pg 70 – Where Does…). This is really powerful to me, because it says that on some fundamental level, we can’t be completely sure about anything. I think it leads to a basic skepticism – nothing is 100% certain. I think it’s a healthy skepticism, though, because it doesn’t suggest that we doubt the existence of any answer, simply that we can’t be sure of what the answer will be. To me, it says that we shouldn’t be locked into any one outlook.
Should you read these books?
If your mind takes the turn towards scientific curiosity, they are definitely a good read. Uncertainty is more of a narrative and therefore more accessible. If you are looking for an interesting treatment of quantum mechanics (and an intellectual challenge), Where Does the Weirdness Go? is worth the read. It stays away from the math but will still stretch the brain muscles.