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QUANTUM, SCHMANTUM! Just do the sum!
I have just finished reading, in the February, 2001, Scientific American, a short history and analysis of the "First Hundred Years of Quantum Physics."
Just thinking about quantum physics makes my head hurt; in much the same way that contemplating philosophical paradox does. This leads me toward the suspicion that the two concepts have a great deal in common, at least within my personal wetware.
Nevertheless, despite a high gradient of mental discomfort, I forced myself to wade through the Scientific American article in hopes that the authors might somehow manage to make more sense to me than my previous (generally equally painful) readings in the field.
I begin to see the light!
Not that I now "understand" quantum physics, or ever hope to. What I have discovered is where the subject fits within my personalization of the Universe.
On the off chance that my enlightenment may also resonate within the universes of others, I offer the following:
Quantum physics is a great theoretical thorn in the hide of (mostly) quantum physicists. A very few other people among the planet's 6-odd billion even know of its existence (or "have heard of it" since its "existence" is still in question.)
I am not going into any kind of description or summary of what it is, since my imperfect understanding of it would be bound to distort it even further than its own considerable inexactitude. Get a good textbook, or read the Scientific American article. Suffice it to say that the deeper one gets into the subject, the huger the obfuscations and the greater the gaps between theory and any kind of demonstrable reality.
And yet, as the article demonstrates, the theories work!
Well over a third of the everyday artifacts of our 21st Century lives - from lasers and transistors to hospital MRI scans - owe their existence to quantum effects.
That's effects! As in actual, observable things happening!
The authors of the article mention, in passing, a utilitarian philosophy of dealing with quantum physics which I foreshadow in my title of this essay -- with one subtle but significant alteration of concept. Messrs. Tegmark and Wheeler imply that all the great practical advances we owe to quantum mechanics were made by theorists who were willing to "shut up and calculate" without dwelling upon the paralyzing paradoxes of the field.
I have said, "Just do the sum."
Now, I am perfectly aware that simple addition has approximately the same relation to the arcane formulae of advanced physics as a drop of spit has to the world ocean.
On the other hand... it's all just water (more or less polluted)!
And I'm not even particularly embarrassed by the analogy, having just waded through a medium-length attempt to "popularize" - that is to make accessible to minds like mine - a suite of concepts which far more complex intelligences have spent the past century trying to make sense of; with a notable lack of closure. The Tegmark-Wheeler article made extensive use of that old whipping-boy of logical argument, the analogy.
The farther what is being explained resides from customary human experience, the more the explainer must resort to the technique of calling up mental pictures which draw upon that customary experience. And, consequently, the more strained and less exact the analogies themselves, become.
One of the most celebrated analogies in quantum physics is Schrodinger's Cat, a concept which a great many people only slightly acquainted with the subject will recognize.
Briefly, there is a cat in a box with a lethal booby trap which may or may not be triggered by a random quantum mechanical effect. Since there is no way to tell whether the device has been triggered without opening the box - and thereby destroying the ongoing nature of the experiment -- the cat is most accurately thought of (as long as the experiment is ongoing) as being both dead and alive.
I seem to remember having read somewhere that Erwin Schrodinger originally formulated the concept as a satirical criticism of quantum theory, but soon came to realize that his spoof was as "true" as anything else in the field.
(This resonates with me particularly strongly, since I began this series of essays in the same satirical vein, but have been led ever deeper into the realization that my basic principles for a Rational Religion are much easier to formulate and expound than they are to refute or deny.)
At any rate Schrodinger went on to create a complex equation based upon the principles behind his unfortunate (fortunate?!) cat, and which has become one of the landmarks of quantum theory.
As I was slogging through the Scientific American article I was struck by a series of personal mental patterns which seemed oddly familiar to me. Here I was, trying to make sense of a discipline which I was not mentally prepared to grasp. Where and when had I been here, before?
All of a sudden it struck me! And the Grandmother of All Analogies occurred to me.
Quantum mechanics makes exactly as much sense to me, personally, as do any and all of the complex metaphysical belief systems which I have come across in my life!
Despite the fact that quantum theory is Science, which purports to try to make objective sense of the Physical Universe, and most of the world's religions attempt through the most abject use of pre-conceived subjectivity to force the universe into their own doctrinaire molds, from a sufficient intellectual distance the efforts look very much the same.
Just as conventional theologians agonize and struggle to make their ideal, perfectible world stretch to accommodate the flawed, messy human reality which is their congregation of believers, stranded in a Universe which doesn’t seem to pay the slightest attention to them, the quantum theoreticians fret and reconfigure their formulae in the vain hope that this time the calculations will come out even.
Everybody should relax and take comfort in the percentage of their efforts which do seem to add up.
Because nothing works perfectly and there are no final answers.
And it shouldn't keep us from looking for any answers at all!
If the intractables of quantum theory had intellectually paralyzed the last three generations of physicists, we would have none of the marvelous inventions which our electronic world has evolved to depend upon. We might also never have cleaved the atom, with all the implications of that. But since we have, it is as irreversibly part of our world as the computer.
And for anyone who is still uneasy about making such extensive use of a concept they have to admit they don't really understand, let me remind them that this is the intellectual history of the human race.
True, it may ultimately prove our undoing; but we have always done things this way.
We leap headlong and heedlessly into whatever new unknown, simply because we have discovered it is there. And most of the time we wind up playing in games of which we don't really understand the rules.
We lose a lot; and we die a lot, as a result. But we also do a lot.
And the simple fact that we don't know where we are going never seems to deter us, or even slow us down.
So quantum theory is a puzzlement, even to the most agile minds which tackle it?
So how is this more perplexing than our everyday use of the number zero to calculate our income tax?
Or our acceptance of the fiction that the symbol pi is anything but a copout on the notion that a closed symmetrically curved surface can be accurately fitted into a three-dimensional universe. (Or that three square-cornered dimensions can be derived from a universe which is most demonstrably made up of curves.)
The truth is, in all of our human endeavors - from the most primitive to the most sophisticated - we have to be content with approximations.
In many cases it is wise to take pains to refine those approximations as accurately as possible - especially when we are betting our lives on them, as in aerodynamics or interplanetary navigation. But it is also well to remember that pi is never going to come out even; and zero is never actually going to mean anything.
As for quantum physics, Tegmark and Wheeler end their Scientific American essay with the not-quite-whimsical proposition that the ultimate quest of modern physics - a "theory of everything" which would "unify" all the often competing theories of the Universe - may be realizable only as pure mathematics.
...Which is to say; as the ultimate human software program, maybe beyond our capacity to write.
On the one hand it makes one wish that we were smarter; on the other hand it probably doesn't make all that much difference how smart we are.
We don't quite fit in this Universe. Nothing comes out even and that seems to make us nervous.
Since emigration does not seem to be feasible, it behooves us to get on with it.
Just do the sum!