The Reality Program


The Quantum
It is often stated that of all the theories proposed in this [20th] century, the silliest is quantum theory. In fact, some say that the only thing that quantum theory has going for it is that it is unquestionably correct.

Michio Kaku, Hyperspace.

Quantum Mechanics, or "QM," is not a philosophy. It is an exacting description of how the component pieces of our universe behave, at the most fundamental level. This is the level of the photon (the unit of light, or electromagnetic energy), the electron (a unit with mass, the most unique property of which is its negative "charge"), the proton (a unit with much more mass, associated with a positive charge), the neutron (a unit with mass similar to the proton, but without charge), and such, together with their "antimatter" equivalents. The Standard Model used by physicists to describe all of these component pieces includes around 200 such units in its catalog. All of these quantum units exhibit the problematical behaviors described by QM.

QM's development has not been much driven by any need to justify or defend a world view. To the contrary, QM arose from the rubble of a world view held by physicists for over 200 years. Since Isaac Newton's triumphant summation of the physical world in 1687, the universe was "known" to run like clockwork, obeying definite rules of cause and effect, the product of a limited set of forces acting on matter. By the turn of the 20th Century, physicists were complacently predicting the "end of physics" because the composition and laws of the universe were so well understood that precious little remained to be discovered or analyzed. In 1903, Albert Michelson, the first American Nobel Prizewinner, confidently asserted, "The most important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplemented in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote." Other eminent scientists were saying the same thing, but he supreme irony of this particular statement will become obvious in chapter 3 of this book: it was Albert Michelson who, between 1881 and 1887, had made one of the key discoveries that was destined to topple the entire structure and theory of physics as he new it. That quantum theory exists at all is a vindication of the scientific community's assertion that they have no world view, no axe to grind. Since the Enlightenment, the model scientific approach has been to cast aside world views, only reporting on the results of experiments which can be repeated and verified. And it was experimental results which forced an incredulous scientific community to come up with something completely different from the clockwork universe of Newton, something that would actually fit with the experimental results. That something was quantum mechanics.

The word "quantum" is Latin for "how much," and it is pretty well translated as "quantity." So quantum mechanics is the mechanics of quantity, or the mechanics of how much. By way of contrast, we might call Newtonian physics the mechanics of it-doesn't-matter-how-much, because the universe's clockwork laws were thought to apply to anything at all, from the infinite stars and planets to the infinitesimal speck. One of the fundamental insights of quantum mechanics is the recognition that the physicist has to ask, "how much?" because some amounts are allowed, and other amounts are not allowed. Specifically, in 1900, the German physicist Max Planck presented an analysis of a very basic interaction of light with atoms. He found that these interactions consisted of jerky steps instead of smooth changes.

Everything physicists had learned for the last two hundred years or so led them to believe that energy emission should be a smooth curve -- like using a dimmer knob to bring up the lights in your living room. Instead, Planck found that the energy was emitted in "jumps."  That is, this energy emission works as though your living room had a series of 20-watt bulbs -- as we turn the dimmer knob, first there is no light; then one bulb comes on giving 20 watts of light; then the next, giving 40 watts; and so on.  Instead of the dimmer switch increasing the light smoothly from zero to 60 watts, we have these regular jumps at 20-watt intervals.  Without knowing the mechanism, the physicist is puzzled about why the smooth increase at the dimmer knob should result in 20-watt jumps, and only 20-watt jumps. 

Planck was confronted with results along this line, and he reluctantly concluded that light always was emitted and absorbed in multiples of whole units, never in fractional or partial units. He called these basic, discrete units of energy "quantums" or "quanta," meaning one specific quantity and no other. Generalizing, he proposed that when a phenomenon occurs in step-like jumps which are shown to be whole multiples of some basic quantitity, that phenomenon can be said to be "quantized." Thus, Planck introduced the words "quantum" and "quantized" into physics. Planck's problem -- and the problem of all other physicists at the time -- was that there was no theoretical reason why anything should occur in whole steps, rather than smoothly. There was no reason why anything should be "quantized."

Over the next twenty-seven years, physicists conducted investigations of light and other basic elements. The mathematical analysis of Planck's quanta of light was laid out by Einstein in 1905. As the experimental results progressed, the nature of these quanta turned out to be ever more bizarre. Theory after theory was drawn up and discarded. Finally, in 1927, at a gathering of physicists in Brussels, Belgium, all of the recent discoveries were hashed out, and a consensus emerged about how to interpret the experimental results. The consensus interpretation is called the Copenhagen interpretation, because it was primarily developed by Niels Bohr and his colleagues at his institute in Copenhagen, Denmark. The scientific consensus that developed in 1927 did not make much sense to the general public in 1927, and it does not make much sense today. Nevertheless, it was and remains the standard "orthodox" interpretation of quantum mechanics in the scientific community, and it has withstood challenge after challenge from those whose main objection to it is that it does not make much sense.

Most of this treatise will be about experiments conducted with one or another of the quantum units mentioned earlier -- the photon, the electron, the proton, the neutron. I will attempt to stay close to the original substance of the experiments, because the bizarre nature of the results hardly needs embellishment. I will be mixing different experiments conducted with different quantum units in order to get a reasonably straightforward presentation, and I can do this because what applies to one quantum unit must also apply to every other quantum unit, with only an occasional qualification. (For rhetorical purposes, these qualifications, such as they are, can and will be ignored unless they serve to illustrate a larger point.) I will be explaining the experiments, and the results, in much the same terms that they have been explained to me by working physicists and scientific writers, through the books and articles available to the general public.  There are a number of good books on the subject, some of which I mention in the bibliography, and to those I am particularly indebted. Since 1927, science writers have never stopped trying to bring these exciting discoveries into the public awareness. Many have done an excellent job in terms of clear explanation and complete discussion. 

So why do I write? When you have read enough descriptions of these basic experiments, you finally get the gist. And the gist is awesome. The gist of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is mind-boggling beyond description. Just by itself, without any elaboration from me, the Copenhagen interpretation will challenge your most basic beliefs about the world, the universe, yourself. All I hope to do for most of this book is to accurately convey the gist of the Copenhagen interpretation, which is the most widely-held scientific theory of the nature of the universe, as it has been for the last seventy-five years. If you are intrigued by what you read here, please read some of the other texts. When you are convinced that quantum mechanics is utterly impossible, you are ready for the next step.

The next step is contemplating what is possible. If not reality, then what? Erwin Schrödinger said that the human mind is incapable of conceiving a model of the workings of quantum mechanics, but this is not so. Schrödinger spent most of his career toiling on adding machines that you cranked with a big handle to add two numbers. He had never programmed a turtle in Logo, nor clicked a mouse, nor played Super Nintendo, nor seen The Matrix or The Thirteenth Floor or even Star Trek. I do not mean to sound superior when I state that you and I are quite capable of conceiving a model that Erwin Schrödinger could never dream of. We have the model right on our desktop.

The Reality Program

by Ross Rhodes


The Notebook of Philosophy & Physics

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