|Harold Gilliam (1918 - 2016)|
THE WEIRD WORLD OF THE QUANTA
Harold Gilliam SF Chronicle Aug 18, 1985
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific -- and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise --
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
-- John Keats
In the last 10 years physicists have learned
more about the universe than in previous
centuries -- they have seen a new picture of reality
requiring a conversion of our imaginations.
-- Heinz Pagels
Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory
has not understood it.
-- Niels Bohr
Driving down the Big Sur coast to Esalen the other day, looking for some clues to the new picture of reality, I saw on roadside buildings, along several miles of Highway 1, big hand-lettered signs: THANK YOU, FIREFIGHTERS.
The reason for the expression of gratitude soon became evident.. The steep hillsides to the left of the road were charred for miles where the Rat Creek fire had raced down the slopes on a hot dry wind from the east, burning nearly everything in its path.
Esalen, on the ocean side of the highway, barely escaped. The burned hills behind us were screened by Esalen's trees, and we faced the ocean, but occasionally we caught the odor of the scorched earth of the Santa Lucia, and that pungent reminder of another reality became a symbol of the ambiguities in the amazing world of the quanta.
The weekend workshop had a formidable title: "Bell's Theorem and the Nature of Reality." Our leaders were Bay Area physicist Nick Herbert, author of the new book Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics and Heinz Pagels, executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences, author of The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature and Perfect Symmetry: the Search for the Beginning of Time.
With titles like these, we were expecting some tall talk, and we got it, interspersed with good-natured banter between the two physicists who were each convinced that on certain points the other was dead wrong.
In the mellowed-out ambience of Esalen, the 17 workshop participants sprawled on the carpeted living-room floor of the Big House, a former seaside residence, and contemplated the invisible microcosm of the quanta, which seems to turn our common-sense view of the world upside down, or maybe inside out.
The future results of such a revolutionary shift in viewpoint are unpredictable, but the phenomenon has happened before in world history. Nick Herbert reminded us the new view of the universe developed by Isaac Newton overturned the hierarchical medieval world view and pictured a world governed by law -- forming a philosophical basis for a society of laws rather than arbitrary leadership.
The Declaration of Independence: ("We hold these truths to be self-evident ---") cited natural law as the basis for democratic government. In the same way, quantum theory, we were told, seems likely to revolutionize our Newtonian-based views of the world -- and maybe also our technology, our economics, our politics, our entire culture.
Newton had described a clockwork universe ticking along in orderly, predictable fashion -- a gigantic machine governed by such laws as gravitation. "Quantum theory," Herbert told us in the Big House at Esalen, "has smashed Newton's clockwork."
What has replaced Newton's clockwork is a picture of reality that can't be grasped by conventional thinking. Listening to Herbert's description of some very weird interpretations of the quantum world, I began to feel that the theories must have come out of a bottle. Actually they came out of a microscope -- or rather out of certain complicated contraptions such as the cyclotron and the bevatron at the University of California at Berkeley, that serve as supermicroscopes peering into the curious world of the atom.
Quanta are simply particles that are atom-sized or smaller; quantum theory describes these particles and their attributes -- more or less. No one has ever seen an atom, of course, but scientists can detect what the atoms are doing and can smash them together to find out what they're made of. As the supermicroscopes improve, they keep finding smaller and smaller particles, like a series of Chinese boxes.
Physicists examining the workings of atoms were badly shaken up when the particles they found seemed to violate Newton's laws that had been accepted for 300 years as descriptions of how the world works.
|Quantum Reality image by Todd Stock aka Dr Paradise|
# The Copenhagen interpretation was originated by the late Niels Bohr and his colleagues at the Copenhagen Institute. Outlandish as it seems, it is now the view of most mainstream theoretical physicists, Herbert explained. The world we see around us is real, but that world is made up of particles that are not real -- at least not as real as what we see.
As if statements like that were not mystifying enough, Herbert went on to point out that some Copenhagen physicists go further and say that even the world we see around us is not real until we observe it.
Sitting there on the floor of the Esalen living room, trying to adjust the big pillows to be more comfortable, I recalled the old riddle as to whether the tree that falls in the forest makes any sound if there's no one there to hear it. These Copenhagen theorists would say: "No, the tree makes no sound because it isn't really there. Nothing is there until somebody observes it."
In other words, reality is created by the observer. Is the reality of the universe a mirror of one's own mind?
A sobering notion, I reflected. Whatever it means. It could mean that we are not simply cogs in Newton's mechanical universe, but that we somehow participate in ongoing Creation. "Observer-created reality" implies that we have something to say about how the world is put together. Maybe.
"The universe," Sir James Jeans wrote as he contemplated quantum theory, "begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine."
Before I could absorb that one, Herbert was listing a further interpretation.
# Reality is an undivided wholeness. We are all part of the universal being. This viewpoint was expressed by Berkeley physicist Fritjof Capra a few years ago in The Tao of Physics, the book that first aroused popular interest in the interpretation of quantum theory. Capra found certain correlations between this quantum view of reality and the teachings of oriental mystics.
The book created flurries of excitement among mental telepathy enthusiasts, who maintained that physics had now proved the existence of what they had believed all along -- that a transcendental unity behind surface appearances included the interconnectedness of human minds with one another and perhaps with a universal mind.
Actually physics proved no such thing. Capra was simply calling attention to some interesting parallels between quantum theory and the intuitions of the mystics.
# The next quantum reality Herbert described for us was the most outrageous of all. It was the "many worlds" interpretation: In this view reality consists of a steadily increasing number of parallel universes.
Science fiction writers have fun with this one. In one universe you are sailing to Alpha Centauri in a space ship. Simultaneously, in another universe you are having chicken dinner with Henry VIII.
Or you toss a coin and it comes up heads, but in another universe on the same toss the same coin comes up tails. Everything that can happen does happen -- someplace, in some other universe.
I protested silently. It makes no sense, it's not logical. But at that moment Herbert started talking about quantum logic, which is totally different from traditional logic. Under the new logic, apparently, parallel universes make sense.
By this time I had been able to rearrange the pillows in a relatively comfortable position, and as I closed my eyes for a moment to contemplate quantum logic, the voices in the room began to merge with the soporific roar of the surf below, and my mind drifted off.
Instead of a quantum physicist talking to us, it was a fellow in a long robe. He was saying that although we can see the sun rising in the east and setting in the west on its daily trip around the Earth, we are suffering from an illusion. Things don't happen that way at all: the Earth is actually revolving around the sun.
What a preposterous notion, I thought. How could anybody believe in such nonsense? The man, who said his name was Copernicus, was obviously out of his mind.
Before I could tell him so, he was gone, and there was physicist Herbert at a blackboard showing us how Bell's Theorem worked. It turned out to be wilder than anything we had heard so far. And if you want to know what all this has to do with the price of a Big Mac or the national deficit or your latest telephone bill, join us here next Sunday.
|The Big House: Esalen Institute|