Saturday, January 7, 2017

Gilliam Does Quantum Reality: Part Two

Harold Gilliam at Baker Beach, San Francisco
Harold Gilliam died last month (Dec 2016) at age 98. He was an eloquent writer on environmental issues and a popular columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Intending perhaps to explore the inner environment of the physical world, Gilliam attended a weekend workshop at Esalen Institute in the summer of 1985 given by myself and my friend and physics colleague Heinz Pagels, To commemorate Gilliam's death and the death of Pagels who died a few years later, I am reprinting a few weeks apart the two Sunday Chronicle columns that Gilliam wrote about his experience with us in Big Sur. Part One is here. Fasten your seat belts for "Gilliam Does Quantum Reality: Part Two"

Harold Gilliam, SF Chronicle Aug 25, 1985

"To be or not to be." is not the question. It is the answer.
                --- Fred Alan Wolf

Bell's Theorem is the most profound discovery of science.
                --- Physicist Henry Stapp

Esalen Institute, on a verdant shelf of the Big Sur coast, far from the frenetic agglomerations of the Bay Area and Southern California, is an idyllic place for leisurely contemplation, for gazing out to sea and looking for clues as to what the world is all about and what your own place in it might be.

And that is what 17 people from various points of the compass were doing there on a recent weekend in a workshop on Quantum Reality as we noted here last Sunday.

We peered (metaphorically) into the microscopic world of the quanta, where atoms and subatomic particles perform their weird unearthly dances that physicists are only beginning to understand.

Consider Bell's Theorem, for example, which has revolutionized our view of the world, at least in the eyes of some quantum physicists.

As explained to us by physicist Nick Herbert, author of Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics, Bell's Theorem, very much simplified, states that, if you shoot twin particles in opposite directions, and then if you change the spin or polarity of one of the particles, the other must change in the same way at the same instant, whether it's across the lab or across the galaxy.

Since the change in the two particles occurs simultaneously, this action seems to violate Einstein's dictum that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light -- 186,000 miles per second. How does the second particle 'know' immediately that the first particle has been changed, unless some superluminal message passes between the, an event for which physics has no explanation? The theorem seems to indicate also that events (and maybe people) can be influenced by forces that are "non-local" -- extremely remote.

Herbert explained it this way: "The mechanism for this instant connectedness is not some invisible field that stretches from one part to the next, but the fact that "a bit of each part's 'being' is lodged in the other."

Bell was not talking about people, but particles, yet his theorem has been eagerly adopred by believers in extrasensory perception: If particles can "communicate" with each other simultaneously over long distances (violating Einstein's speed limit), minds can surely do the same.

Everyone has heard the stories: A mother wakes up in alarm and learns later that her child at that moment was in danger. "Remote viewing" experiments at SRI International and elsewhere claim to substantiate telepathic communication. Perhaps part of each person's being is "lodged in the other."

And perhaps, some say, both are lodged in a transcendental mind that constitutes the basic order of the universe. Is science, I wondered, finally meeting religion in the rarified atmosphere of Bell's Theorem?

Herbert was speculating in a different direction about faster-than-light communication: "Superluminal signals would open up similar channels from the present to the past -- channels that would allow people today to change what by conventional reckoning has already happened.

I was reminded of a certain legendary young female:

There was a young lady named Bright
Who traveled much faster than light
She went out one day
in a relative way
And came back the previous night.

I was already drawing up a list of past events I would like to "unhappen; when Herbert's colleague spoke up in dissent. Pagels is the author of The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature and a new book on the origin of the universe Perfect Symmetry: The Search for the Beginning of Time. He is also the executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences and somewhat of an iconoclast. it turned out he didn't agree with Herbert at all.

Heinz Pagels & Nick Herbert, circa 1964
"Bell's Theorem does not prove that anything can travel faster than light," Pagels maintained, "It's a quantum fact, accepted by everyone, that the observer has an effect on what he's observing. Under Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, as soon as you observe or measure certain aspects of the quantum world, you change them. So the change in Bell's particle, which seems to happen faster than light, simply reflects what the observers are doing when they measure the particles."

Herbert's response and Pagels' rebuttal went too fast for me to even begin to follow, but it was clear that the two views represented a central schism in the fast-moving world of quantum physics -- Pagels representing the establishment view and Herbert the speculative, philosophical school.

When the dust had settled, i raised a question that had plagued me throughout the weekend. Physicists can spin mystifying theories about the invisible world of the quanta, but what does all this have to do with the price of potatoes?

Pagels responded with a glowing vision: "Quantum research results in new technologies, giant new industries, new economies, and in fact a whole new idea of civilization can come out of these developments. New technologies change our perceptions. The printing press, for example, led to the development of books and a new literacy that made democracy possible. The impact of computers has already made major changes in our economy.

"Nuclear weapons have created a period of unsurpassed world stability. There has not been a war between two nuclear nations -- as a result of a technology that came out of quantum physics.

"We're already living in the world of the quantum revolution: Microchips, the whole world of the computers, the whole world of the revolutions in molecular biology -- all these came out of the human mastery of the microworld that was made possible in part by the advent of quantum physics. The full implications of living in the world of the quantum revolution have not yet dawned on us. But these new technologies are driving the engines of social change,"

We sat there in silence for a moment, listening to the roar of the ocean. Then somebody said it: "But are they driving the engines of social change in the right direction? Nuclear weapons. for example ..."

Pagels responded: "I said these were technologies that changed our perceptions. I didn't say whether they were for better or for worse. That's for other people to decide, in terms of their own values. The new technologies open a whole new spectrum of moral choices, alerting people to examine their own consciences about matters as fundamental as human survival. My own view is that we must learn to live without using nuclear weapons."

I thought about that as i shifted around on the uncomfortable pillows that substitute for chairs at Esalen. it seemed to me that there was one overarching fact that had not received much attention: Quantum physics is giving us incredible new powers that we are ill-equipped to use. It's like putting a 5-year-old at the steering wheel of a Maserati on a downtown street. Compared with the R & D devoted to quantum research and its weapons-technology offspring, the attention given to learning how to use these powers wisely is minuscule.

Later, as I strolled along the clifftops over the roaring surf, it occurred to me that the contribution of quantum theory might not be limited to technology. For example, pre-quantum physicists assumed that the constituents of an atom were simply particles like electrons and neutrons. Later theorists decided that they were not particles but waves. The current view is that they are simultaneously particles and waves. Not "either/or" but "both/and".

In the Newtonian particle view everything was sharply defined as one thing or the other. Quantum theory introduces the idea that an object can be perceived in two or more ways, each valid. To be and not to be. That's the meaning of ambiguity.

The American mind, schooled in Newtonian definiteness and frontier certainties, is accustomed to precise labels. There are good guys and bad guys. There are friends and enemies. You are either with us or against us.

It seemed to me, as I paced the shoreline, that the quantum "both/and" approach might prove useful in our relations with each other and with other nations. A nation (like a person) might be aggressive, intransigent and tyrannical. It might simultaneously be peace-loving, friendly and cooperative. And the question would be: Can we move beyond merely opposing the negative qualities to encouraging the positive ones with equal energy and vigor?

Here, I speculated, might be a model that could revolutionize world politics just as the discovery of the quanta has revolutionized physics. It would not be the first time that a new scientific paradigm had led to a new world-view that had altered everyone's thinking in profound ways and influenced the course of history.

Or maybe, I thought, as I inhaled the aroma of salt and kelp on the sea breeze and watched the sunlight glittering from the swells offshore, maybe I was just experiencing an Esalen high.

View of Pacific Ocean from the Esalen baths


Jack Sarfatti said...

We spent a lot of mystical nonsense on Bell's theorem back then. Webnow know what it really means is that there are future causes of present effects in addition to the usual past causes of those same present effects.

Jack Sarfatti said...

We now

nick herbert said...

Bell's theorem has spawned a great variety of clever speculations concerning the nature of quantum reality. To cling to one ("we know") is to show oneself uninformed concerning numerous equally viable alternatives. To say "we know" about one's pet conjecture is very shoddy thinking indeed.

Brian Josephson said...

Perhaps it was merely the 'royal we', as in "We have become a grandmother"