Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the December, 2014 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
Are we on the brink of a breakthrough of understanding? Can quantum mechanics be explained within the realm of `common sense' classical physics? Does reality actually behave in a manner that is satisfying to our ability to process information after all? Well, Michael Hall (and others) think they can tame this unruly beast of (relatively) modern science.
Before we get to their new concept, however, let's look first at a take on reality that started in 1957. When I use the phrase "many worlds," Princeton's Hugh Everett no doubt comes to mind for many of us. The term applies to his "Many Worlds Interpretation" of quantum physics. Everett's first discipline was mathematics, but he quickly migrated into physics under the tutelage of John Wheeler (an Einstein collaborator). He became somewhat obsessed with Erwin Schrodinger's collapse of the wave function, which he saw as a statistical puzzle. Remember, a particle's `wave function' contains all of the characteristics that are possible for that particle to be, but when observed, the wave function collapses into just one set of characteristics familiar in our classical world.
OK, here's where things get really weird. Working through the math Everett came to the conclusion that there is only one possible solution to the mysteries revealed by the strange but consistent experimental results—every time a particle is observed the universe splits and all of the features contained in the wave actually materialize in one of many universes that are generated on the spot—a universe for every set of features contained in the wave.
And, by the way, since we are part of the universe, we too split and occupy these other universes—one "us" for every possible set of features contained in the particle's wave form. So, the thinking goes, there is a universe in which the asteroid missed the Earth and dinosaurs (or their progeny) are still at the top of the food chain. Or, one in which you decided to turn left instead of right, got into an accident and no longer exist. The mathematics love this explanation—in fact it's the only one that makes sense from a numbers perspective. And although scientists (and other rational people) hate it, they are forced to agree that it's the best explanation to surface so far.
Now for the modern take on the "many worlds" concept. The hypothesis states that parallel universes do exist, but more importantly, they influence each other creating the strange phenomena associated with quantum science. "... rather than evolving independently, nearby worlds influence one another by a subtle force of repulsion ... such an interaction could explain everything that is bizarre about quantum mechanics." [Howard Wiseman, Science and Technology News]. So, understanding reality requires a consideration of the entire multiverse—not just the universe (whoa, would that really solve much?)
Caveat Lector. The word "theory" is often misused these days in both general and scientific discussion. "A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation" [Wikipedia]. Ideas like parallel universes are actually hypotheses—the beginning of the scientific process. And even when 'promoted' to the title "theory," an idea is still subjected to scrutiny by the scientific process. In fact, theories like relativity and evolution are constantly questioned and often revised. That's how science works. So, be on alert any time you hear a term like "settled science"—it will invariably signal a violation of scientific method.
So how does this relate to the topic of this article? I consider this line of thinking an important reach in our attempt to make sense out of the bizarre results of recent experiments in particle physics and cosmology. It is worthwhile considering every logical point of view that emerges. Quantum Science, especially, should always be under attack, but the likelihood that we have finally solved its great mysteries is very remote. To me, reality is still ineffable. In the immortal words of Richard Feynman "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."
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this page last updated 6 December 2014
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