Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the September, 2015 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
"I don't like it, and I'm sorry I had ever had anything to do with it."
If you've ever wondered what existence is all about. If you've ever pondered the tough questions, like what is everything made of, really? If you've ever tried to scratch that itch in your brain when you try to come to grips with the ultimate enigma—then you'll find the work of Erwin Schrodinger extremely compelling—though not ultimately satisfying. Schrodinger himself was obviously not satisfied.
Erwin is most famous for his thought experiment now labeled Schrodinger's Cat. Like Einstein's EPR Paradox, he felt the cat metaphor would sink quantum science because the implications, if true, are just too bizarre to make any sense. It turned out it is true, but that's another issue. What I'd like to focus on here is his study of the condition of a particle as it propagates from its point of emergence to a detector. The question he, and others were asking is "what is a particle when we're not looking?"
Schrodinger developed a formula that was based on wave mechanics observed in fluids. It turned out to be wildly successful in predicting the results of experiments with particles. I've included one version of the equation below since I know everyone loves looking a formulas:
That symbol that looks like it's trying to be Poseidon's trident is the wave function. No doubt Schrodinger was familiar with ancient mythology.
So, he effectively proved that when we're not looking, a particle is just a wave. The formula could predict the nature of the ultimate particle that would emerge at any point through its travels. But that still leaves a critical question—what is it that's waving when we're not looking? The answer is stunning! It's probability!
What's waving is a cloud of all the possibilities a particle might take. That cloud propagates through space and time until an observation occurs. At that point there is a collapse of the wave function causing the cloud to give up all the possibilities except the one set that the particle will assume. It instantly transforms from could be to real. So quantum mathematics is based on the science of probability and statistics.
Well I hope you find Schrodinger extremely compelling—I sure do. But, because quantum science bears no relation to the world of our experience and intuition, it's ultimately unsatisfying.
But wait! There's more! This idea of observation causing a collapse of the wave function has even more bizarre implications. One line of accepted scientific thought takes the weirdness to an ultimate level. It suggests that the reality we experience is actually generated by our observation.
One of Einstein's associates, theoretical physicist John Wheeler, conducted a series of time delayed choice experiments. This study of photons presents a convincing case for a particle making a "conscious" choice. It "decides" how to manifests itself depending on its "knowledge" of the experimental set-up.
No doubt you're ruminating about ways this finding had to be wrong—I sure did when I first read about it. And I assure you Wheeler and a host of scientists since then did the same thing. But I suggest you suspend your disbelief until you've had a chance to study the issue more deeply. The more you discover, the stranger it gets. And the thinner the logic of the attempts to disprove the theory.
In the immortal words of John Wheeler;
"...we are part of a universe that is a work in progress; we are tiny patches of the universe looking at itself—and building itself. It's not only the future that is still undetermined but the past as well. And by peering back into time, even all the way back to the Big Bang, our present observations select one out of many possible quantum histories for the universe."
I did say "bizarre," didn't I?
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this page last updated 5 December 2015
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