Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Constructing Reality

The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking. ~Albert Einstein

I'm usually on top of science programming, so I was surprised when my wife mentioned to me that there was a science show on one of those specialty movie channels. I was dubious, but sure enough on a channel supposedly devoted to mystery films (although it seldom seems to show real mystery films) was a program purporting to talk about quantum physics. When I looked at the video guide, though, I noticed that the topic was being discussed by scientists and “mystics.”

Say what?

When I snorted at the description, my wife said, “Oh, you're just being closed-minded.” My wife is into shows about the paranormal, ghosts, and sundry weird happenings. She also is into horror, the more grisly the better. “Mystics” are just another day at the office.

So, I gave the show a chance. It started promisingly enough, attempting the difficult task of explaining the weird world of quantum mechanics, where matter pops in and out of existence and particles can live in a state of probabilistic superposition until some event collapse the probability wave function to force the particle into one state or another. This is not easy to express; I know because I've tried it myself. They did get a little carried away, describing how electrons, protons, and neutrons within atoms pop in and out of existence, which, so far as I know is not the case. Electrons will jump from one energy state to another without passing through any intermediate levels (this is part of “quantization”), but, for all practical purposes, it's the same electron. Protons and neutrons are pretty stable entities unless some other protons or neutrons are smashed into them.

As the program went on, the mystics started weighing in, and the point of the filmmaker began to show itself. At the quantum levels, all states of a particular particle exist at once until an observer “settles” the issue by observing that particle. Therefore, we have before us all possible outcomes in our macro-sized world and can control those outcomes through our minds. That, dear reader, is one serious quantum leap. One person, presumably one of the mystics, said that each morning he visualized how his day would go, evidently in an attempt to drive the direction of coming events. He did not offer how well this worked.

They next moved to some pseudo-science about distilled water forming different crystals based on the thought patterns of a researcher. At that point, I moved back to the History Channel.

Let's be rational for a moment. There are basically three overlapping levels of existence: The quantum world, the non-relativistic work, and the relativistic world. The quantum world is the universe of the very small, where probability rules, where a particle can act like a wave, and where our observations impact the behavior of what we are observing. At the opposite extreme is the relativistic world, the universe of the very large and the very fast, where clocks slow down, where things physically contract, and where observations are relative to the inertial frame in which they are taken.

In the middle is where we live, a charming little world governed by Newton's Laws of motion, where effects have sensible causes, where 1+1=2 at all times, and where what you see is what you get. Yet the other universes impinge on ours. Relativistic effects can be detected using fast high flying aircraft; during eclipses we can observe the bending of light due to the warping of space by the Sun. At the other end, quantum theory is behind our computers and the electronics in our radios and televisions, We live suspended between the relativistic and quantum worlds.

Those two worlds, though, are irreconcilable, at least so far. Einstein's equations from Relativity theory work wonderfully well, even down to our level, where they transform into Newton's approximations. But, they fail miserably at the quantum level. Similarly, the mathematics of quantum mechanics, which works so well that we can manipulate what we can't even see, fails at the macroscopic level. The quest to connect these two worlds is the search for the Grand Unified Theory, which no one is even close to finding despite concerted efforts for almost 100 years now.

The problem with the program is that it tried to extrapolate upward from the superpositional world of sub-atomic particles to the macroscopic world in which we live. It combined ideas from the multiple universe crowd (which is a construct that isn't necessarily tied to quantum mechanics) and the existentialists to end up with something that sounded a lot like the concept of “visualizations.” In visualizations, you can achieve a goal simply by visualizing the outcome in your mind intensely. To focus yourself, you write down the outcome on a sheet of paper 15 or 20 times each day. Eventually, without any additional effort on your part, the goal comes true Scott Adams, author of Dilbert, is or, at least, purported to be a proponent of visualizations; he devoted a chapter in one of his books to the topic. I am a fan of Dilbert, but I've always wondered if Mr. Adams was just a couple of bits shy of a byte. Then again, maybe he was joking.

It didn't sound like it, though.

At any rate, the business of trying to extrapolate quantum effects to the macro world just doesn't work. For starters, we are a huge aggregations of sub-atomic, atomic, and molecular particles ourselves. Each of these has its own wave function with various possible states. Yet we don't spontaneously disassemble into our constituent bits or have the ability to will our atoms to move through solid walls, despite all the space that's between those atoms. That's because there's a lot of aggregate averaging happening that keeps things stable. We aren't a double-slit experiment, watching each of our atoms do it's thing and forcing it into a given state. We're a multitude of simultaneous activity that, thanks in part to the forces in and between particles, acts in concert.

The program even invoked Schrodinger's Cat when it discussed “the observer.” I'm not going to repeat the entire description of Schrodinger's complaint against Neils Bohr's Copenhagen Interpretation or the description of Schrodinger's box in which a cat would be dead and alive at the same time until an observer determined what the cat's state was. What I wanted to mention was that one of the questions raised by some was, “Why is the cat's state dependent on a human observer?” In other words, isn't the cat an observer? At what level does “observation” occur? Is it when a detector is activated or its dials read? Does the observer need to be intelligent or merely living and able to determine that an event has happened?

Rather than dealing with these questions, the film had a “scientist” going on about searching the human brain for an area that was “the observer.” What was he expecting, a CAT scan showing an eyeball in the middle of someone's cerebellum? “Observation” is a collective set of events in our brain where information is received, sorted, sifted, calculated, assessed, and recorded. It is a collection of neuro-chemical activities that add up to a recognition that something has identifiably occurred or been experienced.

I never did understand exactly why the scientist was so determined that the lack of “an observer” in our heads was somehow significant in and of itself, but I think it showed how much they missed the point. If these scientists and mystics were looking to use quantum theory to control their world, they need to look no farther than their own brains, a place where all possibilities exist as thoughts, plans, and dreams. It's not what we wish or visualize that frames reality.

It's what we actually do with those quantum interactions in our heads that determines how our world is shaped.

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