Saturday, 7 May 2016

Relearning the Basics


At the heart of quantum mechanics is a paradox--some would say an antinomy--which just does not "make sense".  The world of sub-atomic reality (at least at present) remains a mystery.  At the heart of the problem is the assertion--based on experimentation and observation, coupled with mathematical formulations--that:
Light is both a wave and a particle, and it is both a wave and a particle at the same time.  This conclusion embodies a mystery, one that no subsequent analytical efforts have dissolved.  [David Berlinski, The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretension (New York: Basic Books, 2009), p. 92.]
To which Berlinski mischievously appends
The mystery will not appear entirely unfamiliar to Christians persuaded of the threefold aspect of the deity.  If light is a particle and a wave, religious believers might observe, God is a Father, a Son, and a Holy Ghost.  This is not an analogy that has captured the allegiance of scientific atheists.  [Ibid., p. 93.]  
It seems as if the very building blocks of matter exist by means of an antinomy which appears rationally inexplicable.  At least to our minds.  Matter appears random at root--but, and here is another paradox--upon such foundations the order and regularity of the cosmos is built.  Go figure.
 But the current fundamental physical theory is not just a witness to the irrational.  Matter appears to be beyond rationality.  It appears so complex as to be inexplicable.
Under (Max) Born's interpretation of quantum mechanics, the identity of a particle undergoes further deconstruction.  The old here-or-there has long since passed to the new here-and-there, but what is here and there is now a matter of chance.  Having impossibly divided itself between two slits, a single photon undergoes further demotion to appear in quantum mechanics as the ghost of its own position.  It could here here, it could be there, and somehow it could be at both places at one.  [Ibid.]
But it gets "worse".   The electron is like the Scarlet Pimpernel--they seek it here, they seek it there. It could be anywhere.  The electron appears to be all things to all men.  It can be here, there, or both places at the same time.  But the uncertainty vanishes the instant someone makes an actual measurement.
So long as no one is looking, the electron is all things to all men.  But let the physicist have a look, and boom! the particle that could be here and there becomes here or there all over again.  The wave packet collapses into just one of its possibilities.  The other quantum states that it embodies vanish, and they vanish instantaneously.  No-one knows why.  [Ibid.]
Will a new paradigm emerge in particle physics that will explain all these conundrums?   It is possible.  We await developments with interest.  But one thing appears clear: the building blocks of matter are--at root--far, far more complex and difficult than we once thought.  Irreducibly complex it seems.  So much for the Theory of Everything.

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