A Brief History of the End of Time—Quantum Mechanics for Psychology and Sociology

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A Brief History of the End of Time

— 13. Quantum Mechanics for Psychology and Sociology —

🔼Quantum mechanics

Whether by holodeck or gnarly parable, no scientific discipline has emphasized the profundity of fiction as much as quantum mechanics (read our fun-filled introduction to quantum mechanics). The world that the first quantum mechanics uncovered was so alien to the way people expected it to be that the outcome of relatively simple experiments needed to be debated and defended not so much by math and diagrams but by means of an arsenal of parables, or thought-experiments as they called them. People needed to be converted in all the religious sense of the word. Obsolete belief needed to be identified and uprooted and replaced by proper insight. And that hurt. The most famous opponent of quantum mechanics was Albert Einstein who backed his objections up with one of his savored sayings: 'I don't believe that God plays dice.' But God did, or so it seemed, and even Einstein had to capitulate after some delicious dialogues that have been preserved for posterity.

In the course of the twentieth century it has been established that the small-scale world and the large-scale world comply with different rules. The rules of the large-scale universe can be observed with our own large-scale eyes: Classical mechanics apply and time is there to prevent that everything happens at once.

Our bodies are large-scale and so is everything we can observe from stars to rocks to microscopically small creatures and grains of sand. But beyond that lays a realm of mystery and wonder: the quantum world.

🔼The quantum world

A conventional large-scale object in motion travels through space along a single trajectory that is observable and predictable. A quantum particle however does not. Heisenberg discovered that it is impossible to accurately measure both speed and position of a particle. The more accurate the speed is known, the more inaccurate its position becomes, and vice versa. And that is not due to failing equipment or to one's failing intellect, but to the covert nature and sovereignty of the quantum particle. Numeral equivalents of individual quantum behavior do not exist; they're not there to be known. The only rightful claim that can be made about a traveling particle is about the chance that it will end up in a certain position. That chance can be predicted according to a possibility wave, also known as the Schrödinger wave.

Imagine a particle-canon that can shoot one particle at the time at a screen that records the impact of the particle with a black dot. Shooting a certain number of particles towards a bull's eye will result in a cloud of dots centered on the target, fading out the further away from the target we look. The gradient of fading can be predicted with high accuracy, but we would still be unable to predict were the next particle is going to hit. Could be bull's eye, could be ten centimeters to the right, could even be the wall behind us. There's no way of telling. The most fundamental principle of the universe is freedom.

For our next experiment we place a second screen between the canon and the recording screen, and the middle screen is endowed with two holes next to each other. If quantum particles were conventional objects the pattern on the recording screen would consist of two blurs corresponding with the two holes. But instead we see an interference pattern emerge, as if a wave has rolled through the holes and interfered with itself. Even when we shoot particles one at the time, the pattern on the recording screen reveals interference. That means that the quantum particle has traveled through both holes and interfered with itself, and that is a paradox since a quantum particle is per definition indivisible. The solution to this paradox is that a quantum particle travels through space along all its possible trajectories, its path integral, like a spider that catches a fly with a single sticky thread but still makes an entire web to present her trap.

🔼Schrödinger's box

By far the most famous thought experiment was published by Erwin Schrödinger in order to explain quantum uncertainty in relation to the large-scale world. He imagined a single atom of a light radioactive material tied to a Geiger counter, which was in turn rigged to a bottle of poison so that when the atom would decay the bottle would break and the poison would be released. He proceeded to place the whole contraption in a box and threw his cat in with it and sealed the box.

He waited one hour and since the radioactive material he used had a half-life of one hour, the possibility that the atom had decayed and killed the cat was exactly fifty percent, but in fact the atom could have decayed in the first minute or would not decay for many years to come. And because he could not observe the cat, it also existed inside the box in a state of essential flux, somewhere between alive and dead. The uncertainty surrounding the condition of the atom had rubbed off on the cat. The situation of the cat could only be described by means of a possibility wave. Making a deterministic statement about the welfare of the cat had as much validity as saying which hole the quantum particle went through in the previous experiment. But, thank goodness, when Schrödinger opened the box the cat jumped out and Schrödinger could conclude that the atom had not decayed. The cat's state of flux was annulled and it went on being a large-scale corpus in a large-scale world.

The key difference between the situation of the quantum particle through both holes and the dead slash alive state of the cat is that the eventual outcome of the cat's state of flux will be confirmed by its appearance when the box opens. When a quantum particle hits the recording screen it does not carry any information about its past. The cat does and with revealing its present state, its previous hour becomes determinable and the state of flux desecrated. Not so with a quantum particle and that is where the realities divide and this is also where Schrödinger's story ended. But a little fantasy allows us to uncover yet another great secret of nature. Imagine Mr. Schrödinger opening the box and receiving his cat in good health when behind him the door opens and Mrs. Schrödinger comes to the scene and immediately recognizes what Mr. Schrödinger has been up to and ignites in unremitting vexation and exiles him to the couch and cancels his desert for the rest of the month.

The outcome of the cat's state of flux can only influence the large-scale world deterministically. Either the cat is dead and nothing happens, or the cat is alive and jumps out and begins to push over Mr. Schrödinger's cup of coffee and tear down the plants. But Mrs. Schrödinger does not respond solely to the outcome of the flux, she responds to the entire range of possibilities. The cat could have died and that possibility, which has no actual outcome in the world of dials and meters, certainly has an outcome in Mrs. Schrödinger's temperament and Mr. Schrödinger dire fate.

🔼Mrs. Schrödinger's mind

Mrs. Schrödinger's mind acts upon the path integral and is therefore not subject to large-scale mechanics. A single mind is a quantum, and quantum mechanics apply. Hence the unique prerogative to see stars where another man sees only bars, or to recognize a living friend where others see only a stuffed tiger.

Visual and literary art have been conducting playful excursions into the quantum mechanical mind of man far ahead of its physical discovery. Cubism for instance investigated reality based on multiple perspectives. The Jekyll and Hyde theme does the same; Face Off even implored an additional broken symmetry motif. The Back to the Future cycle was based on it, so was Sliding Doors, Groundhog Day and many Star Trek episodes (for instance Voyager-Deadlock).

Imagine a traveler in a car headed west coming to an intersection where the highway breaches into a narrow dirt road to the right, a continuing highway straight ahead and a broad dirt road to the left. The chance that the traveler will choose the highway straight ahead is by far the greatest because many before him have done so and that's why there is a highway. Only a few travelers have gone right, a little more have gone left but the bulk has traveled straight on. If our traveler finally directs his car to the right, the large-scale evidence of the traveler's past is obvious; he came from the highway and turned right. But what cannot be determined is what went on inside the traveler's head when he was trying to choose. He might even have desired to lift off into the sky or sink into the ground. And by the ability to extrapolate, the mind of the traveler has ventured into all possible directions. The car of the traveler follows one road; the mind of the traveler follows many.

Now imagine a writer bent over a notepad. After every sentence he writes down (large-scale) his mind scouts all possible proceedings (small-scale) and when he finally chooses to write one down (impact), it will only display one of the possible trains of thought while all the others remain in obscurity forever. The book of the writer explores one narrative; the mind of the writer explores many.

🔼Calvin and Arminius

Calvin was right when he concluded that a man's life is limited by his original qualities, and wrong when he concluded that man's personal journey is determinable by any intelligence in existence. Arminius was right about man's original free will, but the freedom of quanta does not imply that a particle cannot run into obstacles, such as a recording screen, a perforated screen or even other particles. A human mind proceeds according to all its possibilities but also responds to external happenings. A mind develops freely until it meets another mind and bonds with it into a school of thought or religion. Minds make culture like quanta make objects, and as soon as a quantum engages in a bond with another quantum, its freedom is infringed. Recent experiments have revealed that quantum irregularity prevails somewhat after particles bond. Compounds as large as bucky-balls (60 atoms) show interference patterns in the slot-screen experiment. But the larger they get, the more they forfeit freedom.

James Surowiecki, in his eye-opening book The Wisdom of Crowds, explores the amazing decision-making ability of large groups. "[A]sk a hundred people to answer a question or solve a problem, and the average answer will often be at least as good as the answer of the smartest member. [...] You could say it's as if we've been programmed to be collectively smart. [...] Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible."

Groups are good. We're social creatures and groups are needed to make us who we can be. But bucky-balls such as rigid, doctrinal sodalities should be avoided if we want to grow up. Even Christians should not blindly march along with their denomination's liturgies, but search for a unique and playful relationship with the Creator. The freedom of our minds is our greatest asset. Its possibilities are vast and largely unexplored. And its destiny is far from static.

Go to the next chapter:
Capitalism's Undoing