Quantum wonders – Part II
Posted by Arlene Somerton Smith
A wonder-full world
Before Nicolas Copernicus came along, humans lived with the unquestioning conviction that they could believe what their eyes told them. The sun rose in the east, revolved around the Earth and set in the west. The Earth was the centre of the universe. Imagine how incomprehensible the idea of the earth revolving around the sun was to the uneducated masses in the 1500s. Their eyes clearly showed them something quite the opposite, and the powerful religious elite of the time strongly endorsed the idea that our world was the centre of everything. Copernicus was considered a heretic and a crackpot.
By peeling back that layer of the material world, by being the first to question what the theologians of the day had to say, Copernicus sparked the curiosity of generations of scientists. He put a crack in the powerful wall of religious dogma, and subsequent scientists brought out sledgehammers and blew that hole wide open. Science and religion began to part ways and take different footpaths at a fork on the jungle path. Mathematics and Galileo’s scientific method became the foundation for research and discovery. The Newtonian physics of Sir Isaac Newton influenced generations of scientists who accepted a universe that unfolded with mechanical precision according to predictable laws of nature. These scientists dismissed anything unseen as delusion. Indeed, classical physicists thought they had it all figured out.
How many more layers are there?
Then along came quantum physics. Along came research results that peeled off the next layer of reality and turned those divergent paths back in the same direction.
Quantum theory initiates the reunion of science and story. Early scientists told the church that things worked differently from how they perceived them, and now quantum mechanics tells us that there is a whole other level to this wonder-full world where things work very differently all over again.
The Courage to Speak
"Sticking to your hypothesis and letting the facts decide is an unnatural act, and you have to brace yourself to perform it."
—from Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett
Scientists are a testy lot, in every sense of the word. “Tests! More Tests!” is the inevitable follow-up to new studies with “Let’s find out what’s wrong with this” as motivation. Research that questions or, worse, contradicts long-standing, trusted theories meets with testy skepticism or even outright hostility.
Scientists who step forward with theory-crushing ideas need courage. Even the most esteemed scientific minds suffer the barbs of cynical contemporaries. History’s list of scientists who dared to upset the physics apple cart bears some distinguished names.
Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity carried along with it the powerful reality that Newton was wrong about absolute time. To suggest that Newton was wrong was considered sacrilege and the great scientist withstood the probing scrutiny of incredulous associates. Charles Darwin penned On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in a social and political climate that recoiled at the radical notion of evolution. And then, of course, there is Copernicus who pointed out an error in our perceptions—an error that is still reflected in our language when speak of enjoying a beautiful sunrise or seeing the sun dip below the horizon.
The names Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein need no accompanying first names as identifiers. The surnames stand alone because the famous men possessed the courage to propose other levels of reality where things work very differently from how we perceive them.
When these great scientific minds made their proclamations, they did so armed with the results of research, studies and experiments conducted with the tools available at their time. Imagine then, how much courage it must take to speak out without diagrams, 3D models or complex mathematical equations in hand.
Stories need to be shared even in the absence of evidence.
Ideas inspire science to investigate. When theologians, or others who have unexplainable personal experiences, choose to speak, they do so knowing that they have a story to share even though they do not have scientific test results available. When they choose to speak they know they trigger the slings and arrows of derision from the scientific community. Still, they tell their story and suffer the predictable criticism. The sad irony is that the reason they do not have the facts, the figures and the complex mathematical equations available is because the very scientific community that vilifies them is not there yet. We are mere steps out of the starting gate in the race of scientific investigation into a myriad of life-altering issues. So far we do not have a gauge or sensor available to capture those elusive, ethereal encounters that take our breath away. While we await the “story meter,” let’s share our stories anyway.
Read more about our wonder-full world in my next post
When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? by Ian Barbour
Quantum Physics: A Beginner’s Guide to the Subatomic World by John Gribbin
Einstein’s Brainchild: Relativity Made Relatively Easy! by Barry Parker