Quantum Wonders – Part III
“Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” —Niels Bohr
Read the quotations below and substitute the word “God” for “quantum theory” or “quantum mechanics.”
“Quantum theory can’t be explained.” — J.P McEvoy and Oscar Zarate
“I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” —Richard Feynman
“You don’t have to understand this—nobody understands it. You just have to accept that this is the way the quantum world works.” —John Gribbon
Our eminent scientists start to sound an awful lot like theologians, don’t they?
Accepting the counterintuitive
When Nicolas Copernicus proposed that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around, almost everyone scoffed. They stomped their feet on solid, stationary ground and raised their eyes to a sun clearly moving across the sky. What could be more obvious than that the sun moves, not the earth? They could not believe something so counterintuitive.
When quantum physicists stumbled upon their startling findings—matter is not really matter (or at least not all the time); subatomic particles behave in ways that defy space and time; and the observer affects the outcome of subatomic events—physicists squirmed at their own results and scientists steeped in classical mechanics scoffed. How could they believe something so counterintuitive? But people of faith said, “We knew it all along.”
Science pushed God out. Now science invites God back in.
Copernicus, Newton and Darwin planted seeds of doubt about faith; then quantum physicists planted seeds of doubt about classical mechanics. The brain-bending discoveries of quantum physics show us that, at a subatomic level, the world works very differently from what our senses tell us; these discoveries also show us that, at a subatomic level, the world works in a way that resonates with people of faith.
The stuff of which we are made behaves in ways that can be described as, well, magical. When we observe matter closely enough, it’s not really matter. Or at least not all the time. It can be either a particle or a wave. Electrons, which we enjoy thinking of as solid objects that pile up together to form a wonderful variety of sturdy objects, can behave like waves. The same electrons that create your refrigerator, your favourite slippers or your left arm can also behave like sound waves or the ripples in your bathtub. Ian Barbour writes: “What were once thought to be ‘elementary particles’ seem to be temporary manifestations of shifting patterns of waves that combine at one point, dissolve again, and recombine elsewhere.”
I wonder . . .
This is an enticing paradox of quantum theory: we are physical, and yet we are not. If the construction materials that build our bodies can behave like waves, I wonder what kind of power does that give us to ripple positively into the world?
What signals electrons to shift, dissolve and recombine? Astoundingly, the answer appears to be an observer. Electrons, when unmeasured or unobserved, behave as waves spread out through space. Upon observation in experiments they ‘collapse’ into a particle and can be located. In other words, the observer makes it happen. If the observer and the event are interconnected, I wonder what kind of power does that give us to influence the probabilities in our lives?
Perhaps the most startling quantum wonder of all is non-locality. Laboratories create two particles simultaneously so they are interconnected and then shoot them off in opposite directions in their universe. When the researchers manipulate one of the particles to change its state, amazingly, the other particle instantaneously alters itself to the appropriate corresponding state.
It suggests an interconnection beyond space and time, and if there is one thing that we cling to in order to make sense of our world, it is space and time. The theory indicates that particles do not exist in a “local” sense—in one place at one time. Non-locality hints at a global interconnectedness at the subatomic level that could have implications in the larger, clunky, material world of our everyday lives. If our subatomic particles connect across the cosmos beyond space and time, can we? Cancer survivors say, “You know, when I was sick and people told me they were praying for me, I felt that.” I wonder if there is there a scientific basis to healing prayers?
We are both more than and less than we appear
If you go along with me (and I sincerely hope you will) on the ride that says that we all have a story beyond our physical being, quantum theory tells us that we are both more than and less than we appear. Something like this:
The subatomic Our perceptions Our story
It tells us that, to a certain extent, we can be an observer in our lives and choose our story.
It tells us not to cling to the physical because it is an illusory temporary manifestation.
It tells us that we are interconnected at a subatomic level with the universe and that every action that we take affects others.
Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics and the Bomb, by David C. Cassidy
Introducing Quantum Theory by J.P. McEvoy and Oscar Zarate
Quantum Physics: A Beginner’s Guide to the Subatomic World by John Gribbin
The Quantum Brain: The Search for Freedom and the Next Generation of Man by Jeffrey Satinover