Monday, December 1, 2008

What I'm Studying Right Now

Quantum mechanics. Yes, that's right. I should sell tickets to this show: I read, I scratch my head, I reread the same paragraph. My head drops forward onto my chest: a sign that my brain is on the run. I am watching, for the second time, a twenty-four lecture series on Einstein and the quantum revolution. I'm okay with Newton, and a clockwork universe. I can handle Gallileo. I can even manage to wrap my head around special relativity and curved space-time.

But the statistical probability of matter just freaks me out. Before observation, contradictory possibilities exist simultaneously; the act of observation forces one possibility into existence, and eliminates the other. So I am forced to consider that while I'm sitting at my desk, the black kitten named Mimi is behind me, watching me, and at the same time, upstairs asleep on my daughter's bed. Both possibilities (and more besides!) are real. It's not just that both are possible. Both are equally real until I check. It gives me the creeps -- should I turn around and check, or just sit here, wondering, trying to trick quantum physics by looking -- really fast! -- and then turning back and hoping the universe didn't see me peek?

One of the attractions of nonfiction (for me, at least) is the comfort of knowing that things are real. Either a historical event happened or it didn't. Either a bat is a mammal or it isn't. The maybe-ness of quantum mechanics has thrown a big monkey wrench into my Weltanschauung. I have the sensation of moving inside a bubble that consists of the possibilities I drove into existence by my observation; my bubble is floating through a gray, multi-dimensional miasma of contradictory possibilities which are all co-existent because I haven't observed them yet. What is this sensation, this head-spinning, stomach-lurching sensation? Oh, I remember now: this sensation is poetry. Or something like that.

Strange, isn't it?


Vicki Cobb said...

Science often uses contstructs to explain phenomena that are not truth (or reality) as we know it. What is light? That depends on what you want to do with it. It can be thought of as a stream of particles or a as wave but not both at the same time. Einstein said it best: "Physical concepts are the creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, determined by the external world." My advice is just to dance with the mystery.

Mickey Schafer said...

Honestly, I think I understand quantum physics better now than I did before I read your post!