I have to admit, I struggle to fully comprehend some of the ideas and explanations offered up by the wonderful scheme of inquiry that is quantum mechanics. However, I’ll do my best to quickly sum up the most significant parts (particularly those offered by Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems) – and the bits I find most interesting – as I probably need to give this slice of quantum context to support my previous post, as well as the rest of the forthcoming blogs in this series. So here goes…
The endless dance
All the way back to Ancient Greece and the great Democritus, there has been speculation that everything in the universe is made up of smaller and smaller pieces – or atoms; the weave of the world. And, as we now know, even the great universe itself – Newton’s mysterious space is not just forces and waves, it is quanta.
Rovelli captures our fluctuating existence by saying: “There is no finality, no purpose, in this endless dance of atoms. We, just like the rest of the natural world, are one of the many products of this indefinite dance.”
Einstein proved that matter is granular by observing these fluctuations. It’s no wonder we find music and dance so intoxicating – our make-up, the very nature of existence, is a ceaseless rhythmic jiggle! Thanks to Newton we discovered gravity, and Clarke and Maxwell then steered us towards the field, and thus we edged closer and closer to a comprehensive understanding of the different forces governing our universe. Einstein’s three great papers to Annalen der Physik then brought quantum mechanics into play and changed the face of science – he proved matter is granular and that space and time are inextricably linked (spacetime). He also helped to realise the field was electromagnetic and that mass and energy can be transformed into each other – and that the energy obtained from transforming one gram of mass was potentially enormous.
Max Planck and Einstein then helped to determine that energy came in finite packets – light is made up of tiny particles – and Niels Bohr realised that atoms are like tiny solar systems, with its mass concentrated in a heavy nucleus. Electrons orbit the nucleus and quantum leap into other orbits at random; the frequency at which they move is responsible for the frequency of the emitted light. And these quantum leaping electrons, which appear and disappear at random, only do reappear when they interact or collide with something else. The quantum leap constitutes their real-ness! It is thanks to Paul Dirac, among others, that we realise that what happens at the quantum level is probabilistic – the future is unpredictable. Everything is subject to random change. Our quantum existence is granular and finite, relational and based on interactions, and indeterminate – the future is not beholden to the past for answers.
To finity and beyond
So we’re now aware that the universe and everything in it is made up of tiny particles – and just when you think you’ve chipped down to the smallest constituents, even smaller parts are discovered. Molecules are made up of different atoms; from atoms we get subatomic particles – protons, neutrons and electrons. And beyond these tiny particles, we have leptons and quarks. Now, we might one day delve even deeper still, but for now it appears that these particles are the fundamental building blocks of the universe. This is what the standard model of particle physics appears to be telling us. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to align with our understanding of gravitational forces and the larger scale operations of the universe just yet – it doesn’t correlate with what we know thanks to General Relativity. But there is hope that either loop quantum gravity or string theory could provide more clarity on this issue in the future.
What’s important to remember for now in regards to quantum mechanics is that there are no more infinities – everything is only divisible up to a point. Planck’s constant determines the scale of all quantum phenomena – the information in the state of a system is finite. The universe is not a continuum. Matvei Bronstejn is another man Rovelli writes glowingly on in Reality Is Not What It Seems – and he illuminates how the great Soviet theoretical physicist realised that nothing is accessible below a certain scale – there is a limit to the divisibility of space. If we try to go too deep, to too small a scale, the energy warps spacetime and creates a black hole – and nothing exists there. Everything in its vicinity is sucked in.
I think there are some nice philosophical ideas that we can play with when thinking about this notion that everything in the universe, all the molecules and the particles which constitute them, are finite – that our universe is finite; it has a boundary and does not just stretch on ceaselessly forever. Perhaps there is no eternity? Perhaps there was a beginning (The Big Bang), perhaps this is the middle (how far along, though, who knows?) – and perhaps there will be an end. Perhaps existence as we know it shall cease to be at some point down the line. Perhaps there are other existences which are inaccessible to us (with even bigger TVs and fewer adverts I’ll bet).
I wonder what the end of Being might look like? I guess nothingness doesn’t look like anything – it’s nothingness! I like to imagine the end of reality as we know it looking like the image above of an angry Daffy Duck being literally rubbed out of existence. Or possibly the edge of the cartoon reel in those other meta-cartoons from Warner Bros and Looney Tunes (my boss at work mentioned this was common in early Pepe Le Pew and I know it happens a bit in Buggs Bunny) – where the background is completely (eerily) white; the characters step out of the confines of the cartoon world and into the void.
Connecting the dots
If I’m totally honest, I’m not sure I understand all of it (both quantum theory and why humanity is the way it is!) – no matter how wonderfully well the likes of Rovelli, Hawking and Feynman (among others) explain these complex ideas for laymen like me. But that’s okay – because like quanta itself, as well as our understanding of it, it is all about the little pieces. We need to build our knowledge bit by bit. We need to piece together what we are able to understand – gradually yet thoroughly. One can’t just expect to produce a masterpiece in a day – we need to build up to forming these beautiful paintings, which tell the story of existence, from lots of tiny dots. With this blog series, I am simply trying to connect the dots bit by bit to improve my understanding (and hopefully yours!) The picture might not be perfect, but one can take great pleasure in mixing the colours and honing one’s skills -in the quest for improvement. And, eventually, perhaps we will be able to paint a masterpiece ourselves one day.
Going forward, the greatest minds on this planet will try to resolve the contradictions between quantum theory and General Relativity, in the hope that we can find this unified theory of quantum gravity. And we will also continue to investigate the nature of time itself – because we now know that time as we experience it is an illusion in relation to the workings of the universe as a whole.
As Rovelli puts it: “We need to rethink the grammar of our understanding of the world… our ideas about the nature of reality have to change.”
I’m not sure I’m ready for that change just yet – but I’m trying to piece these new ideas together, bit by bit. And even if I don’t fully grasp all of the concepts I explore in this blog series – even if some of what I’ve begun to explore seems confusing or difficult to get your head around at times (or I’ve failed to explain things properly), I hope that by the end of these ten posts you can at least appreciate just how marvellous quantum theory is. And I hope it gives you the hunger, like it has me, to know more, inquire more, read some Carlo Rovelli, Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman books, and share my passion for helpful knowledge. Let us marvel at the nature of our quantum existence, made up of smaller and smaller particles, and appreciate the imagination and intellect which brought it into our understanding. Quantum theory paints a beautiful, poetic picture of our existence and I am grateful for the opportunity to share these wondrous images with you.