Can One Idiot Learn from Another

What You Don't Know About Quantum Mechanics Does Help You

By: - Sep 21, 2014

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Some say don’t ask don’t tell because they have no curiosity, but I am going to talk about quantum mechanics (QM) anyway.

In my previous article, Are Humans Stupider,  I wrote a little about the importance of studying human nature and how understanding ourselves can promote a healthier view of the world. The same importance applies to knowing the world around us. That is, the macroscopic, the visible, and the microscopic invisible world. The actors in these worlds dance to the tune of natural laws, and to watch them is like watching a Monet painting. Beauty exists independently of the eyes of the beholder.

I start with a scant overview of the realm of the very small. Very few people would have guessed that the discovery of how these tiny particles work brought us, among other things, the cell phone.

Quantum mechanics is the study of the behavior of subatomic particles, particles much smaller then atoms. The seed of quantum physics began sprouting in the late eighteen hundreds, and by the early 20th century it became a full-fledged theory. I am sure that 95% of the world population never heard of it. And yet, today, most people use the products that QM made possible. Here are some of those products:

The transistor

The energy harvesters that is capable of turning heat into electricity ultraprecise atomic clock,

Quantum cryptography that in theory is impossible to crack.

Lasers used in CD players and missile-destroying defense systems.

Ultraprecise thermometers that can measure extreme temperatures.

Quantum computers that are smaller than a pinhead but faster than any digital computer.

Instantaneous communication between us on earth and the far reaches of space.

The account above is not just a theory, it’s a fact. Without the knowledge of quantum mechanics, we wouldn’t be texting while driving.

In spite of the fact that QM has enabled a tapestry of ingenuity and innovation, the behavior of subatomic particles is mysterious and weird. Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of QM, said “If anybody says he can think about quantum physics without getting giddy, that only shows he has not understood the first thing about them.”

One weird behavior of a single tiny particle, for instance, is that of being in many places at once. It doesn't have a definite state until it is observed or measured, and only then it becomes a reality we can perceive. Bizarre as it sounds; experiments have shown that until a measurement is made, particles can act as though they are in more than one place at once. Some have gone as far as to say that observing or the act of consciousness makes reality possible.

Another example is called “wave particle duality”—light-photons, can act like particles or waves. Here again observing the particle dictates whether the outcome will be a wave or a particle. Another interesting phenomenon and one of the many examples of how weird and mysterious QM is, is entanglement (instantaneous communication). Imagine a pair of particles, A and B, in the same quantum states flying off in opposite directions through detectors that record orientations of A and B. Now, check this, A knows in what state B was detected, and vice versa. For instance, if A goes through a horizontal detector, B instantly goes through the opposite orientation, that is, vertical. If we adjust detector A to a diagonal position, we can predict with certainty that detector B’s orientation will be the opposite.

The connection between the two is not only instantaneous, it covers an unlimited distance. This means that cause and effect as we know it does not exist in the quantum world: objects affect each other without physically touching one another. Einstein had a hard time accepting this fact, and called it "Spooky Action at a Distance". As far as I know, in our world objects will not move unless they are physically pushed.

This is hardly a sufficient description of QM. There are hundreds of books out there about the subject, and every day there are still new publications on the latest discoveries.
Our planet harbors a hidden, rich, and beautiful world of the sub-particles. And let’s not forget the microbes. Without microbes, we couldn’t eat or breathe--these “single-cell organisms are so tiny that millions can fit into the eye of a needle.”

Knowledge doesn’t limit us or take away the beauty and mystery of the world—it actually enhances our view of the world and should make us stronger and more tolerant.

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." Richard Feynman