Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Relatively Astounding

(image, composed of non-local digital particles: Niels Bohr, Danish physicist)

From "A Quantum Threat to Special Relativity," by David. Z. Albert and Rivka Galchen, Scientific American, March 2009, p. 32:

"...according to quantum mechanics one can arrange a pair of particles so that they are precisely two feet apart and yet neither particle on its own has a definite position. Furthermore, the standard approach to understanding quantum physics, the so-called Copenhagen intepretation--proclaimed by the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr early last century and handed down from professor to student for generations--insists that it is not that we do not know the facts about the individual particles' exact location; it is that there simply aren't any such facts. To ask after the position of a single particle would be as meaningless as, say, asking after the marital status of the number five. The problem is not epistemological (about what we know) but ontological (about what is)."

I will avoid an obvious joke and not say that I found this paragraph particularly interesting, except that I did "say" it, but the location of the joke isn't precisely knowable. That said, or not, physics is starting to sound like theology (the latter defined in the broadest sense). If the facts about the location of particles can't be known, then to what extent do we/can we know anything? Of course, we have to pretend we know, or to "know" on faith. When I walk across a street, my self-interest seems served by my pretending to know where the oncoming automobile traffic is. At the same time, the facts about the reality of that traffic may still be unknowable, even as I live my cross-walk life as if they were knowable.

In other word, Oy!

And if I read that paragraph from SA correctly (and I probably don't), physics is looping back to philosophy, where it began, in a way, with the pre-Socratics, and where it was picked up again by Aristotle, among others, but also by thinkers in other cultural traditions--including Africa and Asia. I regard this as good news--for selfish reasons: physics is more interesting to me when it admits what it can't know, and/or when it comes close to expressing or at least reinforcing amazement. That's partly because I'm a poet and a reader of poet, I suppose. For poets and readers of poets, amazement is a good thing, especially when it springs from the common--like a particle, for example, or a bee (Dickinson liked bees), a wheel barrow (red, if you have one in stock), a river (Langston Hughes), or a hawk (Hopkins).

The third "key concept" highlighted by "The Editors" in a sidebar to the article:

"This nonlocal effect is not merely counterintuitive: it presents a serious problem to Einstein's special theory of relativity, thus shaking the foundations of physics."

Ouch. I mean, "Cool."

And I was just getting used to how counterintuitive Einstein's theories are in relation to Newtonian physics. To deal with this confusion, I must go read some poetry, which most people (I assume) regard to be about as riveting as theoretical physics.

Hang on to your particles, folks, wherever they're not located.
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