Paradox Lost

4
Average: 4 (3 votes)
Your rating: None

"Holy s**t, it works!" But I probably shouldn't have shouted that so loudly after my big win at the casino. Besides, I really don't know if it works, or if I'm just lucky. I guess it must be some of both, because if I learned one thing from Dad--and actually, I learned it all from Dad--there's no such thing as "or." Here's what Dad says about "and/or":
 
I have this love/hate relationship with paradoxes. It's my delight to seek them out, my passion to destroy them. And when I first met Schrödinger's Cat I knew I was confronting a truly worthy opponent. He was never real, of course, and if anyone were ever so clueless as to try it out, I hope the cat would show him who's boss, in the inimitable way cats have. He was a reductio ad absurdum of what quantum physicists, albeit reluctantly, already had to admit about subatomic particles: until an observer picks one, all possibilities are real; Schrödinger's Cat is both alive and dead.
 
I can't be sure, because it doesn't always work. But I think I'm getting the hang of it. The trick is to be ready to believe with all your might, and to do it quickly, when you see an opportunity. I call it "whacking" because it's kind of like a mental game of Whac-A-Mole. To some, I guess, it's "faith."
 
So the paradox is simple: Schrödinger’s Cat is no more plausible than Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. Even if cats do have nine lives, they’re always either in or between them, one at a time. And when the quantum physicists try to explain it, they trip over the “measurement problem”--that measurements, or observations, trigger miracles like altering physical reality. The Many Worlds Theory does an end run; the cat really is both alive and dead, but in parallel universes. But isn’t the notion that whole universes are spawned by every quantum event just as hard to swallow?
 
Well, let’s ask Einstein for a hint. In a way, he started it all by co-authoring the paper that inspired Schrödinger. Einstein also suggested that time is just another dimension, like our familiar three. So let’s take a look at this multiverse through his omniscient eyes. Universes aren’t created, they just are, to an observer from outside of time. And why stop with just three or four dimensions, anyway?
 
What you want to do is to transport your consciousness to the “clone” of yourself that’s living in the parallel world of your choice. For every possible outcome of every quantum event, there’s a parallel universe, and you have clones, of course, in many of them. But each has his own unique continuum of consciousness, so you have to strike while the iron’s hot. To do that, it helps to understand what consciousness is. Dad has a practical, working definition of consciousness far simpler than any other that I’ve read. He says “reality” is the Many Worlds metaverse of all that may have been, is or might be, or may yet, in time, become. And consciousness is just “the exploration of reality.” But once, he waxed poetic and wrote this:
 
Consciousness
I am as a single cell,                                                                                                                              adrift in the River of Reality.
powerless against the                                                                                                                       currents of time and clockwork determinism,
buffeted by the Brownian motion                                                                                                              of the atoms all around,
oblivious to the higher dimensions                                                                                                          of earth and air.
Yet with every whip                                                                                                                                       of my flagellum of free will
I explore,                                                                                                                                                     and am satisfied.
 
So in a sense, there are just three “dimensions”--or engines of consciousness--that drive us in our travels: clockwork determinism, free will, and quantum randomness. Dad likes to call them, respectively (and respectfully), serenity, courage, and wisdom.
 
Didn’t we all ask, growing up, “How many numbers are there?”  I got the usual infinity lesson; I should’ve asked my mom, the poet (in whose faint footsteps I belatedly try to follow). She’d have told me “just as many as you need.” The same is true of dimensions. They’re not creations of the Creator, but of the mind. We use them to make sense of what our senses tell us. Four dimensions of spacetime are what our sensory hardware is empowered to observe, and our brains to process, so that’s how we construct a model of reality within our minds. But we’ve no more justification for confusing that subjective model with objective reality, than a denizen of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland has in “knowing” that reality has just two dimensions plus time.
 
Bottom line: we can eliminate all paradox, all miracles, if we’re willing, as I am, to trade them in for mind-numbing vastness and for a reach eternally exceding our grasp. All the parallel universes of quantum possibility can fit easily into a metaverse that has exactly as many dimensions as it needs, because it has no dimensions at all. But we can no more map it than can A Square, living within one page of Flatland, ever hope to read the other pages.
 
Well, the casino had to let me keep my winnings because they had no clue what “it” was and I wasn’t about to tell them about whacking. 
 
But if I just iron out a few more wrinkles, I think I can revolutionize the travel industry. And now I’m off to find a world where cats get more respect.

About the Author: 
David Bortin (Mr. Italics, a.k.a. “Dad”) is a semi-retired scientist who’s subscribed to Scientific American for over fifty years. Although he’s never worked in quantum physics, its philosophical implications are a major avocation. Another is writing, but except for technical articles, his only published works so far have been poetry.

Newsletter Signup

Submit your email address so we can send you occasional competition updates and tell you who wins!

Quantum Theories

T is for ... Teleportation

Quantum tricks allow a particle to be transported from one location to another without passing through the intervening space – or that’s how it appears. The reality is that the process is more like faxing, where the information held by one particle is written onto a distant particle.

L is for ... Light

We used to believe light was a wave, then we discovered it had the properties of a particle that we call a photon. Now we know it, like all elementary quantum objects, is both a wave and a particle!

X is for ... X-ray

In 1923 Arthur Compton shone X-rays onto a block of graphite and found that they bounced off with their energy reduced exactly as would be expected if they were composed of particles colliding with electrons in the graphite. This was the first indication of radiation’s particle-like nature.

R is for ... Randomness

Unpredictability lies at the heart of quantum mechanics. It bothered Einstein, but it also bothers the Dalai Lama.

Q is for ... Quantum biology

A new and growing field that explores whether many biological processes depend on uniquely quantum processes to work. Under particular scrutiny at the moment are photosynthesis, smell and the navigation of migratory birds.

J is for ... Josephson Junction

This is a narrow constriction in a ring of superconductor. Current can only move around the ring because of quantum laws; the apparatus provides a neat way to investigate the properties of quantum mechanics.

Z is for ... Zero-point energy

Even at absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible, nothing has zero energy. In these conditions, particles and fields are in their lowest energy state, with an energy proportional to Planck’s constant.

S is for ... Schrödinger’s Cat

A hypothetical experiment in which a cat kept in a closed box can be alive and dead at the same time – as long as nobody lifts the lid to take a look.

G is for ... Gravity

Our best theory of gravity no longer belongs to Isaac Newton. It’s Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. There’s just one problem: it is incompatible with quantum theory. The effort to tie the two together provides the greatest challenge to physics in the 21st century.

A is for ... Alice and Bob

In quantum experiments, these are the names traditionally given to the people transmitting and receiving information. In quantum cryptography, an eavesdropper called Eve tries to intercept the information.

I is for ... Information

Many researchers working in quantum theory believe that information is the most fundamental building block of reality.

M is for ... Many Worlds Theory

Some researchers think the best way to explain the strange characteristics of the quantum world is to allow that each quantum event creates a new universe.

C is for ... Computing

The rules of the quantum world mean that we can process information much faster than is possible using the computers we use now.

S is for ... Superposition

Quantum objects can exist in two or more states at once: an electron in superposition, for example, can simultaneously move clockwise and anticlockwise around a ring-shaped conductor.

E is for ... Entanglement

When two quantum objects interact, the information they contain becomes shared. This can result in a kind of link between them, where an action performed on one will affect the outcome of an action performed on the other. This “entanglement” applies even if the two particles are half a universe apart.

Y is for ... Young's Double Slit Experiment

In 1801, Thomas Young proved light was a wave, and overthrew Newton’s idea that light was a “corpuscle”.

P is for ... Planck's Constant

This is one of the universal constants of nature, and relates the energy of a single quantum of radiation to its frequency. It is central to quantum theory and appears in many important formulae, including the Schrödinger Equation.

D is for ... Decoherence

Unless it is carefully isolated, a quantum system will “leak” information into its surroundings. This can destroy delicate states such as superposition and entanglement.

T is for ... Tunnelling

This happens when quantum objects “borrow” energy in order to bypass an obstacle such as a gap in an electrical circuit. It is possible thanks to the uncertainty principle, and enables quantum particles to do things other particles can’t.

A is for ... Atom

This is the basic building block of matter that creates the world of chemical elements – although it is made up of more fundamental particles.

O is for ... Objective reality

Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, said there is no such thing as objective reality. All we can talk about, he said, is the results of measurements we make.

C is for ... Cryptography

People have been hiding information in messages for millennia, but the quantum world provides a whole new way to do it.

K is for ... Kaon

These are particles that carry a quantum property called strangeness. Some fundamental particles have the property known as charm!

B is for ... Bell's Theorem

In 1964, John Bell came up with a way of testing whether quantum theory was a true reflection of reality. In 1982, the results came in – and the world has never been the same since!

Q is for ... Qubit

One quantum bit of information is known as a qubit (pronounced Q-bit). The ability of quantum particles to exist in many different states at once means a single quantum object can represent multiple qubits at once, opening up the possibility of extremely fast information processing.

U is for ... Universe

To many researchers, the universe behaves like a gigantic quantum computer that is busy processing all the information it contains.

H is for ... Hawking Radiation

In 1975, Stephen Hawking showed that the principles of quantum mechanics would mean that a black hole emits a slow stream of particles and would eventually evaporate.

D is for ... Dice

Albert Einstein decided quantum theory couldn’t be right because its reliance on probability means everything is a result of chance. “God doesn’t play dice with the world,” he said.

A is for ... Act of observation

Some people believe this changes everything in the quantum world, even bringing things into existence.

P is for ... Probability

Quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory: it does not give definite answers, but only the probability that an experiment will come up with a particular answer. This was the source of Einstein’s objection that God “does not play dice” with the universe.

L is for ... Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

At CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, this machine is smashing apart particles in order to discover their constituent parts and the quantum laws that govern their behaviour.

W is for ... Wavefunction

The mathematics of quantum theory associates each quantum object with a wavefunction that appears in the Schrödinger equation and gives the probability of finding it in any given state.

R is for ... Reality

Since the predictions of quantum theory have been right in every experiment ever done, many researchers think it is the best guide we have to the nature of reality. Unfortunately, that still leaves room for plenty of ideas about what reality really is!

H is for ... Hidden Variables

One school of thought says that the strangeness of quantum theory can be put down to a lack of information; if we could find the “hidden variables” the mysteries would all go away.

U is for ... Uncertainty Principle

One of the most famous ideas in science, this declares that it is impossible to know all the physical attributes of a quantum particle or system simultaneously.

I is for ... Interferometer

Some of the strangest characteristics of quantum theory can be demonstrated by firing a photon into an interferometer: the device’s output is a pattern that can only be explained by the photon passing simultaneously through two widely-separated slits.

W is for ... Wave-particle duality

It is possible to describe an atom, an electron, or a photon as either a wave or a particle. In reality, they are both: a wave and a particle.

S is for ... Schrödinger Equation

This is the central equation of quantum theory, and describes how any quantum system will behave, and how its observable qualities are likely to manifest in an experiment.

G is for ... Gluon

These elementary particles hold together the quarks that lie at the heart of matter.

N is for ... Nonlocality

When two quantum particles are entangled, it can also be said they are “nonlocal”: their physical proximity does not affect the way their quantum states are linked.

R is for ... Radioactivity

The atoms of a radioactive substance break apart, emitting particles. It is impossible to predict when the next particle will be emitted as it happens at random. All we can do is give the probability that any particular atom will have decayed by a given time.

M is for ... Multiverse

Our most successful theories of cosmology suggest that our universe is one of many universes that bubble off from one another. It’s not clear whether it will ever be possible to detect these other universes.

B is for ... Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC)

At extremely low temperatures, quantum rules mean that atoms can come together and behave as if they are one giant super-atom.

F is for ... Free Will

Ideas at the heart of quantum theory, to do with randomness and the character of the molecules that make up the physical matter of our brains, lead some researchers to suggest humans can’t have free will.

V is for ... Virtual particles

Quantum theory’s uncertainty principle says that since not even empty space can have zero energy, the universe is fizzing with particle-antiparticle pairs that pop in and out of existence. These “virtual” particles are the source of Hawking radiation.