Quantum phenomena as shadows

My Yahoo groups have been very philosophical of late. Yesterday, I pulled my discussion on free will and omniscience from a discussion I was having on one group, and today I am going to pull another topic off of one of my groups for my post. Its funny how a single comment can sometimes open up a floodgate of ideas, and thats sort of what happened in this case.

It all began with a comment in a thread on quantum mechanics. We were talking about how observation of quantum phenomena “collapses the waveform” into a discreet, observable state that we can comprehend, but that quantum theory tends to view the object as existing in all possible states prior to observation. One of the other people from the group came up with the line “there is only a super state, there is no relative state.”

This started me thinking about what it is we are actually looking at when we view quantum objects. For properties like “spin” physicists usually say that the object exists in all possible states of spin prior to measurement of that spin, but after measurement the object has a discreet spin that we can identify. The reasoning behind this view is fairly complex, but it comes down to the idea fact that the eventual “spin” of a quantum object is not predictable in anything but a statistical way prior to observation, but after observation, its predictable with an accuracy of 1 (ie, every subsequent observation shows the expected spin).

This leads to much of the “weirdness” of quantum theory, including the idea of faster than light communication (essentially, that is based on particles with complementary spin … when created, we know that each particle must have a different spin, but we can’t predict which spin will go to which particle in advance … the weirdness comes in with the fact that “collapsing the waveform” for one particle also collapses it for the other, no matter how far apart they may be … what that means is if you send two unobserved complimentary spin particles off in opposite directions, then wait until the particles are light years apart, when you measure the spin of one particle, the other will immediately collapse into the “other” spin, regardless of how far apart the particles are. This is seen as an example of instant communication across vast distances). However, rather than getting me thinking about those sorts of weird possibilities, I found myself contemplating what it all might mean about what we are actually looking at.

It strikes me that we can only view the quantum world in “discreet states.” An example of this is wave/particle duality. Depending on how we choose to examine sub-atomic particles or photons, they can behave either as particles or waves. We’ve come up with the idea of duality to explain that, but the reality is, sub-atomic particles seem to exist in two contradictory states, or at least states that are contradictory to our cognitive abilities as they stand now. I think this is one of our fundamental limitations. We can only see the quantum world in discreet states … we are incapable of seeing the “whole object” but instead we can only see the “side” we are currently looking at, “frozen” in our perception. One analogy I like to use is shadows …

Imagine you are driving late in the afternoon, on a nice sunny day. As you look into the ditch, you can see the shadow your car casts from the setting sun, going over a variety of terrain and obstacles, causing a constantly changing shape to appear to our eyes. Now, in the context of knowing we are driving on a sunny afternoon, we are perfectly capable of extrapolating those moving shapes into something coherent that makes sense in our brains, and we can even see the resemblance of a car. But imagine taking away the context, and showing those changing shapes to someone who has never seen a car before, never mind ridden in one as the sun sets, projecting them onto a flat white screen, say from a movie projector. Now, you or I MIGHT be able to work out what those shapes represented, if we studied them long enough … at least as far as saying it looks like a car’s shadow … because we know the context and have experienced it. But someone who has never seen a car before, or never ridden in a moving vehicle at sunset, hasn’t a chance of understanding what they are seeing really.

I think thats our position now when we observe quantum phenomena, and I suspect its similar with temporal phenomena. We can only see the shadow, removed from context … and its a shadow of an object we’ve never seen, in a world we can’t conceptualize. We can see the shadow just fine … but taking that and trying to work out even that its a car driving along the road at sunset is hard enough, but imagine being expected to come up with the make, model and colour of car, and tell everyone how many people are riding in it as well.

Thats what scientists face when they look at the quantum world … they are looking at shadows cast in the ditch, but completely removed from context. From those fleeting shadows, they are trying to work out what those quantum phenomena “look like.” Like looking at a cube face on, we can see one “face” of a quantum object at a time, but never the object in its entirety … that world is incomprehensible to our sense and cognition, a 4-dimensional (or more) world that we can only access through 3-dimensional cross sections. Until we can work out a way to view and comprehend the context of the shadow, as well as the shadow itself, it seems to me we will continue to have a difficult time working out exactly what it is we are looking at.


One Response

  1. it’s funny, i was looking for jazz 38, reminiscing about lagos, when i found your blog (kudos! it’s fantastic!) and of course, i stumble upon the ubiquitous “superposition of states” reference..i keep saying my entire life centres around two things: Schroedinger’s Cat and Postmodernism (and learning what on earth it IS!)

    this is an interesting post. are you familiar with chaos theory? fractal dimensions?
    there is one example of observation varying with perspective (another omnipresent word, ‘perspective’..). it goes something like this:

    look at a ball of string from space. it is a point. a point is dimensionless (in the traditional view that dimensions are POINT=0, LINE=1, PLANE=2, and then there is 3D.).
    when you come closer, it is a 3-dimensional ball of string.
    then if you go inside it (lets say the perspective of an ant!) it is 2-D. long length of string of negligible thickness.
    at microscopic level, it is 3-D again, like a man walking, balancing, on a log; your tiny creature of smaller-than-ant perspective walks on the string, which is all along made of fibres again 2-D by the same logic. which are of course made up of, in turn, 3-D atoms. etc.


    like the official data re: length of national inland boundaries vary by almost 20% when the neighbouring countries’ data is examined..imagine a man with a centimetre-long ruler measuring, versus a man with a meter scale.

    -Jyoti Iyer

    Editor’s Note: Thanks for the letter … you have some fascinating ideas on relating the dimension to people. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog …

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