What is Quantum Physics

There is no field in modern science that is misunderstood or misinterpreted more than any other. Two reasons should be mentioned: First, quantum physics deals with the microscopic world, atoms and subatomic particles; it is a world inaccessible to our direct perceptions, to human experience as such. And as much as we like to but our logic and commonsense which are derived from shared human experiences cannot be extended to the realm of atomic phenomena. Even the physicist cannot imagine what an atom looks like. The second reason that has led to much misinterpretation is the desperation of modern man to find meaning, excitement, mystery and surreal phenomena to compensate for the lack of essence in his/her life. Thus, the field is open to people like Deepak Chopra who are the kind to take advantage of the mystery and stick exotic words such as quantum next to whatever it is they sell so to make it sound both cool and healing. But if we are really after knowing the mystery, then wouldn’t we be fooling ourselves if we sufficed to superficial interpretations or one night stands with what may be a glimpse of an ultimate reality!

Of quantum mechanics (or quantum physics) it is said “Quantum physics is not something to understand; it is something to do.” Physicists do quantum mechanics all the time; in fact, almost all electronic equipment owe their lives to the quantum physics done by physicists; doing it involves solving equations and calculating probabilities; but this doesn’t entail a deep understanding of the meaning of these equations. Rarely can physicists say that they have truly understood quantum physics. We may even define quantum physics as the subject that when we think we have understood it we suddenly realize we haven’t. This is not because we are stupid or quantum physics is too hard; both are true to some extent, but the problem has to do with what it is that we call understanding.

To understand is to reduce something new to something that we already understand, and to do so until we arrive at simple, elementary facts that are self-evident from experience. But if the subject matter is one which is altogether alien to experience as such, then understanding, in the sense we know it, is not possible. In light of an understanding of understanding we can say that quantum physics is only understood in terms of abstract mathematics; the only elementary concepts to which the object of the quantum world can be reduced are abstract mathematical objects. But I have developed a new way of introducing quantum physics which involves reflections on why we cannot understand it. In short, we can indirectly understand the quantum world by understanding what it is not rather than what it is. Now let us try.

Physics is an attempt at understanding the natural order. It used to be part of what is known as natural philosophy. The natural order, the object of inquiry, is the world that know through experience. In this experience we encounter different kinds of phenomena: Some are mechanical; they have to do with motion of massive objects, like projectiles, motion of the stars and planets. Some are electromagnetic in nature, like light, electricity, magnets, etc. Some others are thermodynamic in nature, dealing with phenomena such as heat and cold and transfer of energy. Three main sub-fields of physics were developed to study these phenomena: Mechanics, Electromagnetism, and Thermodynamics.

As experimental technologies advanced scientists focused on the study of the origin of phenomena such as electricity, magnetism, and heat. The guiding idea here, and in all of modern science, was that the behavior of the whole is exclusively determined by the behavior of the parts. This is the assumption behind all modern sciences, the assumption that broke in quantum physics. Thus, physicists started studying the smaller constituents of the macroscopic phenomena. Eventually they arrived at elementary particles such as electrons and photons, but they noticed that in the new realm of microscopic phenomena things are very strange. Our everyday logic does not hold anymore. Below I mention a few of the new mysteries.

1. Particles of matter which were expected to be point-like stuff confined in space strangely appear to be in many places at once.

2. It turned out that material particles can sometime behave as point-like particles and sometimes as waves spread in space, depending on where we put them.

3. Wave phenomena, such as light, can sometimes behave as point-like material particles.

4. Particles seem to know a way of communication that transcends space and time.

5. It is possible to have two distinct particles each at opposite ends of our universe that are intrinsically correlated in their behavior. No matter how far apart we put them they still remain, and behave as, one whole system and not two separate things.

6. When we are not looking at a quantum object it behaves totally different from when we are looking at it (notice that to see something really means to bounce light off of it and see the reflected light.)

7. It appears that observation is not a passive position; it is an active and creative act. By observing a quantum phenomena we actually make it happen. Thus, it is in principle impossible to speak of nature in the absence of observation.

8) The quantum realm is a realm of interconnectedness. There is are only wholes and not parts. There is a deep unity that even the strongest technologies cannot break. Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the cornerstone of quantum mechanics, is a mathematical expression of this indestructible unity.

Double Slit Experiment is one the most famous experiments that exposes the strangest features, and hence the deepest principles, of the quantum world.

Werner Heisenberg, the first founder of quantum mechanics, then known as Matrix Mechanics, says in his Physics and Philosophy “What we observe as nature is not nature herself but nature as exposed to our methods of inquiry.” This idea is the juice of quantum physics. Let me encrypt this saying into a more philosophical and concise proposition: The object and the knowledge of object are one and the same

I mentioned a few of the strange features of the quantum world but it becomes even stranger than that. In my book Nondual Perspective on Quantum Physics I have explained these features in detail but I will mention some metaphysical implications of it here. It has to do with understanding our commonsense:

Look at a glass of water in front of you. The glass has a distance from you; it has a certain speed (hopefully zero.) It has an apparent size and shape that changes as you move relative to the glass. Though we may view the glass from an infinite number of perspectives, we know that it is one and the same glass. According to our commonsense our perspective changes but the glass does not.

But we have more assumptions: We assume that the glass has an independent shape and size, specific position in space and place in time irrespective of our presence. On the other hand, we know that the color and the lighting by which we see the glass is not a property of the glass itself. Color is understood to be a moment of subjective experience; in reality there are only wavelengths and frequencies which represent different energies; it is our brain that translates these different energies into different colors. In other words, there are certain properties that we attribute to the glass itself and certain others that we attribute to our perceptions. This reflection is crucial in understanding quantum mechanics.

We may speak of primary and secondary qualities: Primary qualities are those that belong (according to our commonsense) to the object itself; they are always present in the object whether we are present or not, whether we experience them or not. Examples are actual shape and size, position and velocity, etc. Secondary qualities are those that arise only when the object is being experienced by a subject; they arise in the subject but only in the presence of the object and only insofar as the object is present. Examples are apparent shape and size, color and shade, etc. For instance, notice that color is not in the glass itself; color of the glass is something that happens during seeing of the glass.To be more precise, the secondary qualities belong to the overlap of object and experience: I won’t see the green glass if I do not look at the green glass and I see it only as long as I am looking at it. 

Having a clear sense of the distinction between the two qualities we can now define the whole of the quantum realm as a realm where some primary qualities are pushed over into the of secondary qualities. If our commonsense breaks in the face of quantum phenomena it is because what we had previously taken to be the primary qualities of natural objects turn out to be their secondary qualities!

Abstract science background electromagnetic radioactive core

To take this understanding to the quantum realm we first have to got back to the glass: One of the most important primary qualities of a glass that was always taken for granted is its state of motion. We know from commonsense that the glass has a fixed position and speed in space and at each moment of time. Even when we not present with the glass we never doubt that it is somewhere, that it has a position in space and a velocity; this is because we take the state of motion to be the primary quality of objects. Consciousness of place is most fundamental to our commonsense and understanding: Everything has a place whether we know of it or not, at least we think. We attribute our lack of knowledge about the place, or position, of an object to our ignorance rather than the object itself. Try to imagine an object that has no place! I do not mean an object that is constantly moving, but an object that has no place at all, whether in real space or imagined space. It is impossible. We cannot imagine or conceive of objects without imagining them in their primary qualities though we may do so dispensing with their secondary qualities.

The fundamental paradigm shift in the case of quantum physics is that the state of motion of a particle which was previously assumed to be a primary quality turns out to be a secondary quality, a property present in the observation rather than in the object itself. The place and the velocity of elementary particles are unknown prior to observation, not because we do not know them, but because they do not have properties such as position and velocity. To speak of the position or velocity of a particle in the absence of observation is like to speak of circular triangle.

When we measure the position of an electron and get a numerical value we do not see the electron hiding somewhere; instead, the very process of measurement forces the electron to take a position in space. In other words, measurement of position creates the measured position. Prior to measurement the electron is described as being present everywhere at once, but the act of measurements makes the electron to instantaneously collapse into a point in space. This instantaneous, atemporal, collapse is known as the collapse of the wave function.

See that we cannot imagine what happens during the measurement process because we cannot imagine the quantum objects under investigation. As I mentioned above, in order to imagine something there must be something that we imagine; but now that all the imaginable properties of quantum objects have turned out to be only secondary properties, properties that do not preexist the observation, then in the absence of observation there is nothing to imagine.

An analogy may help: If I compare the faculty of imagination with the our hands, then trying to imagine the quantum world is like using our hands to listen to music. Sound is not a tactile object; it is something heard and not touched. Thus, no amount of moving or stretching our hands will help us hear a sound. Instead, we must listen. In the same way the quantum realm lies forever beyond imagination because the objects and processes of this realm have more intrinsic properties through which they can be imagined or grasped.

Now I must add that quantum physics is the most experimentally verified scientific theory in the whole history of civilization. It is as solid as it can get, and its best proof is the myriad of tools and devices that we use today on a daily basis, all of which were born out of the findings of quantum physics: Transistors which exist in all electronics, GPS, microwave, your car, cellphone, TV, computer and internet, etc.

There are more details about the mysteries of quantum physics, its philosophical implications, and its astonishing similarities to the world described my mystics. In my book Nondual Perspectives on Quantum Physics I have first introduced the strange features of the quantum world in a non-technical language and then compared it to philosophical and mystical traditions of the East and the West such as Advaita Vedanta Metaphysics and Transcendental Phenomenology. The conclusion is that physics and metaphysics, physicists and mystics, one through discursive thought and the other through direct intuition, have both described a world that appears to be one and the same, and this similarity is more than ever present in our time.

Glowing blue synapses in space

The world of the mystic speaks of One, a nondual ground from which all diversities arise. The world of the physicist is a world fundamentally interconnected and whose fluctuations appears as the multitude of phenomena. The Nondual Perspectives on Quantum Physics finds and recounts the one conclusion at the heart of modern physics and traditional metaphysics:

The manifest arises from the vibrations of the unmanifest

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