Buddhism facts

The Guardian’s Take on the Quantum World: Where the Facts Are Relative | Editorial

TAmerican physicist Richard Feynman believed that “no one understands quantum mechanics”. This is no longer true. Smartphones, nuclear power plants, medical scanners, and laser-operated doors were built with knowledge of the physics that governs the subatomic level. What leaves many people confused is that the quantum world is governed by rules that go against classical notions of physical laws.

In quantum mechanics, nature is not deterministic. Subatomic particles do not travel a traceable path. It is only possible to calculate the probability of finding these spots at a particular point. Where such calculations leave physics, the harshest of hard sciences, has troubled its greatest minds. Albert Einstein thought that the idea that an element of chance was deeply ingrained in science was absurd. “God does not play dice,” he said.

Physics is full of predictions that could be confirmed or disproved once the technology to examine them catches up. Einstein was wrong. In his new book, Helgoland, the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli tells how a scientific revolution was started by a young German physicist, Werner Heisenberg. He first devised quantum theory during a summer vacation in 1925 spent on the barren North Sea island named after the book.

The world, Heisenberg thought, could not be stated exactly, simply known through models of uncertainty and probability. He won a Nobel Prize in 1932, although his achievements were tarnished by the tacit support of Nazi Germany. The theory was that the world that people experience is decided when many possibilities of the quantum world collapse to become the certainty of the classical world. This led to Erwin Schrödinger’s Cat in a Box thought experiment. Quantum theory suggested that only by opening the container could one determine whether the feline was dead or alive. If the box remains closed, the hapless cat is in limbo – in a state between life and death, a layering of possibilities.

Professor Rovelli dismantles attempts to explain the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. First of all, he takes up the thesis of “several worlds”, which claims that all possible alternatives exist and that we only see one. In short, Schrödinger’s cat is alive in one universe and dead in another. Some argue that Heisenberg’s work would fall apart for a still unknown macroscopic entity. In this explanation, the cat is too big to be subjected to quantum physics. More recently, it has been argued that quantum systems have definite properties; we just don’t know enough about these systems to accurately predict their behavior. But in Helgoland, this is dismissed as an attempt to revert to a pre-1920s vision.

Quantum theory, explains Professor Rovelli, considers the “physical world as a web of relationships. Objects are its nodes. In its “relational” interpretation, Schrödinger’s cat has properties only when it interacts with something else. When it does not interact, it has no properties. Professor Rovelli relies on Buddhist thought to explain his ideas. He claims that if nothing exists in itself, surely everything only exists by dependence. “The facts are relative,” he writes, opening a debate that should last longer than the century of arguments he seeks to close.