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I'm Baffled By Quantum Mechanics, and I'm Okay with That

January 25, 2013, 12:00 AM
Quantum

Editor's Note: This article was provided by our partner, RealClearScience Newton Blog. The original is here.

Imagine a world where objects can be in two different places at the same time and cats are locked in sealed containers with flasks of poison and objects that spew radiation.

In this counter intuitive fairyland, your intuition is false. 

It's a world whose foundation is mortared by math that comes in two brands: abstract and mindbogglingly abstract.

The brilliant Albert Einstein didn't believe in this realm, and yet he won a Nobel Prize for playing in it.

This is the world of quantum mechanics, and it is %^$&#*@ weird. And yes, that is probably the most cogent description.

So what is quantum mechanics, besides weird? Well, it's impossible to sufficiently define in one, two, or even three sentences. Heck, even if you used dozens of sentences, describing quantum mechanics would still be a trick, but let's dash out a few basic tenets, anyway:

-Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics that explains stuff left out by normal physics, like why matter can behave like both particles and waves.

-Quantum mechanics suggests that everything in nature is probabilistic. For example, if you're given a glass jar with a bean in it, there's a chance -- albeit a very minute one --- that that bean could fall right through the bottom.

-Quantum mechanics says that the act of observing a system actually has an effect on it. If you turn around, and look behind you, your computer might very well disappear. When you turn back around, it will (in all likelihood) be there. Your observance cemented that possibility into reality.

-At first glance, quantum mechanics seems absurd, but it works really, really well. For example, it predicts the energies, the colors, and the spectral intensities of all forms of electromagnetic radiation.

I'll be honest: my own personal dealings with quantum mechanics began with Star Trek, and haven't advanced considerably past that. I can tell you, with certainty, that the U.S.S. Enterprise's quantum torpedoes are awesomely destructive (especially against the Borg), blue in hue, and much cooler than their normal counterparts -- mostly because they have the word "quantum."

But when it comes to truly understanding quantum mechanics, certainty ends and uncertainty begins. I devour information on the topic, load my brain with facts and discoveries, and listen to brilliant quantum physicists, all in an attempt to grasp the quantum world. Far from attaining understanding, all I get is a headache. Parts of quantum mechanics are so paradoxical that I simply can't wrap my meager brain around them.

But from this perplexing pain emanating from my forehead, I take heart. Because it means I'm on the right course, and in good company.

The brilliant physicist Niels Bohr, the man who laid the foundation for quantum mechanics, opined that anyone who thinks they can contemplate quantum mechanics without getting dizzy doesn't understand it.

Albert Einstein couldn't accept quantum mechanics (and remember he won a Nobel Prize for working on it) because, he said, "I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it."

"Nobody understands quantum mechanics," Richard Feynman bluntly stated.

But like the tiny electrons of quantum mechanics that can be both here and there, so can the field be both intangible and tangible. As, Seth Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, told Science Friday

"...if you look at all of our physical theories, with the possible exception of natural selection, [quantum mechanics] has the most number of pieces of confirming evidence... in the course of one second [the Large Hadron Collider] collects trillions of bits of evidence that quantum mechanics is the case."


Thanks to quantum mechanics, we have super-precise clocks, lasers, semiconductors, and may one day have quantum computers, which would be the ultimate in multitasking. (If you think opening three applications at the same-time is cool, just wait.)

Nevertheless, despite the ample amount of supporting evidence and real-world applications for quantum mechanics, I can't shake the conspiracy-esque notion roiling in the recesses of my mind. Is the field really just a gigantic ruse? Across the world, are physicists sitting in dimly lit lounges, smoking cigars and solving intricate brain teasers, laughing at the perplexed laypeople whose minds they've addled? 

Alas, no. While common sense may compel us to disbelieve quantum mechanics, remember, that same intuition once told us that the world was flat. So who says the world can't be quantum? 

Ultimately, quantum mechanics is just science: big, beautiful, baffling, science.

More from the Big Idea for Friday, January 25 2013

Quantum Theory

Our deepest understanding of the atomic world comes from the advent of quantum theory. The theory itself underlies the entire architecture of the world we see today and beyond. It has ultimately a... Read More…

 

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