Albert’s Fun Fact Science Corner: Two Truths and Many Lies

Classical physics is straightforward. Newton’s laws describe very simply the motions of the universe, and for the most part they work. It’s only when we look at far extreme cases that they break down. Near light speeds, massive gravitational fields, subatomic particles, these are the kinds of scenarios in which we have to move to more esoteric models like general and special relativity, or quantum mechanics. We often don’t use these models because, well, they’re complicated. Newtonian physics is simple. It aligns well with our natural understanding of and intuitions about the world, and in most cases, it’s nonsensical to use complicated formulas just to change the results of calculations by what is usually well within our margin of error.

While quantum mechanics has many implications for the behavior of subatomic particles, its most famous and shocking are concepts of superposition and wave particle duality. When electrons are unobserved, they behave like waves. In the famous double slit experiment, a beam of electrons passes through two holes and hits an electron-detecting material on the other side. The electrons on the other side of the holes form a pattern that is typical of two waves interfering, suggesting that electrons exit each slit not as discrete particles, but as a large wave of electron-probability. When an electron detector is placed before the holes, the electrons behave like discrete particles, mostly landing on the electron detector in two spots that line up with the holes. The electron somehow exists as a wave in one circumstance and a particle in another. Even worse, when an unobserved electron acts as a probability wave, if there are two areas of high probability, we can treat the electron as being in both places! How can one object exist in two places at once?

Quantum mechanics makes no sense as a literal interpretation of reality, because that’s not what it is. It’s a scientific model. A way of reconciling two opposing wills in the field of particle physics; observations of objects behaving like waves and observations of the same objects behaving like particles. This sort of holding of two realities at once doesn’t work in the real world. It can happen in terms of perspectives — two people can have two different experiences of an event — but when we come across questions of reality, of what happened, there can be only one right answer. In the real world, in a world of law and adjudication, of consequences and legacies, in a world where we need to decide what has happened in the past, “holding multiple truths” turns into doublespeak. Into a way of placating two opposing wills. Especially in contexts where we refuse to look at stories and perspectives directly, when we only reference them in hushed tones because mentioning one means violent retribution from those who hold the other, it is more likely that our feigned agnosticism, our doublespeak, is on the side of oppressive and more powerful narratives.

When we measure an object like an electron its superposition collapses. It starts to act as one object, one particle, easily restricted by grates and slits. As long as we remain indirect in our interactions with it, it acts like a slippery and nebulous wave, dodging any restrictions we might place on it. This slipperiness doesn’t just apply to unobserved quantum phenomena. Our societal systems of laws, regulations, and consequences are by no means perfect, in fact far from it, but they are rendered completely ineffectual if they can’t bother to adequately investigate the concerns of those they govern. When we purposefully look away from important and pressing issues, when we find ourselves content to live with a doublespeak narrative of the world, I can’t help but ask why? Why can’t we look directly at our problems? What are we scared to find?

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1 year ago

Question: When an unobserved electron acts as a probability wave, if there are two areas of high probability, we can treat the electron as being in both places! How can one object exist in two places at once?
Answer: If a stationary radar transmission is reflected from a moving object it can be seen as the same point image (e.g. photon point) at different "locations" in the space-time coordinates of a stationary observer and an observer in the inertial frame of the moving reflector.