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Quantum Possibilities

29 November, 2013 (12:36) | Philosophy

Quantum physics is unintelligble even on a blackboard.

My roommate, the Wizard, has been obsessing over quantum physics recently.

“Did you know that until we observe them, atoms don’t exist?”

“What?” I ask, confused.

“Here, read this.” He hands me Introducing Quantum Theory, a comic book from 1996 that tries to explain quantum physics and its history.

“Even more radically,” says the black and white sketch of Niels Bohr, “I concluded (with Heisenberg, Pauli, and Born) that the description of a state of an atomic system before measurement, is undefined, having only the potentiality of certain values with certain properties.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“Imagine,” the Wizard says, “that there’s a quantum 3D printer. When we go to look at reality, goop pours out and forms what we’re looking at. We’re literally creating the universe by observing it!”

I chuckle.

The Wizard claims he loves possibilities and hates limitations. I find this hilarious. It’s true that he doesn’t constrain himself to fact or reality. He claims that doing so means he can’t be as creative with his inventions; I claim that doing so means he wastes time on the impossible. “Nothing is impossible,” he’ll reply.

I find the thought perturbing. I love to experiment with thought and hypotheticals, but I try to remain within the realm of possibility. When I start to think about that which is impossible, I feel so limited.

It’s a hard concept for me. The Wizard talks as though it’s freeing. And in some ways I can see it is. The rules of the road, for instance, limit you only in choice. A speed limit doesn’t prevent you from speeding. Striped yellow lines don’t stop you from driving on the other side of the road. And while stop signs an lights are inadvisable to ignore, traffic ticket statistics show that people miss or ignore them all the time. The rules of grammar, similarly, are more guidelines. You don’t have to follow the letter of the law. I begin sentences with conjunctions, use fragments, and end with prepositions when it makes communication more effective, but I do so with knowledge that I’m breaking these arbitrary linguistic rules.

The laws of physics, on the other hand, while poorly understood in so many regards (especially at the quantum level) are seemingly absolute. The axioms math is based on cannot be ignored without causing math to collapse. And the subjectivity of our existence is absolute. These things cannot be ignored without consequences, and more often than not, those rules that are ignored are still enforced by reality.

When the Wizard reads statements like Bohr’s, he cherry picks the interesting ideas. Bohr specifically states that “the description of a state remains undefined,” not that the state itself is undefined. Things do not pop into existence upon observation. There is no great 3D-Printer-in-the-Sky™. And if, for some reason, this misassumption is true, the implication brings us back to a solipsistic existence, which is a losing prospect.

The Wizard talks of these endless possibilities with joy and excitement. I, meanwhile, run permutations in my head, bringing them toward their logical next steps. And that’s the problem.

For the Wizard, the limitation is the narrow vision of a single possibility. Doing so allows him to pretend that the possibilities are endless. For me, a step in any direction must reach a conclusion. Thoughts have perpetual motion. They never end.

In high school, I found that my favorite form of poetry to write was a sonnet. The limitations of iambic pentameter are an enjoyable challenge. The act of perfecting a form so one can break it is at once an act of love and an act of rebellion. As a reader, everything I read is building a relationship with the author. Typos and grammatical errors hurt that relationship when they’re obvious and ineffective. But when neologisitical tendencies function, they allow me to feel closer, more interested, more entertained. The use of colloquial grammar instead of traditional grammar creates a sense of familiarity and playfulness. It’s a tool, that when used well, can help develop that relationship between reader and author.

The laws of physics, however, can’t be broken; they can only be refined.

“What?” the Wizard asks as I laugh.

“You’re misreading his statement.”

“I don’t care what he said. I’m interested in the possibilities.”

“The thing about possibilities,” I reply shaking my head, “is that they have to be possible.”