[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: One Hundred Years of Uncertainty

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Fri Apr 8 19:06:24 UTC 2005

One Hundred Years of Uncertainty


    JUST about a hundred years ago, Albert Einstein began writing a paper
    that secured his place in the pantheon of humankind's greatest
    thinkers. With his discovery of special relativity, Einstein upended
    the familiar, thousands-year-old conception of space and time. To be
    sure, even a century later, not everyone has fully embraced Einstein's
    discovery. Nevertheless, say "Einstein" and most everyone thinks

    What is less widely appreciated, however, is that physicists call 1905
    Einstein's "miracle year" not because of the discovery of relativity
    alone, but because in that year Einstein achieved the unimaginable,
    writing four papers that each resulted in deep and formative changes
    to our understanding of the universe. One of these papers - not on
    relativity - garnered him the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics. It also
    began a transformation in physics that Einstein found so disquieting
    that he spent the last 30 years of his life in a determined effort to
    repudiate it.

    Two of the four 1905 papers were indeed on relativity. The first,
    completed in June, laid out the foundations of his new view of space
    and time, showing that distances and durations are not absolute, as
    everyone since Newton had thought, but instead are affected by one's
    motion. Clocks moving relative to one another tick off time at
    different rates; yardsticks moving relative to one another measure
    different lengths. You don't perceive this because the speeds of
    everyday life are too slow for the effects to be noticeable. If you
    could move near the speed of light, the effects would be obvious.

    The second relativity paper, completed in September, is a three-page
    addendum to the first, which derived his most famous result, E = mc2,
    an equation as short as it is powerful. It told the world that matter
    can be converted into energy - and a lot of it - since the speed of
    light squared (c2) is a huge number. We've witnessed this equation's
    consequences in the devastating might of nuclear weapons and the
    tantalizing promise of nuclear energy.

    The third paper, completed in May, conclusively established the
    existence of atoms - an idea discussed in various forms for
    millenniums - by showing that the numerous microscopic collisions
    they'd generate would account for the observed, though previously
    unexplained, jittery motion of impurities suspended in liquids.

    With these three papers, our view of space, time and matter was
    permanently changed.

    Yet, it is the remaining 1905 paper, written in March, whose legacy is
    arguably the most profound. In this work, Einstein went against the
    grain of conventional wisdom and argued that light, at its most
    elementary level, is not a wave, as everyone had thought, but actually
    a stream of tiny packets or bundles of energy that have since come to
    be known as photons.

    This might sound like a largely technical advance, updating one
    description of light to another. But through subsequent research that
    amplified and extended Einstein's argument [1](see Figures 1 through
    3), scientists revealed a mathematically precise and thoroughly
    startling picture of reality called quantum mechanics.

    Before the discovery of quantum mechanics, the framework of physics
    was this: If you tell me how things are now, I can then use the laws
    of physics to calculate, and hence predict, how things will be later.
    You tell me the velocity of a baseball as it leaves Derek Jeter's bat,
    and I can use the laws of physics to calculate where it will land a
    handful of seconds later. You tell me the height of a building from
    which a flowerpot has fallen, and I can use the laws of physics to
    calculate the speed of impact when it hits the ground. You tell me the
    positions of the Earth and the Moon, and I can use the laws of physics
    to calculate the date of the first solar eclipse in the 25th century.
    What's important is that in these and all other examples, the accuracy
    of my predictions depends solely on the accuracy of the information
    you give me. Even laws that differ substantially in detail - from the
    classical laws of Newton to the relativistic laws of Einstein - fit
    squarely within this framework.

    Quantum mechanics does not merely challenge the previous laws of
    physics. Quantum mechanics challenges this centuries-old framework of
    physics itself. According to quantum mechanics, physics cannot make
    definite predictions. Instead, even if you give me the most precise
    description possible of how things are now, we learn from quantum
    mechanics that the most physics can do is predict the probability that
    things will turn out one way, or another, or another way still.

    The reason we have for so long been unaware that the universe evolves
    probabilistically is that for the relatively large, everyday objects
    we typically encounter - baseballs, flowerpots, the Moon - quantum
    mechanics shows that the probabilities become highly skewed, hugely
    favoring one outcome and effectively suppressing all others. A typical
    quantum calculation reveals that if you tell me the velocity of
    something as large as a baseball, there is more than a
    99.99999999999999 (or so) percent likelihood that it will land at the
    location I can figure out using the laws of Newton or, for even better
    accuracy, the laws of Einstein. With such a skewed probability, the
    quantum reasoning goes, we have long overlooked the tiny chance that
    the baseball can (and, on extraordinarily rare occasions, will) land
    somewhere completely different.

    When it comes to small objects like molecules, atoms and subatomic
    particles, though, the quantum probabilities are typically not skewed.
    For the motion of an electron zipping around the nucleus of an atom,
    for example, a quantum calculation lays out odds that are all roughly
    comparable that the electron will be in a variety of different
    locations - a 13 percent chance, say, that the electron will be here,
    a 19 percent chance that it will be there, an 11 percent chance that
    it will be in a third place, and so on. Crucially, these predictions
    can be tested. Take an enormous sample of identically prepared atoms,
    measure the electron's position in each, and tally up the number of
    times you find the electron at one location or another. According to
    the pre-quantum framework, identical starting conditions should yield
    identical outcomes; we should find the electron to be at the same
    place in each measurement. But if quantum mechanics is right, in 13
    percent of our measurements we should find the electron here, in 19
    percent we should find it there, in 11 percent we should find it in
    that third place. And, to fantastic precision, we do.

    Faced with a mountain of supporting data, Einstein couldn't argue with
    the success of quantum mechanics. But to him, even though his own
    Nobel Prize-winning work was a catalyst for the quantum revolution,
    the theory was anathema. Commentators over the decades have focused on
    Einstein's refusal to accept the probabilistic framework of quantum
    mechanics, a position summarized in his frequent comment that "God
    does not play dice with the universe." Einstein, radical thinker that
    he was, still believed in the sanctity of a universe that evolved in a
    fully definite, fully predictable manner. If, as quantum mechanics
    asserted, the best you can ever do is predict probabilities, Einstein
    countered that he'd "rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a
    gaming house, than a physicist."

    This emphasis, however, partly obscures a larger point. It wasn't the
    mere reliance on probabilistic predictions that so troubled Einstein.
    Unlike many of his colleagues, Einstein believed that a fundamental
    physical theory was much more than the sum total of its predictions -
    it was a mathematical reflection of an underlying reality. And the
    reality entailed by quantum mechanics was a reality Einstein couldn't

    An example: Imagine you shoot an electron from here and a few seconds
    later it's detected by your equipment over there. What path did the
    electron follow during the passage from you to the detector? The
    answer according to quantum mechanics? There is no answer. The very
    idea that an electron, or a photon, or any other particle, travels
    along a single, definite trajectory from here to there is a quaint
    version of reality that quantum mechanics declares outmoded.

    Instead, the proponents of quantum theory claimed, reality consists of
    a haze of all possibilities - all trajectories - mutually commingling
    and simultaneously unfolding. And why don't we see this? According to
    the quantum doctrine, when we make a measurement or perform an
    observation, we force the myriad possibilities to ante up, snap out of
    the haze and settle on a single outcome. But between observations -
    when we are not looking - reality consists entirely of jostling

    Quantum reality, in other words, remains ambiguous until measured. The
    reality of common perception is thus merely a definitive-looking
    veneer obscuring the internal workings of a highly uncertain cosmos.
    Which is where Einstein drew a line in the sand. A universe of this
    sort offended him; he could not accept, as he put it, that "the Old
    One" would so profoundly incorporate a hidden element of happenstance
    in the nature of reality. Einstein quipped to his quantum colleagues,
    "Do you really think the Moon is not there when you're not looking?"
    and set himself the Herculean task of reworking the laws of physics to
    resurrect conventional reality.

    Einstein waged a two-front assault on the problem. He sought an
    internal chink in the quantum framework that would establish it as a
    mere steppingstone on the path to a deeper and more complete
    description of the universe. At the same time, he sought a grander
    synthesis of nature's laws - what he called a "unified theory" - that
    he believed would reveal the probabilities of quantum mechanics to be
    no more profound than the probabilities offered in weather forecasts,
    probabilities that simply reflect an incomplete knowledge of an
    underlying, definite reality.

    In 1935, through a disarmingly simple mathematical analysis, Einstein
    (with two colleagues) established a beachhead on the first front. He
    proved that quantum mechanics is either an incomplete theory or, if it
    is complete, the universe is - in Einstein's words - "spooky." Why
    "spooky?" Because the theory would allow certain widely separated
    particles to correlate their behaviors perfectly (somewhat as if a
    pair of widely separated dice would always come up the same number
    when tossed at distant casinos). Since such "spooky" behavior would
    border on nuttiness, Einstein thought he'd made clear that quantum
    theory couldn't yet be considered a complete description of reality.

    The nimble quantum proponents, however, would have nothing of it. They
    insisted that quantum theory made predictions - albeit statistical
    predictions - that were consistently born out by experiment. By the
    precepts of the scientific method, they argued, the theory was
    established. They maintained that searching beyond the theory's
    predictions for a glimpse of a reality behind the quantum equations
    betrayed a foolhardy intellectual greediness.

    Nevertheless, for the remaining decades of his life, Einstein could
    not give up the quest, exclaiming at one point, "I have thought a
    hundred times more about quantum problems than I have about
    relativity." He turned exclusively to his second line of attack and
    became absorbed with the prospect of finding the unified theory, a
    preoccupation that resulted in his losing touch with mainstream
    physics. By the 1940's, the once dapper young iconoclast had grown
    into a wizened old man of science who was widely viewed as a
    revolutionary thinker of a bygone era.

    By the early 1950's, Einstein realized he was losing the battle. But
    the memories of his earlier success with relativity - "the years of
    anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their
    alternations of confidence and exhaustion and the final emergence into
    the light" - urged him onward. Maybe the intense light of discovery
    that had so brilliantly illuminated his path as a young man would
    shine once again. While lying in a bed in Princeton Hospital in
    mid-April 1955, Einstein asked for the pad of paper on which he had
    been scribbling equations in the desperate hope that in his final
    hours the truth would come to him. It didn't.

    Was Einstein misguided? Must we accept that there is a fuzzy,
    probabilistic quantum arena lying just beneath the definitive
    experiences of everyday reality? As of today, we still don't have a
    final answer. Fifty years after Einstein's death, however, the scales
    have certainly tipped farther in this direction.

    Decades of painstaking experimentation have confirmed quantum theory's
    predictions beyond the slightest doubt. Moreover, in a shocking
    scientific twist, some of the more recent of these experiments have
    shown that Einstein's "spooky" processes do in fact take place
    (particles many miles apart have been shown capable of correlating
    their behavior). It's a stunning finding, and one that reaffirms
    Einstein's uncanny ability to unearth features of nature so
    mind-boggling that even he couldn't accept what he'd found. Finally,
    there has been tremendous progress over the last 20 years toward a
    unified theory with the discovery and development of superstring
    theory. So far, though, superstring theory embraces quantum theory
    without change, and has thus not revealed the definitive reality
    Einstein so passionately sought.

    With the passage of time and quantum mechanics' unassailable
    successes, debate about the theory's meaning has quieted. The majority
    of physicists have simply stopped worrying about quantum mechanics'
    meaning, even as they employ its mathematics to make the most precise
    predictions in the history of science. Others prefer reformulations of
    quantum mechanics that claim to restore some features of conventional
    reality at the expense of additional - and, some have argued, more
    troubling - deviations (like the notion that there are parallel
    universes). Yet others investigate hypothesized modifications to the
    theory's equations that don't spoil its successful predictions but try
    to bring it closer to common experience.

    Over the 25 years since I first learned quantum mechanics, I've at
    various times subscribed to each of these perspectives. My shifting
    attitude, however, reflects that I'm still unsettled. Were Einstein to
    interrogate me today about quantum reality, I'd have to admit that
    deep inside I harbor many of the doubts that gnawed at him for
    decades. Can it really be that the solid world of experience and
    perception, in which a single, definite reality appears to unfold with
    dependable certainty, rests on the shifting sands of quantum

    Well, yes. Probably. The evidence is compelling and tangible. Although
    we have yet to fully lay bare quantum mechanics' grand lesson for the
    underlying nature of the universe, I like to think even Einstein would
    be impressed that in the 50 years since his death our facility with
    quantum mechanics has matured from a mathematical understanding of the
    subatomic realm to precision control. Today's technological wizardry
    (computers, M.R.I.'s, smart bombs) exists only because research in
    applied quantum physics has resulted in techniques for manipulating
    the motion of electrons - probabilities and all - through mazes of
    ultramicroscopic circuitry. Advances hovering on the horizon, like
    nanoscience and quantum computers, offer the promise of even more
    spectacular transformations.

    So the next time you use your cellphone or laptop, pause for a moment.
    Recognize that even these commonplace devices rely on our greatest,
    yet most puzzling, scientific achievement and - as things now stand -
    tap into humankind's most supreme assault on the idea that reality is
    what we think it is.

    Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia, is
    the author of The Elegant Universe, and, most recently, The Fabric of
    the Cosmos.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list