How quantum physics has changed reality

Now we gape into a world of uncertainties, exciting to some, incomprehensible to most

Leaving aside the Albert Einsteins of the world, how many ordinary people understand quantum physics? Mercifully, it is not our stupidity, stupid. It is complicated, even for physicists. The universe is vast, measurement tools inadequate, science changes and knowledge is limited. New Scientist magazine acknowledged recently, “There are things we don’t know, things we will never know and things we can’t even imagine.”

So the line between science and science fiction, between science and religion, between modern quantum physics and ancient philosophy blurs.

Old Zen poetry becomes pure physics. Pondering over the nature of reality, Zen monks asked centuries ago: “If a lonesome deer cries or a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” Experts said, “No. Vibration of falling tree is converted to sound by the organs in the ear. If there are no ears to hear, there is no sound.” Religious leaders disagreed, “God is everywhere. He hears the deer. Ergo, there is sound.” Quantum physics’ mystifying answer: you cannot be sure something has happened unless you have observed it.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

At an online session to discuss this Quantum-Zen puzzle, British wit triumphed dense physics. Wisecracked Bill from England, “Common sense tells us that all things exist whether we are there or not to experience them; otherwise we wouldn’t bother going on holiday in case our destination is not there.” Thaddeus Morling from London declared, “If no one is there, there is no forest.” Quipped Matt from Cardiff Wales, “What if you can’t hear the wood for the trees?” Counselled another sagely, “Westerners should avoid Eastern philosophical queries”.

And ordinary people should definitely avoid quantum physics. So must the faint-hearted because it reads like a creepy ghost story. Even Einstein found it daunting. Experiments showed that particles behave in a particular way when they are alone. But under observation, their behaviour pattern changes. Einstein called it “spooky action”. Believing this random behaviour happened only on earth, he asked with rhetorical skepticism, “Does the moon exist only if you look at it?” But the story gets spookier. Now physicists have demonstrated spooky action happens even in outer space.

The sheer scale, complexity and interconnectedness of the universe overwhelm physicists. The tiniest flicker or flutter can conflate into, for instance, a giant weather event. Picking apart and understanding this interwovenness is difficult because scientists work with inadequate tools to estimate the universe. “The trustworthiness of mathematics is limited,” said Penelope Maddy, American philosopher of mathematics. Believe it or not, infinity varies—its countable and non-countable.

One other challenge now is how to measure things that seem to exist but cannot be observed. After all we cannot see beyond the edge of our universe. Said British science journalist Thomas Lewton, “Reality is a fog of possibilities and our knowledge of it is blurry at best.” That from a science journalist who has a prestigious degree in science communication.

Bewilderingly, quantum physics has changed reality forever. Now we gape into a world of uncertainties, exciting to some, incomprehensible to most. Oxford University’s quantum physicist Vlatko Vedral said, “A definite, predictable world is unlikely to reappear. Its probably going to get even weirder.”

When the universe gets weirder, it is reassuring that human relationships appear constant and universal. At the online discussion, Peter Cranney, a middle-aged husband asked, ”If a man speaks and there isn’t a woman to hear him, is he still wrong?”

Everybody laughed. This kind of “relativity” everybody understood.

Pratap is an author and journalist.