I’ve discussed “The Immutable Laws of Physics” a few times in previous articles. Every shred of evidence we have indicates that the interactions between matter, energy, time, and space, are themselves the very nature of the universe, and nothing we (or anything/anyone else) can do will ever change these interactions. Whenever we’ve observed or discovered something new that we don’t understand, it reminds us that we have incomplete understanding of the laws of physics – but the physical world is still immutable.
Quantum mechanics is a “relatively new” branch of physics that was discovered roughly 100 years ago, and it has certainly enhanced our understanding of these physical interactions. It has also made things quite a bit more complicated, as quantum mechanics embodies concepts which are quite difficult to grasp. The concepts are not as elegant as the pure logic behind classical “Newtonian physics”, or the mind-bending beauty of Einstein’s discovery of relativity.
One of the problems is that quantum mechanics have a large component that has to do with randomness. Changes in quantum states are thought to be the only truly random physical interactions in the whole universe!
One question that often comes up is this: how do we account for the randomness of quantum mechanics if the fundamental laws of physics are so perfect and so immutable? Why don’t our traditional laws of physics clash with the crazy and unpredictable nature of this randomness, the particle/wave duality, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle? And while we’re at it, what do we feed to Schrödinger’s much maligned cat?
Quantum mathematics are somewhat abstract, yet exceedingly precise. The math has been verified experimentally to within one part in many billions; the measured data agrees with the theoretical equations to the limits of our measurement technology. This is a very key point.
As a practical example, every time a transistor switches on and off in a computer, there is a “quantum band gap” that each electron goes through. If we could somehow “see” each electron that is pushed up against the junction of a transistor, we would not be able to tell which specific electrons would make it through the gap and which ones wouldn’t. The quantum state of each individual electron is completely random. However, we can say – very, very precisely – how many in total will go through and at what energy levels.
Advancements in manufacturing technologies, resulting in less impurities (i.e. stray molecules of unwanted substances) in the silicon junction, have allowed electrical engineers and chip designers to make transistors that are smaller, faster, and more reliable.
Indeed, the processors found in most home computers have more than 4 billion transistors ... and each can turn on and off at a rate of some 3 billion times a second. If the rules of quantum mechanics were not so perfectly reliable, there is no way that any computer would run for more than a few seconds without crashing!
Even though it appears to be the basis of all randomness in the universe, we harness the power of quantum mechanics all the time. Another example is flash memory chips (such as those found in the USB stick you probably have in your pocket) which use quantum tunneling to erase their memory cells.
There are other interesting things about quantum mechanics as well. Here’s a “thought experiment” to consider:
Suppose we have two rooms, each with a bowling ball suspended from the ceiling. The rooms are absolutely identical, as are the mechanisms connected to the ceiling in each room and the wire that’s connected to the bowling balls.
If we pull both balls back exactly the same amount, and let them go at exactly the same time, their movement should be exactly the same. The more variables that we eliminate, making the two setups even more identical, the longer we can let the experiment go and get the same results in both rooms.
We can understand this scenario and the outcomes very easily. It matches our observations of “how things work”, and it follows common sense and fits our understanding of the laws of classical physics.
Let’s make the scenario a little more complicated. This time we have two identical rooms, each with a table, a fan, and a big pile of nice and fluffy goose-down feathers.
Now, when I say the two rooms are “identical”, I mean that the entire setup is identical down to the sub-atomic particles. We’ll use an imaginary “3D Printer” to lay every single atom in exactly the same position and the same quantum state – each and every molecule, including the air and any dust particles in the room, are identical at the start of the experiment. Let’s say there’s a large battery pack under the table which can run the fan. (We don’t want to bring power into the room, as we don’t want any outside influence at all.)
The question is this: if you turn on the fan for EXACTLY 30 seconds in each room, timed down to absolutely the same “Planck Time” interval, will all the feathers settle to the exact same position in each room at the end? How about if you run the fan for five minutes? A year?
You might tell me that there will always be some external influence. I agree that the passing of one stray gamma ray or neutrino through the room could change the trajectory of one air molecule ever so slightly, and the cascade affect from that would change the outcome. So let’s ensure there are no outside influences: both rooms are surrounded by 8 feet of lead and concrete, and the inner four inches of the walls of the room itself are also printed with our magical 3D printer to ensure that the interactions of the air and feathers with the surfaces of the walls are exactly the same as well.
Traditional Newtonian physics says that yes, the rooms will act the same way and all the feathers will end up in exactly the same position at the end. Of course it would be practically impossible to calculate all the force vectors, collisions, micro-air currents, etc (admittedly, the idea that we could actually build such an experiment is practically impossible in the first place) – but Newtonian physics say that if we have identical rooms without any external influence, all the feathers in both rooms will all follow the exact same paths and end up in the exact same places at the end.
It’s hard to conceive of such an outcome. This concept does not obey common sense, and our skepticism is well founded. It is an example of how the “randomness” of quantum mechanics will interfere with the traditional laws of physics as described by Newton.
Usually, quantum randomness of an enclosed system will “average out” and have no fundamental effect on larger objects. With the swinging bowling ball in our first example, there are quantum movements of the sub-atomic particles that make up the air molecules in the room – but the large, single contained object of the bowling ball isn’t really affected by it, as the number (and trajectories) of air molecules on one side of the ball are always balanced out by the number (and trajectories) of molecules on the other side. The net force on the ball will, on average, always be zero when viewed from a classical physics standpoint.
(Similarly, as tumultuous as the weather patterns are here on Earth, the weather patterns on each side of the planet “cancel out” and don’t affect the Earth’s orbit around the sun, or the gravitational interactions with other planets. But hold that thought for a moment ...)
In the two rooms with the fans and pile of feathers, the randomness of quantum movements can alter the outcome of the experiment. Just one molecule of air that gets bumped into a slightly different trajectory due to a different quantum state of one electron will change the trajectory of each subsequent molecule that it bumps into. And soon you have a cascade effect in the air molecules. This becomes a big enough change to alter the position of one feather, which in turn has a cascade effect on the other feathers. With a vastly larger number of smaller/lighter objects (rather than a single large bowling ball) it is far more likely that any individual quantum fluctuation will alter the outcome.
Indeed, it is believed that this is the primary reason why weather patterns on Earth are so difficult to predict. It doesn’t matter how carefully you project the current atmospheric forces today, you won’t get an accurate prediction of what will happen ten days from now. You may have heard of the “Butterfly effect”; it is an idea that the wind generated from the wings of one butterfly can have a cascade effect which may trigger a hurricane on the other side of the planet. So we cannot predict what the weather will be like in ten days ... but we CAN predict where each planet in our solar system, the sun, and all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy will be in a million years! (Like the bowling ball, the stars and planets will be immune to the “self-cancelling” forces within each enclosed system)
Current understanding of modern physics says that quantum mechanics is the only true “randomness” in the universe. That’s fine and dandy. However, I can conjure up a random thought. How about “elephant snot”? Is that random enough?
There’s the rub. We have no explanation, from a physics standpoint, of how or why we have creativity and randomness in our thoughts. It’s not just human thought either. Although other animals don’t have advanced reasoning capabilities, they certainly have creativity and decision making abilities. In fact, every biological organism has some “randomness” in their response to stimulus.
Now, before we go down the path of taking the easy way out and saying “god made it that way”, I will say that the entire idea of ‘god’ is just another random thought that someone came up with, as a way to explain something that – with the evidence available at the time – couldn’t be answered any other way. Throughout human history, we’ve continuously asked questions about things we didn’t understand, and over time we’ve found answers to many (but not all) of these puzzling questions. Saying ‘god made it that way’ is a cop out. The only consequence of that statement is that it keeps people from looking for the real answers. It stifles curiosity and is disruptive to our persistent desire to understand the true nature of our universe.
So back to our puzzle. Here’s an interesting hypothesis. I’m not saying that this is “the truth”, or that it has any scientific basis – it’s just another creative idea that we can explore:
What if we think of neurons, and the synaptic exchange of electrical or chemical signals between the neurons in our brain, as a type of “quantum amplifier”?
If quantum mechanics are truly the basis of all randomness in the universe, then that should be the basis of random thought and creativity.
The implications of this are interesting. We may accept the idea that within a single “closed system”, quantum effects cancel out and can’t affect anything externally ... but by amplifying quantum randomness such as creative thought, we can direct the muscles in our bodies to do things and build things and create civilizations. For example, my mind is now amplifying many quantum interactions, turning them into thoughts, directing my muscles to move my fingers on the keyboard, typing on a computer with technology that evolved from the scientifically creative ideas of many people over many millennia.
And what if all the collective quantum amplification in a large civilization put together a rocket, which carried enough explosives to blow up the planet Mars, or push the Earth into a different orbit? That would certainly qualify as a quantum effect that – through amplification – has an influence on something outside of its closed system!
Some modern physicists have taken the position that all objects obey the laws of quantum mechanics, and classical physics is just an approximation of quantum mechanics as it is applied to a large system of objects. Wow. Think about that for a minute.
This is a fascinating idea. It would certainly fit with the Third Law of Thermodynamics, which describes “entropy” and the statistical basis of molecular motion. One of the most common examples of entropy is calculating how probable it is, at any given moment, that all the air molecules in an enclosed room will be on one side of the room. It’s not impossible that it would happen – but it’s so improbable that it’s not likely to happen even once in hundreds of trillions of years. The Third Law of Thermodynamics isn’t about the randomness, it’s about the statistical probability that results from randomness ... but it certainly fits neatly into this idea of “quantum mechanics as applied to a larger system of objects”.
Almost every physical interaction that can be easily described in general terms can get very complex when looking at the extremes. A gas engine for example – the more gas you give an engine, the faster it goes. It’s a linear relationship of more gas equals higher RPM, you just need to find the slope of the line to describe it. However, if you slow it down too much (to the point of where it begins to stall) or you hit the maximum speed that the engine can go (due to the mechanical parts that just can’t move any faster), then you’re in trouble. Precisely defining the exact shape of the gas/RPM curve at either extreme can get difficult.
So if the above statement is true and “all objects obey the laws of quantum mechanics, and classical physics is just an approximation of quantum mechanics as it is applied to a large system of objects” ... then we have to adjust our thinking a little bit:
Instead of saying “All matter obeys the immutable laws of physics, except in the very small quantum sized interactions where it gets more complicated” we would say ...
“The movement of all the matter in the universe can be described by quantum mechanics, but on the ‘normal’ scale (not looking at the quantum extremes), we can use the simplified equations of classical physics which give a good enough approximation as to be considered immutable.”
Ok, I think we have it all figured out now. Unless we finally crack open some credible evidence to support this whole “string theory” idea ... then everything will certainly get much more interesting again!