I was reading yesterday this study about fluid dynamics that casts some interesting light on the question of which model is correct in the study of quantum physics. The standard model, the Copenhagen model, is what is taught in school- basically you have the quantum wave-form that is entirely probabilistic; the electron, say, in this wave form that has no fixed trajectory or position, spread out in this field of probabilities, and that wave form only collapses when an external observer comes along and takes a measurement. Then, pow!, that wave-form collapses into a point, and you can know the exact location, or the exact velocity, of the electron. This leads to a lot of weirdness in the “real” world model- it is often taken to mean that the “Universe” or “reality” responds directly, observably, to our attention, the kind of new-agey stance that drives scientists nuts.
This is one of the things that the Everettian model does away with, by positing a limitless number of universes that propagate at every branching of a quantum event- the electron, choosing between two paths, always takes both paths, and the Universe splits off into two universes, one in which the electron went left, the other in which it went right.
This also drives people nuts to think about. Scientists and normal people both.
This fluid dynamics study casts light on another theory, that of De broigle and Bohm, the pilot wave theory, or Bohmian mechanics. This theory postulates that there is another wave form that arises with the quantum wave form and acts to “guide” the electron- so there’s this deterministic “pilot wave” that drives the location of the electron along a path that appears to be probabilistic in nature but is actually fixed and determined by a complex interplay of real, but non-observable, wave forms. It is a “hidden-variable” theory that basically says, well, there’s this other thing, and it makes everything seem probabilistic, but, really, everything is much more solid and real- it isn’t dependent upon some external “observer” to force a collapse of the wave form into something “real”, a real, “point-like” electron. It’s really that the electron stays the same all the time, things aren’t weird at all.
Of course, this “hidden variable” theory also drives scientists nuts, because it seems kind of like they are just making up some new thing to force reality to act the way they are more comfortable with. The theory does not have wide, mainstream support.
This new experiment was done by these fluid dynamics guys studying a drop of oil suspended over a liquid….well, I’ll just let the guy who wrote the article explain:
“This idea that nature is inherently probabilistic — that particles have no hard properties, only likelihoods, until they are observed — is directly implied by the standard equations of quantum mechanics. But now a set of surprising experiments with fluids has revived old skepticism about that worldview. The bizarre results are fueling interest in an almost forgotten version of quantum mechanics, one that never gave up the idea of a single, concrete reality.
The experiments involve an oil droplet that bounces along the surface of a liquid. The droplet gently sloshes the liquid with every bounce. At the same time, ripples from past bounces affect its course. The droplet’s interaction with its own ripples, which form what’s known as a pilot wave, causes it to exhibit behaviors previously thought to be peculiar to elementary particles — including behaviors seen as evidence that these particles are spread through space like waves, without any specific location, until they are measured.
Particles at the quantum scale seem to do things that human-scale objects do not do. They can tunnel through barriers, spontaneously arise or annihilate, and occupy discrete energy levels. This new body of research reveals that oil droplets, when guided by pilot waves, also exhibit these quantum-like features.
To some researchers, the experiments suggest that quantum objects are as definite as droplets, and that they too are guided by pilot waves — in this case, fluid-like undulations in space and time. These arguments have injected new life into a deterministic (as opposed to probabilistic) theory of the microscopic world first proposed, and rejected, at the birth of quantum mechanics.
“This is a classical system that exhibits behavior that people previously thought was exclusive to the quantum realm, and we can say why,” said John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has led several recent bouncing-droplet experiments. “The more things we understand and can provide a physical rationale for, the more difficult it will be to defend the ‘quantum mechanics is magic’ perspective.”
Of course, this is all very preliminary and narrowly focused. It may not hold once you start to look more deeply (like, uhm, every other belief we hold?). But I thought it was pretty interesting.
In the same magazine there was an article about the discovery of this giant virus, much larger and more complex than any ever before seen, and how this discovery casts light on the idea of a viral origin for life. It’s interesting because it kind of provides another mechanism for the development of life that spans the gulf between RNA and DNA and the development of the cell.
We keep thinking we are really smart, really close to figuring things out. It seems to me that no matter how much we learn there will always be an infinite field of undiscovered truth awaiting our attention. Our knowledge, ever improving, is always going to be provisional. What we think now, almost all of it, we’ll look back on and laugh at in a hundred years. Or fifty. Or five.
In “The Island of Knowledge” Marcelo Gleiser uses the metaphor of an island of knowledge in a sea of ignorance. The island always grows, but as it does so the shoreline, the place where our knowledge bumps up against our ignorance, also grows, exponentially.
I talk a lot about this, but it bears repeating: no matter who is right, no matter what things are like fundamentally, what’s real, what is at the foundation of all of this, it is still true that we as human beings only get a tiny sliver of it, we can only ever be aware of a fraction of a fraction of “reality”, and that tiny piece we have access to we further reduce and filter out so we can work with some economy of effort on our own behavior as individuals. And within that tiny slice of a tiny slice of a tiny slice, we hardly pay attention to any of it. We’re enthralled by the repetitive voice in our own head, or haunted by it, and overwhelmed by the demands and insistence of everything “out there” clamoring always for our attention, and we blind ourselves with drink and drugs and television and all manner of distractions so we don’t even have to pay attention to that miniscule aspect of reality we can see and inhabit.
Is it any wonder that simply by sitting still and shutting off the distractions we can gain some interesting understanding about our minds, and by extension, our own reality? That by attending to the world as it is presented to us, we can begin to come to know something of its beauty and magnificence?
I don’t know anything at all about how things really are, fundamentally. I trust the scientists to do the best they can, and I figure they’re good at what they do. Their models can tell us a lot about how things are, at least on a functional, provisional level. But it’s important to remember that even their most advanced and foundational models are not universally accepted, and they’re incomplete, and they don’t tell us everything, and they might be wrong and they probably are wrong and will be discarded in time, but for now they’re the best we have.
It’s the same thing on the spiritual front. I don’t know anything at all about how things really are spiritually, either. I don’t have any idea if the Buddhists are right, or the Hindus, or Christians, or Jews, or what.
I think, though, that there is tremendous benefit in gaining familiarity with our own minds. I think there’s tremendous benefit in cultivating love for our fellow creatures, and the aspiration to be loving and helpful to everyone we meet.
I think there’s also tremendous benefit in looking within for the source of our pain and suffering and confusion. I think it is good to have that sense that when things are going badly for us that we can look within for all the ways we are creating pain for ourselves and others around us. Even if we’re wrong about it, it provides a sense that we have some control, we have some responsibility for how things are, and that if we always look outside ourselves for the solution we will always be disappointed. We will continue to suffer. Our liberation is always and only in our own hands.
Our time is so brief. It seems essential to wake up, to give thanks for the incredible abundance we’re showered with, and to love with total selflessness our fellow travelers. Whatever we think, whatever we believe. We all struggle and suffer, we all seek happiness.
We are all one.
Cue corny music.
I think about my wife out in Colorado with the monk on their big adventure. All this beauty they’re seeing, all this wonder and craziness. How that monk just goes out in the world, doing his thing. He doesn’t give a fuck what anybody thinks. He’s gonna do good. He’s going to have a hell of a good time at it, too.
It seems as good a role model as any.
I know I’m preaching to the choir to you. Everyone of you who reads here already knows what I’m just now figuring out. You are every one of you Saints and Monks and Bodhisattvas.
Thank you for being my teachers.
PS- how about that fucking art, huh? I amaze myself sometimes, I really do.