Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

October 31, 2008

After Obama/Mccain Could We Take Up Einstein/Bohr

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 1:05 pm

Important as the election is–and I’m proud of supporting and defending Obama here for a year in on what might not be the most Obama-friendly site in the world, but one that hasn’t objected to my dissent. And I consider the insults from the racists-in-denial among some of the anti-Obama commenters a badge of honor. Same with those from the midget minded on the Left who are so used to preaching to the choir they don’t understand that not every site needs to have a stalinoid “line”. But I’m getting ready to leave the election behind.

There are more important unresolved questions, you know. the kind Graham Greene asks about the nature of the human heart, the heart of the matter. And the ones the physicists ask about the nature of matter. I’ve been pleased to learn that the cutting edge cosmological physicist Frank Tipler reads my blog at least occasionally.

Just an example of what I’d regard as an even more profound and deeper questions, the question that need to be resolved are not political but the kinds of questions Tipler asks, about the nature of Being, of Reality, the very existence of cause-and-effect “all the way to the bottom” as the philosophers say.

If there is a statistical and experimentally verifiable probability that 50 per cent of a group of atoms of Uranium will decay in a given period of time (half life), then which atoms will spontaneously decay? Is there any way of knowing? Are there “Hidden variables” as Einstein believed to the day of his death? Or is there no way to predict the fate of a given atom. No cause, no cause, just a statitstical probability of 50 per cent, as Neils Bohr and the quantum physicists of the Copenhagen school believe.

Einstein’s belief in hidden variables implied faster than light communication or “entanglement” of quanta, “spooky action at a distance” whose implications nobody wants to really face. Becasue when a particle splits and the two halves ae separated in time and space, observing the spin direction of one will affect the nature of the spin direction of the other, which until then–quantum physics insists–is not determined. Which would require faster than light communication in some cases so the iundetermined article knows what identity to “choose”even though not in contact, not “engtangled” with the other. Or is in some faster than light way since the identity determination must be made instanteously with the measurement of the other particle. Unless you believe in “pre arranged hidden variables”.

But Bohr’s insistence there is “no cause, no cause”–to quote Cordelia to King Lear–means the only alternative to Einstein’s determinism is fundamental indeterminism, everything built on sand, a maze of statistical probabilities nothing real at all.

Recently I read a summary of the argument by Michelle Jenkins that gives the history of the argument with both clarity and detail: the only thing you need to know is that “EPR” stands for “the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen” thought exeriment which suggested the necessity of “spooky action at a distance” or the hidden “entanglement” of particles implicit in the hidden variables theory:

“After the 19th century brought an incomplete understanding of the sub-atomic and electromagnetic as well as Hertz’s alternating current, Max Planck, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr made contributions that would elevate and revolutionize Newtonian physics. When Niels Bohr and Arnold Sommerfeld observed quantum jumps in atoms, the Keplerian modeled atom had been adjusted but not disproved. This planetary motion of orbit predicted that atoms should collapse; new theories explained why they do not seem to. In 1925, George Uhlenbeck and Sam Goudsmit proposed individual electromagnetic fields and spins explaining angular momentum in motion of orbit. Thereafter electron orbit could no longer be defined as a point in space-time – they moved in orbitals, “patterns of regions in which the wave function is concentrated.” 2 Erwin Schrödinger created an electromagnetic wave equation for this in 1925 where amplitude of the wave determined by its probability of state and quanta (“small particle-like packets of energy”) existed in superpositions of states.4 Werner Heisenberg in 1927, calculated that wave-particle duality and wave-mechanics made any measurement of location and momentum both impossible to measure. Niels Bohr argued that the conventionally named Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle was an Indeterminacy principle (this is also akin to noncontextuality), where the inability to measure a wave-like particle (or quanta) does not preclude its, albeit unknown, existence.12 Einstein disagreed with quantum mechanic in a 1935 paper called EPR stating it was incomplete; else, it necessitated faster-than-light travel. Schrödinger responded with his dead-and-alive ‘cat’ thought experiment (a metaphor not applicable to cats) and by naming the EPR concepts, entanglement. In entanglement, two or more quanta (particles) posses related states and both will be affected at the same time if one is measured. In quantum mechanics, an interruption of state (as in measurement) results in a wavefunction collapse, and classical physics takes over. Entanglement occurs with specific polarizations or spins in ‘Cat states’ or ‘Bell states’ (after Schrödinger’s cat and John Bell, who in 1964 experimentally disproved a purely classical probability for entangled states, in part proving quantum mechanics).”

So what do you think? I personally believe that the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics preserves a reality beyond statistics, even classical determinism. We just happpen to live in the universe where uranium atom X distintegrated, but there’s another world in which it didn’t and Y did. Both are real.

Too bad. I bet the Y world is much better than ours. The grass is always greener in the other universe.


  1. Action at a distance is implied by all our interpretations of reality from viewing starlight at the end of a million light years to the effect of environments on the development of species in Darwin. The ancients attributed this to the ether, Newton to gravity itself, Einstein to the curvature of spacetime. The interchangeability of waves and particles are the expression of the elasticity of this distance, how it functions. To insist on fixedness (a static plinth of measurement) is unnecessary: all reality leaves a permanent imprint like the steps of the tortoise in Zeno’s Paradox. It ravels and unravels itself like a great ribbon, one universe, infinite shadows.

    Comment by charlie finch — October 31, 2008 @ 2:55 pm | Reply

  2. For 30 years I have possessed two books, “Principles of Cosmology and Gravitation” and “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity” by Max Born, which I have, as with “Ulysses”, tried to make it all the way through and repeatedly failed. If you examine NASA’s video release of Alan Shepard’s first suborbital flight, you will see, in the control room, a series of incomprehensible, fastchanging numbers, which algorithmically work out the trajectories of this simple flight into the ether. As eager as any humanist to find the eternal grail of meaning in physics, I stumble blindly through the cave of numbers. As artfully as many, especially Ron Rosenbaum, try to translate these equations into philosophy, one cannot help conclude that it is a failed game, just as exotic formulations such as “string theory”, “quasars”, “anti-matter”, “black holes” and other bric-a-brac are the lame efforts of theoretical physicists to mollify us humanist idiots. C.P. Snow formulated this not-so-grand divide between two intellectual subsets mutually exclusive of each other, fifty years ago. We are talking past each other, and Bohr’s notion of the observer fundamentally changing the position of the observed is a cruel and malicious metaphor for this irrevocable split. To think in numbers is to exclude poetry and irony; to think in words is to deny reality. The humanist marvels that numerated universes approaching infinity can be extrapolated from matter the size of a period; the mathematician conceals the limits of his own tools as a fixed place of observation as the sands of poetry shift at the speed of light under his feet. The dilemna of two intellectual crowds babbling past each other can be summarized by one question, “What is Time?” Encapsulating time in the too-neat conceit of spacetime ignores the prison of causality which is the time humans are condemned to experience. No sequence of numbers turned in on itself can erase it. To posit other universes or empty spaces filled with invisible anti-matter, a necessary constant so that the physicist’s equations will not evaporate into meaningless is fanciful speculation that no poet would attempt: a ridiculous breach of logic even for the dreamer! When we humanists buy into the superiority of the community of physics theory, we are trading in our souls for a stack of equations.

    Comment by charlie finch — November 1, 2008 @ 12:20 pm | Reply

  3. The saddest thing about it is that in the Y universe, they have a saying that goes; “The grass is always greener on our side of the fence.”

    Comment by Kasey Rasmussen — November 3, 2008 @ 12:45 pm | Reply

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