Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Out of the Frying Pan

So far, we’ve covered ancient atoms, electromagnetism and the theory of relativity. In Chapter Four of Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, we finally enter the last and strangest realm of known physics: quantum mechanics (aka, quantum physics).

In my last post, I compared trying to some to terms with the implications of Einstein’s model of reality to taking the red pill in The Matrix, leaving behind our comfortable (though false) notions of stable time and space in order to live in the bizarre, uncomfortable and yet often beautiful and exciting realm of spacetime.

Live free, Neo!

But entering the realm of quantum mechanics is something else. Just as you’re coming to terms with spacetime, you’re told that, by the way, spacetime is also a kind of matrix. An even stranger and more mysterious one. A matrix that isn’t populated by Agents trying to keep the truth from you but rather by gaggles of egghead physicists doing their damnedest to explain it to you….between their extended bouts of arcane squabbling.

Want to go back to your comfy pre-relativity matrix? Too late, Neo.

Into the Fire

So, let’s get down to explaining this new realm. Rovelli specifies that our quantum reality has three primary characteristics: granularity, relationality and indeterminism.

Hey, Why Is My Reality All Pixelated?

Let’s start with granularity. The short version is that, for the sake of convenience, a guy name Max Planck assumed that the energy comes in bite-sized (okay, smaller than that, but finite nonetheless) packets when doing his calculations.

Not long after, Einstein said something like, “Hey, you know what, Max? Energy really is made up of packets. What do you know!” (And, so, yes, the original Weird Al is one of the fathers of quantum mechanics and not just relativity).

Einstein claimed that this granularity extended to light, a form of energy. Most of the other physicists said, “No way! James Clerk Maxwell says light is a wave and waves don’t come in convenient bite-sized packets.”

To which Einstein said something like, “I guess it’s both! Beats the hell out of me how that could be true but let’s just go with it and see where it leads.”

And, wow, those breadcrumbs led to some very strange places…

Wait, They Were Just Here a Second Ago!

Next up is relationality, which is a boring name for something utterly bizarre. Rovelli sums it up in just three short sentences: “Electrons don’t always exist. They exist when they interact. They materialize in place when they collide with something else.”

So, you’re asking, how can that possibly be? Aren’t electrons just a part of an atom, like your arms and legs, nose and mouth are part of you? It’s like saying a person’s left arm doesn’t exist unless they happen to bump into somebody else. How does that work? you ask. I haven’t a clue, but electrons are apparently just ghosts that appear during interactions with one another.

Even though it was his personal bread crumb trail, Albert Einstein thought this was all too strange to be true. But there’s this other physicist, Paul Dirac, who didn’t seem to have problems with it. Rovelli writes, “For him the world is not made of things; it’s constituted of an abstract mathematical structure that shows us how things appear, and they how behave when manifesting themselves.”

Speaking of the problems posed by Dirac, Einstein groused, “To maintain an equilibrium along this vertiginous course, between genius and madness, is a daunting enterprise.”

Rovelli indicates that objects (though what really constitutes an object?) can still have characteristics such as mass while they are not interacting with one another, but the object’s “position and velocity, its angular momentum and its electrical potential only acquire reality when it collides–interacts–with another object.”

Okay, can it get any weirder? Glad you asked!

I’ve Determined that I Can’t Determine

Last up is indeterminacy. Einstein hated this part. He famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

What he objected to was the fundamental quantum physics idea that one cannot predict what any given particle is going to do. Rovelli wraps it up like this: “While Newton’s physics allows for the prediction of the future with exactitude, if we have sufficient information about the initial data and if we can make the calculations, quantum mechanics allows us to calculate only the probability of an event. This absence of determinism at a small scale is intrinsic to nature.”

“Intrinsic to nature” — let that one sink in. All you can do is give and get probabilities. It’s all a big dice game, as far anyone can tell.

Or maybe it’s a baseball pitcher with lousy ball control. For some reason, I think of the movie Bull Durham in which the rookie pitcher Nuke can throw hard but doesn’t know where any given pitch is going to go. “Hell if I know where the damn thing’s going…” Nuke’s catcher, Crash, tells a nervous batter. (And, yes, Bull Durham fans, I know it’s a ploy on Crash’s part but, hey, it’s just a metaphor).

Anyway, what Dirac’s equations can do is give you a range of the possibilities and then a calculation of the probabilities within that range (At least, I think that’s right, based on what I can determine. Get it? Determine. Indeterminacy? Ok, never mind).

We Cobbled Her Together But She Sure Does Run Good

Over the years, physicists “cobbled together” (Rovelli’s phrase) what we now call the Standard Model (physicists are crap at naming and marketing, it appears). He sums up:

The Standard Model is completed by the 1970s. There are approximately fifteen fields, whose quanta are the elementary particles (electrons, quarks, muons, neutrinos, Higgs, and little else), plus a few fields similar to the electromagnetic one, which describe electronmagnetic forces and the other forces operating at a nuclear scale, whose quanta are similar to the photons.

The thing is, this junky heap of particles, fields, equations and whatnot turn out to be extremely robust and fast around the corners. Experiments keep confirming it and engineers depend on it to build all our fancy electronic gadgets. In the end, it’s the model that everybody buys.

Now Comes the Hard Part

So, quantum mechanics works like a charm. But so does Einstein’s theory of relativity. The problem is that the two explanations don’t work well together. One works super well in the macro world and one works super well in the micro world, but nobody knows how to marry the two.

So, that’s where Rovelli and others come in. They want to settle these irreconcilable differences by building a house that both theories can comfortably fit in. Heck, they want more than that. They want our two theories spooning each other, finishing one another sentences, lovingly telling us stories of how their many zany antics and impassioned conflicts finally ended in a Harry-and-Sally-type romance that we can all laugh about now.

So, will they or won’t they? Stay tuned. Next week: Falling For Loop Quantum Gravity

Feature image: Clara Ewald's portrait of Paul Dirac: From

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Mark Vickers

I am a writer, analyst, futurist and researcher. I've spent most of my working life as an editor and manager for research organizations focusing on social, business, technology, HR and management trends. But, perhaps more to the point for this blog, I'm curious about the universe and the myriad, often mysterious relationships therein.

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