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

Einstein and the Big Squid

Taking the Red Pill of Relativity

Now things get weird. In the first post about Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems, we focused on atoms. Despite the strange fact that medieval Christians tried to censor the concept of atoms, they do not score very high on my weird-shit-o-meter. I was brought up with them, so they seem as friendly as eating potato chips on a comfortable couch.

In the second post, we got into electromagnetism. But, considering that most of us live enmeshed in cocoons of wire and wifi, it’s hard to see that topic as outlandish, however much our forebears would have been astonished.

But in Rovelli’s third chapter, the topic of this post, we’re forced to choke down a red pill if we want to enter the spacetime reality of Albert Einstein’s mind, thereby exiting The Matrix of our comfortable everyday reality where time and velocity seem as easy to grasp as a digital readout.

You’d think that by now we’d be accustomed to the original Weird Al’s big brain. I mean, we’ve had a century or so to get acclimated to this stuff. But, speaking for myself, I’m still struggling to cope with the idea that the world is not what it seems.

Present But Not Accounted For

Rovelli tries. But, despite the cartoons, his section on the “extended present” is hard to swallow. How and why has the present moment been extended by the Special Theory of Relativity?

I assume it has to do with the speed of light and relative time, but you’ll need to take it on faith within the context of this chapter. Here’s an example:

[O]n the moon, the duration of the extended present is a few seconds, and on Mars a quarter of an hour. This means we can say that on Mars there are events that are yet to happen, but also a quarter-of-an-hour of events during which things occur that are neither in our past nor in our future.

I find this hard to wrap my brain around and wish Rovelli had gone to greater lengths of explain the details. I remember getting a deeper glimpse of time relativity when pondering the ideas in the book Why Does E=mc2 (And Why Should We Care?), but I’ve since lost it (the glimpse, not the book). And now I’m wondering if I’ll need to bear down on that text again in order to grasp Rovelli’s arguments. We’ll see.

Space Is a Monster Mollusk

Okay, let’s put the “extended present” into a box (perhaps along with Schrodinger’s cat) and come back later to see what happened. For now, I want to focus on another statement in Chapter Three:

What if Newton’s space was nothing more than the gravitational field? This extremely simple, beautiful, brilliant idea is the theory of general relativity…. Newton’s space is the gravitational field. Or vice versa, which amounts to saying the same thing: the gravitational field is space….We are not contained within an invisible, rigid scaffolding: we are immersed in a gigantic, flexible mollusk (the metaphor is Einstein’s).

Okay, despite the Cthulhu vibe, I understand this better than the concept of extended present. I get the whole spacetime-curved-by-big-hunks-of-matter idea. I get that everything’s moving and has speeds only relative to everything else and everything is in constant flux. I even kind of (though not really) get the idea that time flows faster at the top of a mountain rather than in a valley.

But spacetime is the same thing as the gravitational field? Was that originally part of the Theory of Relativity? Apparently I’m not the only one confused. I wonder if that’s part of scientific history or just a tenet of the quantum gravity hypothesis, which is the ultimate subject of the book.

A Universe Designed by Escher

The latter sections of Chapter Three are mostly focused on how the universe may be a humongous globe with an extra dimension stuck in there. Einstein conceived a way in which the universe might be finite while still having no discernable boundary. Rovelli uses the metaphor of a globe:

On the surface of the Earth, if I were to keep walking in a straight line, I would not advance ad infinitum: I would eventually get back to the point from which I started. Our universe could be made in the same way. I fly around the universe and eventually end up back on Earth. A three-dimensional space of this kind, finite but without boundary, is called a “3-sphere.”

Although he goes on for another 12 pages or so, for me the above is the essence of the discussion. And, I kind of get it, or at least think I do, because we all understand the metaphor of the globe. Whether I can can truly conceive the shape of the universe like this, however, is another matter. It’s something to work on.

It’s Networks All the Way Down

Boiling it all down, I take away two main insights from this chapter. First is the idea that space as we (or at least I) sometimes think of it doesn’t exist. There are no vast empty spaces in space. It is jam-packed with gravitational and electromagnetic fields light waves, radio waves, gamma rays, microwaves, etc. In fact, maybe space is nothing more nor less than an unthinkably immense gravitational field.

Whatever space is, however, it’s certainly not mostly empty. It is a packed and fluctuating landscape in its own right. Jupiter is a not a planet but a mountain, one that we can climb and look down at the curved and rippling real estate of our solar system, if we’re willing to see beyond the merely visible.

My second insight is that network describes the scene even better than landscape. In my mind’s eye, I see block-and-tackle pulleys everywhere, connecting everything in our solar system (and the greater universe, of course) in a constantly shifting network.

Some mythologies have it that the Earth is supported on the back of a giant World Turtle. But what does the turtle stand on? There’s the old joke that, well, it’s “turtles all the way down” in a kind of infinite regress.

Perhaps it’s less of a joke to say that the universe is a network of networks. What do the networks attach to? Well, other networks via gravitational forces. I guess we could say it’s networks all the way down.

Featured image: Artist's concept of the Interplanetary Transport Network. The green ribbon represents one possible path from among the infinite number possible within the larger bounding tube. Constricted areas represent locations of Lagrange points. Wikimedia Commons 

How Grainy Is Your Reality?

I’m in the process of reading the book Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. I figured I’d write a bit about each chapter as I go along. Maybe this will help me integrate the ideas a better than if I simply read it.

I’ll give it a try, anyway, even if am suffering from the horrors of the WordPress editor at the moment (BTW, what gives, WP? Why did you move from a relatively user-friendly UI to this exceptionally unfriendly block system that specializes in producing heartburn and headache in equal proportions? Just wondering.)

The Ancient Power of Democritus

The first chapter is called “Grains,” which I assume is a reference to two things: 1) the fact that we are starting with the seminal ideas of today’s physics going back to ancient Greece and 2) the fact that the topic is atoms, which are the grainy little building blocks that reportedly make up our reality.

Rovelli, a theoretical physicist and science writer, insists that our current best understanding of reality began around 450 BCE with a Greek named Leucippus, the teacher of Democritus. “Together,” writes Rovelli, “these two thinkers have built the majestic cathedral of ancient atomism. Leucippus was the teacher. Democritus, the great pupil who wrote dozens of works on every field of knowledge, was deeply venerated in antiquity, which was familiar with these works.”

Rescued from Obscurity by Latin Poetry?

Why don’t we know more about these two great philosophers? Because, according to Rovelli, the texts of these philosophers were systematically destroyed by Christians in accordance with their ideas about reality. “Plato and Aristotle, pagans who believed in the immortality of the soul or in the existence of a Prime Mover could be tolerated by a triumphant Christianity,” he writes. “Not Democritus.”

These losses are tragic, especially given the very long list of works by Democritus, who looks to have been just as prolific as Aristotle. The good news is that a little about the philosophy of atomism was preserved in a work by the Latin poet Lucretius: that is, De rerum natura, or The Nature of All Things.

The Catholic Church really had it out for atomism. In the 1500s, they even tried to ban the works Lucretius but failed. Lucretius was already in the bloodstream of European thinkers and they were not going to give him up. Rovelli describes the work as “an articulate and complex structure of thinking about reality, a new mode of thinking, radically different from what had been for centuries the mind-set of the Middle Ages.”

Einstein and Atomism

So atomism survived by the skin of its philosophical teeth. Would we have today’s understanding of the universe without it? Impossible to know, of course, but Rovelli seems to think not. What’s especially interesting is Einstein’s role in atomism, a role I’d never heard about before. Apparently Einstein knew of the experiments of the 19th century biology Robert Brown, who graphed the movement of small particles suspended in water. The particles, it turns out, do not fall straight down. They move around in a zigzag manner.

Why does this happen? Because, Einstein hypothesized, the molecules in the water are colliding with one another. He even figures out the the approximate size of these tiny particles: “From observations of granules drifting in fluids, from the measurement of how much these ‘drift’ — that is, move away from position — he calculates the dimensions of Democritus’s atoms, the elemental grans of which matter is made. He provides, after twenty-three hundred years, the proof of the accuracy of Democritus’s insight: matter is granular.”

A Suspiciously Specific Dawn

Do I buy all this? Sort of. My impression is that it’s seriously oversimplified, as good stories often are. But it sounds generally true. Yes, I’m skeptical that the “first dawn of scientific thought” occurred only at Miletus in the sixth century BCE. That seems overly specific to me. I imagine that scientific thought is more organic than that, having begun thousands of years before when prehistoric humans slowly uncovered the workings of the natural world.

I think about Ötzi the Iceman, for example, who lived about 5,000 years ago and how his hair was heavily contaminated with copper and arsenic, suggesting he was somehow associated with copper smelting. That is pretty serious technology for an age millennia before Democritus was born. After all, such technology requires considerable patience, insight and multi-generational knowledge. In short, I doubt metallurgy is possible without the kind of reasoning that may itself be considered part of an extended dawn of scientific thought.

But that’s just nitpicking. Even if he is simplifying and mythologizing a bit, Rovelli tells a good and insightful story, one that I’ll remember even if I ultimately get a little fuzzy about the dates and names.

Featured image:  "The Young Rembrandt as Democritus the Laughing Philosopher", a portrait study, half length oil on copper, bears monogram top left "HL?" and lengthy French hand written inscription verso, 23.75 × 17 cm’). Go to