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Quantum Weirdness 102: Equal Time for the Cat// Summer Rerun

“I don’t like it, and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.”
Erwin Schrödinger  (referring to Quantum Mechanics).

What better follow up to The Equation of Canine Chaos, then the infamous tale of Schrodinger’s Cat?

In Quantum Weirdness 101, we saw that the double-slit experiment revealed the wave-particle duality of sub-atomic quanta, and the fact that these troublesome little bits behave as if they are everywhere they could possibly be at once until an observer looks for them.  While the experimental proof that this happens is rock-solid, the explanation for what causes it is anything but.  For decades after its original discovery in the 1920’s, the predominant interpretation—essentially, in fact, the only one—was the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation.  It essentially states that the universe is just fuzzy on the sub-atomic level, it doesn’t affect our everyday macro-world, and we mortals should not worry about it otherwise.  Critics have said it is really no interpretation, and some facetiously call it the “shut-up-and-calculate” interpretation.   In 1935, Erwin Schrodinger posed perhaps the most famous mind experiment in all of physics to show that theoretically the Copenhagen Interpretation makes no sense.  More recently, physicists have been able to succeed in creating this quantum superposition with larger and larger bits of matter, which tends to shoot empirical holes in Copenhagen.

Anyway, this witty video does a good job of explaining the concept behind Schrodinger’s Cat.  And I’m pretty sure that no cats were harmed in its making—much to the chagrin of my dogs.

In the next installment: the many worlds interpretation of quantum weirdness.

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Conjecture #4: Quantum Consciousness

“You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometime, well you just might find, you get what you need.”–The Rolling Stones (Jagger/Richards)

“I’m-a get medieval on your ass.”–Marcellus Wallace (character, Pulp Fiction)

I conjecture:  In a quantum multiverse, one’s consciousness is a composite of the many worlds.

 

You’ve been warned folks: I’m-a get metaphysical on your asses.  What’s worse, it’s a personal, almost solipsistic metaphysics.  Hell, it’s my blog, why can’t I?  I might also add that the next couple of  conjectures will be the most controversial, and to some extent they might contradict each other.  Consider it an appropriate quantum superposition–both simultaneously half true.

Few subjects in the sciences are as controversial as the notion of quantum consciousness, as it meets at the junction of theoretical physics and cognitive psychology, and manages to merge the two phenomena that puzzle scientists the most.  Oh, we understand what quantum mechanics is in terms of what it does,  but have no freakin’ idea how and why it does it.   You can say pretty much the same for consciousness.

The concept of quantum consciousness is nothing all that new.  Without getting too technical–because hey, then I wouldn’t understand it either–the notion of a quantum mechanical basis for human consciousness was first directly proposed by Roger Penrose, in his 1989 book, The Emperor’s New Mind.  Built on his earlier work with Stuart Hammerhoff,  Penrose asserted that the human mind can perform functions that are not computable and could only arise from quantum superpositions occurring within the brain.    Max Tegmark,  an MIT cosmologist with no shortage of his own controversial ideas, became the most vocal opponent of this concept, for reasons I won’t go into here, as this is not exactly what I am advocating.     Or maybe it is.

What I am advocating, whether the mind is a quantum computer or not, is that our conscious experience represents a composite of all the universes, or potential universes suggested by quantum theory.  The distinction between potential and actual alternate universes implies the distinction between the Copenhagen and Many Worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics.  And the former seems to make more sense in concert with this conjecture, as it asserts that there simply is no objective reality on the sub-atomic level until we measure it; there are, effectively, only statistical probabilities.  From that it would be easy enough to make the philosophical assertion that our consciousness is essentially a composite of all the possibilities.

But it might not be.  As we only appear to be conscious in one reality at a time, it is certainly within the realm of feasibility to assert that consciousness is a composite in the Many Worlds scenario as well.   If the Many Worlds interpretation is willing to accept that these universes can interact with each other on the sub-atomic level to produce the wave interference pattern described in Quantum Weirdness 101,  why not accept that our consciousness does the same thing? Therefore, consciousness would be a composite across actual, physically real worlds.  David Deutsch, in his book The Fabric of Reality, makes the case that the quantum multiverse is the enabler of free will;  from this I would infer he means consciousness as well.  But the Many Worlds interpretation suggests something perhaps darker and more sinister,  even frightening.  I’m bound to get flamed to no end for even bringing it up–it will be the subject of Conjecture #5.  I call it quantum solipsism.

My bottom-line position on the composite consciousness conjecture: It’s a strong possibility.  I see evidence of it in my own life; but it would take a volume, let alone a blog post, to fully recount.  The best way to sum it up?  The Rolling Stones quote above.  It seems I rarely get exactly what I want, but often get what I need, and just in the nick of time.  What?  You say you don’t get what you need?  Well, read the next conjecture.  It seems that may not be my problem!

Below, Stuart Hammerhoff discusses the notion of quantum consciousness and related issues.

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Quantum Weirdness 106: Are dreams real?

 “Reality is wrong.  Dreams are for real.”–Tupac Shakur

It has been advocated–I can’t recall by whom–that our sleep dreams may actually be real events in an alternate universe.   I doubt it;  that’s too far over the top for my taste.  But the following unusual dream–one I’ve actually had–will serve for now as my final installment of the Quantum Weirdness Primer.   It’s a fitting intro to my next two conjectures, both of which deal with the possible nature of consciousness in relationship to quantum physics.  The dream was short and unexciting, but opened up a Pandora’s box of questions.

The Infinite Office Building

The Flatiron building as it appeared around the time of my father's birth in 1919.  It wasn't actually in the dream, but it's just too cool not to include.

The Flatiron building as it appeared around the time of my father’s birth in 1919. It wasn’t actually in the dream, but it’s just too cool not to include.

I am working in an art-deco era office building in the Flatiron District of Manhattan.  It is a beautiful, clear spring day and the New York skyline fills my panoramic view.  I get up to go to the water cooler when a realization hits me.  This is an infinite office building with an infinite number of floors.  Every floor represents an alternate universe–an infinity of them.   Every possible universe that I could, or possibly do exist in, is here.   I ponder the implications and head toward a back staircase to explore.  Which way should I go? Up or down?  Where will it bring me?  But a chilling thought hits me just as lift my hand to open the exit door leading to the stairs.  What if I can’t find my way back?  Sure, this specific universe that I currently exist in must reside somewhere within an infinity of universes.   But by definition, if I explore starting from this one, there will always be a finite number behind me and an infinite number ahead of me.  I would likely never find my way back within my lifetime, or perhaps even an infinite number of lifetimes.  I lower my hand, go back to my office,  and wake up.

The dream is reminiscent of David Hilbert’s concept of the Infinity Hotel, an explanation of which is in the entertaining short video below.  Strangely enough, I first heard of this idea two weeks after having the Infinite Office Building dream, when I read about it in detail in David Deutsch‘s The Beginning of Infinity.  In any case, the conclusion I reached from my hesitance to explore, was a realization that maybe it really doesn’t matter how many potential or actual universes there are if we are only conscious in one.  Or one at a time.  Or does it?  I’ll discuss these enigmas in my next two Millennium Conjectures, after a finite number of intervening posts.   [Video credit: The Open University]

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Millennium Conjecture #3: The Future (Part Two)

I Conjecture:  Every Possible Future Exists

Part Two: Quantum Mechanics and The Future

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”–Alan Kay

Note: In case you had not surmised it, the most literal title for this conjecture would be “Every Physically Possible Future of Our Universe Exists.”   There is probably not a future in our universe where the laws of physics will change to allow Harry Potter to cast a patronus spell on demontors.

Inventing the quantum future at NASA

Alan Kay’s proposition suggests a philosophical viewpoint that emerges from this conjecture.  But for a better quote to describing its why and wherefore, I harken back to the E.B. White words from Conjecture #2Everything that is not forbidden is mandatory.  It all boils down to Quantum Mechanics.   Many physicists have latched on to this notion;  given enough time, every physically possible combination of matter and energy is bound to occur.  It’s all just a matter of probability.  That said, there are clearly at least two distinct ways of looking at it, depending on which interpretation of quantum mechanics you ascribe to:  Copenhagen or Many Worlds.  Although there are other interpretations, these two have garnered the lions share of advocates in the scientific community, and the notion that every possible future exists can emerge from either one of them.  (See Quantum Weirdness 102 and 103 in this blog for an explanation of both ideas.)

The difference between the two as pertains to the future can easily be stated as virtual vs. actual.  The Many Worlds interpretation asserts that every physical possibility will become an actual reality in an infinitely expanding sea of parallel universes.  Every possible future is, or at least becomes, physically real.  On the other hand, Copenhagen implies that there is no absolute physical reality until the quantum wave function breaks down, that there is only probability on the sub-atomic level until we observe it. From this we can infer that every possible future exists only as a statistical  probability, and only the one we ultimately experience will actually exist.

So what’s the difference?  There isn’t any.  It makes no difference, from the practical experience of entities conscious in a single one of them, whether the futures are real or virtual; we can’t tell the difference.  Every one of those physical realities is still a real possibility.  The good news?   There most certainly is a future out there where you win the lottery!  The bad news?  The only sure way to “invent” that future is to buy every possible number combination.  I don’t recommend quitting your day job.  😦

Up next: The Conjecture of Composite Consciousness.  (Warning: the next couple of conjectures will be quite a bit more radical and original than the those already stated herein.  Actually, I’m warning myself.  Anybody know where I can get some flame retardant garb?)

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Quantum Weirdness 104: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty

“Doubt is unpleasant, but certainty is ridiculous.”–Voltaire

Heisenberg may be dead, but his uncertainty principal is alive and kicking.
(Image credit unknown)

It was the end of the Newtonian worldview.   Early in the 20th century relativity and quantum mechanics created a new scientific outlook on reality–counter-intuitive and downright….well…weird.  The final nail in the coffin of so-called Newtonian determinism was put forth by one Werner Heisenberg in 1927: the uncertainty principle.   Simply stated, you can’t exactly know both the momentum and location of a quantum object.  The more precisely you know one, the less precisely you know the other.   And while recent news headlines suggest to some that Heisenberg has been overturned, this is absolutely NOT the case.   It was thought that the very act of measuring a quantum particle added to the uncertainty, but that was never really part of Heisenberg’s equation–which in fact can also apply to macroscopic phenomena like sound and water waves.  So while a team from the University of Toronto was able to devise a means to measure a quanta (such as an electron or photon) with minimal increase in uncertainty, even they admitted “the quantum world is still full of uncertainty, but at least our attempts to look at it don’t have to add as much uncertainty as we used to think!”

Heisenberg’s principle plays a critical role in something that is rather significant in the foundations of modern philosophy, and as I see it, civilization itself.  That would be how we view the future.  This will be explained in the next conjecture.

Here is a simple video demonstration of the concept by Walter Lewin of MIT–a single-slit experiment.

If you’re brave enough to tackle the math, here is a link to another video from Mind Bites that explains it in terms so simple even I can understand it.  Er…maybe.

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Vacation Rerun: Quantum Weirdness 102, Equal Time for the Cat

Where’s Waldo?

By the time this post goes winging outward to the vastness of cyberspace,  Cheryl and I will be winging our way home from distant parts unknown. The next new post will return to the subject matter below, so bone up and be ready for brain cramps.

“I don’t like it, and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.”
Erwin Schrödinger  (referring to Quantum Mechanics).

What better follow up to The Equation of Canine Chaos, then the infamous tale of Schrodinger’s Cat?

In Quantum Weirdness 101, we saw that the double-slit experiment revealed the wave-particle duality of sub-atomic quanta, and the fact that these troublesome little bits behave as if they are everywhere they could possibly be at once until an observer looks for them.  While the experimental proof that this happens is rock-solid, the explanation for what causes it is anything but.  For decades after its original discovery in the 1920’s, the predominant interpretation—essentially, in fact, the only one—was the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation.  It essentially states that the universe is just fuzzy on the sub-atomic level, it doesn’t affect our everyday macro-world, and we mortals should not worry about it otherwise.  Critics have said it is really no interpretation, and some facetiously call it the “shut-up-and-calculate” interpretation.   In 1935, Erwin Schrodinger posed perhaps the most famous mind experiment in all of physics to show that theoretically the Copenhagen Interpretation makes no sense.  More recently, physicists have been able to succeed in creating this quantum superposition with larger and larger bits of matter, which tends to shoot empirical holes in Copenhagen.

Anyway, this witty video does a good job of explaining the concept behind Schrodinger’s Cat.  And I’m pretty sure that no cats were harmed in its making—much to the chagrin of my dogs.

(Video Credit: Open University, on You Tube)

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Conjecture #2: Inevitability (Part 2)

I Conjecture:  In an infinite multiverse we must exist.

Part Two: The impossibility of non-existance

“Needleman was rarely out of public controversy. He published his famous ‘Non-Existence: What To Do If It Suddenly Strikes You’.”–Woody Allen, ‘Remembering Needleman’ (short story)

Image credit: http://www.savagechickens.com (click image for link)

If you think imagining infinity is difficult,  try imagining nothing.  No, I don’t mean blank your mind.  I mean imagine nothingness.  NO!  I don’t mean a vacuum–empty space with no matter and energy.  I mean absolutely nothing:  no space and no time.  I’m betting you can’t do it, even if you think you can; you’re not, even if you think you are.   I merely conjectured that the concept of infinity could not exist in a finite universe, but I am firmly asserting that a conscious entity is incapable of imagining absolute nothingness.  It’s an oxymoron. By the mere fact of imagining you have to imagine something.  And while it might be pure philosophy to suggest it couldn’t be because we are incapable of imagining it, there is strong scientific argument for the “something out of nothing” impossibility of non-existence.  From Hawking on down, physicists have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as absolute vacuum, that space is full of quantum foam, seething with instability and particles of energy and matter popping in and out of existence.  If matter plus antimatter equals nothing, than by commutation, nothing equals anti-matter plus matter.  (Yes, I know. The intelligent design crowd will reject this and tell us that it is all too perfect.  God must have done it.  Really? So God can exist out of nothing but the universe can’t?  When they can tell me where god came from and offer some form of empirical evidence, I will consider their arguments; but they can’t, so I won’t.)  Final proof: we do exist. Maybe all other arguments are moot.  And anyway I have an out, as the prerequisite for this conjecture is “in an infinite multiverse.”  Let’s rest our neurons for the next installment: The Conjecture of the Future.

(As an entertaining aside, here is a YouTube video of Neal Degrasse Tyson rambling on some cosmic questions.   It includes his conclusion that intelligent life is inevitable.)

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Conjecture #1: Infinity (Part 3)

I Conjecture:  The Concept of Infinity Could not Exist in a Finite Universe.

Part Three: Human Imagination

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
Albert Einstein

It is certainly understandable how somebody as brilliant as Einstein could perceive the rest of us to be infinitely stupid.  Jokes about lawyers and politicians aside, I’m not sure about either.  I remain an agnostic on untestable scientific conjectures,  as well as on religion.  But my gut continues to tell me that my conjecture of infinity has merit, so I’ll proffer one final discussion before moving on to the next one.

Nothing is inherently more self-contradictory than infinity.  We can imagine it mathematically, but can’t measure it.  We can imagine–sort of–infinite time and space.  But physicists and philosophers tell us there are a finite number of possible combinations of matter and energy, at least in our observable universe with our laws of physics.  But we can imagine things beyond those laws (fantasies like Harry Potter, various science fiction scenarios,  and possibly real alternate universes with different laws of physics, to name just a few).  So our imagination does not seem to be limited by what is possible or observable in nature.  By that it would be reasonable to assume that human creativity and human stupidity are both potentially infinite.**

One of my favorite quotes about the universe is the famous J.B.S. Haldane proposition, “I suppose the universe is not only queerer (sic) then we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine.”  This would seem to be a contradiction of the notion that human imagination is infinite.  David Deutsch says as much in The Beginning of Infinity, and he says so specifically in regard to this quote.  His point is that human imagination and creativity are potentially infinite and that Haldane is, therefore, wrong.  But where infinity is concerned, even Deutsch contradicts himself.  For as he points out elsewhere in the book,  there are mutually exclusive infinities and there are also larger and smaller infinities.  Consider the set of all even integers and the set of all odd integers.  They are mutually exclusive yet both infinite.  Now consider the set of all even integers and the set of all integers.  They are both infinite, yet the latter is twice as large as the former.  The point is: there might be both an infinity of things we can imagine, and an infinity of things we can’t imagine.   Deutsch himself indirectly alludes to this in his earlier book, The Fabric of Reality.

There is no question that the Haldane quote was true at least in the early part of the 20th century when he first espoused it.   The universe certainly turned out to be stranger than anyone could imagine at that time.  But the universe continues to surprise us, no matter what we imagine.  And if our imagination is only potentially infinite we cannot imagine, at any one time, everything that exists or the larger infinity that might exist.   To me, this is what makes the combination of human imagination with empirical knowledge so exciting.  No matter what we can test or what we can imagine, there are still surprises out there to delight and confound us.  But in my final analysis–the one that needs explanations and not just measurement–Einstein was absolutely right in another of his famous quotes:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Up next (after a few digressions and ridiculous timeouts): The conjecture of inevitability

**By potentially unlimited here, I mean no theoretical limit.  To be actually infinite, humanity would have to exist forever.

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Quantum Weirdness 102: Equal Time for the Cat

“I don’t like it, and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.”
Erwin Schrödinger  (referring to Quantum Mechanics).

What better follow up to The Equation of Canine Chaos, then the infamous tale of Schrodinger’s Cat?

In Quantum Weirdness 101, we saw that the double-slit experiment revealed the wave-particle duality of sub-atomic quanta, and the fact that these troublesome little bits behave as if they are everywhere they could possibly be at once until an observer looks for them.  While the experimental proof that this happens is rock-solid, the explanation for what causes it is anything but.  For decades after its original discovery in the 1920’s, the predominant interpretation—essentially, in fact, the only one—was the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation.  It essentially states that the universe is just fuzzy on the sub-atomic level, it doesn’t affect our everyday macro-world, and we mortals should not worry about it otherwise.  Critics have said it is really no interpretation, and some facetiously call it the “shut-up-and-calculate” interpretation.   In 1935, Erwin Schrodinger posed perhaps the most famous mind experiment in all of physics to show that theoretically the Copenhagen Interpretation makes no sense.  More recently, physicists have been able to succeed in creating this quantum superposition with larger and larger bits of matter, which tends to shoot empirical holes in Copenhagen.

Anyway, this witty video does a good job of explaining the concept behind Schrodinger’s Cat.  And I’m pretty sure that no cats were harmed in its making—much to the chagrin of my dogs.

In the next installment: the many worlds interpretation of quantum weirdness.

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Conjecture #1: Infinity (Part Two)

I conjecture:  The concept of infinity could not exist in a finite universe.

Part Two:  The Possibility of Infinite Space

“The universe is a big place, perhaps the biggest.”– Kurt Vonnegut

Douglas Adams called the universe “mind-bogglingly big.”  But “mind-bogglingly big” pales next to infinitely big.  And while the question of space being infinite may be somewhat easier to get around than time, it is certainly no bargain.

The first problem is that Vonnegut is dead-on right.  Our universe is only possibly the biggest place.  It used to be that “universe” meant everything.  But then the concept of “multi-verse,” with countless alternate or parallel universes, began to creep into astrophysics and cosmology.  To make matters worse, there is not just one potential level of parallel universe proposed, but four.*  So far.  Physicist and author Paul Davies argues that the concepts, while fascinating to contemplate, amount to philosophy–or even religious faith–if you can’t test them.   David Deutsch, among others, disagrees and deduces that the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is the only one that makes sense, in terms of scientific explanation.  I’ll have more background on the various arguments surrounding interpretations of quantum mechanics–particularly The Copenhagen Interpretation vs. all others–in future posts.

Getting back to the question of infinity of our universe and/or the multiverse, there is indeed some scientific investigation aimed at determining the potential infinity of our own visible universe.  It involves the topology of its three-dimensional space and whether it is flat or curved.   I can’t go into details, as it involves rather advanced calculations from observations of the Cosmic Background Radiation–the earliest remnants of the Big Bang we are able to detect with current technology.  But the weight of the existing evidence seems to be pointing towards a flat topology that could be infinite.  Add that to the possibility of countless alternate universes of various kinds,   and I will assume for our purposes that space is at least potentially infinite.  [For a discussion of actual vs. potential infinity, see the Wikipedia article].   In the final installment on this conjecture, I will address one dimension of existence that I feel without doubt is potentially infinite: human imagination.    For an extended, if somewhat dramatic discussion of the possibility of an infinite universe, watch the video linked at the bottom of this article.

7-year universe image of background microwave radiation from NASA’s WMAP probe. (2010)

*As classified by MIT cosmologist, Max Tegmark

Text of this post ©2012 Mark Sackler.

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