Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Random

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  • dyan campbell,

    Don't you have a cat or something?

    Schrödinger had one. I think it was rather grumpy, being half alive and half dead. (That all makes psychics look a bit less weird).

    Ah, the point at which physics became indistinguishable from a Zen Koan.

    Norbert Weiner notes "it was neither Heisenberg nor Planck, but Willard Gibbs that first proposed the universe was contingent - as opposed to deterministic" - that it is predictible only within statistical limits - which disproves determinism. Gibbs was describing billard balls, and the behaviour of these is difficult enough to predict with any certainty, and provided a pretty convincing argument for the challenging the concept of determinism. And by corollary, god.

    Weiner states "in a probalistic universe we no longer deal with the quantities and statements which concern a specific, real universe as a whole, but instead ask questions which may find their answers in a large number of infinite universes. Thus chance has been admitted, not as merely a mathematical tool for physics, but as part of its warp and weft".

    This radical shift from a causal universe to a statistical one created enormous controversy.

    Erwin Schrodinger ran up against the mathematical problem of indeterminism as he tried to develop physical experiments that described the properties and effects of all the variables in quantum theory: energy, position, velocity, angular momentum etc - and the parallel task of the physicist is to formulate mathematical laws that appropriately describe the physical properties of these particles and
    their respective relationships with each other and the rest of the universe.

    Schrodinger came up with an equation that describes a beam of particles of a beam of particles passing through a slit. Once the properties of the variables involved are known, a prediction can be made about the pattern of distribution.

    The cat is trapped in a box with a Geiger counter and enough radioactive material that there is a 50% chance that one of the nuclei will decay, which will cause the Geiger counter to go off, which in turn will cause a specially attached hammer to break a flask of prussic acid, causing the cat to die.

    According to Schrodinger's equation describing wave function, the particle will be predictable only to a point, and then it will describe two equally possible outcomes for the same particle. On paper, as well as in observation, no reason can be given for the particle's varying behaviour. The equation seems to have a point at which it cannot seem to decide which outcome to choose.

    At the end of an hour only one observable outcome would occur, leading Schrodinger to feel that the mathematics creates a paradoxical and unacceptable description of reality.

    The indeterministic nature of physics was challenged - unsuccessfully - by Jon von Neumann, who tried to devise alternate equations to ascertain Schrodeinger's error, but his equations also showed a contingent universe. His subsequent equations became known as "von Neumann's catastrophe of infinite regression". The conventional interpretation of this was the "Copenhagen Collapse" which proposed that when the equation divides into two, the vectors in configuraton simply collapse. Instead of a multitude of outcomes, the equation reduces to a single result. Proponents of the Copenhagen Collapse thought quantum theory was strictly indeterministic.

    Indeterminism remained impossible for many phycists to accept ("God does not play dice with the universe") and in an attempt to maintain the existence of objective reality and still describe the puzzle of the wave function, Nobel prize winner Eugene Wigner proposed that consciousness itself is the hidden variable that decides which outcome of an event actually occurs. Wigner pointed out that the paradox of Schrodinger's cat only occurs after the entry of the measurement signal into the human consciousness. In other words, the paradox only occurs when human observation intervenes.

    According to Wigner, all that quantum mechanics purports to provide is probability connections "between subsequent apperceptions of the consciousness". He asserts that "it is impossible to to describe quantum mechanical processes without explicit reference to consciousness". Wigner proposes that a search be made for other effects that consciousness may have on matter.

    Jeez, that took me more than an hour to write. With thanks to: John Gribbin, Isaac Asimov, Heinz Pragels, Peter Coveny and Roger Highfield. And I'd just like to say, Stephen Hawking was of absolutely no help whatsoever.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    I can't claim to have had supernatural experiences of my own, but I have a sense of spirituality. There are lots of people who use their intuitive as well as their rational faculties. IMO each is part of an integrated whole.

    The thing is, I don't have much of a sense of spirituality at all. I was raised by atheists as an atheist, and when I experience things like I describe, I do my level best to simply ignore what I'm experiencing, though I tend to muse on it out loud, which certainly helps me but seems to bother those around me, especially when it turns out to have something in common with something that either happened or eventually happens. But like the French writer Gabrielle Colette, replied to Marcel Proust, full of fulsome praise for her soul at some literary dinner in Paris (when they were both either still in or barely out of their teens) "my soul is full of haricot beans and little strips of bacon". I'm nothing if not pragmatic.

    I don't know why I feel the stuff I do. The cases when I can't ignore it, well... that's what denial was invented for. Occam's broom, Richard Feynman called it.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • Philip Wilkie,

    Jeez, that took me more than an hour to write.

    Bit like the cook's lament, "that took me all afternoon to cook, and YOU scoffed it in 5 minutes!!!".

    But thanks, it tasted great all the same!

    Since Mar 2007 • 23 posts Report Reply

  • WH,

    and when I experience things like I describe, I do my level best to simply ignore what I'm experiencing

    The scientific method is only one of the means people use to obtain information about the world around them, even if it is one of the more reliable and reproduceable means.

    I suppose that I prefer not to rationalise people´s experiences away, notwithstanding that the line between openmindedness and gullibility can be a fine one.

    Since Nov 2006 • 797 posts Report Reply

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