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Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Universe is stranger than we can imagine

On Thursday night BBC4 screened a programme about how the distance between things may be an illusion; maybe there is no such dimension as space.

The idea sprang out of a scientific conference in 1927 that looked at the then-new quantum theory - the behaviour of subatomic particles.

Implicit in a later 1935 paper by Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen - and teased out by Erwin Schrödinger - was the idea of 'quantum entanglement', the possibility that a pair of photons might be intimately related even when separated from each other. When one particle is observed, so the theory goes, its characteristics are instantly - no waiting time - reproduced by the other, even if the particles are separated by galactic distances that light would take millions or billions of years to cross. This appeared to break all the rules and Einstein hated it.

Yet a scientific project in 2018 supports this impossible notion. A team studied light - billions of years old - from two widely separated, very distant objects and found much higher correlations between the qualities of the light particles from them than would happen by chance.

The implications are mind-bending. If nothing travels faster than light, how do these particles know immediately what their 'partners' are doing across unimaginable gulfs of space?

We know a lot more about the universe than we used to, but we may perhaps never know everything. As Haldane (a biologist, so not at the 1927 physics conference, but writing in the same year) said, 'I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.'

TV programmes about deep science can only do so much for us - they tend to use visual analogies that give us the illusion of understanding, but we have evolved to deal with reality at our level of the universe and there's no reason for us to be able to visualise subatomic interactions. For example. when I was at school electrons in atoms were explained in terms of solid balls orbiting a central mass, but apparently it would be closer to the truth to say they are clouds of unborn possibilities that only become real and fixed when we observe them.

And we laugh at mediaeval theologians arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Which brings me to a different analogy. The programme reminded me of a kids' book I read many years ago, 'A Wrinkle In Time' by Madeleine L'Engle, in which the characters are able to travel across space and time. L'Engle compares their journeys to a pin put through the gathered pleats of a skirt: when straightened out, the material appears to have a series of unconnected holes; yet from the vantage point that sees the universe as folded, all the holes have been created by a single thrust.

So maybe when understood properly, the photon pairs are not separated; there is no such thing as distance or space.

And maybe our perceptions of space and time are illusions, as though we are 3D holograms projected from a 2D ground.

Perhaps we are ready to visit Vedic philosophical ideas of reality and unreality, existence and non-existence. Perhaps we are not separated from one another or the Godhead (is this where the theology of the Holy Spirit has its roots?)

Perhaps we are not meant to understand. Perhaps the attempt is impious, like the Tower of Babel. Perhaps our imagination cannot cope with the challenge and runs out like a river into a desert.

Kurt Gödel's theorems showed that even mathematics (or that part that can generate natural numbers) will always be an incomplete system of proofs.

Similarly, I think there can be no scientific explanation of the coming-into-being of the universe, because everything we use in our scientific explanations relates to things within the universe itself, and so such accounts must be using circular logic.

Which brings us back to the ancient Hindus, with their contemplation of being and unbeing.

We know so much, and yet virtually nothing.


Sackerson said...

JD comments:

I watched that programme the other night and found it to be very frustrating and most unsatisfactory! At no point did they mention David Bohm who explained the idea over 40 years ago -

They did touch on the idea of a 'holographic universe' towards the end of the programme but it seemed as though they didn't, or didn't want to, understand it by trying to fit it into a materialist paradigm.

Here's another famous quote they managed to avoid - "The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter... we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter." - Sir James Jeans "The mysterious universe" page 137. That book was published in 1937 so the BBC's science experts(?) are a long way behind the real experts!

Sometimes they accidentally get it right: I recall an Indian physicist in another programme standing outside the CERN building and looking at the statue of Shiva there and she said "What took you so long!" As you hinted in your post, this was known thousands of years ago and is encrypted in the Mahabharata of which the Bhagavad Gita is but a small part. The whole concept is indeed mind boggling which is why Neils Bohr said "If quantum mechanics doesn't frighten the life out of you then you haven't understood it."

I like having my mind boggled, the synapses need the exercise in the same way muscles need exercise!

Paddington said...

Sadly, as Feynman pointed out, you need quite a lot of actual Mathematics to understand Physics, or even to ask the right questions.

As for the quantum entanglement, this is basically the Schroedinger's Cat problem, one resolution of which is to posit the multiverse, in which we only know which universe were are in by making observations.