May 17, 2014
by Bruce A. Smith
The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The New Physics – An Introduction to the Science of Consciousness. This is Chapter 4, and part of an onging series.
The Observer Effect, Superposition, Non-Locality and Entanglement, Time and Space, the Zero Point Energy Field, Superstrings, Wholeness and Implicate Orders – (Whew!)
To better comprehend the malleability of matter and the transformative qualities thought has upon physical reality, we need to jump into the world of quantum physics. Once we know the current understandings of that tiny realm – the land of atoms, electrons, quarks and electromagnetic fields, et al., we’ll have a platform from which to explore how consciousness interacts with physicality.
A historical approach to quantum physics is a useful way to begin this discussion and let’s examine its early beginnings by exploring the dual qualities of light, specifically, the ability of light to behave in two radically different forms – either as a wave or a particle.
In the early 19th Century, British physician and physicist Thomas Young sought to better understand the nature of light, and he developed a simple test that revealed the first glimpse of the phenomenon now called the Observer Effect.
The Observer Effect Theory, the double-slit experiment and the dual nature of light (1)
Although Sir Isaac Newton had determined that light was composed of particles in the 17th Century, Young suspected more. In 1802, he cut a small hole in a window shutter, covered it with a thick piece of paper and punctured a tiny pinhole in it as well. Next, Young took a mirror and diverted the thin beam of light that came shining through the second hole. Lastly, he took “a slip of a card, about one-thirtieth of an inch in breath” (2) and held it edgewise in the path of the beam, dividing the stream of light in half.
Looking at the wall opposite his beam, Young noticed that the illuminations splayed upon the surface had alternating bands of light and shadow, which indicated a wave pattern. Young deduced that the bright bands appeared where the crests or troughs of waves overlapped, reinforcing each other, while the darkened areas marked the locations where a crest from one wave lined up in a trough from the other, neutralizing each other.
Young’s test showed that light is not only composed of particles as Newton had shown, but it also possessed wave behavior.
Subsequently, other scientists expanded Young’s experiment by passing light beams through a partition containing two slits, behind which was placed a photographically sensitive surface to record the effects. These experiments confirmed Young’s initial findings, and today this aggregate work is coined “Young’s Double-Slit Experiment.”
Through the years, though, more advanced double-slit studies revealed even greater mysteries.
The Observer Effect is observed
When double-slit experiments were expanded to test the full range of sub-atomic particles, scientists also found wave and particle behaviors. Amazingly, though, they also discovered that the tested particles were influenced by the act of being monitored.
In general, the experiments went like this:
Inside a closed container was placed an electron-emitting device aimed at a partition containing two slits, and behind the partition was a photographically-sensitive screen.
The emitter sent out a stream of electrons, which flew through the slits and landed upon the screen. As in Young’s experiments with light, the electrons displayed themselves upon the screen in a wave-like pattern, namely, they showed concentrations of lighter and darker shades indicating that the electrons formed a wave pattern and had been interrupted in some fashion, presumably by the slits.
Mike told me that the phenomenon is akin to having ocean waves roll onto the beach at Atlantic City, New Jersey. As the waves come in they are uniform, but when they hit the pilings of the piers that jut out into the Atlantic the waves are disrupted. Parts of the wave are weakened while other parts are untouched or even enhanced, and roll on with more energy. Thus, the wave crashes upon the shore in a variegated fashion, much like the waves of electrons do in the double-slit experiments.
However, when a viewing device is added to the experiment and an observer monitors the actions of the electrons, they behave as solid particles flowing in a straight line, landing upon the screen in two clumps directly behind the slits – much like a gang of children throwing snowballs through two openings in a fence would result in two plies of mushy snow on the opposite side.
Author John Gribbin, in his Q is for Quantum, which is my bible on quantum physics, gives a superb description of these experiments, from which I have parsed the following as a way to show the utter magnitude of this experiment:
“In tests with particles emitted one at a time, the particles behaved as if they knew the exact nature of the wave pattern being built. They appeared to have knowledge of past and future placements of other particles, and so the particles picked a spot for themselves that was in accordance with the wave pattern as a whole.
“But, wait- there’s even more mystery!
“When the electrons were emitted one at a time and a detector was hooked up to the slits to let the researcher know when and which hole the particle was going through, the wave behavior disappeared.
“Instead, concentrations of light appeared on the detector screen directly in line with the slits. The particles behaved as if they knew that they were being watched, and acted like little tiny rocks being thrown through a hole in a wall, and thereby piling up directly behind the openings.
“So, monitoring or observing the movement of electrons changed their behavior, and this phenomenon has been observed for many types of sub-atomic entities including neutrons, protons, and even whole atoms.” (3)
These findings are now known as the Observer Effect and have become the cornerstone of the New Physics. This means that all the electrons, neutrons and atomic-what-nots buzzing around in the universe are subject to our observation.
Wow! – what else can you say?
Adding to the wonder, author Lynne McTaggart writes in “The Intentional Experiment” that the double-slit experiments have been refined to show the duality of nature in not only sub-atomic particles but also in atoms, including molecular clusters composed of over 100 atoms! (4)
Again, wow – for now we are getting into macro-sized realities!
To further appreciate the magnitude of these findings, Gribbin offers the perspective of the great American physicist, Richard Feynman, who said the double-slit experiment:
“… encapsulates the ‘central mystery’ of quantum mechanics. It is ‘a phenomenon which is impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality, it contains the only mystery … the basic peculiarities of all quantum mechanics’ “ (5)
To me, there is even more wonder. Consider this: When the electron is in the emitter it is a formed and identified entity. It travels down the machine as an electron, and then once it exits – poof – it becomes an unknown. We don’t know what it is or where it is – only that it behaves as a wave. As Mike told me in conversation, “As far as we know, once an electron leaves the emitter, it could go to Detroit.”
Then, at the slits and upon observation the electron becomes an identifiable particle, again. To move in and out of defined reality states via observation is something that I find utterly amazing. I feel like shouting “wow” over and over.
So, does the response of observed particles represent a tiny template for larger aspects of physical reality? Are our lives the grand conclusion of one really big, collapsed wave function?
Narrowed down, the fundamental question of this book is this: how does consciousness utilize the Observer Effect to shape our lives?
Many scientists have contemplated these questions since the 1920s, and that is where our discussion leads next – into the world of quantum physics and two landmark theories spawned in part by the discovery of the Observer Effect: The Copenhagen Interpretation and Heisenberg’s Uncertainly Principle.
The Copenhagen Interpretation and Heisenberg’s Uncertainly Principle
My friend and Cal Tech grad, Yuchi Chu, has helped me immeasurably understand the intricacies of quantum physics, particularly the mysterious dynamics of sub-atomic particles described in the Copenhagen Interpretation and the Uncertainty Principle.
From my conversations with Yuchi and Mike, I come to understand that the central tenet of the Copenhagen Interpretation holds that we can never know precisely where and what sub-atomic particles are doing. In this theory, when we measure or observe one aspect of a sub-atomic entity, we disallow any accurate reading of other characteristics of the subject.
Expanding upon this perspective, Gribbin says that the Copenhagen Interpretation contains the following elements:
1. It is meaningless to ask what atoms and other quantum entities are doing when we are not looking at them. All we can do…is to calculate the probability that a particular experiment will come up with a particular result.
2. Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” which says that a quantum entity does not have a precise momentum and a precise position at the same time, is an essential ingredient of the Copenhagen Interpretation.
3. Quantum entities have attributes of both particle and wave.
4. All possible probabilities, described by wave functions, are intermingled into what is called a superposition of states until a measurement is made (observation). (6)
Thus, in the Copenhagen Interpretation all realities are considered to be possibilities. Gribbin in the above passage calls them superposition of states, or wave functions. Whatever we call them, realities are thought to be in a state of potential until the observer collapses the wave function / superposition of states, etc. into physicality by the means of observation.
However, Hugh Everett in 1957, while a graduate student at Princeton University conceived a radical alternative theory, called the Many Worlds Theory, which has come to be accepted by the majority of physicists. (7)
Everett, who developed this theory with his thesis advisor John Wheeler, suggests that rather than one reality coming from a pool of potentials, all realities exist in a vast infinitude of realities in some kind of huge superpositional place, hence, “many worlds.”
As I understand the theory, each of these worlds is real, separate, and can be accessed via observation. To paraphrase a sublime commentary on the Many Worlds Theory by the eminent British physicists Stephen Hawkins (that I heard in a video or read somewhere that I can’t remember): “There is a potential that you are reading this book on Mars.”
Further investigations into the wild, hazy nature of the quantum world have expanded from these foundations, and have led to the theories of superposition, non-locality, and entanglement, and that is where we head next.
The Copenhagen Interpretation and the Many World theory have different perspectives about the quantum world, but they both share the basic concept of quantum superposition, which suggests that the existence of all sub-atomic particles – and by extension all events and even people – exist everywhere in a state of wave potential until they are observed into a specific reality state.
However, not all scientists in the early days of quantum physics were convinced of the superposition concept, and the iconoclastic Dr. Erwin Schrödinger grappled with the meaning of the double-slit experiments.
First, in the 1920s, Schrödinger developed the concept of “wave mechanics” by determining the different energy potentials for individual particles, utilizing the concept of a wave as a metaphor. This gave rise to the notion of “wave potential,” which in turn produced the concept of “collapsing the wave potential” into reality via the Observe Effect. As we have noted, particles and light are not waves per se, and we really don’t know what they are exactly, but since their behavior is wave-like the notion of “waves” and “wave potential” are used to describe their characteristics.
Schrödinger, however, was frustrated with the idea of Heisenberg’s theory suggesting a mathematically real quantity can exist in an actual physical state even if it contradicts the laws of classical physics. Thus, he created a thought experiment to challenge the superposition hypothesis, now famously known as Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox.
In this mental argument, which was never actually carried out, (thank gawd!), a cat and a lethal potion tied to a triggering mechanism were sealed inside a box, hence “unobserved.”
Schrödinger posited that the notion of all realities being held equally in a state of potential suggested there were wave states in which the cat was dead from the poison but also alive, and according to the Copenhagen Interpretation both realities existed simultaneously until someone opened the box and observed the kitty.
Schrödinger felt that such a condition was absurd – how could the cat be both alive and dead?
For Schrödinger, the idea that the cat was suspended between life and death only existed as a mathematical expression, but could not correspond to actual physical reality, which, to me, is in itself a quantum conundrum, i.e.: how can the mathematical world not truthfully reflect the physical one?.
Thankfully, after Schrödinger presented his Cat Paradox idea, numerous researchers leapt into the fray to determine the validity of superposition existing on the macroscopic level. According to authors Robert Nadeau and Menas Kafatos in their stellar The Non-Local Universe: The New Physics and Matters of the Mind, research teams at AT&T, IBM, UC-Berkeley and SUNY-Stony Brook have conducted experiments to finally resolve the dilemma of Schrödinger’s poor feline.
As I understand Nadeau and Kafatos, these researchers explored the phenomenon of a magnetic field within a superconducting ring, which should not have any electromagnetic polarity in it. Their magnetic field, which should have a flux between negative and positive, was found to have both, a dynamic state akin to the cat being alive and dead at the same time. Thus, superposition was proven. (8).
Nadeau and Kafatos offer an additional description of how mainstream science is grappling with the paradox of one thing being two or more things at the same time, and they use Schrödinger’s cat metaphor to explain the researchers’ findings:
“Physicist Christopher Monroe and his colleagues at the National Institute of Standards and Technology succeeded in creating a superpositional state in an experiment using a single beryllium atom. In this experiment, the beryllium atom was made to vibrate in such a way that a dual presence was created. The one atom, for a brief period, appeared to exist in two distinct states as if two atoms existed. Here again, one “cat” appeared to be in “two cat states” prior or observation or measurement.
“But while the superconducting rings and the beryllium superposition are macroscopic systems, the state of these systems cannot be determined until a measurement takes place, and the systems can not be said to have a definite value prior to the act of observation. The state of the system is dependent upon the act of observation, and its otherwise mathematically real possibilities, as given by the Schrödinger wave equation, “collapse” upon the act of observation.” (9)
Hence, we now know that superposition exists on the macroscopic level, albeit proven only in very tiny physical proportions, and that reality in the quantum world is quite fluid, with boundaries certainly not as clear cut as they appear to be in classical physics.
But, how and when does the superpositional state resolve itself into a particular physical reality? Yes, it is the observer that makes the direct observation, and thus collapses the wave function into a particular state. But who, exactly, is the observer, and how does the Observer Effect present itself in the macroscopic every-day world? Does every bit of matter in the universe need someone to look at it? Or can observation be something more ethereal than a directed focus? Could it be an expectation, or even some kind of encounter, such as bumping into superpositional realities via dreaming, meditation, or simple longing?
Or is there a natural flux in and out of superposition via some grand ocean of observation? Cosmic consciousness, anyone? And what of the consciousness of the many different interdimensional levels of realities posited by Ramtha, Goswami and others? What are those elements of reality observing?
Or even in the very small reality, for instance, do atoms observe? Can one atom collapse another atom out of superposition? Can molecules collapse the wave function of a peptide they want?
How about this for a Bottom Line Question: how is a drop of rain formed? Can it happen like this?
The guts of a hydrogen atom, its one electron and its one proton, exists anywhere and everywhere until you, or I, or some event in the world observes, encounters, or expects that hydrogen atom to behave in a certain way – let’s say by bumping into a hydrogen atom coming out of its superposition through its own process of observation, encounter or expectation. Then, together they attach to an oxygen atom coming out of its superposition via the same above process. Voila, welcome to the wonderful world of matter you little fellas – you’re now a molecule of water.
As iffy as all that may sound, though, there is even more to the nature of the quantum world that adds to the wackiness. If the fundamental nature of our reality is always in superposition, then what is the nature of space and time, and how does that affect our understanding of collapsing wave states?
At this point, the questions seem to be piling up faster than answers are forthcoming, and we may not find some resolution at all until we discuss the neuro-biology of consciousness in later chapters.
Nevertheless, by chipping away at the Big Enchilada of time, space and quantum mechanics we might find a path that leads towards a more complete understanding of the abovementioned perplexities.
Again, it’s useful to review the history of early 20th century physicists. Those great minds asked these questions, too, and it led to the well-known “EPR thought experiment,” and our next topic: non-locality and entanglement.
Non-Locality and Quantum Entanglement
For all his fame as a physicist, Albert Einstein was not big fan of quantum mechanics.
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