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Monday, August 01, 2005

Quantum Leap


It's time to talk about the delicious and frightening contradictions made possible by one of the most fascinating theories in modern physics: Quantum mechanics.

1. Ok, hold on there, I know no friggin' math!!

Now relax your doggies, Smithers, I understand I am one of the few people I know that actually enjoys Calculus to some degree. There won't be equations or complicated math in this blog (unless someone demands it, of course). So go with the flow.

2. Allrighty then, what is this quantum thingie?

Well, people has been trying to understand the universe and its ways ever since humanity appeared in the world (in fact, it is such an important thing that, when faced against humankind's natural ignorance, can breed religious fanatism). After centuries of struggling a science such as physics arose as the one trying to explain the fundamental mechanics of the universe.

The first model appeared in Newton's Principia Mathematica, which managed to sneak the fist relativity: the spacial relativity. The idea is quite simple, if you are playing table tennis with your best friend in a train, the ball will go around at the usual speed that balls go around on such matches. But if someone would see the ball from outside the train, it will go at the speed of the train+the speed at which you're hitting it. But Mr. Newton made it clear that the time scale should be the same for all implied.

This model seemed accurate enough until physic researchers started finding borderline-behaving stuff such as, for instance, light. Along came an old, gramps-looking jewish scientist called Albert Einstein to save the day, creating the Special Relativity model, which explained the behavior of light by taking away the absolute time scale and stating that even time could be relative -someone standing in the earth would have to wait for years, while someone "riding" a light ray would make the trip in mere seconds. After this model, the only big thing escaping explanation was Gravity, and that little problem was solved with Einstein's General Relativity model, which introduced the idea of gravity being a consequence of the bends and distortions of an entity called the "time-space continuum" which is a universe made no longer by 3 dimensions but by four (height, length, width...AND time!).

At this point not only the model explained most of the universe behavior, it also marked a new height in human's accomplishment. But as it often happens in physics, the model once again broke. Physics not only watched big phenomena such as stars and planets and space, but also very small phenomena like atoms and molecules. At that level there were also problems, and the culprit was, once again, light.

One of Einstein's cronies, Mr. Max Planck, discovered a new model to solve most of these problems called the Quantum Mechanics. The idea is that energy cannot be transfered in arbitrarily small quantities, Planck stated that it had to be transfered in packets, called "quanta", which had large implications on the way atom physics were handled from then on.

The big problem? Quantum Mechanics fails when it has to manage large things such as stars and planets, while General Relativity fails when it has to work at sub-atomic scale. So right now, we haven't figured out yet the exact way in which universe works.

But in this road, the human mind has had to open to completely new concepts and embrace them, so someday we might be able to finally understand the ways that brought us into being.

3. Ah, I see, but what's in Q.M. for me?

Well, like I mentioned, we've had to understand new ideas we would have never faced without Quantum Mechanics. Some of the most famous paradoxes brought along by QM are:

The uncertainty principle

Up until the discovery of high physics theories, science worked with perfectly known facts. QM brought along the idea that, in order to work, it had to work with uncomplete information, why?

Well, some dude called Heisenberg made the following reasoning: let's say we want to know where is a subatomic particle and how fast it goes. How do we look at things? Well, light reflects on it and lands on our eyes. What if it's dark? We turn the lights on. So Heisenberg said we needed to know where the particle was in order to put some light on it and see how fast it was going.

But alas! Light is energy itself! And, according to our buddy Planck, we cannot illuminate the particle with a tiny little light ray, we must, AT LEAST, use one quantum of light, and at that scale, a quantum of light is a pretty big deal. The moment the quantum touches the particle, it's energy changes, changing therefore it's speed.

And we no longer know it's speed.

And if we knew the thing's speed, where do we find it without altering it again?

Heisenberg's conclussion was very important: We cannot know at the same time the position and velocity of a particle. QM would no longer work with full knowledge from then on.

This principle not only forced them to work with incomplete information, it also forced them to understand that they could still discover most important things beginning with missing data.

After humankind understood that, many other sciences prayed on the principle, spawning new disciples such as System Theory and the Black Box models.

What's in this for you? You don't need to know all the details in order to figure out something, and in many cases, the lack of details may even HELP finding the solution.

2. Duality (no, not slipknot's)

Most "rational" people feel comfortable with absolute concepts: it is either black or white, warm or cold, high or low, good or bad.

Physics used to work like that for a while, but it started to have problems really soon. Once again our good ol' friend, light, caused the problem.

Say you get a nice cardboard sheet and a lightbulb, then you cut a couple slits on the sheet and turn on the lightbulb in the dark, as if playing chinese shadows. Light will hit the wall through the slits, but if you see carefully, the edges of the light marks are not perfect, they're blurry and shadowy. If you've done that with only one slit, no shadows or blurs would have been seen.

This can be explained because light works as a wave. Imagine throwing two stones in the water. Their waves will circle on the water, but there will be interference when the waves crash and mix. That's what happens in the two slits and that's why you see shadows and blurs.

So one smart-ass scientist said: "well, how about shooting just one quantum of light?, it would be forced to choose one of either two slits!!" His physics buddies thought it was a great idea and treid it, so they shot a Photon (that is, by the way, the name of one light quantum) to the cardboard.

Guess what? It went through BOTH slits at the same time!!

Uh oh....

After taking their migraine pills, the physics theorics sat down to work, and after many coffee cups, cigarrettes and soul searching, they saw their answer: the light was, at the same time, a particle AND a wave.

Once again, the human brain needed to adapt to a new concept: a single entity could, at the same time, embrace two opposite concepts within. This discovery brought along many consequences, even to psychology and social studies. A nice way to understand this kind of duality is the famous paradox of Schrödinger's Cat.

What's in this for you? Perhaps some seemingly contradictory concepts that you have to handle make sense after all!! Take me for instance: there's a particular person in my life that fascinates and attracts me, but at the same time scares me almost to death.

And all this of course, has made of me a very quantic person. A cowardly-brave, courageously-afraid, cleverly stupid, dumbly intelligent, happily sad, dreadfully glad, sexilly pure and purely sensual person trying to remain as simple as possible while recognizing his incredibly complex nature. I embrace all of this within myself, and I know I'm not crazy or abnormal. Humankind itself is contradictory.

I am mine, I am human, I am this. I am me.

2 Comments:

  • At 7:21 AM, Blogger Sou said…

    Willkommen!!! das ist all Ich hab zu... dezieren? XDDD

     
  • At 6:07 PM, Blogger riveronmirror said…

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