My high school years are well behind me now. A time lost in a fog of quasi-memories and jumbled anecdotes. I recall enjoying Mathematics, Art, and Science the most, as I seemed to have an inclination towards an analytical and creative mind.
I remember being taught the structure of the atom in science class, which was interesting; it equated the atom to a little solar system—you may remember this—where the nucleus was the Sun and electrons orbited like little planets. This is known as the Rutherford Model, an analogy that became very memorable and iconic for me … despite being wrong.
Like any teen in the 1980’s, television was a favourite past-time. There was lots to watch, and I took in my fair share. I remember a program called WKRP in Cincinnati. It was a sitcom based around the staff of a fictional radio station. In one particular episode the structure of the atom was a topic in the storyline. This had ‘Venus Flytrap’, a disc-jockey character in the show, make a bet with a young gang member, Arnold. The bet was that if Venus could teach Arnold about the atom in two minutes and have him understand, then Arnold would agree to abandon gang life and return to school.
Venus began his lesson by associating the atom to an inner city neighbourhood where each sub-atomic particle was a fictitious gang. This captured Arnold’s attention. He then went on to show how each gang related to the others and how the neighbourhood functioned. After a short while Arnold easily picked up on the analogy and demonstrated to Venus that he understood. He then agreed to return to school having lost the bet.
It was a good show, and a great episode. And now, years later, it resonates with me in a different way. It tells me that the microscopic world of the atom can only ever be an analogy for us. this is because it is literally an entire world away from any intuition we could have of it.
Yet, the atomic and sub-atomic world is well understood in physics as the theory of Quantum Mechanics. QM is a ‘computational representation’ of how the universe operates at extremely small scales, and a very successful one as well. The computations are confirmed in experiment as their effects manifest on larger scales, where our experience of reality occurs. And so it is science, perfectly verified and true. However, as mentioned, QM is a computational representation, it is an analogy called ‘scientific truth’, and it is relative.
Shouldn’t this be enough then? Perhaps. But like Venus used an analogy for Arnold to understand the structure of the atom, ultimately the mathematics of QM is also analogy. How this is so requires one to realize that there are levels of truth to consider. And while the math works and so does experimentation, we have a new consideration—is QM Theory the ultimate reality of the atomic world? This is a vigorous question.
If you have 2 apples on a table, and you add 2 more, do you have 4? Well, there is a mathematical formulae that fits this situation perfectly, it is represented as ‘2+2=4’. So yes, the truth is clear because the math works perfectly. Because the math works, and represents the reality of the situation, we must really know something profound about apples, right? This is tongue in cheek obviously. My point here is that 2+2=4 says very little about ‘Apple’. It says nothing about the tree the apple came from, or if indeed they came from the same tree, or are the same species. The takeaway here is what you deduce is limited to what you ask, and the language you ask in. And insofar as mathematics models our world, it is inherently limited. This is because the foundation of reality is not purely mathematical, intellectual or logical.
“Insofar as mathematics is about reality, it is not certain, and insofar as it is certain, it is not about reality.” – Einstein
Prior to any mathematical abstraction and practical science, there is an ultimate truth under the surface. It is the ‘suchness’ of what is. This is the challenge of the interpretation of QM. For those that take it must [bracket out science] and adjust their worldview to find the difference between relative and absolute truth.
Whether a person wants to open themselves to this is a matter of personal preference. It is a very interesting undertaking, well worth the effort as it broadens a person horizons.
It reminds me of a famous quote from Neils Bohr, a Danish Physicist who was a pioneer in the development of Quantum Theory:
“There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” – Neils Bohr.
So, whether its neighbourhoods & gangs, mathematical formulae or words like Electron, Proton and Neutron; it is all analogy, all abstract description. Regardless of how a person understands the atomic world, the understanding is never what ‘is’. The effect of language is crux of the problem. Our human language has developed to describe the experiences in our daily life. In this sense, it is no surprise that it has trouble trying to describing atomic processes. Mathematics however does not have this limitation. It is quite adequate for the description of the atomic world. However, both languages still only deliver analogies to its fullness. The fullness still awaits, lying beyond intellectually. How to access it?
I thank you for your patience. I have thrown around some perplexing ideas here, but as I warned, it would be a challenge. As it has been for me for nearly a decade now, and thankfully I am not alone. Many have taken on the interpretation of Quantum theory in their own ways, and this is mine, fuelled by a deep history of scientists who also struggled, like Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Fritjof Capra. Men in science who saw the forest for the trees and dared to enter into it. And after so many decades the forest still stands, as deep and dark as ever.
How does one wander through without getting lost? I have found guidance in the ancient cultures of Asia, the people long ago who grappled with paradox in the world, worked towards an awakening to ultimate reality, developing the mental tools to gain its insight. Tools found in the traditions of Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. But that’s a whole other story.