Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Quantum and Fundamental Probabilities

….or can we walk through walls?

The truly strange and probabilistic nature that rules the quantum universe has been a challenging idea even for physicists to conceptualize and eventually accept as part of observable reality. It is not hard then to imagine, how a hopelessly mangled popular version of the “power” of the quantum has captured the imaginations of so many alternative medicine gurus and new age world views, not to mention a multitude of the general population.

This stems from the fact that one of the most confusing concepts in quantum physics happens to be one of its most basic properties- its inherently probabilistic nature. What makes this so weird and different is the very difficult to grasp idea that this quantum probability seems to be a fundamental quality. That is, as far as can be discerned, there are no further details or obvious deeper internal mechanisms that might be the cause of this fussiness. It seems that the very nature of quantum phenomena is to be “fuzzy”. However, as a whole, this inherent fuzziness coalesces into predictable behavior and eventually gets buried under the enormity of our level of reality.

In 1899 during the dawn of studies in radioactivity, Ernest Rutherford and others came upon an observation that eventually gave rise to the quantum theories of today. These scientists noted that the decay of radioactive atoms followed a consistent pattern- a decreasing exponential decay that occured through time.

However, only the combined average of decaying atoms gave this predictable pattern. They noted that, atom to atom, the decay event occurred randomly at any time- they were unpredictable. Only the combined average of decay events permitted these scientists a glimpse to the probabilistic behavior of the quantum world.

These observations became the spark of weirdness that opened the doors for Max Born, in 1926, to declare “the fundamental laws of the subatomic world are laws of probability, not laws of certainty.” As Kenneth Ford puts it “Quantum mechanics does not, and cannot, predict when a particular electron in a particular atom will make a quantum jump or to what state it will jump. What Quantum mechanics predicts is the probability that the electron will jump. That probability can be calculated quite precisely.”

What does this have to do with our present discussion? The implication here is that, at the classical level of physics, the behavior of things is much more definable and exact. Outcomes, in principle, can be cleanly calculated by having knowledge to a point of initial conditions (of course to be clear “little” things like chaos theory- butterfly effects- make this proposition quite unrealistic). At the quantum level though, the way of things are hazy and inexact. Again, probability at the quantum level seems to be fundamental- not a matter of just not knowing enough about the system. Only the chance of something happening can be calculated not what will happen. Paradoxically, quantum mechanics is definable and exact from the point of view that probabilities can be calculated precisely. .

Because of the unpredictable “fuzzy” qualities of quantum behavior physicists have discovered bizarre effects such as transmutation and tunneling that occur at these tiniest of levels but are drowned and buried under the infinitely more massive interactive weight of the classical level of reality. These quantum qualities can be actually utilized to create new avenues of research and technology. Physicists can capitalize on this quantum behavior and utilize its strange properties to design for example Geiger counters that detect individual atom sized explosions, and scanning tunneling microscopes that “see” atoms.

Yet, as mentioned, these fundamental quantum properties hide from our ordinary macroscopic everyday world and herein lay the core of misunderstanding with “popular” as opposed to actual quantum theory. For example, it is absolutely breath taking how the phenomenon of quantum tunneling- where a particle can suddenly “appear” on the other side of an “impenetrable” barrier- has been taking so completely out of context.

That fact that tunneling occurs at the quantum level is well known, but that it is an exceedingly small probability-even at this level- is either not understood or completely ignored. We can take advantage of this quantum property at these tiny fringes of reality because of the probabilistic qualities observed at this quantum level and the shear number of quantum particles involved. On the other hand, these are not manifest properties of our big world.

Ford notes “Within a nucleus, an alpha particle may be “knocking on the door” 1020 times per second to get out, yet may make it through only after millions of years. In our human-sized world, the probabilities are even smaller. A warden need have no fear that a prisoner leaning against the prison wall will suddenly be free on the other side of the wall.”

Further he writes that “If most of what happens in the small-scale world is governed by laws of probability, why isn’t the same true in the large-scale world? The large-scale world is, after all, built of the numerous pieces of the small-scale world and must be subject to the same laws. (As I remarked earlier, we often encounter probability in the large-scale world, but it always arises from lack of full information-it is a probability of ignorance, not a fundamental probability.) There are two reasons fundamental probability usually hides from our view in the everyday world. One reason is that when enough individual probabilistic events are amassed, the result can be smooth, predictable change...The other reason is that fundamental probabilities, when extrapolated to the large-scale world, often turn out to be nearly zero or nearly one. The chance that quantum-mechanical tunneling will propel you through a brick wall is effectively zero (but not exactly zero). The chance that a thrown baseball will follow a smooth path, not zig or zag unpredictably, is effectively one-that is, 100 percent (but not exactly one).”

This is the Achilles Heel of mind over matter enthusiasts and practitioners in such varied human disciplines as transcendental meditation, vitalistic alternative medicines (i.e.; Homeopathy, Reiki, Acupuncture, Therapeutic Touch.), and disciples of quantum consciousness paradigms. On the other hand it is easy to see how so many can overlook the “fine print” of what the observations tell us and be seduced by attractive and hypnotic concepts.

In fact, it is possible to imagine that so many of these imaginary paradigms are but crude facsimiles or manifest fairy tales of the technological advances that may actually come to be some day if we continue to expand on a true understanding of the unfolding universe before us.

Ref: Ford, K. The quantum world.Harvard Univ Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2004

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