The Newtonian Consciousness
To understand the nature of a city we must study its occupants. In much the same way, today I wish to explore the mind by studying its constituent parts. Until now, my articles have dealt with neurons, neurotransmitters, and organ systems. But today I wish to delve even deeper into our substance, past cells, molecules, and even atoms to the very smallest of the small. It is my hope that by understanding the occupants of our personal city we might gain a new perspective of the world we think we know.
Our journey will bring us from the nanoscopic (a size that leaves microscopes longing for their corrective lenses) all the way to the macroscopic (that which the human eye can appreciate). Along the way we will make a brief stop in the microscopic domain to study the bridge between the nanoscopic and the macroscopic world.
Our current understanding of matter begins at the smallest (for now) subdivision: the quark. Quarks, first described in the 1960s, are the nanoscopic building blocks of our world. Quarks combine in many different combinations to form, among other things, protons and neutrons (Neumann, 2008).
Protons and neutrons, in turn, combine with electrons to form atoms. The atom is composed of a nucleus of protons and neutrons with orbital rings of electrons encircling the nucleus.
Very famous atoms get their own one or two letter chemical symbol and are branded an element. The various elements are then inducted into the Elemental Hall of Fame, receiving a seat at the Periodic Table based on their atomic number (number of protons). The simplest element, hydrogen (H), is an atom made up of one proton and one electron (different “isotopes” of elements have varying numbers of neutrons).
When elements meet and strike up a partnership, they create molecules. Life would not be possible without the molecules of oxygen (O2, two components of elemental oxygen) that compose 21% of the air we breathe or the molecules of water (H2O, two components of elemental hydrogen and one component of elemental oxygen) that account for 60% of our body weight.
Now that we have completed our tour of nanoscopia, we can move on to the microscopic realm. At the microscopic level, we begin to appreciate the quality of the cell.
If molecules are informal partnerships, then cells are formal corporations. Complex boardrooms, filled with molecules, elements, and varied personalities maintain these cellular corporations, pushing and pulling to sustain the complicated dance of life. Cells can be singular, as in the bacterium, or work together in a multicellular system, as found in the human body.
When particularly successful cellular corporations acquire other cellular corporations, they begin to form monopolies. Without a Federal Trade Commission to monitor these natural monopolies, conglomerate cellular corporations (say that three times fast) join together to form syndicates known as tissues. Tissues are masses of cells and elements that execute similar and synergistic functions.
Tissue monopolies, in turn, combine to form governmental organs. The human body is the sum of these gubernatorial organs working together as a system.
The prototypical example of an organ would be the heart, functioning as the engine that propels blood and its passenger, oxygen (one of many passengers), throughout the body to provide energy for the life of our various organs, tissues, and cells.
Finally, at the suprascopic level, we find the Self, sitting atop this mountain of cells, tissues, and organs as a summative being, shrouded in esotery and utterly beyond scientific description. We might as well contemplate eternity when we attempt to make sense of how a collection of quarks could produce the sense of “I.”
Despite amazing technological advances in neuroscience and psychology over the previous three centuries, it still feels like describing the Self in scientific terms is like trying to understand Beethoven’s 9th by dissecting the amplitude and frequency of the sound waves generated by the string section.
Needless to say, our journey from quark to Self has revealed both the profound distance and proximal intimacy of our macroscopic world with the hidden nanoscopic world.
But what can the nanoscopic world tell us about our everyday macroscopic world?
To answer this question we must return to the very small and examine the laws of nature at the subatomic (any object smaller than an atom: i.e. quark, proton, electron, etc.) level.
Let’s begin our investigation with the quintessential components of an atom known as the proton, neutron, and electron. Diagrams, textbooks, and teachers depict these objects as particles.
A particle is a generic name for a very small, quantifiable, object with definite weight and volume. The classic depiction of a particle resembles a billiard ball shrunk down to a billionth of its actual size. Early scientists predicted that the particle would behave just like its analogic cousin, the billiard ball. If one were to collide two electron particles, for example, early scientists believed that they would bounce off one another at predictable angles and velocities.
If this model sounds wonderfully clean and simple, then “Why,” you might ask, “Must I poke the bear?”
Well, let’s continue and we shall begin to appreciate that this early model was incomplete in its description of the natural world.
For a more complete model, we must investigate the wave. The electromagnetic spectrum, with its wavelengths and frequencies, seems so far removed from the billiard ball particle world as to be relegated to a later chapter in the Book of Atom or even hidden away in an appendix somewhere. But I assure you, the divide is not as large as one might think.
A wave on an ocean seems an intuitive object. When we speak of trough and peak or wavelength and frequency, we are able to picture, albeit with some frustration, these qualities as they apply to an ocean wave. But to make the leap from ocean wave to visual light wave required a degree of mental gymnastics that likely left the participant feeling a bit queasy. It just seems odd that the color green was dictated not by some inherent property of a leaf but by the wavelength of light reflected off of it.
A wave is represented graphically by a never-ending series of hills and valleys with regular intervals. These intervals are known as wavelengths, and the number of cycles (completed wavelengths) per second is known as the frequency. The amplitude refers to the height of the peak or the trough as measured from the zero point (level ground in our hill analogy).
Ok, so we have refreshed our memory regarding particles and waves; now what?
Well, if I were to ask you whether an electron was a particle or a wave you would likely tell me, with an exasperated roll of your eyes, that an electron is a particle.
In a Newtonian world I would agree with you, but our modern understanding of physics has unfortunately charted a course through much more unsettling territory.
Sir Isaac Newton, a brilliant and eccentric mathematician, was famously inspired to describe the law of gravitation by observing the descent of an apple from its arboreal perch to a terrestrial terminus. His career would yield a mountainous body of work, but Newton is likely best known for his three laws of motion. These laws, in conjuncture with the law of gravitation, sought to describe behavior of matter at all scales, big and small.
Newton was able to describe, with exquisite accuracy, planetary orbits, projectile trajectories, and other macroscopic phenomena using his mathematical formulations. And for nearly three centuries, scientists treated these macroscopic laws as universal in application, believing that atomic and subatomic objects occupied a Newtonian world. Thus, the particle (electron, proton, neutron, etc.) was believed to behave as a billiard ball, interacting with the world in the same precise and predictable manner.
It wasn’t until physicists in the early 20th century peered into the depths of the atom and its constituent parts that the billiard ball universe was revealed to be a vastly more complex and very much less billiard-bally place than the Newtonian doctrine had suggested. To define the atom, physicists had to invent a new dictionary: quantum mechanics.
The theory of quantum mechanics rests firmly on the shoulders of many brilliant men and women whose work can be traced across the centuries. However, Max Planck, a German physicist, is often credited as the father of modern quantum mechanics. In fact, he won a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field.
“Quanta,” as Planck used the term, referred to the smallest discrete subatomic energy components that make up the constituent units of our known universe (quark, electron, etc.). The theory of quantum mechanics sought to describe the uniquely odd behavior of these subatomic and atomic quanta.
Quantum mechanics is so far beyond the scope of a single article that even my attempt at an outline is a bit like trying to draw a road map of the world on a paper napkin. Nonetheless, I will try to highlight the important points as I see them. Following our analysis of quantum mechanics, I will explain how a quantum philosophy can free us from our constrictive Newtonian consciousness.
For it is the space between certainties from which life emerges.
Our discussion of quantum mechanics will introduce the topics of wave-particle duality, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, quantum entanglement, nonlocality, superposition, and collapsible states. In my attempt to simplify these concepts some topics may develop inaccuracies during the distillation process. I beg the reader’s forgiveness and I will attempt to highlight these simplifications along the way.
A few paragraphs ago I asked you a seemingly redundant question: does an electron behave like a particle or oscillate like a wave? Instead of providing a clear answer I tried to distract you with a history lesson. Well I will no longer avoid the question: the answer, it turns out, is that an electron behaves as both a particle and a wave.
The notion that an electron (or any other atomic or subatomic object actually) could behave as a particle and as a wave simultaneously is perplexing to say the least.
The duality of this claim is akin to describing an electron as both the rock that plummets straight down into the water as well as the ripples that fan out from the impact site.
The notion that subatomic and atomic particles behave as both a wave and a particle is known as, you guessed it, wave-particle duality.
The notion of wave-particle duality rests on a very famous experiment by 19th century physicist, Thomas Young. Young’s experimental design has been tweaked, updated, and rehashed over the ensuing two centuries.
Another name for Young’s experiment is the double-slit experiment. The experiment entails using a metal rectangular screen with two parallel vertical slits as a way of filtering a beam of electrons or a beam of photons (a photon is the constituent component of light and was the subject of the first double-slit experiment). Behind the rectangular screen a rectangular detector measures and records the impact site of the filtered electrons or photons. The resulting image is a Pointillistic representation of all the dot-like impacts of the respective electrons or photons. (Carnal & Mlynek, 1991)
To understand how the double-slit experiment informs our understanding of wave-particle duality, we will run a simulation. In our simulation we will use a beam of electrons.First, we set up our double-slit screen filter and place its corresponding detector a short distance behind it. We then fire a beam of electrons at the screen and its double slits.
Before continuing, let’s make a prediction. If an electron behaved strictly as a particle, we would expect the beam to be split into two straight beams of electrons consistent with the shape and size of the two slits in our metal screen. We would expect our detector to provide a mirror image of the two slits. Additionally, if we fired a single electron at the filter, it would have to choose either the right or the left slit to pass through.Now if an electron were instead to behave purely as a wave, we would expect what is called a diffraction pattern to appear on the detector after the completion of our experiment. A diffraction pattern is the result of interference between two waves. The initial wave of electrons would be split between the two slits and this filtering process would produce two wave fronts. These two wave fronts would overlap prior to striking the detector. If the overlap between the two wave fronts occurred peak to peak, then the resulting image on the detector would be extra-bright due to the sum of the two amplitudes. This additive phenomenon is known as constructive interference.
If, however, one wave front’s peak overlapped with the other wave front’s trough, then they would cancel each other out and produce a dark line on the detector. This canceling out is known as destructive interference.The pattern of bright and dark bands on the detector is known as a diffraction pattern. A final point to remember is the fact that if we fired a single wave of energy at the double-slit filter, the wave could pass through both slits without having to choose one or the other, forming two new wave fronts.
Ok, now let’s fire real electrons at this double-slotted monstrosity and see what we actually measure.
A beam of electrons fired at the double-slit screen splits into two wave fronts and produces a diffraction pattern on the detector consistent with a wave. However, the detector registers this pattern as Pointillistic dots consistent with a classic particle.Even more perplexing, when we fire a single electron at the double-slotted screen and measure its choice of slit, we still find a Pointillistic diffraction pattern. The electron only passes through one or the other slit consistent with the behavior of a particle, but it creates a wave-like interference with itself only possible if the electron were a wave and split into two wave fronts after passing through both slits!
Perhaps an analogy may help the reader understand how an electron could behave as both a wave and as a particle. Let’s imagine we are drawing the profile of a can of soup. If we drew its profile from the side, we would create a rectangle. If, however, we drew the can from above, we would create a circle. The can possesses both a circular and rectangular quality; it is only a choice of a single perspective that creates a false dichotomy. (Lévy-Leblond, 1981)
In much the same way, an electron only appears to be defined by the characteristic of a wave or a particle if we limit our perspective. As in life, quantum mechanics is all about perspective.
Richard Feyman, a famous quantum physicist, used to remark that by contemplating the enigmatic double-slit experiment, one could appreciate all the mysteries of quantum mechanics (Greene, 1999).
Now that we have made the impossible possible let’s forge ahead to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
Long before he became a moniker for Walter White, Werner Karl Heisenberg was an equally famous (but far less notorious) theoretical physicist in Germany. Put simply, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that we cannot know a given subatomic object’s location and momentum at the same time (Greiner, 2001). The uncertainty principle essentially dictates that to measure an electron (or any other quanta), we must pick either momentum (mass x velocity) or location. This means that if we want to study an electron’s path we must freeze it to locate it, and then lose it to measure its speed and direction.
Ok, so our subatomic world consists of two-faced, uncertain, wave-particles. The reader may be convinced that I could not possibly confuse the situation anymore, but they would be wrong.
One of the most famous quantum mechanical thought experiments is that of Schrodinger’s Cat. Erwin Schrodinger was an Austrian physicist who generated the famous thought experiment as a reaction to a paper about quantum entanglement written by Albert Einstein. However, to discuss Schrodinger’s rather unfortunate cat, we must back track to Einstein’s theoretical interpretation of quantum entanglement, superposition, collapsible states, and nonlocality.
Quantum entanglement describes the relationship between two subatomic objects that have shared atomic states. Without getting into the details, scientists are able to study entangled electrons within a superconductor and extrapolate from there.
Let’s take the example of two entangled electrons, we’ll call them electron A and electron B. Physicists describe electrons by their “spin,” denoted by either positive or negative (physicists actually use the quantum numbers ½ and -½ to describe the spin of electrons). Spin indicates the angular momentum of a given particle (very basically, the directional speed x mass). By definition, every pair of entangled electrons must possess an opposite spin: i.e. if electron A were positive, B must be negative, and vice versa. (Armour et al., 2002)
So our unfortunate electrons are entangled, what’s the big deal? Let’s take a closer look at electron A and explore further.
Because of the probabilistic nature of the quantum world, at any point in time electron A has a 50% chance of having positive spin and a 50% chance of possessing negative spin. Let’s remember that no matter the spin of electron A, electron B must have the opposite spin.
This sounds all well and good but we must add two rather complex correlates to an already perplexing theory.
First, the quantum principle of superposition holds that electron A actually occupies both spin states, positive and negative, simultaneously, only “choosing” one state over the other when it is measured by an observer. This “choice” is known as a collapsible state (Wimmel, 1992).
To understand superposition and collapsible states I’ll ask you to flip a quantum coin.
I hand you a quantum quarter and tell you to call heads or tails. You flip the quarter into the air, catch it, and slap it on the back of your left hand, covering it with your right palm.
Now I ask you to predict whether the quantum quarter is heads up or tails up. Your instinct is to respond by choosing one state of the other. But wait! Remember this is no ordinary quarter. The quantum quarter occupies a quantum world where probability reigns and decisions are only made under the gaze of the observer.
The quantum quarter is actually in a superposed state, occupying both heads up and tails up. It is only when you remove your right hand and measure the outcome that the quarter collapses into a heads up or tails up state.
Returning to our paired electrons, we might recall that they possess an inverse spin relationship. So each of the pair is in a superposed state, occupying a positive and negative spin until one of the two electrons is measured, at which point both collapse simultaneously into their respective inverse states. For example, if electron A is measured to have positive spin, electron B immediately collapses into a negative spin. Collapsing implies a change (as if the quantum quarter switched from heads to tails or vice versa), but that is not entirely accurate because we are dealing with a nanoscopic world that exists in probabilities, not in one-to-one relationships.
Einstein referred to the second correlate of quantum entanglement, nonlocality, as “spooky action at a distance.” The theory of nonlocality states that if we were to separate electron A and B by some distance, their entanglement would not be disrupted; collapsing one state would instantaneously collapse the other. The farthest documented experimental distance in which nonlocality and entanglement has been measured was at the University of Geneva in 2008. Physicists were able to demonstrate intact entanglement in two photons separated by a little over 11 miles (Salart, 2008).
Ok, so there is some invisible connection that transmits information from electron A to electron B. Nope! First and foremost, you will recall that according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. The Geneva experiment showed that the mutual collapse of studied electrons into their respective spins occurred instantaneously without even the slightest time delay. Therefore, even information traveling at the speed of light could not account for the nonlocality effect.
11 miles may not seem that large of a distance but the theory of nonlocality postulates that quantum entanglement persists even at an infinite distance. This means that the collapse of entangled electron A in this corner of our Milky Way galaxy into a positive spin state would immediately “cause” (cause and effect are a little hazy at this scale) electron B in our nearest spiral galaxy cousin, the Andromeda galaxy, some 2.5 million light years away, to instantaneously assume a negative spin state. To put this distance in perspective, a modern shuttle would take approximately 93 billion years or a little less than 7 times the age of the known universe to travel to electron B in our distant neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy.
Phew! Now that we have examined quantum entanglement, collapsible states, and nonlocality, let’s return to Schrodinger’s forsaken feline.
Schrodinger proposed a reductio ad absurdum thought experiment to shift the bizarre nanoscopic quantum world of superposition, collapsible states, nonlocality, and quantum entanglement onto a more conceptually palatable, macroscopic scale.
Schrodinger proposed that a hypothetical cat be placed into a hypothetical lidded box. To the box, Schrodinger requested that a tiny radioactive atom be added, decaying at a rate such that over the course of one hour it had a 50% chance of emitting a radioactive ion and a 50% chance of remaining intact.
To what is becoming a crowded box, Schrodinger proposed adding a Geiger counter, a device that measures radioactive decay. This Geiger counter would be attached to a hammer suspended perilously over a vial of poisonous gas. Should the radioactive atom decay, the Geiger counter would be triggered, causing the hammer to fall, smashing the vial, and killing the confounded cat. (Schrodinger, 1935)
Schrodinger’s cat thus stood a 50% chance of surviving the hour and a 50% chance of perishing at the hands of this pitiless physicist. This experiment gets weirder (if possible) when we examine the quantum state of the hypothetical radioactive atom.
According to the theory of superposition and collapsible states, the radioactive atom occupies both a decayed and intact state prior to measurement. By extension, the Geiger counter-hammer-vial series is both triggered and not triggered. So Schrodinger’s cat is both dead and alive prior to Schrodinger opening the box at the end of the hour; it is only upon removing the lid that the cat collapses into a dead or alive state.
Current models of this thought experiment suggest that the state collapse occurs at the moment that the atomic decay is detected by the macroscopic Geiger counter, but Schrodinger’s original thought experiment is more interesting in its incorporation of a human observer as the determining factor of reality.
Lest you begin to feel intellectually doomed like Schrodinger’s fictitious feline, let’s stop adding new concepts and review.
Quantum entanglement, superposition, collapsible states, nonlocality, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, wave-particle duality… Newton and his billiard ball universe now seem a distant memory. But what a seductively simple and reductionist memory it is.
The human mind takes comfort in absolutes. The red and green lights reassure us while the yellow light produces consternation and a heavy foot. The human mind chooses to see the world through a Newtonian lens. But I would suggest that the comfort we derive from this unambiguous definition of our world is a sedative that only obscures reality.
The Newtonian consciousness imagines a mutually exclusive world with right and wrong, black and white, yes and no. The Newtonian conscious discriminates, judges, and differentiates. In this world of black and white there exists a Self and other, and never the two shall meet. We separate ourselves in our mind and insulate ourselves from a sense of universal duty, indiscriminate love, or true interconnection.
And yet, our soup cans oscillate between square and circle. The very foundation of our bodies exists not as concrete and mortar but as a shifting landscape of possibilities. We occupy a quantum world no matter how much we attempt to rationalize our way into a Newtonian dream.
We limit ourselves by calling an event bad or good. We judge ourselves to be a success or failure based on our arbitrary definitions. We feel sad when our expectations do not align with our realities. We feel happy when we believe our expectations have been fulfilled.
A quantum world would exist in total equanimity. Life would be perceived as a kaleidoscope of infinite, superposed possibilities, only limited by one’s choice and desire. And our past would not be seen as a chapter that required revision, but a collapsed state that materialized from an infinite number of possibilities to occupy the unassailable singularity we call Now.
We would not feel the urge to fight others to change the circumstances of the world because we would realize our entangled nature. We would change ourselves and allow the web of entanglement to transmit the rest.
The anxiety of desire would crumble under the humbling enormity of the universe and our realization of our negligible control over it.
We are each Schrodinger’s cat, both dead and alive; dead and oblivious to the expanse of possibilities contained within an infinite universe, but decisively and vibrantly alive despite our own denial. Take comfort in the mysteries of the quantum world, for it is your world too.
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