Before calling the stars of Quantum Mechanics onto the stage, there's one more player we must put in the spotlight first. He is probably the least known, greatest scientific thinker of all time, and in the architecture of physics stands as the most significant structure you'll find between Newton and Einstein, equal to both in contributions and visionary thinking. His life, unfortunately, was cut short by his own hand. Some say it was the disdain his theories received from colleagues which drew the ultimate blow. Others proclaim it merely the final act of a man at constant battle with depression. Either way both his contemporaries and history have yet to give him the true honors he deserves. His name is Ludwig Boltzmann.
Ludwig is the father of Entropy, something not completely relevant to us, but worth mentioning because entropy helps explain time. More specifically, it helps explain why time flows in one direction, which is relevant to everything. He also happened to have once uttered that energy levels of a physical system could be discrete, which having done so in 1877, makes him a Viking to Quantum Mechanic's Columbus. I.E. He was stomping around in the land of Quantum Mechanics twenty three years before Quantum Mechanics was "discovered". Forty seven years before the term "Quantum Mechanics" was ever even used. He was also the strongest advocate for atoms and molecules of his time, yet in the same way Leucippus and Democratis tried to reconcile the opposing theories of Parmenides and Heraclitus, Boltzmann had hoped to find a way to make atomists and anti-atomists happy. He failed, and in doing so almost destroyed all his other theories.
Now the point of all this is one. Boltzmann was an atomist living in a time when atomists were still frowned upon who, by saying what he said, took the concept behind the idea of the atom - the idea that there is a base unit of something finite and irreducible from which all the universe is built - and went one step further. He presented his fellow man with the novel proposition that, at the microscopic level, everything was quantifiable, even things as ethereal as energy. With that single proposition he showed the error inherent in strict atomist thinking which, in turn, gives us a concise way to clear up the misunderstanding as to what the word "quantum" in "Quantum Mechanics" really means.
This, in an incredibly roundabout way, brings us to what this article is all about - addressing the main culprit for why most people get permanently confused by all things quantum mechanical.
Let's start with the atomists. At the most basic, they're of the opinion that in the entire universe there are atoms and absolutely nothing else. In other words, wherever and whenever there isn't an atom there is empty space. Leucippus and Democratis called this "the Void". In more recent times this nothingness was referred to as a vacuum. When modern-day atomists started cuddling up to the view that atoms were most likely comprised of neutrons, electrons, and protons the orthodoxy of the Void / vacuum / empty space lived on. Best way to prove this - imagine what an atom looks like... did you envision small little spheres orbiting a larger one, like tiny planets orbiting a tiny sun? Well, that's wrong. It makes for a great logo, and that's about it. The parts of an atom are not quantifiable, and not only are they not finite balls of stuff spinning around a larger ball of finite stuff, but, more importantly, there is no genuine empty space between these balls of stuff. Even the movie "Alien" with its tag-line "In space, no-one can hear you scream" is wrong, for it promulgates the falsity that outer-space is a vacuum void of everything. The truth of the matter is our universe is slam bam full of energy, and as Einstein proved with his famous E=MC2 equation, mass is actually just a form of energy. One could go so far as to argue that Everything (notice the capital "E") is merely one huge bowl of energy soup.
So what about Quantum Mechanics? If matter is not quantifiable, if everything is ultimately a form of energy occasionally manifesting itself as parts of an atom, what's with the name "Quantum Mechanics"? Well, two things. One, Quantum Mechanics ultimately deals with probabilities and those probabilities ARE quantifiable. Two, as Boltzmann said, and later scientists proved, energy is not continuous. It actually comes in discrete units ("discrete" as in "distinct", "separate" - not to be confused with "discreet", which I did, thinking for ages that energy was subtle and circumspect). What Quantum Mechanics, in fact, does is calculate, with extreme accuracy, the finite area inhabited by a particle as well as describe and explain energy in terms of measurable quantities. In short, it is able to quantify a universe which is not strictly quantifiable.
But how does it do this exactly? And if matter is really just a fuzzy cloud why does the macroscopic world look so clear and defined? And what's with this whole "probability" thing? We'll get into that and more next month when we stop dipping our toe into the Quantum Mechanic pool, and dive head-first into the deep end.
Born in Malta to the son of a diplomat, Harry spent his life traveling from one side of the world to the other. After attending Brown University and Oxford where his studies primarily focused on philosophy with a slight bend towards science, Harry lived in Geneva working as a researcher then an assistant professor and later as an advisor to the U.N. Although Harry's primary job for the past few years is as an Attaché at D.N.T.'s Asian branch, he spends a lot of his time consulting for fiction writers on Marxism, Existentialism, and post-Newtonian physics. Harry now divides his time between Asia and his family home on Cape Cod.