The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Or, Reality as they know it

by Steve Gajadhar

Scientists are a crazy bunch. Especially those darn particle physicists. Despite what the rest of the world gets up to, they continue to find out new things that simply make me think, huh?Imagine it, a few guys (the lucky ones) get to go in an underground tunnel, accelerate particles up to 99% the speed of light, and see what bits fly off after they smash into each other. Later when they are sorting out the pieces, they try not to think about the implications of what they pick up. You see, physics is in a bit of a reality crisis and I think philosophers and writers need to step in and help.

Science - quantum physics in particular - postulates some pretty freaky stuff about the nature of reality, and it seems no one is attempting to interpret and communicate what these theories might actually tell us about reality as we know it, or think we do. I’m going to provide a reasonably current list of the realities that quantum physicists use to explain what they observe on the sub-atomic level. Hopefully this will get us all thinking and maybe a story or two will pop out of it!

Quantum Reality 1
Also known as the Copenhagen interpretation because it was developed by Neils Bohr and others at his Copenhagen institute. The Copenhagen interpretation basically asserts that there is no reality. That’s right, no reality. Believe it or not, this is the prevailing viewpoint of established science. “No reality” doesn’t mean we should deny the evidence of our senses - like the table I just stubbed my toe on. No reality simply means that the reality we observe floats on a world that is not real. I guess you could think of it as there being no deep reality. It gets better!Copenhageners deny deep reality, but they recognize the existence of something called a phenomenal reality, or a reality created by observation. What we see is real, but without someone there to observe the phenomena, it doesn’t exist. Think of it as a sort of Kantian idealism. Summed up, the Copenhagen interpretation asserts that there is no reality in the absence of observation and that observation creates reality.

Quantum Reality 2
The world is whole. Seamless and inseperable. The Toa of Physics delves into this as does The Dancing Wu-li Masters. If you hear someone mention the similarity between the quantum world and oriental mysticism, they are referring to this particular quantum interpretation of reality.But this isn’t the “everything is connected” wholeness of 1980s new agers, it is much more than that. In this view objects and particles are connected across the universe. The observer and observed are one and the same, inseperable and whole.

Quantum Reality 3
The many worlds interpretation. A favorite of SF writers, allowing for space jumps like John Scalzi uses in Old Man’s War, where a ship simply uses a quantum probability drive to jump locations and arrive in a universe where everything and everyone on the spaceship simply exists in a different physical location vastly removed from where they started out. Many worlds states that for every instance of observation or measurement, a multitude of new universes is created.Think of flipping a coin, or any other act with different probability based outcomes. Some many worlders believe that all outcomes actually happen with only the one we observe happening in our universe and the rest occurring in a new, created universe. Many copies of yourself and your world spawning many more copies and many more copies and so on. Huh? And this view is gaining considerable support because of its ability to explain some of the weirder aspects of the quantum measurement problem.

So now we have folks who don’t believe there is any reality, butting heads with folks who think there are an infinite number of realities, each as relevant and real as our own.

Quantum Reality 4
Quantum logic. There’s quite a few books out there that fictionalize this idea. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell is a great one. Think about throwing away every notion you have about the world and starting over. Then master the structure and rules of mathematical logic and throw them out in favor of wacky rules of logic. Change your thinking, don’t change the physics. Change the rules inside your head, and then rely on experiment rather than common sense.

Quantum Reality 5
Neorealism, the world is normal and made of ordinary objects. Heresy! And it is to most physicists. Objects posses attributes whether observed or not. No mumbo jumbo observer/observed, multi-verse, or logic traps. A couch is a couch is a couch. Einstein – ironically, since Einstein’s early work basically invented the field - was a member of this bunch, as was Planck, and Erwin Scrhodinger, all pioneers of science and thought. Unfortunately, neorealism flies in the face of the observed facts at the quantum level. Bohr’s school of thought (quantum reality 1) is the dominant one, and Bohr was utterly confident in his interpretation that ordinary objects are impossible in a quantum world.

Quantum Reality 6
Consciousness creates reality. Yikes. Someone pass the bong. This version of reality is the bailiwhick of a small number of the observer created realists of quantum reality 1. Only something endowed with consciousness can create reality. For me, this one makes a strange sort of sense and it also made sense to John von Neumann who built the mathematical structure for it that physicists still use today. Von Neumann also used math to prove that if quantum theory is correct, there can be no ordinary objects and the neorealists would be out in the cold.

Quantum Reality 7
Potentials and actualities, or P and A for short. There exist two worlds, one of potential and one of actuality. If there is no reality, and the observer creates reality, what is this reality created out of? As with all things quantum, the limitations of language make it really hard to explain exactly what is going on, but I’ll try. Atoms and particles are not real. The observed phenomena they create are as real as any other phenomena, but the things that create them, the atoms and particles are not real. Think of life. We make concrete choices with concrete outcomes, no multiple histories or universes, only one event happens, and to us it really happens. In the quantum world this is not the case. The quantum world is full of tendencies that are constantly shifting but nothing ever actually happens. It all stays in the realm of possibility. P and A’ers say that it is the act of measurement that bridges the gap between these two worlds. During measurement, one outcome surfaces from this shadowy world of probability into ours. Until measurement, the world is nothing more than potential. The world as we know it, is nothing more than an agreement between what we see and what is possible.

This stuff isn’t science fiction, it is science. And the cool (and unsettling) part is that each of these separate versions of reality predicts exactly the same observed phenomena. They are experimentally indistinguishable. And make no mistake, quantum physics works. It reliably and accurately predicts all sorts of things. It is a perfect guidebook for anything and everything scientists have so far used it to search for. Maybe some of you writers out there can use quantum realities to write the next great Murakami-esque novel. So get writing!


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

This was bracing, Steve! But what is 'string theory'?

Tue Feb 05, 10:19:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

This looks like great stuff, Steve. I'll take my time with and comment again. Are you a physicist?

Tue Feb 05, 08:17:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Thanks, Andrew.

That site should help you out. String theory is another attempt to reconcile what the hell is going on in our crazy universe. 11 dimensions, vibrating will make your head hurt!

Wed Feb 06, 02:58:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Hey Tricia,

I'm no physicist, that's for sure. I've just always had an interest in science. My wife does work with a few astrophysicists though, so we do have some interesting dinner conversations.

Wed Feb 06, 03:00:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous Ruth Taylor said...


A great job at Quantum for Dummies -- the only kind I understand. I like no. 7 myself. Makes perfect sense to me.

Wed Feb 06, 04:48:00 pm GMT-5  

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