Playing Dice… and the Universe

Well howdy. Sorry I’ve been gone awhile. The command centre here has been occupied by the mister of the house in the last couple weeks as he prepares for a project which commences this weekend. I’ve managed to etch out a few minutes here while he’s out and I’m not pressed to do something else.

So I thought my return to blogland should be memorable.

Let’s talk about Quantum Mechanics!!! Why the capitals? I’m not sure… I intuitively feel like there is some similarity here not unlike the difference between god and God though… more on that in a minute.

A quick recap- I’m studying Mechanical Engineering over here at Heriot-Watt for the next four (maybe five) years. Core subjects in year one and two include physics and maths.

Now for those of you who know me or have known me at some point in my life, you may well be aware that until I began this journey to become re-educated in SCIENCE, my only real encounter with physics was in high school. The teacher, one of the coaches, thought the best way to approach this subject was by watching high speed police chase videos and by throwing watermelons off of the school roof. With that kind of quality education you won’t find it surprising that when I returned to physics in my 30-s-ahem nevermind, I couldn’t recall much more than Isaac Newton was this guy who watched apples fall off trees for fun.

Here I am now in semester two of university level physics. I’ve come a long way (and in some ways not very far at all!) I passed my exams last term which means I know more about classical mechanics and like a marginal amount more about general relativity. Basically, if I encounter those equations I no longer wince and duck under my cape.

Buuuuuuuttttt what is happening this semester has been… different. The lecturer is a pretty fun guy, a quantum physicist who comes from my generation and has the similar taste in music-(I can tell he misses the 90’s as much as I do). He has decided he’s going to teach us the “basics” of quantum mechanics.

Yup. Just like that.

I admire his ambition and I am pleased to say that I feel like I learned something.

It’s mostly about probabilities. Like dice games. Imagine for a moment the dice hovering there in mid-air waiting to land and reveal the number. Well in that interim state they aren’t anything yet… but a possibility. It’s the same kind of thing going on in the world of the teensy weensy small… (atomic small).

Now for you other non-science folk don’t run away screaming. You know those electrons orbiting inside an atom (Nucleus… photon.. dark matter… black hole… Hadron collider- ok I’ll stop scaring you now lol)

An artistic representation of the outdated atomic model (don’t get this tattooed on yourself- its inaccurate!)

You know what I’m talking about though. You’ve seen it. That thing over there. Remember that???

Ok, so the electrons are the little balls going around that big green one. These electrons are both particles and waves and have a wavelength (they go up and down- think of a wave on a string) and they do that inside their orbit and they have a higher probability of doing it at certain spots inside their wavelength or rather a probability of being at certain point on their wave inside their orbit and when you go to observe it… it might not be there or it might.. and/or the thing to throw your noodle for a loop is that it is also… sometimes… in both places at once?!?!?

So that’s the Uncertainty Principle (kind of… ok I’m not even going to pretend I’m qualified to teach you this!). Some scientists, like Einstein, didn’t think that was really true… that instead we just don’t have all the facts yet and there must be some missing constant we don’t know about. For this he’s famous for saying “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Other scientists, like Stephen Hawking think we’ve already tested and proven this is totally true because of what is coming out of black holes. By the way, his lecture on this very subject is fairly accessible I highly recommend reading it here.

There is still room for debate about this because they’ve only mapped out the simplest atom (Hydrogen) and they can’t even begin to work out the uncertainties involved with anything more complicated because maths! (Isaac Newton invented calculus to deal with classical mechanics- I think there is scope here for a pioneering mathematician to come up with a new system for quantum mechanics… but what do I know I can’t even do calculus properly yet!)

Anyway the reason we’re still thinking about it is because it’s hard to test and prove this stuff, the maths are seriously advanced, and there is this other thing. The elephant in the room thing. The… shhhh… God thing.

People get pretty worked up about believing in Him, not believing and everything in between. From my limited exposure to this, it seems like some scientists think it would be nice if there was a way to pin this crazy stuff down so that it fit into a model of pre-determination. God is either out of the picture or if He is there at all he set the wheels turning and went back to his part of the universe to kick back, turn up the Beach Boys and stick a little umbrella in his pineapple cocktail.

So it seems again, at the most fundamental level of everything that we don’t know (which is a LOT), science is a fight of the head and the heart.

I started out this afternoon on Einstein’s side. I want it to be nice and tidy (not because I dread the derivations in 3rd year but yea there’s a little of that too). I want it to be nice and tidy because… Order. Beginnings and ends. Life and Death. Circles and spirals and Pi. But, that’s me and my observations of babies and seasons and cycles – my human experience. That being said, I am a spiritual person and I know the dice are sometimes rolled. I welcome and dread the uncertainty- such as the chaotic and destructive force that is my son. If I’m being really honest there is no avoiding uncertainty. It’s as much part of my life, our world, our universe as is the order.



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