Type your e-mail address here for daily updates in your inbox

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Is Matter Real?/Sarah Might Win the Bet

Wednesday and the day is already hopping. Working on a large opportunity that needs finessing. And tonight I have to choose between the writing group or a pitch meeting at the Women's Club where members pitch ideas for songs to be included in their Spring show. Fun to have choices! And, I might yet win that bet with Josh!  Thursday a date with Wade from the Internet dating site. Soooo many red flags but they say insanity is doing the same things you've always done, expecting a different outcome. My fussiness has left me dateless (is it unreasonable to require my date be impossibly handsome, over 6', a Marine or Navy Seal, have his PhD, be professionally successful, be a genius, have his undergrad in literature so we can read to each other, love games, have a wicked sense of humor, be manly and brave, have run with the bulls in Pamplona, be a great writer, a devoted family man and a faithful lover?) So Wade. He has waist length hair (honoring his Cherokee roots), he does have his PhD in psychology, but he is not successful and alluded to his only interest in marriage if he met a wealthy woman or one with health insurance (red flag!!!), his politics are to the left of left (he was an organizer of the anti-NATO demonstrations this last summer), and he likes heavy metal (doesn't care for Burt Bacharach!).  Hmmm....what do we think? Stay tuned.

OK, so the next reality article is entitled Reality: Is Matter Real?  This one is tricky to understand and I'm not  fully embracing all the concepts but let me take a stab at it. Or just skip all of this and read the article for yourself (warning: your head will hurt!).

Experiment: you'll need a lamp, a projection screen and pieces of cardboard with holes of various sizes. If you shine the lamp at the screen with the cardboard in between, you will see a patch of light projected on the screen commensurate with the size of the hole in the cardboard. Repeat the experiment with pieces of cardboard with successively smaller holes and eventually, instead of a patch of light on the screen, you will see a light pattern that looks like a bulls-eye - this is called the Airy pattern and it's what happens when you force a wave of light through a hole.  Nothing mind shattering with this observation.

But step up the experiment a bit and replace the projection screen with a plate of glass coated with phosphor  and replace the lamp with a device that shoots electrons. When electrons hit the glass it lights up, allowing the observer to track where the electrons hit. The result is the same - the Airy pattern.  Peculiar though because electrons are particles located at precise points yet they are behaving like waves that that can "smear out across space, are divisible and merge into one another when they meet."

Take the experiment further.  Slow everything down so that you are shooting, out of the electron gun, JUST one electron at a time. The phosphorus screen lights up where the single electron hits the screen. One would expect a random assortment of hits (or I guess we should expect the electron to hit in the same spot every time.)  But no!  If you let this set up run for a while - one electron at a time hitting the screen, guess what happens? The Airy pattern! How the heck did the single electron know where to land vis-a-vis its counterparts who laid down their dot before them? Electrons do not have consciousness - they do not communicate with one another!

The article goes on to explain this difficult concept (wave particle duality of quantum mechanics) as a strange behavior that is widely observable. It seems there is a point where these particles make a transition between acting like a wave and becoming a spatially located object. "What exactly happens when the wave function collapses - when among the countless possibilities, where the particle could be at any moment, one is chosen, while all the others are rejected?"

And this is where it gets weird. What if you aren't in the same room as the experiment but have a camera set up to observe the experiment and transfer the image digitally to your computer?  "What reason is there to believe that the switch from probability wave to particle actually occurred on the phospor screen and not in the camera? Or maybe the switch actually occurred neither on the screen nor in the camera, but in your eyes!  Or maybe not your eyes, but your brain!
This ever-expanding chain is called the von Neumann chain, after the physicist and mathematician John von Neumann. One of his Princeton University colleagues, Eugene Wigner made a suggestion as to where to make the cut. As we follow the von Neumann chain upwards, the first entity we encounter that is not made up in any straightforward fashion out of pieces of matter is the consciousness of the observer. We might therefore want to say that when consciousness enters the picture, the wave function collapses and the probability wave turns into a particle....the idea that consciousness brings every day reality into existence is, of course, deeply strange.
What I'm hoping you're starting to understand is that there are credible theories that it's human consciousness that imparts reality. Reality, it's postulated,  is created in our brains - it is a useful illusion. Remember, it was Einstein who said, "Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one." When I talked with Wade (my Thursday date) about this, he coincidentally said, "When I kick a chair, it's real!" (How weird for him to have said, given that yesterday, I used the example of kicking a rock!)

Where I'm headed with this discussion is uncovering a better way for us to live. If we take this journey of understanding together and reach the conclusion that reality is a construct of our brains (consciousness), then we should come to realize that any limitations we may feel in our lives are also artificial constraints. Conceivably, the sky's the limit - we should be able to imagine flying and be able to fly! Or, in the absence of anything quite so dramatic, we should at a minimum, be able to detach, in a healthy way, from the limitations imposed by our reality lens and get crazy with possibilities. We could be the rare subset of the population who "gets it" - released from artificially, self-induced restraints. Picture us as beings who float above the rest of humanity with love, humor, intelligence and freedom from suffering! Totally serious - this line of thinking is challenging but potentially so liberating.


1 comment:

  1. As for what reality is, you might find the companion to the New Scientist article to be this--a neuroscientist who thinks he has experienced the afterlife, which is also real, but not experienced as real from the places in our brain where that is usually experienced: