The simple sophistication of our physical world

This column is about a scientific discovery that has changed the way I view the world, and the way I view myself. To many, quantum physics conjures images of endless equations and tedious formulae, but as the numbers unwind themselves, it becomes clear that the real meaning here transcends the numbers. It revolutionizes the human perception of time, space and reality. What’s more, we are made of the basic particles of all matter that are governed by the laws of quantum theory. Consider what this says about us-this is what it means to me.

I have the thrill-seeking gene. I saturate myself in every experience just to drown in the adrenaline rush-it’s the only thing that makes it worth it for me. I cannot settle for anything less than extraordinary. And of course, I’ve been disappointed so many times by the overwhelming numbness of something I expected to be great. I felt myself becoming cynical, worried that maybe there really wasn’t something extraordinary to be found in every experience. I considered deluding myself into settling for the mediocre. And then, I found my proof of paradise.

Quantum mechanics is the most perfect theory physics has to offer. It is based on a great plunge of faith. It evolved from the evidence of Young’s famous double-slit experiment.

Imagine this: an electron gun on one side of a board with two slits. Think of an electron gun as any kind of gun, the electrons analogous to bullets. When you shoot the electrons at the board (one at a time), some of them go through one slit, and some through the other. On the other side of the board is a photosensitive screen, and when an electron hits the screen, a mark is made. As the electrons are fired through the slits, a pattern forms on the screen-a wave interference pattern, like ripples in a lake when you toss a pebble in.

The problem is, for an interference pattern to be created, the electron has to interfere with something. Remember that the electrons, like bullets, are fired one at a time, going through either one slit or the other. And here’s the rub: the only way that this pattern can be explained is if the electron interferes with itself. Each electron goes through both slits, at the same time.

The electron is a wave and a particle, assuming both these conflicting identities simultaneously and completely. I accept the paradox of quantum mechanics because I realize I am human and mortal. “There are greater things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy” -Hamlet.

And what does this mean to me? The electron is the grain of all matter in the world – the electron, whose behavior declares a fundamental rejection of human logic, intuition and the concept of what is possible, whose very nature is guarded by the divine conspiracy of Heisenberg Uncertainty.

If the fabric of the universe is inherently this supernatural bizarre craziness, then I am allowed to dream. I am allowed to believe that in every experience and every person and every conglomeration of sub-atomic particles, there is an exquisite and ethereal delight waiting to be discovered. I will never settle for anything less than extraordinary, because I know it’s out there. I hold the sophisticated complexity of the universe as testimony.

For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past ever imagined!

-Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

Priyanka Timblo is a junior majoring in economics. She can be contacted at p.timblo@umiami.edu.

September 29, 2006


The Miami Hurricane

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