The Realm Of The Quantum: What Does It Mean?

If you take quantum physics to its logical conclusion, you can only deduce that those residents of the quantum realm, those elementary particles, have some very strange properties bordering on self-awareness, consciousness, quasi-free will, a sort of ‘mind’ of their own but programmed with the social mores of quantum-land. They have the ability to ‘know’ things about their external world and their relationship to that. They can make decisions with respect to those relationships and act accordingly within their programming. They are not totally unresponsive and inert little billiard balls.

I’m also aware that such an assertion crosses the boundary between my being rational and being irrational. I mean how could an electron for example ‘know’ anything and make decisions? Such a proposition makes alien abductions, the Loch Ness Monster and the realm of astrology seem downright normal and acceptable and within the realm of conventional logic! But there is experimental evidence and observations to back this up.

Case Study #1 – The Double Slit Experiment: Take the infamous double slit experiment (referenced in any and all tomes on quantum physics). Send a stream (lots and lots and lots) of photons at two parallel slits that have a target board of sorts behind them that show where the photons land after they pass through the dual slits. The photons pass through both slits and form on the target board a classic wave interference pattern, thereby showing that electromagnetic radiation, in this case visible light, is a wave. So far; so good. Now fire one light photon at a time at the dual slits, such that one photon will pass through the slits and reach the target board before the next photon is released. What you get – wait for it – is a classic wave interference pattern! That’s ridiculous. It’s as if one photon passes both slits at the same time and interferes with itself. That’s very funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha. In fact, it’s straight out of the “Twilight Zone” again. But wait, it gets worse. Now rerun the one photon at a time experiment but set up a detection device at each slit in order to determine if the photon goes through just one slit or through both. What happens is that the lone photons, fired one at a time, is indeed detected going through one slit or the other slit but not both simultaneously and thus, as you would expect, the classic wave interference pattern vanishes to be replaced with two separate and apart lines on the target board. That’s totally nuts since without detectors at the slits you get that classic wave interference pattern; with detectors, no such pattern. The question is, how did the photon ‘know’ the detectors were there and thus change their behaviour?

Case Study #2 – Entanglement: In the double slit experiment where one photon went through both slits simultaneously, the photon was said to be in a state of superposition – it could be in two places at the same time. In this new study we have two particles with a common origin, linked in some way, and released together out into the wilderness, sort of like Hansel and Gretel. Unlike the fairy tale, the two particles fly off in differing directions. So far; so good. The particles are not quite identical, just like Hansel and Gretel are not quite identical, but complementary, as one particle might be the antiparticle of the other or one is either spin up or spin down and the other is either spin down o spin up. The two particles are again considered to be in a state of superposition – each is simultaneously a particle and its antiparticle; or both are in a state of spin up and spin down. In other words, as in the case of the double slit experiment, there is doubt about who’s who and what’s what until a detector is put into place. I this example both particles fly off until they are on opposite sides of the Universe. Then, a detector is put into position in the pathway of one of the pair (i.e. – someone peeks). When someone peeked (i.e. – the detector detected) as in the double slit experiment, the photon was required to go into an either/or state. Ditto here. If the particle turns out to be Hansel, you know the particle on the opposite side of the Universe must be Gretel. Or, if one particle is observed to be an antiparticle, or say spin up, its partner clear across the Universe instantaneously must cease its superposition of state and become a particle or solidify into a spin down state. That one particle across the Universe somehow ‘knows’ that the superposition of state jig is up since its counterpart has been caught in the act (i.e. – observed or detected). Einstein had a phrase for this. He called it “spooky action at a distance”. Einstein wasn’t happy since this instantaneous communication implied superluminal speeds, faster than the speed of light, which his Special Theory of Relativity gave the thumbs down to. Now apparently, if I’m to understand things correctly, it’s noted that restrictions on the speed of light as the ultimate cosmic speed limit only applies if actual information is being transmitted. Pure gibberish can be transmitted instantaneously and ‘communication’ between two entangled particles isn’t actually information. How the cosmos ‘knows’ whether or not something is, or is not, bona fide information and thus employs photons travelling at the speed of light, or gibberish and thus allows instantaneous ‘communication’, is, IMHO gibberish! The whole issue is resolved if you just eliminate the concept of superposition of state. Something cannot both be and not be at the same time in the same place.

Case Study #3 – Electron Energy Levels: We are aware from elementary chemistry class that there is a cloud of electrons that surround the nucleus (protons plus neutrons) of atoms. Nucleus plus electrons equal whole atoms. The electrons only exist in specific quantified energy states. If they didn’t, they’d collapse and crash into the nucleus and that would be the end of chemistry as we know it! An electron can absorb a unit (or a quanta) of energy, or maybe two (or more) units and jump up a notch or two or three, or give off a unit(s) of energy and drop down a notch or two or three (but never to zero and hit the nucleus). The energy is absorbed or emitted by the absorption or emission of photons. So here comes along a photon minding its own business and runs smack into an electron which gobbles it up and jumps into the next higher energy state. Okay, that makes sense, so far; so good. That’s an example of cause-and-effect. The issue arising is how and why does the electron release the photon from bondage at a later stage and drop back down a level in energy? There seems to be causality working in one direction (absorbing the photon) but not the other way around. So it almost appears as if the self-aware electron wills itself rid of the photon at some point in time and drops down into a more comfortable energy state. However, I gather that there’s a possible explanation in that another photon comes along, hits the electron, and knocks the first photon out thus dropping the electron to a lower energy state. Since nobody has ever witnessed a photon hitting an electron, I guess that’s all conjecture. Still, any natural explanation is better than none.

However there are many other instances apart from the scenario of an electron in ‘orbit’ where electron-photon intersections (absorption and emission) are described, most notably in those [Richard] Feynman diagrams known and loved by particle physicists everywhere. These diagrams illustrate the various electron-photon exchanges but lack explanation as to how photons are given off or escape from the electron’s clutches. It’s all rather mysterious, rather like radioactive decay.

While on this subject, I should point out another anomaly. Electrons can have just-so quanta energy levels, like 1, 2 3, etc. but not in-between. Energy states of say 1.5 or 2.2 or 3.7 are not allowed. So, when an electron jumps up or down an energy level or two to another energy level, they must do so without going through the spatial intermediaries. First they are here; then they are there, but never in-between. That’s all closely related to the concept of quantum tunnelling where say you are on one side of a wall and then you are on the other side of the wall but you didn’t go through, up over, dig under, or go around the wall. You can’t do that, but elementary particles can. Neat trick that one.

Case Study #4 – Neutrinos: There are three types of neutrinos. There are electron-neutrinos; muon-neutrinos and tau-neutrinos (just like there are electrons, muons and tau particles). Neutrinos, and their antiparticle counterparts, are given off in numerous ways like in various nuclear reactions taking place in the hearts of stars, including our Sun. Billions of these neutrinos pass right through you (without harm) each second. So far; so good. What’s odd is that while in transit, each morphs or shape-shifts into the other neutrino forms and back again and forth and back and forth. It’s like one was in its birthday suit, one in casual wear and one in formal attire and on their journey always keep changing their attire. There doesn’t appear to be any causal reason for this, so perhaps this is what is known as neutrino free will!

Case Study #5 – Antimatter: We’re all aware of the concept of antimatter. Each fundamental particle has an equal but opposite counterpart called its antiparticle. The most common example is the electron and the anti-electron, otherwise known as the positron. We’re also aware that when a particle meets and greets its antiparticle you get a big ka-boom! The two will annihilate each other producing pure energy. But, and this is my understanding, it has to be a particle and its very own corresponding antiparticle. So an electron meets and greets a positron – ka-boom. And so if a proton and an anti-proton meet and greet – ka-boom. But if a proton and an anti-electron (positron) meet and greet – nothing happens because they are not equal and opposite though they are matter and antimatter. Ditto if an anti-proton and neutron meet and greet – nothing happens. The question arises, how do these various particles and antiparticles recognise friend from foe? When foes meet like the positron and the electron, its annihilation. When a positron meets a proton, it’s a friendly meet and greet. How do these particles ‘know’?

Case Study #6 – Quantum Tunnelling: Every now and again we just want to bust out of our day-to-day existence and escape to that greener grass on the other side of the fence. Alas, there’s usually some barrier, economic, geographical, language, cultural, etc. that prevents us from busting out. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wave a magic wand and bust through whatever factor(s) is holding us back? Well, sadly to say, it’s not usually the case where we can. Lottery wins are few and far between, and even if money were no object, there are other considerations holding us back from that get-up-and-go. Subatomic particles also face barriers in their micro world, barriers of matter and energy, fields and forces, which prevent them from doing their thing. However, subatomic particles have sold their soul to the devil that inhabits quantum land and in exchange have been issued a get-out-of-jail card. It’s called quantum tunnelling and it suggests that subatomic particles can tunnel around, over or through any matter and energy, force or field, restriction. The interesting bit is that the tunnelling happens for no reason at all, involves absolutely no effort on the part of the tunneller, and it all happens instantaneously. So, an electron on one side of a brick wall can instantaneously find itself on the other side without any causality in operation. It’s like our Edgar Rice Burroughs hero John Carter who just wishes himself to Barsoom (i.e. – Mars) and there he is! Perhaps quantum tunnelling is the micro version of the macro wormhole!

In general I think you’d need to agree that there are some decidedly odd goings on here from lack of causality to tiny particles that seem to ‘know’ how to behave either when face-to-face with an observer, or in other either/or situations. Now the odds that these tiny particles actually have the ability to make decisions and exhibit free will divorced from causality, and to ‘know’ things that influence that decision making process is, well nearly infinity to one against. Yet, these anomalies exist and have been verified again and again. So, IMHO, the only other rational explanation is that there must be some sort of guiding power or force, some sort of as yet uncovered hidden variables, maybe programming of some sort, which is responsible. Exactly what that might be – well your guess is as good as mine.

As a review, with commentary, these are my takes on quantum strangeness:

Case Study #1 deals with that double slit experiment. IMHO photons fired one at a time at the double slit should not form a classic wave interference pattern with or without slit detectors in place. The concept of superposition belongs in “The Twilight Zone”, though apparently, so the scenario goes, what’s emitted is a particle; what’s detected is a particle; but the flight or pathway in-between is a wave-of-probability. It’s the slit detector that changes wave-of-probability into location, but that exact location must have existed even had the detector (our stand-in observer) not been in place. How does that explain the one photon at a time interfering with itself and causing that classic wave interference pattern? It doesn’t, but it’s a better bet than trying to come to terms with the idea of a thing being in two places at the same time.

Case Study #2, dealing with entanglement, well let’s just say that a particle on one side of the Universe should be independent of the fate of a particle on the opposite side of the Universe. More superposition equals more of “The Twilight Zone”.

Case Study #3: There needs to be a bona fide causality inspired reason why an electron gives away a photon and drops to a lower energy level. It’s not a whim thing. Maybe it’s another photon bumping into the electron and discharging the absorbed photon, maybe not, but it’s not a whim thing.

Case Study #4: Neutrinos should not endlessly change their clothes on route. The fact that they do contributed to some serious reflection that the core of our Sun had actually shut down. Scientists when looking for electron-neutrinos emitted by the Sun’s solar furnace didn’t see enough of them and thought the worst. It wasn’t until much later that they realised they had missed all those electron-neutrinos that the Sun had actually given off but which had changed their attire between the Sun and the Earth.

Case Study #5 notes that if you are made of matter, it would not be a good idea to shake hands with your antimatter twin self! But why matter and antimatter should go poof at all is a bit strange. An electron has a negative charge and its antimatter twin has a positive charge (hence the name positron). They go poof upon contact. But a proton has a positive charge equal and opposite to that of an electron and they don’t go poof when brought into contact so there’s more than just opposite charges annihilating each other at work here obviously. There’s no question that chemical reactions can give off energy, but total annihilation – wow.

Case Study #6: Quantum Tunnelling should happen for a reason – it doesn’t. Quantum Tunnelling shouldn’t happen instantaneously since that violates the cosmic speed limit – the speed of light. The fact that in the micro world, barriers, well ain’t, makes all human inmates wish they were subatomic particles!

The overall image that keeps springing to mind is all those Hollywood special effects. They would be an excellent explanation for all of the above weirdness. Think about it!

Finally, we should also note that most of the above examples or case histories involve quantum probability, uncertainty, indeterminism, etc. with respect or relative to the observer which could be you or me.

Case Study #1 suggests that photons (or electrons or any other fundamental particle) are in a superposition of state, which suggests that they can be apparently in two (or more) locations at the same time, and it’s only based on probability as to exactly where that location is. But it is in just one location as the addition of actual slit detectors verifies. So, the key point is that the photon or electron or whatever is 100% at a specific set of coordinates even if the double slit experiment suggests that the photon or electron or whatever is smeared out over a wide ranging area and only probably here or probably there. So probability really bites the dust since location (one slit or the other) is confirmed by observation – there’s location, location, location; not probable, probable, probable!

In Case Study #2 we have more about that superposition of state whereby a particle may actually be a particle or an antiparticle (probability is 50/50) or spin up or spin down (probability 50/50). But you know, and I know, that in reality, one particle IS a particle (probability 100%) and the other IS an antiparticle (probability 100%) or one particle IS spin up (100% probability) and the other IS spin down (100% probability). There is no indeterminacy even if there is no observer, there is only determinacy, positive actuality, whether or not one or the other is observed. There is no across the universe communication. There is no ‘spooky action at a distance’. There is no probability involved other than 100% probability, otherwise known as a sure thing.

In Case Study #3 we have an electron that absorbs a photon’s energy and thus quantum jumps to a higher energy level. It then becomes a matter of probability as to when that electron emits that photon and jumps back down to a lower energy level. But, as in the case of radioactive decay, the odds are 100% that it will happen. Probability need not apply here. Probability is not applicable. The key concept here is again, ‘sooner or later’.

In Case Study #4, we might not know why the neutrino changes clothes, or exactly when and under what circumstances, so, as far as we are concerned it’s all boiled down to statistical probability what clothes any particular neutrino will be wearing when detected. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that causality is operating and that it’s 100% certain that the neutrino is wearing the clothes that causality has dictated. There’s no probability involved, only the probability that we’re probably pretty dumb for not figuring out why.

Finally, in Case Study #5 somehow particles and antiparticles seemingly ‘know’ when they meet and greet whether to go poof or not go poof. The mystery is how they ‘know’. But it’s total certainty one way or the other and the observer has no relevance or say in the matter.

Case Study #6: Quantum Tunnelling, as already noted, happens for no reason at all. It’s responsible for radioactive decay which happens for no apparent reason at all. There is no way, rhyme or reason that enables one to predict when a quantum tunnelling event will transpire. It’s all probability. Either that, or a subatomic particle has a free will mind of its own and the knowledge and the ability of a Harry Houdini.

I have one other observation while on the issue of causality and probability if you please. If something quantum happens for no reason at all (i.e. – unstable subatomic nuclei goes poof) why doesn’t everything micro happen for no reason at all. Or, if some quantum happenings are just probabilities, why aren’t all micro happenings probabilities. Now IMHO if 99.999% of all physical effects can be traced back to one or more causes, it’s pretty safe to suggest, even conclude if you’re a betting person, that 100% of all physical can be traced back to one or more causes, even if those causes remain as yet unknown.

Lastly, consider and reconsider the quantum mantra: Anything that isn’t forbidden is compulsory; anything that can happen will happen. Does that sound like a probability statement to you?

I suggest this puts the kibosh on quantum physics being steeped in probability. There is no probability once you eliminate the observer and the observer’s fixation on either where things are; where something is, or whether something is or is not going to happen, and when something is going to happen. Before there were observers, things were somewhere, fixed and absolute, things did their thing without any guesswork or decision-making involved, and things happened sooner or later with absolute certainty.