Quantum Enigma part 2 (review).. The nature of matter- is it a compact particle, or a spread out wave?

I would like to begin this post by pointing out that you do not need to have a strong background in physics in order to appreciate the Quantum Enigma, or even any background in physics at all. The enigma can be appreciated by anyone who is interested in the philosophical debate on free will, and our entire perception of consciousness and reality. Just remember it’s very important that you keep an open mind when learning the controversial information of the results of experimentation as it is confusing, and consequently hard to believe.

Just to clear some things up from the previous post-

The “wavefunction” of an object, is merely the object itself (spread out, or compact- not both) and it’s “waviness” is simply the probability of where an object will be found in a particular place. NOT the probability of an object actually being in a certain place. Waviness is, in technical terms, the absolute square of the wavefunction, but it is essentially probability.

In order to refresh our memories, it is important to remember that the two-slit experiment produced an interference pattern, which suggested that light is a spread out wave. The bright spots are where the crests of the waves added together (constructive interference) and the dark spots are where a crest of one wave meets the trough of another and cancel each other (destructive interference). The bright spots have the greatest probability of being observed. The photoelectric experiment suggests that light is a particle. I also forgot to mention a very important man in the previous post- Prince Louis de Broglie. He shared Einstein’s concern with lights duality, wondering if there is a deeper meaning to the wave-particle paradox. If light has dual properties, could this be true of nature itself? This is when de Broglie began to consider matter as being a particle or a wave.

Meanwhile, as De Broglie was speculating this aspect, an accident occurred in the labs of telephone companies in NY. Normally, electrons bounced off amorphous metal surfaces in all directions. That behavior was important for telephone transmissions. However, after the accident in which air had leaked in and oxidized the nickel surface, the metal was heated to drive off the oxygen. The nickel crystallized, forming an array of ‘slits’. Electrons now bounced off in only a few, well-defined directions. It was an interference pattern demonstrating the electron’s wave nature, this confirmed de Broglie’s speculation that matter could also be waves!

So basically we have learned so far about the wave-particle paradox with light. Schrödinger was the first to recognize this contradiction where he went on to produce an equation governing waves of matter. This universal equation would apply to both small and large objects. For big things, Schrödinger’s equation essentially becomes Newton’s universal equation of motion. Therefore, Schrödinger’s equation is the new universal law of motion.

The next couple of chapters deal with atoms using the same two experiments in order to confirm whether matter can be a particle or a wave. Note that depending how you look, you can see both. Using an atom as our object, it’s helpful to think of it as a really tiny green marble.

This time, the experiments are done using box-pairs. For all experiments, the marble is placed in an apparatus that launches the marble into the pair of boxes. In the first experiment, the observer opens one box at a time. This experiment is done several times, and each time, it is certain that, when the observer looks, they will find the marble wholly in one box. If the observer sees the marble in the first box that is opened, it is known that the marble cannot be in the second box, and therefore, when the observer looks, the second box is totally empty. Furthermore, if the observer does not see the marble in the first box, it becomes known that the marble must be in the other box. When the second box is opened, the observer will in fact find the marble wholly in that box.

Next, the box-pair is placed in front of a sticky screen, and again the experimenter opens one box at a time. Not being able to see the marble, as it is moving so fast, the experimenter hears the marble hit the screen and therefore can determine which box the marble came out of. If they hear the ‘plink’ of the marble after opening the first box, they will not hear the plink upon opening the second and vice versa.

Finally, another experiment is done by opening both boxes at essentially the same time. The box-pairs were again placed in front of the sticky screen. When the boxes were both opened, the marble was projected out (so fast that it could not be observed) but the experimenter ‘heard’ the plink of the marble hit the screen. When the experimenter looked, they found the marble on the screen. This process was repeated several times with several box-pairs positioned in the same place. The observer notices a pattern of the marbles on the screen. This experiment produced an interference pattern. It seemed that the marbles followed a rule, where they only landed in certain spots. In other words, more areas of the screen was more dense with marbles than other areas on the screen.

In the first experiment, when opening the boxes separately a uniform pattern appeared. But when opening the boxes at the same time the pattern appears- more or less marbles in certain spots. But how can opening the empty box along with the box that contained the marble affect where the marble will land? The experimenter exclaims that opening a box that was truly empty would have no affect. So it must be true that each and every marble was simultaneously in both boxes of its box-pair.

The reasoning for this is provided by quantum theory, which suggests that before you looked, the marble was in a ‘superposition state’- simultaneously in both boxes. Gaining knowledge of the marble being in a particular box caused it to be wholly in that box. Even by gaining knowledge that one box was empty, at the same time you are gaining knowledge that the other box must contain the marble, and by looking, you cause the marble to be wholly in the other box. “Before looking, the marble was in two places at once. Observation collapses probability to specific actuality.” This is the controversial observation-creation reality.

One may point out that these experiments are contradictory, that they are logically inconsistent. The first experiment shows that marble is in one box, and the other is empty. The second shows that the pair of boxes each contain something of the marble. BUT since the two experiments are done with two different box-pairs, there is no logical inconsistency. Then one may notice that you could have chosen to do the opposite experiment of the original experiment that was chosen. But you didn’t! “Predictions for not-done experiments can’t be tested. So there is no need to account for them.” And this is where physics meets consciousness (and philosophy 😉 ).

For now- for all practical purposes, all we need to deal with is what we see when we actually do look. So back to Quantum theory, the parts of the marble’s wavefunction were spread out over the screen. Think of a wave. As the boxes were opened, the two parts of the wave (crest and trough) came out of each box. At certain places on the screen, the crests of one wave arrive at the same time as the crests of the other and the wavefunction of the two boxes come together at this place on the screen. That’s the place with large waviness, a large probability of finding a marble. At other places, crests from one box arrive at the same time as troughs from the other box, and the parts of the wavefunction cancel each other. There’s zero waviness in this place, therefore, zero probability of finding a marble. “That’s the rule the marble follows on where it will land. The addition and cancellation of waves is interference, which explains the pattern observed.”

What’s remarkable about this demonstration is that the physical condition of the marble depends on your free choice of experiment, and the enigma arises directly from experimental facts. “The physical reality of an object depends on how you choose to look at it.” It is your free choice (or free will) to choose which experiment you would like to perform in order to demonstrate one of the two contradictory situations. So does your free choice determine the physical situation, the results of the experiment? Or did the external physical situation predetermine your free choice? This is the unresolved quantum enigma. The enigma arises from our conscious perception of free will. We believe that we could have done other than what was actually done. If we deny that we could have done the opposite, than this denial of free choice requires our behavior to be programmed to correlate with the external physical world, again, this is where physics encounters consciousness.

Our thinking that we could have done the opposite is counterintuitive. We are essentially creating history. But this is what is implied by any version of the two-slit experiment. “Quantum theory has any observation creating it’s relevant history.” Newtonian determinism denies the possibility of free-will, but this only arises from the deterministic Newtonian theory. The quantum enigma however, arises directly from experiment. The enigma is independent of quantum theory but theory-neutral experiments, like the two-slit, form the basis of quantum theory. Quantum theory provides a mathematical description that correctly predicts the results of the experiments, of the observations we choose to make. That is why it is called the quantum enigma.

The quantum enigma is referred to as science “skeleton in the closet” because many people have a hard time accepting or even understanding that our objective (meaning the same for everyone) reality could be created by observation. That when one looks, and collapses the wavefunction of a marble to be wholly in one box, everyone else who looks will find it there, even though we could have shown, through experiment, that it wasn’t wholly in the single box before we looked.

If you find this information intriguing I highly suggest reading the book, as it provides more anecdotes to help clear your understanding. The information in the book is presented in an unbiased way and it is very straight-forward. This is just a superficial review of my understanding of the information that has been provided so far. If you’re left confused, I’m certain that the book will clear up many of your confusions! The next review will talk about the concern of what constitutes an “observation,” Schrödinger’s controversial cat, and what all of this might mean.

This post is part of a series, for links to other topics click here!


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