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Monday, April 06, 2009

The weirdness of physics, part 1

A recent book review in the New York Times, of The Age of Entanglement*, (Knopf, 2009) by Louisa Gilder, reminded me yet again of the seeming weirdness of what physics tells us about how God made things the way they are.
*This link is to the first chapter of the book.

What do I mean? Or what did God do?

Well, for starters, there was Isaac Newton's discovery: The moon falls continuously, but keeps changing the direction of its fall, so that it continues its orbit around the earth. Or, to put it another way, gravity is an attractive force between any two objects that have mass. What's weird about that? Well, how can something keep falling, but never hit the earth? And how can there be an attractive force between two objects, when they aren't attached to each other in any way? As the Wikipedia, March 28, 2009, puts it, "Newton's postulate of an invisible force able to act over vast distances led to him being criticised for introducing occult agencies" into science. In other words, his proposal was weird. But it can be demonstrated experimentally.

And then came Einstein. He did away with Newton's force at a distance, replacing it with curved space-time. Space and time make up a four-dimensional whole, and the presence of a mass causes warps in this structure, which, in turn, make objects appear to be falling, often falling toward each other. Weirder. But it can be demonstrated experimentally. One of the side products of Einstein's thought, for good and bad, is nuclear energy, as found in nuclear power plants and weapons.

Einstein also initiated quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, among its other weird explanations for how nature works, tells us that an object has both wave-like and particle-like properties at the same time. Electrons can "tunnel" through barriers by just appearing on the other side of the barrier, at random, without ever having existed in any part of the barrier. An electron can travel through a tiny slit and appear at more than one place on the other side. Weirder still. These ideas can be demonstrated experimentally. They are also of great practical importance. The computer you are reading this on would not be possible without some applications of these ideas.

There are some other ideas in atomic physics that strain credulity, but are not directly attributable to Einstein. One of these is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. This principle tells us that it is impossible to measure both the position and momentum of a sub-atomic particle accurately. Measuring one of them very closely causes uncertainty in the other property. This means that, to humans, at least, some things are unknowable in principle.

Einstein, though he started quantum mechanics, was not comfortable with all of the implications. In particular, he was uncomfortable about the notion of entanglement. (Note the book title in the first sentence.) Entanglement suggests that two particles, that are produced by the same event, remain somehow linked, no matter how far apart they travel. Weirder still! This idea, like the others, has been tested experimentally, and found, so far, to be correct.

Isn't God wonderful! How much else don't we know about the way things are? How little do we understand that we think we do? Only He knows.

Thanks for reading. God willing, There is a second part to this post.

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