Science

Swiss Cheese and the VERY NATURE OF REALITY ITSELF

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Sorta transcript:

Researchers from two different disciplines came up with two very interesting new discoveries about holes this week. In Switzerland, agricultural scientists discovered the possible cause of holes in Swiss cheese. Past research has suggested it was due to bacteria, but new data suggest that it’s actually due to tiny bits of hay that are in the buckets used to collect the milk. The microscopic bits cause holes that grow as the cheese matures. This hypothesis explains why Swiss cheese holes have been getting rarer in the past decade, thanks to increased hygenic controls on farms.

In related news, physicists in Australia have demonstrated that reality doesn’t exist unless you’re looking at it. So basically, who gives a shit about your cheese holes. What’s the point of anything?

The physicists performed a variation on the famous double slit experiment – imagine a particle of light, which can travel either as a single atom or as a wave. If you fire it at a wall with two holes in it, the particle would go through either one hole or the other, while a wave would go through both holes and create new patterns of interference. The researchers added a second wall with a hole that would show the pattern of interference that proves the particle traveled as a wave. When they added the second wall, they saw the interference that indicated a wave. When they didn’t add the wall, they saw that the particle had traveled as a single atom, going through one hole or the other singly.

What’s crazy is that they didn’t decide whether or not to add the second wall until after the particle had passed through the first wall. In other words, when the particle went through the first wall, it was neither a single atom or a wave. Or it was both. Or, perhaps even weirder, it was only exactly the thing it needed to be, which means that the future choice of the scientists affected the past configuration of the model.

This was done with a single helium atom and a few laser beams, so remember that we’re talking about very very small things. The Swiss cheese in your refrigerator isn’t necessarily both moldy and not moldy until you look at it. When quantum physicists talk about these things, they’re often using metaphorical language to explain really complicated and hard to visualize mathematical ideas. As Richard Feynman is claimed to have once said, “”If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” Or, if you prefer your quotations to be more accurately sourced, as Neils Bohr once said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”

But don’t let metaphor get in the way of Deepak Chopra, who will surely be using this fascinating study to sell another book about visualizing your future in order to change your past. I’m picturing myself with a billion dollars, so I’m sure at some point 18-year old me will drop out of college and invest that grant money in Google. Any minute now.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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6 Comments

  1. June 1, 2015 at 2:54 pm —

    Sigh.. I keep thinking these “experiments” are not saying what certain people keep insisting they are saying. The problem, as one other scientist explains, is that its not “observation” that matters, its interaction. So, yeah, you cram an object, with interacts, into the experiment, and **wow!** suddenly it behaves in a way that shows that reality conformed to the interaction. Isn’t this just amazing? Except, then some twit goes, “Err, no, it did this because we altered reality by ‘choosing’ to cause the interaction.” What the F does that even mean exactly? And, for that matter, how precise is you “wall”, the timing of placing it, or anything else. You could place it one bloody particle off from where you had it last time, or a tiny fraction of a second different from the prior time, and, in principle, create enough of a different set of conditions to alter the result.

    So, either their, or your, explanation is… missing something, which makes the assertion they make make sense, or… they are of the “we create reality because we believe the Copenhagen interpretation is reality, not a mental exercise, so this must be what is happening…”, camp in physics. And… sorry, but its an absurd position, because reality kind of happens whether or not some person observes it (or we have a some damn big problems, not the least of which being you are now in the realm of, “If everyone started observing X happening, then ‘magic'”, or seriously, what are the actual “limits” on what we “choose” reality to be under this silly notion? – more like, its constantly observing itself, via complex interactions, so, at best, we are just, in very special cases, tweaking the results.

    Not that I wouldn’t mind being able to “observe” reality into some configuration which would let me hurl fireballs at the GOP candidates, or teleport them to the top of Mount Everest, or something, but.. seriously.. do the people that claim these things bother to even consider the tiny flaw that, while in experiment these things seem to happen, they don’t seem to do so outside of labs, in the sense of what is being implied by it, like, at all? Or, for that matter, how many complete wackos out there take these sorts of claims, and run with them, into lala land…

  2. June 1, 2015 at 11:49 pm —

    I thought Einstein was dead. :P You’re wrong because of Bell’s theorem.

    • June 1, 2015 at 11:54 pm —

      I meant to reply to kagehi. :(

    • June 2, 2015 at 5:24 am —

      It’s somewhat more complicated than that.

      Bell’s theorem, like any old theorem, rests on a couple assumptions that must obtain in order for the conclusion to follow. If you can deny any one assumption, the theorem ceases to apply.

      There are three requirements for Bell’s theorem:
      i) What the theory says happens actually happens in the world. (realism)
      ii) Things cannot influence each other by action at a distance but only by a propagating signal. (locality)
      iii) Only one measurement outcome actually happens to be the case. (uniqueness)

      kagehi will want to uphold i) (and for good reason too; basically they are 100% right) but can choose to deny either ii) or iii). Rejecting ii) leads to something like a hidden variable/pilot wave theory or dynamical collapse while getting rid of iii) is tantamount to accepting the many worlds interpretation (as one should because it’s correct).

      • June 2, 2015 at 2:12 pm —

        Ugh.. They all have problems. My view is that quantum effects are sort of like general relativity vs. special relativity – while one may be going on inside the other, more or less, someplace, it takes fairly specialized conditions to monkey around with, and get results, that involve special relativity.

        #2 on your list seems not to be the case, but it requires special conditions to violate it. The way I figure it, the more “localized” interactions you have, then fewer “spooky at a distance” once you can get. Those localized interactions function like dampers, in effect blurring out any quantum effects.

        #3… may or may not be right, but its like ascribing things to gods. What ever the “math” may say on the subject, any such math in basically chock full of assumptions about reality, which are not much better than anyone else’s weird math, which is supposed to say, “god did it”. Until you can present a practical means to show that those many worlds are actually out there ***at all***, not just as a mathematical, or mental, exercise, you are adding an, if not necessarily unnecessary variable (who knows, in this case it may be a necessary one), but an useless one, which provides no practical application for either a) experimentation, b) discovery of the nature of those other worlds, or c) actual practical application. You might as well be claiming that quantum mechanics works because “unicorns”. I am sure Dembski, if you could get him off the gibberish nonsense he is already doing bad math for could even construct an equation for you, to prove this. All that is needed is the assumption that the math works, based on the assumption that you have N worlds, and one contains nothing but swiss cheese, or something…

        My point being, all we have to work with, in what we see as reality, what ever that may be, is pretty much (1), with (2) being the “general case”, when you are not dealing with carefully rigged situations, where you know you “can” get the more specialized behavior. That, for some things, this careful rigging doesn’t need to be so careful doesn’t change anything. And, “many worlds” explains nothing, until/unless you can actually “do” something with that explanation.

        • June 2, 2015 at 3:25 pm —

          I think I’ll defend the many worlds interpretation.

          The basic assumption of MWI is just “take the formalism of QM literally”. Nothing’s being added, objects nor variables; in fact, if anything Occam’s razor actually favours MWI because the “collapse rule” is removed.

          So where do the eponymous many worlds appear in the theory? The answer is that you can do a bit of decoherence theory and identify within the basic object of QM, the wavefunction, a decomposition into approximately classically evolving (i.e. mutually non-interacting) “branches”, each of which looks like one copy of the quantum system in an observable state (as opposed to a superposition of such). Call each branch a world. Taking the formalism literally, each part of the wavefunction is real and so the branches are real and there are many worlds.

          I think that’s a fair bit more interesting than making up new math. It’s a closer look at some very, very old equations that have been verified to amazing accuracy.

          Your point about explanatory utility is fair but I think there are a couple examples where MWI shines; perhaps more will emerge in time. For one, MWI says that the appearance of collapse tracks decoherence, as that’s what turns off the “quantum interactions” between branches of the wavefunction, making them effectively classical. Also, MWI is spacetime-local and captures every experimental fact of QM – including the Bell violations! And it very naturally generalises to QFTs, making it practically the only interpretation of quantum mechanics that’s up-to-date with modern physics. Last but not least, Sean Carroll recently published a paper which specifically employed MWI to answer a longstanding cosmological problem: http://arxiv.org/abs/1405.0298

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