Thursday, January 8, 2009

An Elementary Introduction to an Elementary Introduction to Quantum Physics

Earlier I described the two basic sensibilities of science as, on the one hand, a Newtonian Outlook and, on the other hand, a Quantum Outlook. I am always annoyed when people invoke technical terms, like "quantum," and fail to show even the slightest idea of what it actually is, or seems to be to them. Lest I be a complete hypocrite, I would like to describe what I mean here from a very simple explanation of what quantum physics is, or, at least, seems to be to me at this point.

To begin to sum it up, it is best described as a perceptive quandary posed by the fact that we, humans, are very big and very slow when compared to many things, including hummingbirds and mosquitoes, but, especially, subatomic particles and their own subparticles. That is, if we could exist at the tinyness and fastness of an electron, for example, we would see things so differently that our intuitions about the way things work, that is move and function, would change completely.

One way we can observe this is with light waves/particles and how they behave rather oddly when pushed to conform to little spaces (see: Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle). But, the gap is so vast between our own big/slow world and the tiny/fast world of the subatomic (and smaller) world, that our minds have a lot of trouble getting at what they need to get at in order to say true things about the subatomic world and, especially, the smaller ones than that. So, we find that notions of time, space, motion, thermodynamics, and so on get rather messy and unsettled.

This impovershied description is what I mean to invoke when I used the word, quantum.

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