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Quantum Fysics and Changing the World

This video on YouTube gives a wonderful and lighthearted explanation of a very unexplainable phenomenon in quantum mechanics.  In the video, Dr. Quantum explains the Double-slit Experiment, one of the most famous in modern physics.  Although much of the discussion found regarding the video is foul and debase, I found the video to be of high quality and value.  It is not merely entertaining, but quite good as science.  But before we look a little into the important science behind the video, let’s look at some things about its sources.

What the Bleep!?, Dr. Quantum, and Fundamental Fysics

The video is apparently taken from a documentary, What the BLEEP – Down the Rabbit Hole, which followed and expanded upon an award winning documentary film, What the BLEEP Do We Know!?, which was originally released in the United States in February 2004 and eventually became the fifth highest grossing documentary in the United States, with ticket sales of $12 Million.  This, to me, is quite amazing, since the documentary was not only made by a less than well financed team in Portland, Oregon, but focused on connections between the not very popular themes of science and consciousness.

Dr. Quantum

Dr. Quantum CD cover

Dr. Quantum, in the video, is the alter ego of Dr. Fred Alan Wolf, a physicist, writer, and lecturer who earned his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at UCLA in 1963.  His work in quantum physics and consciousness is well known through his popular and scientific writing, appearances on television as the resident physicist on the Discovery Channel’s The Know Zone and as a participant in the PBS series Closer to Truth, and through a wide range of appearances on radio talk shows and television shows across the United States and abroad.  Dr. Wolf is the author of eleven books, including, Space-Time and Beyond, Taking the Quantum Leap: The New Physics for Nonscientists, The Spiritual Universe: One Physicists Vision of Spirit, Soul, Matter, and Self, and The Yoga of Time Travel: How the Mind Can Defeat Time.

Fundamental Fysics Group

The Fundamental Fysiks Group, City Magazine, 1975. Left to right: Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag, Nick Herbert, and Fred Alan Wolf (seated)

Dr. Wolf’s importance as a theoretical physicist is underscored by his participation as a core member of the Fundamental Fysics Group of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in the 1970s.  The group was started by Elizabeth Rauscher and George Weissmann, both then graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, to discuss the philosophical implications of quantum theory.  The group included many influential physicists, Fritjof Capra, John Clauser, Philippe Eberhard, Nick Herbert, Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag, Henry Stapp, and Fred Alan Wolf.  Capra’s book, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism(1975) is a famous one from that time, exploring the relationships being explored by the Fundamental Fysics Group.

This group was very important in the development of San Francisco and the Bay Area’s counterculture, much celebrated as an important part of the Hippie Movement.  The movement, of course, had a great many heroes, including Allen Ginsberg, The Grateful Dead, and the City Lights Bookstore.  But physics, science, and intellectual thought was to become an important part of San Francisco counterculture, partly through the support of Francis Ford Coppola, who bought City Magazine in 1975.  Soon after his purchase, the magazine featured the group, making them local celebrities.  However, many in the group were ultimately pushed outside of traditional academia.

Thus, the people who made the video on YouTube, apparently have not only animated Dr. Fred Alan Wolf as he pondered the incongruities of the quantum physics he studied in the 1970s, but they sought to explore the implications that have fascinated so many physicists, scientists, intellectuals, and philosophers since.  It is these implications that are extremely important to consider – not just the truths or facts that seek to explain realities, but the questions and convoluted incongruities that science has a great difficulty explaining.

The Double-slit Experiment and the Paradox of Modern Physics

Going back to the Double-slit Experiment, we know now that the experiment led to some of the most important scientific principles of contemporary science.  Put simply, the experiment is a demonstration that matter and energy can display characteristics of both waves and particles.  Electrons, which are defined as very small particles, behave, at times, as both particles (as expected) and (unexpectedly) as waves.  The video portrays this confusion quite effectively.

The paradox that is at the heart of this confusion is now widely known as the Observer Effect.  The term refers to changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed.  A common real world example is the checking of tire pressure in a car.  The act of checking the tire’s pressure results usually in letting out some of the air, which changes its pressure.  This phenomenon occurs repeatedly throughout many domains of physics.  In fact, it is very difficult to measure anything very accurately without somehow influencing the result.

This is most famously represented in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  This principle is often confused with the Observer Effect, because the two are very related.  The uncertainty principle actually describes how precisely we are able to measure the position and momentum of a particle at the same time; the more we increase the accuracy in measuring one, we always lose accuracy in measuring the other.  The observer effect, however, relates to the influence an observer has on a system.

Still, what is clear from both is that the more we try to observe closely a physical phenomenon, our ability to measure accurately what we are seeing can be extremely difficult.  In one, the results themselves are changed.  In the other, we cannot measure accurately two factors inherent to a particle.

My Conclusions

The Nobel Award-winning American physicist, Richard Feynman, was apparently fond of saying that all of quantum mechanics can be gleaned from carefully thinking through the implications of this single experiment.  While I don’t intend to imply that I have the capability of understanding physics on par with Feynman, I cannot but agree.

I always have believed that what I observe has a profound effect on what happens.  I realize clearly that my presence at my sons’ soccer matches affects their performance, just as knowing my father was in the audience made me remember the lines I had forgotten in the rehearsal of my graduation speech in elementary school.

Some may dismiss both of these examples as “unscientific” and because they are highly anecdotal.  I cannot refute directly such arguments.  But the physics I know and understand leads me only to conclude that my participation as an observer in everything I see, record, and attempt to understand and explain has an effect on what actually happens.  The effect may be minute and difficult to measure, but I know that that small element exists.

That small element, too, just might make a vital difference.  It just might stop the violence in a war-stricken nation, or the perpetration of injustice in a so-called democratic power.

I like that belief.  So I observe.  I record.  I report.  I explain what I see.

And, I think to myself, that I can make a difference in the world.

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