When QUANTUM comes to call

Books that try to explain quantum mechanics seem to end up saying “you can’t expect to understand it”. I fell at the first hurdle, when I tried to find a definition of ‘particle’ that I could picture in my head. One said “Particles are purely mathematical objects”, which didn’t help much, because I couldn’t picture something that was “purely mathematical” as an “object”.

A particle’s a lump of stuff and looks just like a ball
I thought. But now they say that’s not enough when things get really small.
If you keep cutting stuff in two, there comes a time, my friend,
Beyond which ‘particle’ won’t do, where imagery must end.

‘Cathode rays’ were particles, not ‘rays’ as they first thought;
But fired through slits, those articles did not do what they ought!
Such things should, when they hit a screen, have formed two bands of light.
Instead, what patterning was seen? Alternate dark and bright!

And light, they knew, would do the same (it’s how a wave behaves).
Then into the fray de Broglie1 came: “Think particles and waves”.
Said Schrödinger2: “A good idea, but a wavefunction’s superior,
Though it needs some fancy maths, I fear, and some folk think it’s eerier3.

“It’s mathematical, you see: how probable, through space,
That ‘particle’ or wave might be to exist at any place.
What’s more, until you take a look, it might be anywhere4!
It’s in the maths – just read my book5 – but you should not despair:

“Your brain has learned to process things to keep you out of danger
By picture-based imaginings. But QUANTUM things are stranger . . .
Reality’s not what your brain is telling you. Instead
It’s spooky, weird: you’ll try in vain to ‘see’ it in your head.”

Well, that’s what physicists declare. Religions do the same:
They say there is a ‘god’ out there who’s in control, they claim.
And then they leave your poor old brain to picture in your head
This entity which, they explain, you’ll ‘see’ when you are dead . . .

I like my brain. I couldn’t live without it. With each breath
It paints me ‘pictures’ that contrive to help avoid my death.
But now I’m stuck. As you’ll have guessed, when QUANTUM comes to call,
Although my poor brain does its best, it’s really much too small.

1.    The French physicist, Louis-Victor-Pierre-Raymond, 7th Duke of Broglie (1892–1987). Broglie is in Normandy, 60 km south-west of Rouen.
2.    Not in exactly these words, though . . .
3.    Or, as Einstein described an aspect of quantum theory, “spooky”.
4.    According to some interpretations, that is.
5.    Actually, a paper in a physics journal: Schrödinger, E. “An Undulatory Theory of the Mechanics of Atoms and Molecules”, Physical Review, Vol. 8 No. 6, 1049–1070.

See also: Science and religion, Definitions, Causes, Noddle models, Model makers and Assertions

Images: wikimedia commons (sphere); media.licdn.com (wavefunction); theladykillers.typepad.com (head); Dvaorak.org (tiny brain)
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