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The Science Of The Little Things (And The Big Things Too)

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I went to see a band called Eels a year or so ago and really liked them. I knew of their most successful single ‘Novocaine For The Soul’ which I’d really liked although I hadn’t followed their subsequent work. A friend of mine had a spare ticket so I tagged along and I really enjoyed what I heard – not full of pop tunes but much more soulful, heartfelt material and I became a fan.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the man behind Eels – Mark Everett – was in fact the son of none other than Hugh Everett III! What, you’ve never heard of him? Maybe you haven’t, but you’ve most likely heard of the theory he came up with – namely what has now come to be referred to as parallel universes. In a parallel universe every possible outcome can and does exist. Many science fiction books, TV shows and films have used parallel universes within their plots and it’s become widely accepted in both the scientific community and popular culture. However this wasn’t always so.

I watched an interesting documentary where Mark went on a voyage of discovery to find out about his father. He knew nothing of his father’s genius as a child as his father was distant and they barely had any conversations as he grew up. Since his father died over 25 years ago he wanted to find out about his theories and about the man himself. It was fascinating. Hugh was perhaps 40 years ahead of his time and came up with a theory that shook quantum physics to its core and was completely dismissed by his peers when he published his findings in the 1950s. Turning his back on the academic community he worked for the government then his own company, only really starting to get the recognition he deserved a few years before his untimely death.

I’m lucky that I’ve always been close to my father but for Mark to ask his father’s former colleagues and friends what he was like to try to get to know the man must have been tough from him. But in the end he started to understand and know the man his father was and having been told that his theory of parallel universes was as ground breaking and perhaps more so than Einstein’s theory of Relativity showed him that in the academic world his father was as much a rock star as he himself actually is in the rock star world.

Quantum physics is a strange thing. To say the least. I tried to explain to my good lady how things like photons (effectively the particles that make up light) exist in a state of quantum flux meaning that they don’t exist in any given place until you look at them, whereby they start behaving in a more predictable way. I then used the example in the documentary to explain how strange quantum physics is. You shine a laser through a metal plate with two very fine slits in it and measure where the photons hit a screen on the other side, like so:

A quantum physics experiment - this is what you’d expect

You’d expect to see two groups of places on the photon detector that line up with the slits. If you scale the experiment up to shoot tennis balls though a somewhat larger plate with two slits in it, then some of the tennis balls would go through one slit, some would go through the other and many more wouldn’t get through at all. You’d expect that if you looked at all the places the tennis balls impacted the detector (perhaps a wall) you’d get two groupings that line up with the two slits. But when you scale it down to use photons – which are very small – this isn’t what happens at all. You actually get three groupings, one on either side and one in between the two, which should be impossible since the centre of the plate is in the way.

The explanation is that some of the photons go through the top slit, some go through the bottom, but some photons actually go through both slits at the same time – therefore existing in two places at once – and strike the plate as one photon on the other side in between the two slits. I told you it was strange:

The photon passes through two points at the same time

Until Hugh Everett III came along the thinking was that small things behaved in this way as defined by quantum mechanics but large things behaved differently and different rules applied. We’re made up of molecules which are made up of atoms and these atoms can exist in two places at once (as defined by quantum physics), but we don’t – there’s only one of me (lucky for you). So two sets of conditions, two sets of rules. You can’t tell where an electron (or something similarly small) is – and it can exist in multiple places at once remember – until you measure it and then it stops behaving so strangely and exists in exactly one place.

But what if big things behaved the same way and it’s only our perception that makes us see them as we do? If every possible outcome of an event occurs simultaneously but we can only perceive one of them – the rest existing in some parallel but invisible universe – then we can use the same laws of mechanics on big things and small things too. Hugh challenged the existing thinking of the time which firmly believed that quantum mechanics only acted on small things. He wasn’t alone though. A clever man named Erwin Schrödinger came up with a novel way to demonstrate that the classical thinking was flawed.

It’s a thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s cat (you’ve likely heard of it before). The idea is you put a cat in a box along with some radioactive material (in your imagination of course – otherwise it would be extremely cruel). Next to that is a Geiger counter that, when it detects an atom decaying from the radioactive material (which may or may not happen within the duration of the experiment), fires a hammer at a bottle of poison that, when exposed to the air inside the box will kill the cat. So the cat dies when an atom decays. Except the atom obeys quantum physics so at any given time it does and doesn’t exist which means that the cat is both dead and alive at the same time. Until, that is, you open the box and look at the cat to see if it’s alive or dead. Just like tiny particles, the cat is in an indeterminate state until you observe it. Bizarre.

I’m only scratching the surface here of course. I covered some quantum theory at university and what I learned was that the more you dig into it the more complex it gets – the more you know the less you know. But it was a fascinating program and shows that it’s a small world – who’d have thought the father of a rock star would be the man who came up with the theory that’s been used in countless episodes of Stargate SG-1? Bizarre indeed!

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

3 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. You’ll enjoy the programme! And no I didn’t – and if I’d known that’s what you were referring to in that article I’d have added it to the planner. Will keep my fingers crossed it gets repeated!

    Reply

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