The Itsy Bitsy Universe

I wrote this article for a particular publication thinking it was desired. Wrong. They loved the article, but were really only looking for ideas to reject. (Methinks it possible that they solicit ideas [for free] under the pretense of looking to hire new writers, take what they like and hand them off to their stable of on-board writers. I could be wrong, I hope I’m wrong, but the situation became so ridiculous that I can’t dismiss my suspicion out of hand. Anyway, I’m publishing this article here and hope you enjoy it.

The Itsy Bitsy Universe

Quarks, Photons and That Silly Cat

by Linda June

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“…the business of physics is to describe and account for the way the world—on both the large and the small scale—actually is and not how one imagines it or would like it to be.”

The Encyclopedia writers had to throw in the “not how one imagines or would like it to be” codicil because once scientists began to drill down to the subatomic level, things took a surprising right turn at Albuquerque. When it came to the tiny little particles that comprise any given atom, the quarks, ordinary, well-understood Newtonian physics seemed able to describe them about as well as a blind man is able to describe a Rembrandt.

But First, A Word About Math

It’s one thing for brilliant minds to imagine particles and their potential behavior, and quite another to describe them mathematically. Apparently, the math bends minds like gravity bends light (according to Einstein’s theory, and who wants to argue with Einstein?). Certainly, it’s easy to imagine that from the field of theoretical physics was born our cultural notion of The Mad Scientist. You know, the guy in the lab coat with wild hair standing on end, eyes like rotating spirals? If you see one of them, you can bet your bottom gluon that he’s a physicist who flew too close to the inside of an atom and tried to describe it with an equation.

Quantum physics is the effort to describe the itty-bitty universe at the nanoscopic level (a nanometer being one billionth of a meter). Once only the realm of theory, carefully constructed experiments of the 20th century have successfully demonstrated the validity of the science. Quarks do exist, but are they particles? Or are they electromagnetic radiation waves after the pattern of, say, microwaves?

The answer, my friend, is yes.

The Copenhagen Interpretation

As it turns out, subatomic particles, like photons, are slippery little devils: con artists behind your back and innocent, smiling little nano bits in front of your face.

The illustrious city of Copenhagen produced an esteemed physicist named Niels Bohr. Together with several other prominent thinkers of his day, he mathematically proposed the concept of superposition. The theory of superposition is that:

“an object in a physical system can simultaneously exist in all possible configurations, but observing the system forces the system to collapse and forces the object into just one of those possible states.”

In layman’s terms, superposition says that a particle within its native environment can occupy every place within that environment, with any given “spin” orientation, until the moment it is observed or measured. Once it “knows” it caught the attention of an observer or device that records and/or measures it, it ceases to be everywhere at once (superposition collapses), and takes up just one position and one “spin orientation.”

Imagine a swarm of teensy gnats buzzing around frantically every which way (in a state of superposition) until you point a camera in its direction and prepare to snap the shot. Then they suddenly stop swarming in mid-flight, and you see that it was really just one gnat (superposition collapses into one chosen point in space). You later discover that this clever airborne irritation doesn’t really fly from one place to another, after all. Rather, it moves from one spot to another without ever occupying the space in between. Once it ceases to be everywhere at once because you are looking at it, it smiles sweetly for the camera as you press the button. Superposition is also known as “the observer’s paradox” where the measurement affects the outcome.

The Cat That Schrödinger Wished He Had Never Met

Other renowned physicists, amongst whom was Einstein, thought the idea of superposition was just plain nuts. As Einstein remarked, “God doesn’t play dice.” Another of Bohr’s peers, Erwin Schrödinger of Vienna, attempted to establish how obviously crazy the concept of superposition had to be. He devised a thought experiment that is now famously known as Schrödinger’s Cat.

Schrödinger wanted you to imagine placing a cat in a steel box along with a small amount of radioactive material, a Geiger counter, a vial of cyanide and a hammer device rigged to smash the vial of poison. You seal the box. Then imagine that if the radioactive material decays and releases even one particle, the Geiger counter detects the particle and triggers the hammer to smash the vial which releases the cyanide and terminally pink-slips the puss.

Now, after a period of time, you would have no way of knowing whether the decay happened and if the cat lost the last of its nine lives, or if no decay occurred and the imaginary cat would live to annoy you at three in the morning again. While the box is still sealed you just don’t know, therefore the cat, according to the Copenhagen Interpretation, is both dead and alive at the same time. But once you open the box and peer inside, the cat becomes either dead or alive per your observation of the facts. Schrödinger figured a cat cannot possibly be both dead and alive at the same time whether you are gazing at it or not, so Bohr’s idea had to be, just had to be, full of horse radish.

Except, Schrödinger later learned he was wrong. Subsequent real-life experiments with photons and other particles proved Bohr to be closer to the truth than Einstein and Schrödinger would have liked. But such is the way of quantum physics. One day, you’re the king of the physics world, the next day you’re colleagues are sending you back to kindergarten. No worries, though, they both went on to have stellar careers.

Wavy Particles

In one real experiment, the Double Slit, electrons where shot out of a pair of emitters at a detector screen with a barrier in between. The barrier had two slits in it that allowed some of the electrons through to hit the screen. The experimenters expected that they would see two spot patterns behind the two slits where the electrons hit, but to their amazement, they saw four spot patterns instead. What the heck just happened? they wondered.

In an effort to find out, they set up a special camera to record the electrons as they passed through the slits. But a funny thing happened on the way to the screen. Under observation, the electrons behaved themselves and went through the slits as previously expected, making just two spot patterns behind the slits. Now the scientists were really scratching their heads. They killed the cameras and the electrons once again made four patterns. They placed the camera to record the electrons right after they were released and before they met the barrier or went through the slits. Again, the particles ordered themselves to make just two impression patterns on the screen. With the cameras off, they again made four patterns.

Now you’re beginning to see why genius scientists are always portrayed like Doc Brown in the Back to the Future movies. Every time the particles were not observed, they behaved as two waves interfering with each other with each wave passing through both slits, but whenever they were under the spotlight, they acted exactly as they expected single particles would act. With results like these, the scientists had to be gripping the roots of their hair and pulling, not to mention gnashing their teeth and going gray.

Now they had to admit that the concept of superposition is, in fact, correct, at least in the quantum domain. As an unobserved wave, a particle is in every conceivable position and state of “spin.” Turn on the recording device, though, and the wave behavior collapses and the particle becomes mortal, in just one place at one time and one possible orientation of “spin.”

The mystery is: Why in the world is scrutiny such a quark-changing event? That question has yet to be answered. All they know is that you can’t observe or measure subatomic systems without disturbing them.

Schrödinger’s Real Mistake

Aren’t we glad that matter on a visible scale isn’t so capricious? Is the husband having an affair or not? Well, until you catch him in the act, he is simultaneously having an affair and not having an affair. So,—oh, wait, maybe it is. As true as superposition may be, what’s really insane is that Schrödinger thought:

  1. That you had to place a cat in a box when everyone knows that if you possess an empty box anywhere under a roof, all cats under that same roof will naturally and quickly gravitate towards it until all cats are in the box;
  2. That if a cat exists inside a box with smaller objects, it won’t bat those items around until one or all break, thereby inadvertently committing suicide; and,
  3. That he wouldn’t take a lot of grief by using a cat in his thought experiment rather than some less cuddly creature like a snake or IRS agent.

Now that quarks are out of the bag, what should we do with them? Well, logically, don’t you think we should pitch them into the mosh pit and smash them? Of course you do. That’s why thousands of scientists, funded by a multitude of governments, yours included, have spent many billions of dollars/euros to build the largest atom smasher ever, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Someday, in another article, let’s take a peek at the purpose behind the CERN particle accelerator/atom smasher.

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The Letterista

Throughout The Letterista's adult life, she has been an employee for several employers in both retail and contract fulfillment (private contract companies); she's been a private contractor and a small business owner, as well. A great many years were spent managing the offices of a construction trade where the competition was thick and the stakes were high, so the proper, professional handling of complaints and bad reviews was more than just a little important. The skills of good documentation and letter-writing were finely honed in that environment. Now, she writes for fun and profit.

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