I was a physics major at college and have fond memories of that period. I maintain that there is no subject like physics to show you that what you see, think and feel cannot be trusted and what is ‘real’ is very different from what you think it is.
Books were expensive when I was growing up in India and buying them was a luxury. I won a competitive national science scholarship and one of the benefits was an annual grant to buy books. The moment I received my first award I bought the Feynman Lectures in Physics. All three volumes and the exercises addendums are still on my shelf.
That was my introduction to the many paradoxes in Physics. An early one is the wave-particle duality. Is light a wave? Or a stream of particles? It turns out that it is both and we can accept this and work with it, but we still don’t understand it.
We live in a Newtonian world where there is space and time and the two are different and we can understand and experience them. Einstein demonstrated that this is false and there is actually a space-time where the two are inextricably mixed together. Science fiction writers have exploited these concepts freely with scenarios like a man who traveled at the speed of light to arrive at a past where he murdered his grandfather.
Did you know that space is ‘curved’? Riemannian geometry describes this mathematically and Einstein used it to come up with his theory of relativity.
And then there is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle that states you cannot know the position and the momentum – read velocity – of a particle simultaneously. It’s not that we don’t have good measurement instruments. You, literally, cannot, know both. The more precisely you know one, the greater the ambiguity about the other.
Modern technology has enabled us to explore conditions that we could only imagine a few years ago. Scientists have been able to cool liquid helium to Absolute Zero – or as close to it as makes no difference. At this temperature we know the velocity of particles – it is zero. So, what happens to the position?
In accordance with Heisenberg’s principle, the position becomes indeterminate. The liquid helium is no longer a defined mass in a thermal flask or magnetic prison, It is an amorphous mass and forms an entirely new state of matter called the Bose Einstein Condensate (BEC). The BEC has many strange properties. Light travels through space at 186,000 miles per second and Einstein showed that this is invariant and a universal constant. In a BEC, the velocity of light is about 40 miles per hour. You can drive faster than that!
When I was studying physics, electrons and protons were fundamental particles and a neutron was a combination of an electron and a proton held together by the strong nuclear force. Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig had already postulated more fundamental particles called quarks, but these had not yet percolated down to college text books. Today we have dozens of fundamental matter particles collectively called ‘fermions’ and fundamental ‘messenger’ particles called ‘bosons’ that govern interactions between the fermions. The Higgs Boson – also known as the God Particle – was discovered just a decade ago.
So, according to physics, the hardest of the hard sciences, who you think you are is an illusion. It is an appearance. What you really are is a mess of fermions governed by bosons.
And here is another mind-blowing idea. I am still trying to come to grips with it. There is no such thing as ‘empty’ space. I always believed that there is ‘matter’ – like the chair in which you are sitting – and there is ‘space’ which is the void all around it. Easy to understand and easy to tell them apart.
Turns out that this is not the way it is. There is ‘empty’ space and all of a sudden – blink! – there is a fermion there. And – blink again! – the fermion is gone. Matter is always appearing and disappearing in the fabric of space-time. The two are woven together.
So what does all this have to do with you and your life and your problems?
I will tell you in my next blog!