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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Glienicker Bridge, Part I

We are celebrating the centennial of the New Age of Science. It was in 1905 that Einstein had his Annus Mirabilis, where he singlehandedly lifted human knowledge into a new realm, and reached the summit of ‘classical’ physics.

The world was on a collision course with secularism at the turn of the 20th century, although from their Victorian vantage they had not the benefit of hindsight to warn them, nor perhaps the philosophical tools necessary to combat the disease. The ideas of science, sketched by Galileo, firmed by Newton, described a clockwork world where beauty and art were epiphenomena waiting for a sufficiently informed examination to explain. This was the age of the quantifiers, the analyzers. Dante was dead and buried, and even the lusty anguish of Byron was fading. All was to be replaced by the perfectibility of Man.

But there were frayed edges at the fringes of physics. One of these was the problem of light. What exactly was it? A seemingly innocuous question, but one that was to spawn a rift in science that has still not been mended.

There were two camps. One said light was a mass of particles, like a quadrillion ball bearings flying out in all directions. After all, you could fire short bursts of high energy X-ray light using a slit in a thin metal plate to focus them, and punch holes in a target beyond. You could put an object in the way of the beam, and see the shadow cast against the plate where the little balls of light were blocked.

But there was another set of experiments that had a very different thing to say. These physicists said that light was a wave, a projection of force only, that traveled through the ether, the hypothetical medium of the universe, like a swell traveling through the ocean. (A wave does not move forward particles, per se, but rather uses particles to carry energy forward. The buoy bobs up and down and remains, even though the energy wave continues on toward shore.) And they had their own set of experiments that proved they were right. They could fire light at a metal leaf with two slits, and the light would propagate on the other side of the slits just like a wave did, in concentric rings of energy that would interact with each other like the ripples in a swimming pool. If light were a particle, like their competitors said, how could it ripple outward from a slit?

So here is the problem. One slit to pass through, and the light acts as a particle. Two slits, and it acts as a wave. So what is it?

And Einstein spoke, and he said it is both. It is all particle and all wave. A wavicle. Two natures in one, each fully formed and complete. (Who was that figure I just glimpsed out of the corner of my eye? And those fingerprints, always the fingerprints.)

This was one of his minor achievements, the major one being a little thing called the Special Theory of Relativity, which seemed poised to once and for all complete the work of Newton and Galileo. Science was near to answering everything, explaining all. It was left to future scientists to merely fill in the occasional blank where they found it. Einstein had created the mathematical and conceptual tools to understand the very turning of the spheres. He had peered into the mind of God.
And while Europe simmered and waited to explode into the senseless death of The Great War, right-thinking men contemplated the coming utopia in the Golden Age.

But, of course, not only the events of the time were conspiring against the hubris of day; the conflict was formed into the very fabric of the universe. There was a problem with the clockwork world, in the form of a little black box. The universe had thrown a wrench into the grand classical plan of the mechanical universe, and it was to cleave human knowledge.

A blackbody is a theoretical construct, an imaginary solid that is perfectly absorbtive and emittive. The idea is that you heat the blackbody up, and construct a thought experiment to describe its properties and its behavior. How will the blackbody radiate? Which frequencies and energies will it emit?

The answer was shocking. Because no matter how many times physicists did the math, they came to the same conclusion-- if you put energy into the blackbody, the classical world said it would radiate an infinite amount of energy back. One in, infinite out. Two in, infinite out.

The impossible conclusion had to be met with a theoretical construct that could balance energy in with energy out. And from this came the theories of the quantum physicists.

The world is not driven by gears and escapements, they said, but by probabilities and chance-- and most of all by quanta, the irreducible Ones. No infinite amount of energy could emit from the blackbody, because there were not an infinite combination of energies to emit-- only certain ones, discreet, finite.

And they saw that the light that Einstein had so brilliantly described was more mysterious than even his conclusion of duality. No, the light of the quantum physicists was neither particle nor wave, but merely appeared to be-- an almost-thing with only the properties-- but not the actuality-- that Einstein described. So unreal was this thing that it could never really be measured properly. The more you determined where it was, the less you knew about its energy. And the more you focused on its energy, the less you could know where it was. And this uncertainty wasn't the fault of your instruments; it was a basic property of the universe itself.

By the time the quantum physicists had laid out their arguments, the smooth continuity of reality had been chopped into staccato irreducible bits of Planck time. The hard pit of Bohr's atom was transformed into a fuzzy ball of almost-there. Things were no longer things, they were potentialities, probabilities, chances.

So on the one hand was Einstein-- with a theory affirmatively tested to the thousandth of billionth of a meter-- which said that God's firm hand brought order and law and Justice to the universe. God did not play dice.

And on the other, the quanta-- which experiments have demonstrated to accuracies even surpassing those of relativity-- which proposed chance and mystery and shadows. God's loving breath of Mercy?

The entire thrust of theoretical physics is to reconcile these two mutually exclusive ideas, but as of yet, they each continue to prove themselves correct-- and the other impossible.

And like the theories, the Twentieth Century became the battlefield of Reason vs. Mystery, Science vs. Religion, as Man tried vainly to force his newfound 'perfection' upon his imperfect frame.

And for every piece of science that lifted man up, there would be a eugenics to become genocide.

So where is God hiding? Is He the divine watchmaker of Einstein? Should we scratch our beards and detachedly appreciate our distant, perfect God? Or is he collapsing the cloud of superposition around each subatomic particle, so intimately connected to the universe that his presence controls every flip of every coin?

I'll consider the question in Part II.

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