The Relative Incoherence of Special Quantum Spirituality

We in the West see the attempt to reconcile physics and spirituality as an Eastern concern. Indeed, it is the Vedantic philosopher Deepak Chopra who most vigorously engages Western science in that debate. The Western prejudice, however, is supportable only for those with a selective memory. Following the discovery of magnetism in the 19th century, “Mesmerists” were popular in Europe. The practitioners would demonstrate their mind-control abilities by touching the cranium of a susceptible assistant. When one was brought to trial for fraud, the scientists of the era actually testitfied in his defense.

Keeping in mind that history, I tend to be sympathetic to Chopra and his partisans. Unfortunately, they are chasing after rainbows, and creating a lot of confusion as a result.

Richard Feynman, brilliant quantum theorist, observed that quantum mechanics was a mathematical procedure without philosophical foundation. That’s pretty unique to 20th century physics. Prior to that time, the scientist could always build mental pictures of the interactions between the elements of the model. This was a practice that they attempted to apply to Quantum Mechanics and Special Relativity as they evolved, with unfortunate results.

This desire to provide explanations was carried forward during an era in which the basic tenets of the theory were still being worked out. Sometimes the preliminary theory would be applied in way that later scientists would consider incomplete, but a sensible answer would be obtained. The answers were published, often with popular interpretations of what was going on in the underlying reality. What is perhaps not surprising is that the popular interpretations are more widely known today than the actual theory itself. Because the interpretations were based upon bad science, they create confusion in the public mind.

To illustrate: in Special Relativity, Einstein held that clocks appear to tick more slowly when they move rapidly with respect to the observer. Based upon this, a thought experiment was constructed involving two twins, one of whom travels to a distant star and returns much younger than his sibling that stayed home on Earth. The calculation assumes, however, that the traveling twin reverses instantaneously his speed and direction upon arrival at the distant star. Obviously, if this was the way that the space ship was designed, the traveling twin would be just so much pate upon returning to Earth. No, the ship must decelerate and accelerate. When that part of the mission plan is included in the calculations, it turns out that the special relativistic effects disappear completely. The twin paradox is a hoax.

In quantum mechanics, we have the famous “wave-particle duality” and “wave function collapse”. Wave-particle duality was “proven” by electron self-interference: an electron impinging upon a screen with two closely-spaced slits will not be seen in two spots on the far side of the screen, as though it had passed through one slit or the other, but instead be distributed over numerous islands of intensity, as though it was a wave that had passed through both slits. The problem in this calculation is that in quantum mechanics, the behavior of any one electron can only be understood by considering the behavior of all the electrons in the system. The failure to include the electrons in the screen in the calculation leads to at least one paradox, and precludes alternative explanations of the observations.

“Wave function collapse” was an extension of “wave-particle duality” to scattering problems. In classical mechanics, when two billiard balls collide, we can predict the final state of the balls from the initial state. Not so in quantum mechanics: scattering objects spray about more broadly. However, the rules of energy and momentum conservation still apply. Therefore, measuring the final state of one of the scattered particles determines the state of the second. The first measurement causes the possible final states of the second to “collapse” to a single allowed result. This led to the idea that the conscious act of observation affects the behavior of physical systems. The “Schrodinger’s cat” thought experiment is the popular expression of this idea. But there are many types of uncertainty in quantum mechanics, and just because the observer doesn’t know the final state of the particles doesn’t mean that they particles don’t have a definite state. They may “know” perfectly well what their direction and speed of motion is.

The weak practice and explanations offered by early quantum and relativity theorists open the door to mystics seeking to explain their experience of reality. The acausal connectedness of mystical events (what Jung called “synchronicity”) seems to correspond to the complex structure of time in special relativity. The interaction between consciousness and physical events in Schrodinger’s world corresponds to the mental powers of the guru.

But the fact is that the theories, while describing unfamiliar behavior in fundamental particles, are completely inapplicable to the behavior of macroscopic composites such as people. The probability of seeing quantum behavior in a macroscopic object is so minute that the Eastern mystic must hold his experience as a refutation of quantum mechanics. That leads in the direction of new physics.

At this point, I would argue that the most powerful laboratories of the modern era will be our minds, rather than the billion-dollar observatories that the scientific-industrial establishment insists the public must fund. The ultimate proof of the power of a theory will be not in how it empowers us to manipulate objects without personality, but rather in the degree to which it makes us transparent to the flow of Divine Love.

Way Beyond Teflon

In imagining a universe filled with an invisible substance, it is natural to use air as an analogy. We then run immediately into trouble with Newton’s first law of motion, which is also an assumption in Einstein’s theories:

Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state unless acted upon by an external force.

We know that air actively slows the movement of objects passing through it. Why aren’t moving objects slowed as they pass through Dark Energy?

One way around the problem is to assert that Dark Energy is a wall-flower: it doesn’t interact with anything else. That’s a prevalent assumption, and it causes me to remember the early history of thermodynamics. In building a theory of heat, early investigators, noticing that heat moved from place to place without changing the substance it occupied, conceived of caloric, an invisible field that permeated the spaces between atoms. That didn’t have much explanatory power, and was rapidly replaced by theories that explained heat as disordered motion of atoms.

Astrophysicists tell us that the universe is a pretty cold place – only a few degrees centigrade away from the coldest temperatures possible. Study of systems at these temperatures have revealed some amazing behaviors. For purposes of our discussion, liquid helium is an interesting example because it exhibits superfluidity, which allows objects to move through it without resistance. But superconductivity – materials that pass electricity without resistance – is another consequence of the basic principles that determine the behavior of really cold systems. Both liquid helium and superconductivity, by the way, are extremely important technologies in building facilities such as CERN.

Liquid helium is particularly simple because it bonds only very weakly, which is why it is liquid at temperatures that cause almost every other element to freeze. For illustration, I’m going to show a model system that shows atoms in a square two-dimensional lattice. The details may not apply to liquid helium, but I have reason to believe that they might to dark energy.

Imagine that we have a tank filled with liquid helium. At very cold temperatures, the atoms stack uniformly in the tank.
Super Fluid Lattice
Such arrangements are said to have high order. They are typical of crystalline materials, including many solids. One of the upshots is that it’s difficult to move a single atom without moving the entire collection. That’s because gravity presses the volume into a compact mass, which means that that atoms are compacted slightly, and therefore repelling each other. So moving one helium atom causes the atom it’s moving towards to move away. The cold here is important: if the lattice were vibrating somewhat, there would be little gaps that could absorb some of the distortion, and so the parts of the lattice could change independently. It’s the lack of such vibrations that forces the lattice as a whole to respond to changes.

Now let’s imagine that we place an impurity into the lattice.
Impurity in Super Fluid
This time a slight distortion of the arrangement will occur. The atoms nearest the impurity will indeed shift their positions slightly. Since the atoms at the walls of the container can’t move, they will tend to remain in place. So the distortion will be localized. What’s interesting to consider is what might happen if two defects are created. Will the disturbance to the lattice be minimized if the defects are brought together, or if the lattice acts to separate them? The astute student of physics will see that this thought leads to a model for gravity.

Now let’s propose that somehow our impurity begins to move.
Slow Impurity
How will the lattice react? Well, again, the atoms at the walls can’t move. The impurity will push against the atom in front of it, and leave a gap behind it. So long as the speed of the impurity is much less than the speed of the sound in the lattice, it is only the nearest atoms that will be disturbed. Obviously, the solution to restoring the order of the lattice is for the forward atoms to migrate to the sides as the impurity passes, displacing the atoms already on the side so that they fill the gap left by the passing impurity. When they reach the back, the atoms will come to rest by giving their energy back to the impurity. This is the essence of superfluidity: the impurity loses energy to the lattice only temporarily.

What is interesting to note is that in quantum mechanics, when calculating collisions between two charged particles, we have to assume that the particles are constantly emitting and re-absorbing photons. This is analogous to the situation in the superfluid: the impurity is constantly losing energy and then regaining it.

Finally, let’s consider an impurity moving closer to the speed of sound in the lattice. In this case, the distortions affect more than the nearest atoms, and the circulation becomes more widespread.
Fast Impurity
It’s important to note that energy is stored in the circulatory motion of the helium atoms. They are moving, just as the impurity is moving – but in the opposite direction, of course. The closer to the speed of sound, the more energy is stored in the circulation. This means that it becomes harder and harder to make the impurity move faster as it moves more and more nearly at the speed of sound.

In Special Relativity, Einstein showed that particles become harder and harder to accelerate as they come closer and closer to the speed of light. The relationship is (m0 is the mass of the particle at rest):

m = m0/(1-v2/c2)1/2

Again, we see some strong correspondence between superfluidity and the behavior of particles in both special relativity and quantum mechanics. The big difference is that, while Richard Feynman famously stated that quantum mechanics was merely a mathematical procedure without any explanation, when applying the superfluid analogy to dark energy, it seems that at least some previously mysterious quantum and relativistic phenomena are simple to understand.

For more on models of particle mass, see That’s the Spirit.

Einstein is So 20th Century

In the two centuries between Newton and Einstein, arguably the greatest physicist of the 19th century was the Scotsman James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell made fundamental contributions to thermodynamics, the study of how gases, liquids and solids change when ambient conditions (such as temperature and pressure) change, and how to convert heat to work. One of the results was an understanding of the propagation of sound waves through the air. But Maxwell also applied the new mathematics of differential calculus to create a unified theory of electricity and magnetism. These are the famous “Maxwell’s Equations” that predict the existence of electromagnetic waves, which we see as “light”.

Maxwell saw the relationship between electromagnetic waves and water and sound waves. Being steeped in a mechanical analysis of the world, he was unsatisfied with his abstract mathematical theory, and invested time in building a mechanical model of the “aluminiferous ether” – the medium in which light waves traveled. Having spent years studying his equations and their predictions, I am fascinated by claims of his success. It’s a magical world in which the linear motion of charges creates rotary magnetic effects. My understanding is that the model was not simple, but contained complex systems of interlocking gears.

Now Maxwell’s work was not merely a curiosity – it was the basis for the design of communication networks that broke down distances with the enormous speed of light. More than anything else, this has brought us into each other’s lives and helped to create the sense that we are one human family. (The social and psychological reaction to that reality is complex, and we’re still growing into our responsibilities as neighbors. In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin offers a hopeful analysis of the transition.)

So the world of scientific inquiry hung on Maxwell’s words, and in America, two of them, Michelson and Morley, designed an experiment to detect the presence of the ether. If the ether filled all of space, the Earth must be moving through it. Therefore the speed of light should change depending upon the motion of the observer through it. The analogy was with water waves: an observer moving along with a water wave doesn’t experience its disturbance – while one moving against it feels its disturbance enhanced. This is an example of Newton’s laws concerning the change of reference frames.

Since the Earth rotates around the sun, light emitted from the Earth in a specific direction relative to the sun should have a different speed at different times of the year. To test this hypothesis, Michelson and Morley built a sensitive instrument that compared the speed of light travelling in two perpendicular directions. As the Earth varied its motion through the ether, the pattern of dark and light on a screen was expected to shift slowly. Strangely, the result was negative: the image did not change.

The conclusion was that there was no ether. This was a real crisis, because Maxwell’s Equations don’t behave very well when trying to predict the relationship between observations made by people moving at different speeds. To understand how really terrible this is, consider: in Maxwell’s theory, charges moving through empty space creates a rotary magnetic field. But what if the observer is moving along with the charge? The charge no longer appears to move, so the magnetic field disappears. How can that be possible?

This was the challenge taken up by the Dutch physicist Henrik Lorenz. He analyzed the mechanical properties of rulers and clocks, which are of course held together by electromagnetic forces, and discovered a magical world in which rulers change length and clocks speed up and slow down when the speed of the observer changes.

This was the context in which Einstein introduced his theory of Special Relativity. He did not really add to the results of Lorenz, but he simplified their derivation by proposing two simple principles: First, since the vacuum is empty, we have no way of determining whether we are moving or not. All motion is relative to an observer (thus the title: Special Theory of Relativity), and so no observer should have a preferred view of the universe. The second was that the speed of light is the same to every observer. Einstein’s mathematical elaboration of these principles unified our understanding of space and time, and matter and energy. Eventually, General Relativity extended his ideas to include accelerating observers, who can’t determine whether they are actually accelerating or rather standing on the surface of a planet.

Special and General Relativity were not the only great theories to evolve in the course of the 20th century. Quantum Mechanics (the world of the microscopic) and Particle Physics (describing the fundamental forces and how they affect the simplest forms of matter) were also developed, but ultimately Einstein’s principles permeated those theories as criteria for acceptance.

Then, in 1998, studies of light emitted from distant supernovae seemed to indicate that something is pushing galaxies apart from each other, working against the general tendency of gravity to pull them back together. The explanation for this is Dark Energy, a field that fills all of space. This field has gravitational effects, and its effects in distorting the images of distant galaxies have been observed. However, this field cannot be moving in all possible directions at all possible speeds. Therefore, it establishes a preferred reference frame, invalidating Einstein’s assumptions.

Working physicists resist this conclusion, because they have a means of accommodating these effects in their theories, which is to introduce additional mathematical terms. But science is not about fitting data – it is about explaining it. Einstein used his principles as an explanation to justify the mathematics of his theories. When those principles are disproven, the door opens to completely new methods for describing the universe. We can travel as far back as Maxwell in reconstructing our theories of physics. While for some that would seem to discard a lot of hard work done over the years between (and undermine funding for their research), for others it liberates the imagination (see Generative Orders as an illustration).

So, for example, why didn’t Michelson and Morley detect the ether? Maybe ether is more like air than water. Air is carried along with the Earth, and so the speed of sound doesn’t vary as the Earth moves about the sun. Maybe dark energy, which Maxwell knew as the ether, is also carried along with the Earth. Maybe, in fact, gravitation is caused by distortion in the Dark Energy field when it is bound to massive objects.