The Weird World Of Small Things

You are certain of your toothbrush being in the  bathroom when you walk in there after a good night’s sleep.  You have no doubt, the water comes to a boil in two minutes in the microwave for the delicious morning cuppa.  You are pretty sure how long it takes you to drive to the office.  That is all true. But the particles that constitute you or your toothbrush are not  predictable with that sort of certitude where they will be at any given time or when they appear at a given place!

Quantum Physics studies how the tiny particles like electrons, protons and atoms that constitute everything behave. Quantum Physics sobers us down quite a bit when it is a question of being sure of things.  It teaches us not to be so definite and deterministic.  It comes out with mind-bending mathematics and unbelievable concepts almost bordering Vedanta.  Dr. Niels Bohr, a giant among Quantum Physicists, famously said: “Anyone who is not shocked (by the concepts of Quantum Physics) has not understood it.”

For all that, Quantum Physics is not an esoteric theory. It comes with redoubtable experimental back up and unfailing proof. 


Dr. D. Evans writes:  “If we shoot a beam of electrons at a sheet of metal with a slit in it, a small number of electrons will pass through.  The electrons that pass through form what looks like a shotgun blast pattern on a photographic film.  If we repeat this experiment with two slits instead of one, we would expect to see two shotgun blast patterns.  Instead we find bands of alternating high and low hits of electrons.  Such a pattern of alternating bands is called “Interference Pattern.”  It is the characteristic pattern produced when two waves interact like ripples in a pond when you pelt two stones at the water surface.  The electrons, which behave like particles when passed through one slit behave as waves when they pass through two slits!

“It gets even more interesting when we slow down the rate of electrons until only one electron at a time passes through the slits.  In this case, we should expect that there would be no interference pattern because there is no second electron when one was passing through the slits.  Surprisingly, the single electron behaves as if it is going through both the slits and interacting with itself to form an interference pattern! More confounding is the fact that this result is obtained only if we look at the photographic film where the electron ends up.  But if we look to see which slit it passes through, then it only passes through the slit that we observe it in and does not produce any interference pattern!!”

If we do not check the path while an electron transverses from one point to another, it appears as though it has followed several or many paths to reach its destination raising the possibility that the particle was present in multiple locations all at once during its transit.

These findings led physicists to develop the wave theory of the matter.  “In this new view of the world, objects are represented by waves that extend through space, containing all possible outcomes of an observation – here, there, up or down, dead or alive.”  Dr. E. Schrodinger came up with the math that correctly predicts the chances of finding that particle at any given point.  Once you look at the particle, the ‘wave’ collapses into the single point at which the particle really is. Another peculiar character of the particles is: we may know how fast one is moving but not where it exactly is; alternately we may know its correct position but not accurately its speed.  This is called as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and puts a limit to what we can know.  Dr. Heisenberg cautioned us regarding the fallibility of our set and pet concepts: “The idea of an objective real world, whose smallest parts exist objectively in the same sense as stones or trees exist independently of whether we observe them, is impossible.”

But then, how is it that we still see objects? When do the particles in my toothbrush get the good behavior of staying as my toothbrush instead of running hither and thither?  Quantum Physics has no explanation.  Nevertheless, it revolutionized physics in the early twentieth century. It helped in the discovery of atomic energy, computers, lasers, satellite communications and so on. It gave the equations to calculate the possible outcome of an experiment.  “Everyone agrees on how to use the equations of quantum theory to make accurate predictions but there is no consensus on what it really means to have probability waves, nor how a particle “chooses” which of its many possible futures to follow says Prof. B. Greene.

However, there are several conjectures varying from spiritual to philosophical to mathematical, many of them unfalsifiable, in order to explain why is it that we see objects instead of fuzzy waves.  Niels Bohr and a majority attribute it to our perception much akin to what the ‘Doctrine of Perception-based Creation’ of Advaita philosophy holds. Supporters of this view state that the neuronal processes in our brain obey quantum laws.  Proponents of ‘Many Worlds Hypothesis’ say that the universe splits every fraction of a second into several equally real universes each representing a different possible condition.  “Billions of you are splitting off every fraction of second into discrete universes. A 500-year-old you exists in some universes, whereas in others you died at birth”, explains Dr. J. Higgo pointing out the implications of this theory.  A variation of this concept gets support from believers in mythologies.  For, Puranas refer to “an infinite number of universes each with its own gods, inhabitants and planets.”  Dr. David Bohm theorized that every particle is guided by a hidden wavefront bringing about an implicit order. Other suggestions keep emerging every now and then.

[Note:  1.  Dr. Lee Smolin,  Director of The Perimeter Institute, Canada, seems to support the ‘hidden variables’ hypothesis in his just published controversial book, “Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe”, Harcourt, 2013.

Note :  2.  The behavior of the small particles sometimes as waves and sometimes as particles prompted a few people to coin the term ‘wavicle’ and assert that matter is dualistic in nature.  But the actual fact is that the behavior of the particles in our observations sometimes ‘seem’ to conform to our ‘concept’ of a wave and some other times to our ‘concept’ of a ball. So the honest admission would be that, as of now, ‘we DO NOT really know’ the exact nature of  these particles.]

Some scientists think that the basic equations of Quantum Physics need to be modified to bridge the gap between the weird world of small particles and our day to day reality.  Two Nobel Laureate Physicists, Dr. A.J. Leggett and Dr. N. Ramsey debated this question at a seminar in 2008.  Dr. Leggett said “Yes” to the question whether Quantum Theory  needed some tweaking.  Dr. Ramsey said “No.” Austrian Physicist Dr. A.  Zeilinger said it all: “The (actual) world is even weirder than what quantum physics tells us.”  Dr. Albert Einstein would certainly agree with this conclusion.

(The above article is  from the Book: Religion Demystified, 2008.  One more article will be posted in this series).

1.  Reality ‘Out There’ And Quantum Physics:

2.  We are all an entangled web:

4.  Invisible Energy In Empty Space: