What You’ll Need: rules, the desire to break rules

Songlist: I’ve Got the World on a String by Frank Sinatra, Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin

Further reading: Physics and Beyond by Werner Heisenberg, The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

Shoot, I forgot to carry the 1!

Caveat: I don’t even completely know what a quantum physicist does. I dropped out of Physics 101 in my senior year of high school to take Painting 101. But that same semester, as I was working my way through the color chart and learning the difference between hue, tint, shade, and tone, a principle first proposed in 1927 came along and blew my mind.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: “One can never know with perfect accuracy both of those two important factors which determine the movement of one of the smallest particles—its position and its velocity. It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.”

What Heisenberg introduced was not just a paradox in the scientific community, but a profound epistemological problem. While the modernist age in which he worked was based on the certain progress of man via industry and art, Heisenberg did his part to usher in post-modernism by proving a limit to knowledge, and thereby a limit to progress. At some point, there are things in the universe that are simply unknowable by humankind.

Theoretical physics is one of the most philosophically rich and morally challenging fields of our time. I’m currently reading Richard Rhodes Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, an incredible history of early twentieth century science. It’s strange to realize that only a hundred years ago, the atom was a debatable concept. And over the course of only a few decades, the atom became a weapon of catastrophic potential. Scientists working on the atomic bomb in the United States weren’t even sure if they would be able to harness its power–some worried that a self-sustaining atomic reaction would consume the entire atmosphere, effectively blowing up the planet Earth.

When scientists began work on what was later known as the Manhattan Project, the motivation seemed as much to defeat the enemy as to continue working in what Rhodes (via a chemist, Polanyi, who also studied the process of science) refers to as the “growing points”–the place where the most productive discoveries were being made. Heisenberg himself talks about this in his book Physics and Beyond: he was naturally attracted to physics because the greatest discoveries in the world were all in that field, whereas if he’d been born contemporaneously with Mozart he might have ended up a composer.

Yeah, this makes sense as a theory of the universe...

In the past century, the general theory of relativity (proposed by some obscure scientist named Einstein) redefined the scope of physics and led directly and indirectly to the many-worlds interpretation, which postulates that all possible outcomes in any given situation simultaneously occur in a multiverse of independent parallel universes; to spacetime singularities, where the paths of light and particles come to an abrupt end in the universe; to quantum teleportation, which seeks to transmit quantum information over arbitrary distances; to string theory, which posits many unknowable dimensions in addition to the four we are able to experience; to M-theory, a theory so complex and esoteric the scientists themselves who are working on it don’t agree what the “M” stands for. As American physicist Richard Feynman said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

Einstein himself was disturbed at the growing ambiguity and loss of measurement in physics. He famously stated, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Which is precisely what’s so interesting in twentieth and twenty-first century physics. Are we getting closer to the truth, or have we come to a barrier of knowledge beyond which no human can pass?