Monday, December 24, 2012

When I die...

This isn't as morbid as you might think. I've been reading Walt Whitman, because I've had Leaves of Grass for years and, why not? Well, the poetry's phenomenal. I'm working through "Song of Myself" right now, and every once in a while it occurs to me that bits of it would be perfect for things. Mostly for proving Whitman was probably bi.

Anyway, when I die, I want to be composted1 and spread in a flower garden for a few years of happy blooming. Screw burial; stupid and wasteful.

Also, everyone who shows up has to get shitty drunk. It's what I would have done, right?

1 - Yeah, I know, you can't compost meat, right? I want someone to make the effort. At the very least, I want to be mulched.

Thermoquick Composter, 160 Gallon (Google Affiliate Ad)

Sometimes I get odd whims.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Schrödinger's Cat

Before you there is a box. In the box there is a vial of deadly cyanide. There is also a radioactive isotope with precisely a fifty percent chance of decay, and a Geiger counter to detect when it does so. If the isotope decays, the poison will be released. This will kill the cat that is also inside the box. Is the cat alive or dead?

Erwin Schrödinger proposed this thought experiment without any intent that it be taken seriously. He certainly never actually put a cat in a box with a vial of deadly poison. He intended it as a damning counter-argument to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

In short, the math of QM tells us that there's no reason for a particle to exist in one state rather than another. The Many Worlds model (popular with authors of speculative fiction, for reasons that are probably obvious) states that the particle exists only in one state in this universe, but in other states in other universes, leading to a branching infinity of possible universes. As an untestable hypothesis, this isn't popular with scientists, particularly since other models are testable and have been confirmed to be true.

The Copenhagen Interpretation states instead that if a particle can exist in multiple states, that it does exist in multiple states. Imagine walking into the kitchen and, rather than choosing to sit in one particular chair, you instead sat in all of them at once. Perhaps 80% of you is in chair A, while the remaining 20% is spread evenly across chairs B-F. In QM math terms, that's saying that the wave function1 tells us there's an 80% probability of finding you in chair A, 4% in B, 4% in C, 4% in D, 4% in E, and 4% in F. If we looked 100 times, roughly four of those would find you in chair C. More than that, though, the Copenhagen Interpretation tells us that until we looked you wouldn't just be in one of those chairs, you would actually be in all of them simultaneously, but more in A than in the rest.

Therefore, Schrödinger argued, according to the Copenhagen Interpretation, the wave system of the cat in the box is 50% undecayed isotope/alive cat, 50% decayed isotope/dead cat. Conclusion: The cat is simultaneously alive and dead. This is stupid2. This is a reductio ad absurdum, taking an argument to a logical and absurd conclusion to demonstrate that the argument is false.

And it's hard to argue with. It proceeds ineluctably from the mathematics of QM to the well-tested and confirmed knowledge we all share about the way death works to demonstrate that the Copenhagen Interpretation is false. And Schrödinger was a really smart guy whose name is still all over QM and he must have understood it, right?

Then why is the Copenhagen Interpretation the number one interpretation of physicists today? Why is it the one taught in schools as the truth while others get, at best, a passing mention? Mostly because it accords with all the evidence, and also because Schrödinger made a little mistake. Actually, a big mistake.

First, the evidence. If a system can exist in multiple configurations simultaneously, then it doesn't merely bounce from one to the next to the next. It actually does exist in all of them simultaneously. Every measurement we can do on electrons and molecular bonds, and extended metallic or ionic structures confirms this. A chemical bond that's half a single bond and half a double bond actually is somewhere between the two, not one or the other at different times.

Second, Schrödinger's mistake. It's rather similar to the one made by Roger Barrier in an article I discussed elsewhere. It's the mistake of not knowing exactly what an observer is. Douglas Adams, brilliant and trenchant as always, noted in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency that the cat itself counts as an observer! However, he got it wrong as well.

The Geiger counter is the observer. It's the one that measures whether or not the isotope has decayed and actually makes the "decision" to release the poison. In the same way, when you read these words on your screen, you yourself are not the observer that collapses the wave function. The single molecule in your eye that captures the photon is itself the observer, not you. The Geiger counter captures the energetic particle released by the radioactive decay and transforms that energy into an audible click. The molecule in your eye captures the photon, is transformed into a high energy state that then, through an awesome, high-fidelity QM process transfers that energy downhill and into your brain where... something happens so your brain can process it. I don't actually know much neurology. Brain is pink thinky thing. It's a goop.

Anyway, the point is that the cat is not simultaneously alive and dead. By continually observing the isotope, the Geiger counter is keeping the isotope's wave function collapsed in the "undecayed" state until such time as it hopes over into the "decayed" state and the poison is released. And the moon is being continuously observed, but God doesn't have to do that, because everything in the universe that interacts with the moon, from the Earth, to the sun, to every single particle in your body, is doing that whether you notice it or not. When a tree falls in a forest, everything around it observes that fact. It does make a sound. Reality exists absent our perception of it.

Just try to remember, there's a reason "scientific" "proofs" for the existence of a god aren't being shouted from the rooftops and taught in schools. It's because they're wrong. That's why I put them in quotes up there. There are a few scientists, a minority, who are both fully educated in their field and who also believe in a god of some kind, but they almost all, with only a few, eye-roll-inducing exceptions3, stay far, far away from any statement of the sort "Scientific Theory X proves that my god exists."

1 - A wave function details all the information about a system, whether it's a particle in a box, the electron around a hydrogen nucleus, or the 92 electrons around a uranium nucleus.

2 - Yes. It is. Don't argue. This is the world of the everyday we're talking about. You're alive or you're dead. Even if you're in a persistent vegetative state and your brain is dead but your body is still alive, then your brain is dead and your body is alive but it's still not fifty fifty.

3 - Like the doctor who recently made the news for saying the afterlife was real. He made Newsweek. And it was terrible science.

Quantum Observation: A Religio Gets Science Wrong

A lot of people just don't understand quantum mechanics (QM). That's okay, a lot of people don't understand Newtonian mechanics, either. Nor, for that matter, do they understand cars. Or hot dogs.

The problem is that they think they do. It's a known phenomenon that people rate their understanding of a topic completely independent of their actual expertise. That is to say that ask anyone if they understand a topic and they'll say they do, but when you test them on it, they could be anywhere. The only people whose understanding truly matches their self-evaluations are the experts.

In the field of science, this is exacerbated by the fact that science necessarily uses jargon, and that jargon often overlaps with common language. The term "fragility" in the study of glass-forming materials doesn't mean "it breaks easily", it describes the relationship between the viscosity of the liquid and temperature1.

Some people, like Deepak Chopra, are quacks and frauds who make money by dancing around these misunderstandings, claiming the mantle of science before the public, and then retreating into simple mysticism when challenged by an expert. Seriously, fuck Deepak Chopra. Most of the time, though, it's much more innocent.

Take this, for example. This guy is trying to use QM to prove that a god exists. It doesn't help that Einstein was given to semi-mystical quotes. It also doesn't help that he gets the science wrong, and not just the QM; he gets every day things wrong as well.

For example, he claims that when a tree falls in a forest, it doesn't make a sound. He admits that it makes "air waves", but claims that "sound" is our perception of the event. This isn't a mere quibble over terms. It's a deeper part of both his misunderstanding of QM and central to his "proof".

The problem is the quantum mechanical act of "observation". There's a serious disconnect between the everyday act of observation and that which takes place in the world of QM.

In everyday life, observation is a fundamentally passive event. Information is flying through air all the time and you receive it. Sounds are created, and travel through the air until they reach your ears, at which point your brain interprets them. Light waves travel from a source, bounce off an object, and travel to your eyes, at which point your brain interprets them. At all times, information comes to you absent your effort to retrieve it, and at no time do you actually decide when or how or whether to interpret it. Your brain does that regardless. The human experience of observation is as a passive recipient of some of the vast quantities of information that fill the world around us.

In the realm of the very small, such is not the case. The interactions of the everyday world happen at inconceivable scales; the photons striking your bookcase are so much smaller, that the effect is negligible. But a photon exists on the same scale as an electron. When you observe an electron using a photon, it's like observing a baseball with a baseball bat, like finding a coffee table in a dark room (you know, with your shin). In short, observation in QM is an active event that necessarily impacts (literally) both the object being observed and the object with which you observe. The effect of the one on the other is how you make the observation!

The disconnect, and the reason it allows people to draw false, mystical conclusions, is that the effects are only significant on that small scale, and they're only truly active on that scale. Between the QM world and the world of the everyday, a switch occurs and observation once again becomes a passive event. Newtonian mechanics may only be an approximation, as author Barrier noted, but they're very, very good approximations. Using Newtonian physics, military artillery can fire shells over the horizon, taking into account wind, curvature of the Earth, and the Coriolis effect to not only land the shell but even to set its timer so it explodes precisely and devastatingly above the target. It's an approximation that works in the realm of the everyday.

The act of human observation hasn't been altered or shifted in some way by the discoveries of QM or relativity. When I read a book, it only moves me emotionally. To proceed from QM to the notion that the universe must be observed in order to exist is a non sequitur. The former doesn't lead to the latter. When a tree falls in a forest, it does make a sound, and here's why: In Which I Discuss Shcrödinger's Tired Cat.

1 - If you must know, the ideal relationship is a perfectly straight line when ln(η) is plotted against 1/T. Like many things, viscosity is an exponential function... ideally. In reality, glass-forming liquids deviate from the ideal, and the greater the deviation, the greater the fragility.