In this episode of Myths Under the Lens, we are venturing into an area that is mind-boggling, even bizarre. It is physics, but not the type we studied in our schools and colleges; it does not validate that a ball thrown up will necessarily fall down. It is Mathematics, but does not validate that 1 added to 1 necessarily makes 2. It is all sort of twisted logic if you go by common sense and our day-to-day experiences of scientific and mathematical nature.
Yet, let us try to discuss it all in a layman’s language and see what could be the real nature of nature itself, at the minutest or fundamental level. Let’s also see the likeliness of the statement made on some YouTube videos and sci-fi movies that all that’s happening on earth is being replicated somewhere in the universe.
Let me concede why I chose this topic. I am not a physicist, let alone quantum physicist. I am a layman interested in science, who is baffled at the theories scientists have given about what the matter and energy is made of. My idea is to confuse you too, so that you either start disbelieving in whatever you see or call the quantum physicists insane beyond cure.
Atoms are what makes the universe.
In our schools and colleges, we studied that if we kept breaking down any matter, it would break into tiny particles till we reach the level of molecules – the smallest particles that exist on their own. Molecules are made up of one or more, similar or dissimilar, atoms. So, water is made up of water molecules, each having 1 Oxygen and 2 Hydrogen molecules. Similarly, Oxygen gas is made up of Oxygen molecules, each having 2 Oxygen atoms.
We also learnt, and we are sure about it, that an atom consists of a nucleus in which particles called Protons and Neutrons stay put. There are tiny Electrons in as many numbers as Protons, which are destined to keep revolving around this nucleus all the time.
No issues so far. If we are not physicists who study the fundamental nature of matter and energy, and space, we are not bothered about the working of nearly infinite number of sub-atomic particles dancing inside and around us all the time, and a similar number of big objects and energies making the earth, the solar system, the galaxy and the universe.
Breaking the sub-atomic particles
Scientists dealing with fundamental sciences are a crazy lot, and they keep losing their heads all the time on breaking the matter – and after studying it for over 120 years, they have declared that what we call matter is not even that.
More than a century back, they postulated that protons and neutrons constituted the mass of an atom, protons were positively charged, and much tiny, negatively charged electrons encircled them. But that model could not explain many properties, including radioactivity (in simple words, breaking down of big atoms as in x-rays machines, nuclear reactors and atomic bombs).
New concepts arose and got validated by experimental observations. More sophisticated machines were developed that could capture a thousandth, then even a millionth, of an atom. A decade back they set up a machine called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), used primarily for smashing sub-atomic particles with each other at high speed and looking at the debris to validate quantum mechanical concepts. By the way, the LHC is a 27-kilometer ring of electronic gadgetry, magnets, etc. and is the largest machine ever made. It is located in parts of France and Switzerland. It cost $10 billion, which is over Rs. 73,000 crore going by the current exchange rate.
Come quantum mechanics and things start getting crazy
As far as particles below the proton-neutron-electron level are concerned, what they have found so far is like the following.
All the matter is composed of fundamental particles called Quarks, Leptons and Bosons. They differ according to their mass (in a sense, weight) and charge. They interact and give rise to a great number of sub-atomic particles, most of them much smaller than protons and neutrons and with a life that can be measured only in millionth of a second. About two hundred such particles have been discovered so far.
If research moved in a linear fashion, we would be content today with numerous tiny particles joining together to make the matter. But scientists soon discovered that there were four fundamental forces that were cause as well as effect of interactions between the particles: gravity, electro-magnetism and two other forces named as strong force and weak force.
At the beginning, when the atom was still being understood at proton-neutron-electron level, it was discovered that light waves are not just waves like those on the surface of water but consist of tiny quanta (=units) of energy, called photons. Nearly at the same time, another revolutionary concept arose, that of wave-particle duality. It says that at fundamental level, particles also behave like waves. In fact, the wave is not even real wave, it has a curious mathematical concept, called wavefunction. It was experimentally shown that the minute quantum particle could become a wave or a particle, depending on when you observed it!
A quantum field theory took birth, which said that the quantum particles are nothing but excited states of an underlying field.
That was also the time when research into how forces in the universe function at gigantic levels (of stars, galaxies, universe) led to the concept of relativity. Time was said to be one more dimension to the three-dimensional space – thus the concept of a unified time-space took shape. Calculations and observations proved that time itself was ‘plastic’ as it could be moulded by other properties of matter.
Such earth-shaking studies and discoveries, starting with the early part of the last century and still continuing, are what we call quantum mechanics. To demystify this, let me tell you that quantum mechanics is nothing but the study of how things happen or move (that’s why mechanics) at sub-atomic levels. Levels that can be as small as the millionth of the size of the atom. Levels at which the matter and energy are defined better in terms of mathematical formulas and possibilities than something solid!
Experiments at the minutest levels and observations at galactic levels for the last over a hundred years have led to numerous concepts – some aligning with each other and some tearing apart other concepts.
The elementary quantum mechanics, in which there is not much conflict among scientists, is called the Standard Model. This conceptual framework can explain forces and interaction among fundamental particles but not beyond a certain level. This is what is the essence of this part of quantum mechanics:
- All that is there is made of tiny particles (discreet, countable objects) that also behave like wave (have wavelength and frequency).
- At sub-atomic level, things behave in a strange manner because of the inherent wave-particle duality and also because the time and distances are extremely-extremely small.
- An uncertainty principle seems to apply to quantum particles. According to it, certain pairs of qualities (e.g. speed and position) of a particle cannot be measured with certainty at the same time. So, at a particular moment you cannot precisely measure either the speed of that particle or its position.
- One interpretations of transactions happening at quantum levels even says that the reality does not exist until we measure it. The nature of particle-wave collapses when we observe it, and results into a measurable state!
- Unlike classical physics, quantum mechanics does not make definitive predictions for future based on what happened in the past; it says, this would probably happen like this. For example, if a rocket of a known weight is fired at a particular speed in a particular direction, and other factors (e.g. wind velocity, gravity) are known, the classical science can predict where it will reach after a given time. That is not the way quantum particles work.
It keeps becoming more and more mind-boggling
Particles-waves and forces do not seem to be making full sense of the reality. The Standard Model, and the numerous concepts that come out of it, supplemented by mathematical deductions and experiments, are not able to pin-point how nature works at the smallest level. For example, gravity (the force by which tiny as well as large particles attract each other) still confounds quantum scientists.
Let us see some better-known weird-looking concepts in quantum mechanics. You may not find them believable but there they are, and they are not ideas of a hallucinated mind or a sci-fi scriptwriter but have a sound mathematical basis.
The concept of superposition says, not only can an object be wave or particle, but it also can be simultaneously at two places. Another spooky part of this hypothesis is that if you try to observe or measure superposition, it disappears!
Quantum mechanics also says, every fundamental particle has its anti-particle. It is a replica of the particle but differently charged. Experiments have shown the presence of anti-particles.
Another one says, all particles have a shadow particle. Thus, there is supersymmetry among fundamental particles. No supersymmetric particle has yet been found in experiments.
Scientists know of dark matter – a type of matter that is supposed to be different from what we know today, i.e. not composed of protons, neutrons, electrons, etc. One hypothesis says that the universe has much more dark matter than observable matter. But it has not yet been experimentally found because our type of light or radiation cannot make it observable by us.
Scientists also tell us that there are black holes in galaxies – huge objects whose enormous density attract everything towards them. Their power of attraction is so much that even light cannot come out of them (that’s why they are completely black). These have been found to exist, but we do not know how matter is composed or behaves within them.
The universe is supposed to have arisen out of big bang and is supposed to be expanding since then. Today’s theories have only partial answers to how and why the big bang happened, why the universe is expanding at the rate it is expanding, and many other questions.
There is another concept called entanglement. It tells us, quantum particles that exist together (for example, after collision of sub-atomic particles) are not independent of each other and retain a connection. They are so entangled that even when located millions of miles away, they can affect each other instantaneously (Einstein wondered if such ‘spooky action at a distance’ was possible, but it was later established to be the likely case).
There also is the concept of multiverses – that there are many (in trillions, maybe) universes parallel to our universe. The idea is that at a given moment, there are many possibilities of how a quantum particle will act. But all possibilities happen – and all except one will happen somewhere else than here.
A set of calculations produces the idea that vacuum – which is supposed to have nothing in it – can also contain energy, and quantum particles do borrow this energy for a small duration of time.
We are made of an infinite number of strings that can change shape like the rubber band!
In their effort to unify all existing theories and conceptualize a theory that can explain everything at the fundamental level, scientists have come up with the weirdest of the theories, called the String Theory. It tries to unify other theories – mostly quantum mechanics and gravity, and relativity. This theory propounds
that everything in existence is made up of tiny vibrating strings. It is the loops of these strings that give rise to particles (quarks, electrons, etc) as well forces (electro-magnetism, gravity, etc).
But our concept of 3-dimensional space is not enough for the strings to vibrate, and therefore there have to be many more dimensions – 10 or 11 or even 26 – not probably flat planes (like the X, Y and Z axes on a 3-D graph) but curled, warped and twisted. So, the nature has to be much beyond 3-dimensional.
The string is mathematically possible and has the potential to unify other concepts. However, even after five decades since it was first proposed, no proof of string has been found. Part of that is because if strings exist, scientists will have to go to further lower levels than today’s limits – which is proving impossible even with modern machines including the LHC we talked about before. Part of it is also because the mathematical capabilities of humans are also becoming a limitation.
The String Theory itself has developed many versions, and some years back the M Theory has come about by reconciling the diverse string theories. This concept tries to theoretically explain black hole and gravity like no other theory can. But there are many scientists who contest the assumptions on which it is based.
Will I meet my carbon copy some day?
The LHC was supposed to give us answers to many big unanswered questions, but it has failed to do so. With the time, energy and money needed for a much more powerful machine – with no guarantee of it giving desired results – governments, funding organizations and scientists hesitate to build it. (An interesting aside: in 2012, a smashing experiment at LHC proved the existence of Higgs boson – a particle that had been eluding the scientists for decades – which became popular in the media as God particle.) The quest for finding the fundamental reality of nature continues, and the ultimate findings – whenever they come – are going to be unbelievably surreal.
These bizarre concepts of superposition, entanglement and multiverses, when explained to us laymen in terms of observable events, give the sci-fi idea that if we are here, carbon copies of ours must be there somewhere in some universe, and their carbon copies in many other universes.
Who knows? If I believe the scientific theories, I am not sure whether the world that I see is made up of objects (like balls) or waves (like music) or strings (like rubber band) – and I am also not sure if your reality is different from mine because we both are separate observers. Then, where am I? Nowhere, or simultaneously in many universes? As quantum mechanics says, nothing is certain; there is a possibility of each of them! So, don’t be surprised if an alien knocks at your door at night and tells you he is your carbon copy of some bygone era!
Ye sab [uski] maya hai? – Is this all an illusion [created by Him]
Didn’t the Upanishads tell us that the ultimate reality is sukshma –सूक्ष्म (minute) and sthula-स्थूल (gross) – and the brahman-ब्रह्मा (the ultimate real thing) and maya-माया (illusion) – at the same time? That it is the state of the observer that determines the cosmos, and it is turiya -तुरीय (the state encompassing all consciousness) that is what explains the nature of reality and how it works? Ultimately, is this going to be ‘the theory of everything’ that scientists are looking for?
*Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.