X-Message-Number: 11643
Date: Fri, 30 Apr 1999 00:31:40 EDT
Subject: Understanding quantum mechanics

Personal philosophy--life's decisions--and "natural philosophy" (science) are 
closely tied, although few perceive this clearly. A key element of 
contemporary science is quantum mechanics.

I have said previously that one needs to read at least several top-level 
writers (in addition to some introductory textbooks) to begin to get a 
feeling for it. To the books I listed before, let me add a couple more: THE 
TIME, ed. Penrose and Isham, Oxford, 1986; THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Greene, 
Norton, 1999.

One of the clearest conclusions is that, after a whole century (if we start 
with Planck), NOBODY has figured out what it means, and disagreements if 
anything are widening, not narrowing. 

Einstein: "All these fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no 
nearer to the answer to the question, 'What are light quanta?' Nowadays every 
Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he knows it, but he is mistaken."

Feynman: "...it appears peculiar and mysterious to everyone--both to the 
novice and to the experienced physicist."

Abner Shimony (in QUANTUM CONCEPTS, above): "...the [many worlds 
interpretation] is an immense extrapolation of the linear dynamics of quantum 
mechanics...We are so far from having evidence for the validity of this 
dynamics for macroscopic systems...and for the space-time field that the 
extrapolation....should be recognized as sheer conjecture." (Incidentally, 
Shimony also said the same thing about many worlds that I did in terms of 
desirability from our point of view: It makes reality of all the possible 
good things, but also of all the possible bad things.)

Bart Kosko {parphrased]: "Quantum mechanics must be wrong because its 
equations are linear, and reality is never linear."

Lee Smolin [paraphrased]: "The laws and constants of nature may vary as 
universes evolve. Space and time may not exist except as apparent 
relationships between events."

Brian Greene: "Centuries from now, superstring theory...may have developed so 
far beyond our current formulation that it might be unrecognizable even to 
today's leading researchers." 
Most working physicists tend to shrug off questions of 
interpretation--mainly, no doubt, because they have enough to do with their 
own immediate bread-and-butter problems. They also remind us of the many 
successes and the lack of failures in the predictions of the quantum 
mechanical formalism. But all this work, as far as I know, relates only to 
extremely simple systems. Remember that Q.M. is postulated to apply to ALL 
phenomena and to all bodies--not just electrons but also atoms; not just 
atoms but also molecules; not just molecules but also people and planets and 
galaxies. You can calculate the "wave length" or the "frequency" of the 
earth--but you can't conduct a verifying diffraction experiment.

Finally, while I remember it, a word about "dimensions" as discussed in 
string theory and in general relativity. All those great men abused the 
language and confused generations of students. Time is not a "dimension"  
except in a certain mathematical formalism; time and space are profoundly 
different. The "coiled dimensions" of string theory are nothing of the sort; 
they are coiled curves or surfaces or physical objects. A path or a hyperpath 
or a physical object can be coiled, but a "dimension" cannot. 

To clarify this slightly, think about a circle. It is a one-dimensional 
figure in the sense that only one coordinate--either an angle or a 
displacement along the circumference--is required to specify a location on 
the circle. But to measure the curvature you need to relate the linear 
displacement to the central angle (more curvature if the circumference is 
smaller), and of course the curvature takes place in a second dimension. It 
makes no more sense to speak of "curved spacetime" or of "coiled dimensions" 
than it would to speak of a circle as a "curved straight line." Of course I 
recognize that people do indeed use fractured language successfully, by 
separating what they do from what they say, but it hinders understanding and 

Robert Ettinger
Cryonics Institute
Immortalist Society

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