UNKNOWN: The Quantum Physics of Uncertainty

Words by Sanjana Varghese
Art by Rubyanna Edwards
This article is part of our UNKNOWN series. Next piece to be published on Friday 1st December.

Quantum mechanics, despite how radically it’s revolutionised the modern world, is still somewhat mysterious. As far as frameworks to guide a personal journey, it remains very unintuitive. I found Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What It Seems at a Waterstones on a high street near me, and bought it on a whim. It gestated in the bottom of various bags for a period before I found myself facing a lengthy night bus home, and flipped to the first page. It took me a while – and much googling – to really wrap my head around the theories that Rovelli was explaining.

Much of Rovelli’s writing lends itself to believing that statements about quantum theory – such as “reality is reduced to interaction, reality is reduced to relation,” are really about your experiences.Quantum mechanics is not necessarily a theory of objects so much as a confirmation that much of reality is just a series of processes, even on a sub molecular level.

Broadly speaking, there are three main parts of quantum mechanics – granularity, relationality and indeterminacy. Max Planck, a famed physicist, built a series of equations using the premise that energy is distributed in little packets, like cosmic Capri-Suns (these are known as photons), which vibrate at fixed frequencies, that we perceived as color. Another physicist, Einstein, surmised that this applied to light too (widely perceived as a bad move ; just because light had been proved to be a wave), so this proposes granularity – that everything in the world is made of smaller ‘things’.

These electrons orbit at specific distances from the centre of an atom, and ‘leap’ from one orbit to another, colliding with other electrons and generating more energy. These quantum leaps are what makes electrons visible – as they only seem to exist when they collide with one another. At the heart of all this, another physicist, x Dirac, determined that every object is defined by an abstract space – and has no properties innately, other than its mass, and acquires the others through interactions with other objects.

I devoured this book this summer ; despite being a Type A planner for all my life, I had found myself at the beginning of May with a job at a pub in my borough and nothing else planned, the summer before my final year of university. I had spent so much of my life thinking that this was the point at which I’d have it all sorted out – and the complete opposite seemed to be true. As I embarked on Rovelli’s book, much of it seemed to speak directly to me (with the obvious caveat that it’s educational and about the far more important matter of the fundamental nature of the universe) in strange ways.

I would find myself turning over specific passages in my head while I poured pints on eight hour shifts, or thinking about how some diagrams – like Figure 6.5 which demonstrates how “at a minute scale, space is not continuous : it is woven from interconnected finite elements” – were actually right here in front of me, just on such a tiny level that I obviously couldn’t comprehend them.

But the passages on indeterminacy, the final leg of quantum theory (as we know it) stuck with me most – particularly one line. All that the above (granularity & relationality) can do tells us about the structure of electrons and other particles. Yet, we can never say with full certainty that we know where those objects – photons, electrons, quarks, neutrinos – are definitely going to be observable. Even as we advance towards a fuller understanding of the laws of nature, the most we can do is calculate the probability that they will manifest with a certain value and in a certain location. As Rovelli puts it, absence of determinism is intrinsic to the heart of nature.

At the time, and even now, realising that indeterminacy was reassuring. As you grow up inevitably, you realise that there is very little to be certain about, even things that you were convinced of. You end up becoming a collection of interactions and influences, and spin it into a version of yourself that is always in flux – a process of becoming that’s always shifting, rather than a final product.

It seems to me there’s something very universal – both emotionally and atomically – about that. My period of uncertainty over the summer eventually came to an abrupt end, as I was lucky enough to intern at a magazine I had respected for years writing on science and technology. That opened a whole new avenue of possibilities that I hadn’t given myself the space and time to consider before, even though it introduced an element of fear and anxiety into my future plans.

We know so much and so little about the world around us – most of the time, especially as a woman, it seems as though existing, wanting more and working for it are just continued, blind quantum leaps of faith. In some way, knowing that process stems from atomic instincts makes it easier to jump into the unknown.

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