In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat – Review

John Gribbin. In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality. 1984; New York: Bantam, 2011. E-book.

In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat is one of the more accessible books on quantum physics. Quantum physics, which deal with the properties of subatomic particles, is based on fairly esoteric experiments and somewhat opaque mathematical formulae. Even more than the theory of relativity, it is for the experts. Relativity sort of makes sense. Quantum mechanics does not.

Gribbin explains things pretty well: that many of these subatomic particles are both waves and particles. One could say that they have the properties of both a tiny object and a wave, but they do not necessarily have both properties at the same time. Instead of traditional Newtonian mechanics which are described by fairly clear mathematics, in quantum mechanics “events are governed by probabilities.” (2) Hence the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, there is a 50-50 chance it is dead or alive, but we do not know till we open the box. Indeed, Niels Bohr, one of the pioneers of both relativity and quantum physics, said. “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” (5)

Gribbin also points out that atoms are really not those neat little planetary systems that we usually see in chemistry books. The size of the nucleus of an atom is about one hundred thousandth the size of the whole atom. Electrons are even smaller than the protons and neutrons in the nucleus, so atoms are primarily “empty spaces, held together by electric charges.” (32)

Much of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat is the history of the main discoveries of quantum mechanics. It seems like just about everyone named in the book has won a Nobel Prize unless they died young. This helps us see how we arrived at where we are and what the different researchers were looking for or what they discovered. One great ironic/paradoxical sentence: “In 1906 J. J. Thomson had received the Nobel Prize for proving that electrons are particles; in 1937 he saw his son awarded the Nobel Prize for proving that electrons are waves. Both father and son were correct, and both awards were fully merited.” (91)

Some connections were made because someone had studied esoteric mathematics in his past. So Max Born discovered some of the strange properties of quanta because he had studied matrices in college. At the time, matrices were interesting mathematical constructions developed in calculus but had no known practical application. Now they do. As in a matrix the numbers may not be commutative—that is, 3 + 2 might not equal 2 + 3—so it is with properties of certain quanta.

Beyond the scope of this book, this reviewer notes that a little over a hundred years ago mathematicians started playing around with multidimensional geometry. Not that there was any application, but it was an interesting exercise. Now it appears that the relationship between gravity and the atomic and subatomic forces can be explained by mathematical models—as long as there are eleven dimensions.

So Gribbin notes:

Wave mechanics is no more a guide to the reality of the atomic world than matrix mechanics, but unlike matrix mechanics, wave mechanics gives us an illusion [Gribbin’s italics] of something familiar and comfortable. (117)

We have all seen rainbows and ripples on water; these things indicate waves. But “the atomic world is totally different from the everyday world.” (117)

We finally get to the main observation concerning probabilities and particles.

It is a cardinal rule of quantum mechanics that in principle it is impossible to measure certain pairs of properties, including position/momentum, simultaneously. (121)

While this does sort of make sense since quanta are both waves (with motion) and particles (in a position), Gribbin’s conclusion? “There is not absolute truth at the quantum level.” (120)

Even Richard Feynman posited that if one knew enough math, he could predict the future. This reviewer is reminded of Thomasina’s question about free will in Stoppard’s Arcadia: “Is God a Newtonian?” Gribbin denies this. The most we can say is that there is probability, kind of like a weather forecaster. Perhaps, then, this demonstrates the paradox of free will and predestination both being true.

It does appear to illustrate Ivey’s basic argument that the fact that even matter is mostly empty space with tiny spots of mathematical complications proves the existence of a very intelligent artist behind it all. Gribbin, however, does use the self-defeating “no absolutes” argument. In all fairness he admits that he does not know about origins. There might be a God.

Gribbin notes that quantum mechanics explains why the sun shines, when according to “classical theory” it cannot. (Kind of like bees flying…) When he quotes Heisenberg as saying “We cannot know as a matter of principle the present in all its details,” Gribbin states:

This is where quantum theory cuts free from the determinacy of classical ideas. To Newton it would be possible to predict the entire course of the future if we knew the position and momentum of every particle in the universe; to the modern physicist, the idea of such a perfect prediction is meaningless because we cannot even know the position and momentum of even one [Gribbin’s italics] particle precisely. (157)

Gribbin notes perhaps the greatest curiosity about quantum physics, that particles like electrons seem to change their properties or state when they are being observed.

In quantum physics the observer interacts with the system to such an extent that the system cannot be thought of having an independent existence. By choosing to measure position more precisely, we force a particle to develop more uncertainty in its momentum, and vice versa. (160)

If man is made in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26), then maybe in some way our intelligence is wired to not only observe nature but to interact with it in ways that we do not yet understand.

Gribbin also notes that a photon travels at the speed of light, “and this means that for a photon time has no meaning.” (190) If that is the case, then this is another reason why the universe may not be as old as some say. We detect distant galaxies that are thirteen to fifteen billion light years away, so we say that the universe mush be thirteen to fifteen billion years old for the light to reach us. But if photons are timeless, then they do not have to be that old. They could have been born yesterday. Maybe they were… (Starlight and Time has a different explanation that has to do with the universe’s expansion and the effects of gravity on photons.)

This reviewer makes no apology for suggesting a Creator or a young earth, certainly not in reviewing In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. Gribbin believes that a way to resolve the paradoxes of quantum physics in a more unusual way: parallel universes—universes that are similar to but not quite identical to ours. This reviewer has come across this hypothesis before, but where is the evidence? Gribbin believes science fiction writers may be ahead of the curve on this one. He names The Man in the High Castle as one such example.

This is really getting wild. Years ago I had a friend who worked in nuclear physics. He said that where he worked (unlike Gribbin, he worked in the corporate world, not academia) most the people believed in some kind of God because they saw the unmistakable design in what they were working with all the time.

To his credit, Gribbin does not bring personal beliefs like these until the last chapter, and he is direct about it. So we get to see the discoveries of the mysteries of quantum physics without much getting in the way other than the mystery itself. He understands that the reader might not see things his way, but he sees his multiverse hypothesis at least as good as any of the others. Also, unlike many scientists in academia, he is not afraid to mention the anthropic principle.

This reviewer recognizes that unless I go back to school, I will never have a completely clear understanding of quantum physics, but In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat is about the best introduction to the subject that I have read.

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