September 21, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Hard Science Has a Firm Grip on Unreality

Anybody who thinks the hard sciences give us confidence in the real world should read this.

Quantum physics was already weird, but not this weird. Nature says it has reached “a whole new level of weirdness.” The leading theory of reality contradicts itself. This is not good. For a field boasting itself as “hard science,” it’s like claiming a firm grasp on reality, opening one’s hand, and seeing nothing there.

Physicists in the Cat Box

The problem, according to writer Davide Castelvecchi, begins with Erwin Schrödinger’s famous theoretical cat.

In the world’s most famous thought experiment, physicist Erwin Schrödinger described how a cat in a box could be in an uncertain predicament. The peculiar rules of quantum theory meant that it could be both dead and alive, until the box was opened and the cat’s state measured. Now, two physicists have devised a modern version of the paradox by replacing the cat with a physicist doing experiments — with shocking implications.

Quantum theory has a long history of thought experiments, and in most cases these are used to point to weaknesses in various interpretations of quantum mechanics. But the latest version, which involves multiple players, is unusual: it shows that if the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, then different experimenters can reach opposite conclusions about what the physicist in the box has measured. This means that quantum theory contradicts itself.

A theory that contradicts itself cannot logically be true. This is not the same problem as complementarity, such as claiming that light is both a wave and a particle. It is not the same problem as uncertainty, such as claiming that we cannot simultaneously know a particle’s position and momentum. Contradiction is a far deeper problem: it means what you believe cannot be true. Has the most widely accepted interpretation of quantum physics—the Copenhagen Interpretation—reached this hopeless state?

The Copenhagen interpretation left open the question of why different rules should apply to the quantum world of the atom and the classical world of laboratory measurements (and of everyday experience). But it was also reassuring: although quantum objects live in uncertain states, experimental observation happens in the classical realm and gives unambiguous results.

Now, Frauchiger and Renner are shaking physicists out of this comforting position. Their theoretical reasoning says that the basic Copenhagen picture — as well as other interpretations that share some of its basic assumptions — is not internally consistent.

The “shocking implications” come from more creative versions of Schrödinger’s cat involving multiple physicists inside the box flipping coins, and multiple observers. Using the Copenhagen interpretation, two observers could be able to arrive at absolute certainty about opposite results. The reactions of ‘hard science’ physicists to this development are quite revealing:

Physicists are still coming to terms with the implications of the result. It has triggered heated responses from experts in the foundations of quantum theory, many of whom tend to be protective of their pet interpretation. “Some get emotional,” Renner says. And different researchers tend to draw different conclusions. “Most people claim that the experiment shows that their interpretation is the only one that is correct.

One physicist commented, “I don’t think we’ve made sense of this.”

Demon in the Maxwell Box

Another famous thought experiment is “Maxwell’s Demon.” Around 1870, James Clerk Maxwell proposed a situation that could contradict the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which most physicists feel is one of the best-attested laws in all physics. Physics students know that atoms in a gas come to thermal equilibrium if mixed; the hot atoms never spontaneously gather to one side of a room. If an imaginary person or machine (the demon) could select atoms passing through a barrier, though, it could theoretically sort all the cold atoms on one side and the hot ones on another, providing free energy to drive a heat engine – reducing entropy and thus violating the Second Law.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). Click for bio.

Occasionally the science literature brings up Maxwell’s Demon for discussion. This month in Nature, four physicists proposed “Sorting ultracold atoms in a three-dimensional optical lattice in a realization of Maxwell’s demon.” Penn State imagines this as a possible way to build a quantum computer. As most physicists explain, though, the Second Law is not violated in any case, because the entropy of the demon’s work and memory storage would more than compensate for the reduced entropy of the gas. That may not be the case near absolute zero, however:

“Later work has shown that the demon doesn’t actually violate the second law and subsequently there have been many attempts to devise experimental systems that behave like the demon,” said Weiss. “There have been some successes at very small scales, but we’ve created a system in which we can manipulate a large number of atoms, organizing them in a way that reduces the system’s entropy, just like the demon.”….

“Because the atoms are cooled to almost as low a temperature as possible, the entropy of the system is almost entirely defined by the random configuration of the atoms within the lattice,” said Weiss. “In systems where the atoms are not super-cooled, the vibration of the atoms makes up the majority of the system’s entropy. In such a system, organizing the atoms does little to change the entropy, but in our experiment, we show that organizing the atoms lowers the entropy within the system by a factor of about 2.4.”

Whether this configuration actually is the “first, to our knowledge, to capture the full essence of Maxwell’s demon on a large array of particles,” remains to be seen, since the qualifier, “to our knowledge,” is an expression fraught with the lack of omniscience.

Through Two Doors at Once

For another case of physicists living with contradiction, read Melanie Frappier’s book review in Science, “Understanding the Double Slit.” She reviews the famous physics lab experiment that seemed to show photons (thought to be particles) going through two slits simultaneously, forming a diffraction pattern on a screen that would be expected from a wave train. Richard Feynman considered this the “one and only mystery” of quantum physics. A new book by Anil Ananthaswamy, Through Two Doors at Once, recounts the history of this phenomenon, first a thought experiment later confirmed in the lab. Is light a wave or a particle? “Yes,” the answer seems to be. Physicists must embrace contradictory explanations.

Ananthaswamy carefully guards himself from offering any guiding principle that might help us decide which explanation is the best one. There is, he explains, no such thing as the “right” interpretation in good science. This does not mean, however, that we have to be mere instrumentalists and reject interpretations as misguiding fantasies. We have another, better option: We can decide to embrace the diversity of interpretations at our disposal because despite their respective flaws, each likely holds the key to at least one essential aspect of quantum behavior.

The Reality of Unreality

To round out this look at physicists’ firm grasp on unreality, consider that astronomers are still looking for the universe. All they see, according to their favorite theories, is just a small fraction of it. According to Phys.org, physicists at Virginia Tech are making “Large-scale simulations [that] could shed light on the ‘dark’ elements that make up most of our cosmos” – i.e., the “so-called dark matter” and “the even more mysterious ‘dark energy’ thought to be speeding up the universe’s expansion…” Together (according to theory), these unknowns make up 96% of the universe, meaning that hard science only has a grip on 4% of observable reality.

Much of even visible reality remains to be explained. Live Science reported on fast radio bursts (FRBs). “Mysterious Light Flashes Discovered in Deep Space,” Mike Wall writes, “But What Created Them?” After discussing several observations of “one of the most tantalizing mysteries in astronomy,” he refreshingly admits, “we still don’t know what FRBs are.” Some are even suggesting they might be intelligent signals from extraterrestrial beings. In fact, the Breakthrough Listen Project, funded by 100 million dollars from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner (22 July 2015), is actively involved in trying to explain them. So far they cannot rule out intelligence.

Hard Science Mysteries

“Ten Mysteries of the Universe” listed by New Scientist look pretty major. These are scientific questions hard science has been unable to answer so far.

  1. How did it all begin?
  2. What came before the big bang?
  3. How will it all end?
  4. Is earth in a special place?
  5. What makes monster stars?
  6. What is dark matter?
  7. Is our solar system normal?
  8. What makes supermassive black holes?
  9. Is there life out there?
  10. Why does anything exist at all?

Looking over this list, one could wonder, ‘Just what parts of reality does hard science have a grasp on at all?’

If the “hard sciences” cannot get a grip on reality within labs where observations are testable and repeatable, how is soft science—like political science, psychology or biological evolution—supposed to give anyone confidence in its mushier claims?

Secondly, if scientists can seriously entertain intelligent causes for signals in space, from beings they cannot even describe or imagine except from their intentions, why do they refuse to use the exact same reasoning about signals in biology? The purposeful nature of the DNA code makes an even stronger design inference than unknown bursts from distant galaxies. Only worldview bias prevents hard-nosed materialists from following that evidence where it leads.

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