Maybe It’s All Jelly

From The New York Times:

It would be one thing to concede that science may never be able to explain, say, the subjective experiences of the human mind. But the standard take on quantum mechanics suggests something far more surprising: that a complete understanding of even the objective, physical world is beyond science’s reach, since it’s impossible to translate into words how the theory’s math relates to the world we live in.

[Angelo] Bassi, a 47-year-old theoretical physicist at the University of Trieste, in northeastern Italy, is prominent among a tiny minority of rebels in the discipline who reject this conclusion. “I strongly believe that physics is words, in a sense,” he said across the picnic table. [He makes] a case for what a vast majority of his colleagues consider a highly implausible idea: that the theory upon which nearly all of modern physics rests must have something wrong with it — precisely because it can’t be put into words.

Of course, much about quantum mechanics can be said with words. Like the fact that a particle’s future whereabouts can’t be specified by the theory, only predicted with probabilities. And that those probabilities derive from each particle’s “wave function,” a set of numbers that varies over time, as per an equation devised by Erwin Schrödinger in 1925. But because the wave function’s numbers have no obvious meaning, the theory only predicts what scientists may see at the instant of observation — when all the wave function’s latent possibilities appear to collapse to one definitive outcome — and provides no narrative at all for what particles actually do before or after that, or even how much the word “particle” is apropos to the unobserved world. The theory, in fact, suggests that particles, while they’re not being observed, behave more like waves — a fact called “wave-particle duality” that’s related to how all those latent possibilities seem to indicate that an unobserved particle can exist in several places at once….

Bassi’s research is focused on a possible alternative to quantum mechanics, a class of theories called “objective collapse models”…. And [he is] now leading the most ambitious experiment to date that could show that objective collapse actually happens….

The hard part [was making sure the new theory didn’t] contradict any of quantum mechanics’ many unerring predictions. The trick, it turned out, was to endow fundamental particles with some funky new properties.

“You should remove the word ‘particle’ from your vocabulary,” Bassi explains. “It’s all about gelatin. An electron can be here and there and that’s it.”

In this theory, particles are replaced by a sort of hybrid between particles and waves: gelatinous blobs that can spread out in space, split and recombine. And, crucially, the blobs have a kind of built-in bashfulness that explains wave-particle duality in a way that is independent of human observation: When one blob encounters a crowd of others, it reacts by quickly shrinking to a point.

“It’s like an octopus that when you touch them: Whoop!” Bassi says, collapsing his fingertips to a tight bunch to evoke tentacles doing the same.

If objective collapse were to be confirmed, … the way the world works will once again be expressible in words. “Jelly that reacts like an octopus” will be the new “particles subject to forces.” New, exotic phenomena will be identified that could spawn currently inconceivable technologies. Schrödinger’s cat will live or die regardless of who looks or who doesn’t. Even the unpredictability of the subatomic world could turn out to be illusory, a false impression given by our ignorance of octopoid innards.