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.

Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum by Lee Smolin

Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist who is dissatisfied with the state of theoretical physics. He is not alone in being dissatisfied. Physicists have two wonderful theories —  quantum mechanics (which deals with the very small) and general relativity (which deals with the very large) — that don’t fit together. Some of them have been trying for decades to reconcile the two theories. In addition, there is a lot about quantum mechanics that seems crazy or at least paradoxical. It’s been argued, therefore, that the theory is incomplete.

Smolin believes that there is a fundamental reality separate from our perceptions that underlies both quantum mechanics and general relativity. He would like to figure out what that reality is. He says this makes him a “realist”.

The first part of the book discusses what Smolin calls “anti-realist” views, primarily the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (sometimes referred to as the “shut up and calculate” view). He then outlines some competing views, such as Einstein’s, according to which quantum mechanics is incomplete.

In the final chapters, he offers the beginnings of his own theory. I won’t try to explain it, but he begins with an idea proposed by the brilliant German philosopher Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz (who died 300 years ago). Leibniz suggested that the universe is composed of an infinite number of simple substances called”monads”. The Wikipedia article on Leibniz says “each monad is like a little mirror of the universe”, i.e. a mirror reflecting all the other monads.

Near the end of the book, Smolin offers a one-sentence summary of his theory:

The universe consists of nothing but views of itself, each [view being from the perspective of] an event in [the universe’s] history, and the [universe’s] laws act to make these views as diverse as possible [271].

For Smolin, time is a fundamental feature of the universe. Space isn’t. Space emerges from events. Furthermore, the fact that space isn’t fundamental helps explain how two particles that are millions of miles away from each other can be “entangled”, so that an effect on one can immediately affect the other. That’s the idea of “non-locality” that Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”.

Smolin is sure that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he believes it’s worth trying to find them. If you’d like to know more, you’ll have to read the book or find someone else to explain it. There are diagrams and no math!

Where Does the Weirdness Go? (Why Quantum Mechanics Is Strange, But Not As Strange As You Think) by David Lindley

If you want an introduction to quantum mechanics, this is a very good book to read. I didn’t get some of it, but I don’t blame the author, who does an excellent job. He was a theoretical astrophysicist before he began editing science magazines. Since the book was published in 1996, some of it may be out of date, but not enough to make a difference to the general reader.

The title “Where Does the Weirdness Go?” refers to a puzzle. Since events at the quantum level are weird, why doesn’t that weirdness show up at the level of our ordinary experience? Reality looks fairly well-defined to us. We don’t see the things around us as probabilities. The chair you’re sitting on is right there under you; it’s not possibly there and possibly not there. Electrons and photons may be in an indeterminate state, possibly here and possibly there, but that probabilistic weirdness disappears when it comes to higher-level stuff.

I think the book’s subtitle (“Not As Strange As You Think”) refers to the puzzle’s answer. Lindley explains that, roughly speaking, quantum weirdness disappears when something called “quantum coherence” turns into “quantum decoherence”. When a quantum state is “coherent”, its properties are mere probabilities. But that can only be the case if the quantum system is isolated from other quantum systems. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

… when a quantum system is not perfectly isolated, but in contact with its surroundings, coherence decays with time, a process called quantum decoherence. As a result of this process, the relevant quantum behaviour is lost.

The quantum behavior referred to here is the weirdness (things like “is it a particle or is it a wave?” and “spooky action at a distance”). Since quantum systems (photons, electrons, paired particles) are rarely, if ever, appropriately isolated inside objects like chairs, clouds and chickens, those types of things don’t behave weirdly.  The constant atomic and sub-atomic turmoil inside everyday objects means that their properties are defined or definite, not probabilistic. The stuff we see around us doesn’t display any quantum weirdness because there are trillions upon trillions of quantum-level interactions occurring at every moment.

One thing the book makes clear is that there’s nothing special about quantum states being measured. Nor does human consciousness have any special role in quantum mechanics. In fact, measurement is an example of decoherence. When a physicist measures an electron, it is no longer isolated. In order to be measured, the electron has to interact with something else at the quantum level. That results in the electron’s possible position or momentum becoming real, not probabilistic. So when we hear about the importance of measurement in quantum mechanics, it only means that something at the quantum level is interacting with something else at that level. Most such interactions have nothing at all to do with us humans. 

Something (among many) I don’t understand: Once an electron has lost its probabilistic nature by interacting with some other quantum-level thing, do any of its properties ever become probabilistic again? If not, it would seem like every electron or photon in the universe would eventually have well-defined properties. 

I’ll say one more thing about the book. The author subscribes to what’s known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics. Apparently, most physicists do. The Copenhagen interpretation is a response to questions like “what’s really going on at the quantum level?” and “is it possible to explain why quantum events are so weird?” The answer given by the Copenhagen interpretation is: “Don’t bother trying to understand what’s happening. We can’t explain what’s happening and there is no sense in trying, because there is no definite reality to be explained at that level until measurement (or quantum-level interaction) occurs. This is just the way the world is.”

The author concludes by asking “will we ever understand quantum mechanics?” Here’s his answer:

But we do [understand it], don’t we? As an intellectual apparatus that allows us to figure out what will happen in all conceivable kinds of situations, quantum mechanics works just fine, and tells us whatever … we need to know….

[But] quantum mechanics clearly does not fit into any picture that we can obtain from everyday experience of how the world works… It throws us off balance… Physics, and the rest of science, grew up with the belief in objective reality, that the universe is really out there and that we are measuring it…. And the longer the belief was retained, the more it came to seem as it must be an essential part of the foundation of physics….

Then quantum mechanics came along and destroyed that notion of reality. Experiment backs up the axioms of quantum mechanics. Nothing is real until you measure it [or it comes into contact with something else!], and if you try to infer from disparate sets of measurements what reality really is, you run into contradictions….

A true believer might conclude that objective reality must still be there somewhere, beneath quantum mechanics. That’s what Einstein believed….[But] if quantum mechanics does not embody an objective view of reality, then evidently an objective view of reality is not essential to the conduct of physics…

[But] quantum mechanics, despite its lack of an objective reality, nevertheless gives rise to a macroscopic world that acts, most of the time, as if it were objectively real… And so, almost paradoxically, we can believe in an objective reality most of the time, because quantum mechanics predicts that the world should behave that way. But it’s because the world behaves that way that we have acquired such a profound belief in objective reality — and that’s what makes quantum mechanics so hard to understand [222-224]

Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist whose previous book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a bestseller. In this one, he tells a familiar story: the history of physics from ancient Greece to the present day. But he tells it in such a charming and enlightening way that the story feels new.

One of the lessons from the book that will stick with me is that, according to current physics, the universe isn’t infinitely divisible. At some point, you’ll get to the bottom where the quanta (or tiniest pieces) are. The surprising part of that idea is that these quanta apparently include the quanta or tiny pieces of spacetime. But these tiniest pieces of spacetime aren’t in space or time. They compose space and time. Here’s how he sums it up at the end of the book:


The world is more extraordinary and profound than any of the fables told by our forefathers…. It is a world that does not exist in space and does not develop in time. A world made up solely of interacting quantum fields, the swarming of which generates — through a dense network of reciprocal interactions — space, time, particles, waves and light….



A world without infinity, where the infinitely small does not exist, because there is a minimum scale to this teeming, beneath which there is nothing. Quanta of space mingle with the foam of spacetime, and the structure of things is born from reciprocal information that weaves the correlations among the regions of the world. A world that we know how to describe with a set of equations. Perhaps to be corrected.


The biggest puzzle Rovelli and his colleagues are working on is how to reconcile the small-scale physics of quantum mechanics and the large-scale physics of general relativity. They aren’t consistent. Currently, the most popular way to resolve the inconsistency is string theory, but Rovelli’s preferred solution is loop quantum gravity. Unfortunately, his explanation of loop quantum gravity was the part of the book where he lost me. Maybe a second or third or fifteenth reading of that section would clear things up.

The other idea that will stick with me is from quantum field theory: among the fields that make up reality, such as the electron field and the Higgs boson field, is the gravitational field. But the gravitational field is just another name for spacetime. Spacetime is the gravitational field and vice versa. That’s what Rovelli claims anyway, although he ends the book by pointing out that all scientific conclusions are open to revision given new evidence and insights.

Consciousness As Mental, As Physical

It’s been argued that a scientist who grew up in a black and white room and never saw the color red could learn everything there is to know about the physics of light and the physiology of the human body, including what happens in the brain when someone sees red, but not know what red looks like. Presumably, a blind scientist with the same training would be in the very same position. Likewise, a deaf scientist could know everything about the physics and physiology involved in hearing a violin but not really know what a violin sounds like. This is supposed to show that there is something in the universe beyond the reach of the physical sciences: the mysterious mental phenomenon of consciousness.

“Mental” is a word I haven’t used much (or at all) in writing about consciousness, yet consciousness is clearly a mental phenomenon if anything is. But what does it mean for a phenomenon to be “mental”?

The obvious answer, although it’s not very helpful, is that “mental” means “not physical”. But what does that mean?

An exchange of letters I referred to last month between the philosopher Thomas Nagel and a professor of bioengineering, Roy Black, tries to deal with the question. Prof. Black criticizes the idea that “nonphysical factors” are involved in consciousness:

As is frequently noted, the physical basis of life itself used to be just as mysterious as consciousness, and it’s now well explained by biochemistry and molecular biology, without nonphysical factors. So although science as we know it doesn’t explain the link between neurons and consciousness, why expect the link to be “nonphysical” rather than “novel physical”? What is a nonphysical factor, anyway? If the dark energy propelling the expansion of the universe, the strong force holding atomic nuclei together, etc., etc., are physical, do we really need anything more exotic?

… Lots of things in biology—like the development of an organism from an egg—seem impossible, until we stretch our imagination to conceive of simple precursors and mechanisms that could have been worked on by natural selection over billions of years. To quote one of [the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s] nice lines, “evolution is a process that depends on amplifying things that almost never happen.” We need to determine what “thing,” what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose. What would a precursor of “feeling like” be? That’s what we need to stretch our imaginations further to figure out.

Prof. Nagel responds, but his response is based on an assumption:

The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share [how does he know this?]. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject….

I agree with Black that “we need to determine what ‘thing’, what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose.” But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view [again, how does he know this?].

Nagel’s assumption is that a purely physical process cannot have a subjective character (it cannot “feel like something”). It cannot be “how things appear” from a particular point of view. But if consciousness is a physical process, it does have a subjective character. In that case, how things feel or appear are indeed physical properties of a process that occurs in space and time (it happens inside your head when you’re conscious).

Here’s my take on the mental/physical distinction. Nobody knows what the universe contains at the most fundamental level (or if there is a most fundamental level). But suppose that quantum field theory is correct and, quoting Prof. David Tong of Cambridge University (who I wrote about earlier this year):

The best theories we have tell us that the fundamental building blocks of nature are not particles but something much more nebulous and abstract. The fundamental building blocks of nature are fluid-like substances which are spread throughout the entire universe and ripple in strange and interesting ways. That’s the fundamental reality in which we live. These fluid-like substances, we have a name for, we call them “fields”.

Furthermore, when the fields ripple or are agitated in certain ways, we get sub-atomic particles. An electron, for example, is a kind of ripple in the electron field.

So when I say that consciousness is a physical process, what I’m saying is that consciousness is at bottom constructed from one or more quantum-level fields – or whatever the fundamental building blocks of the universe are – that somehow interact with the quantum-level fields – or other building blocks – from which everything else in the universe is constructed. Maybe consciousness involves a kind of fundamental field that physicists can’t measure or detect yet. Maybe it involves a new kind of interaction between fundamental fields that physicists already know about.

But consciousness seems to be part of the natural world in the same way other physical phenomena are. And because it’s part of the natural world – not a kind of free-floating spiritual or supernatural substance or phenomenon – consciousness can represent other physical events and processes outside itself. Consciousness being part of the world is why we can be consciously aware of our bodies and the world around us.

“Mental”, therefore, refers to what happens in our minds, but at bottom mental phenomena are physical phenomena. Consciousness, like gravity, digestion and baseball, is one of the things that happens in the world. In other words, the “mental” is a subset of the “physical”. Or so it seems to me.