January Discussion of Heisenberg

February 3, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I am always amazed at the amount of information and understanding that I gain from the Natural Science discussions at Harrison Middleton University. Since my childhood, I have immersed myself in nature, but rarely attempted to study the natural sciences until more recently. At HMU, many students are interested in the difficult and amazing philosophical questions incorporated in the natural world. Therefore, our most recent discussion of Newton, Heisenberg and Hawking was no letdown. In fact, I have been thinking about this discussion all week. Each participant brought a diverse background to the discussion which always helps widen the scope of our understanding and imagination, I believe. We discussed a few of Isaac Newton's first definitions from The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Then we read Werner Heisenberg's Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory. Last, we read one chapter from Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time.

In setting up the discussion, I gravitated towards these pieces mainly due to Heisenberg's Interpretation. I wanted to better understand if Heisenberg argues that chaos founds quantum mechanics, or if, instead, he leaves the possibility open to the possibility that humans simply cannot adequately study the small bits that make up quantum theory. Either way, Heisenberg insists that scientists continue using the same language as before. He says, “[w]e must keep in mind this limited range of applicability of the classical concepts while using them, but we cannot and should not try to improve them”. As one who studies literature and language daily, I found this paradox particularly instructive. The repercussions of changing scientific language makes science bulkier, denser and perhaps more difficult to grasp. It could also potentially make it inaccurate. Or, in sticking with the same terminology that describes large-scale physical events, we run into the potential for absurd or meaningless statements, or even overpopulating a word with definitions. Any of these dilemmas presents problems. Yet, Heisenberg was insistent. He demands that we stick with our known definitions, those first mapped out by Newton (and others) and apply them as best as possible to quantum mechanics.

I did get the impression, from Heisenberg, that language was of vital importance. I did not, however, understand that he claims quantum mechanics to be unpredictable. To me, he seemed to say that humans lack adequate measuring sticks. Stephen Hawking notes Einstein's reaction to Heisenberg's theory. He writes: “Quantum mechanics therefore introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science. Einstein objected to this very strongly, despite the important role he had played in the development of these ideas. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contribution to quantum theory. Nevertheless, Einstein never accepted that the universe was governed by chance; his feelings were summed up in his famous statement 'God does not play dice.'” Upon first reading, I assumed that Einstein understood Heisenberg to say that uncertainty will always underlie our scientific understanding and Einstein could not accept that conclusion. This may in part be true, but upon review and discussion, I am thinking that Einstein believes that God gave humans the ability to think through these problems. Einstein knows that current rhetoric and abilities do not meet the needs of quantum physics, but he allows for the human brain (endowed by God) to figure out a plan to make it possible.

Neither Heisenberg nor Einstein definitively claim that quantum behaviors are without pattern. Instead, they claim that it is difficult to study quantum behavior, even using modern technologies. Einstein then adds that humans are endowed with a pretty sophisticated system of navigation. We judge and measure the world in terms of our physical reality, which only offers bits and pieces of information at a time, but it does not preclude progress or deny a better understanding of quantum mechanics. Precisely at the spot where our awareness of the world breaks down, our senses (and therefore our language) inevitably fail. And yet, we have mental capabilities which allow us to design ways to overcome this. We have designed means of which to see farther into the universe, to travel into space, to go beyond atomic behaviors into quantum behaviors. In his Interpretation, Heisenberg asks scientists to continually rely, however, on the analogy that makes the most sense to the audience. He asks that we use the language of physics. And yes, it is paradoxical.

And so, the Merriam-Webster dictionary lists quantum as:

- any of the very small increments or parcels into which many forms of energy are subdivided

- any of the small subdivisions of a quantized physical magnitude (such as magnetic moment)

We continue to apply existing language (even if it is in metaphor only) to such a complex topic.

While science and technology change rapidly, it is refreshing to have conversations that span such a chronological spectrum. Moreover, it is vital to understand, honor and respect these concepts which came to us even from Newton. Our current infrastructure is founded upon principles that few stop to think about. Newton's elements are as fun to study today as they were in his day (also because they are so easily reproducible). Not surprising, then, is Hawking's assertion that, “The only areas of physical science into which quantum mechanics has not yet been properly incorporated are gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe.” I take that as an invitation to apply the language of physics, combined with the elements of reason and imagination. I take that as a challenge!

Thanks to all of our January Quarterly Discussion participants. If you are interested in the next discussion, email

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