The first episode of Uncertainty Principle! Learn about, well, the uncertainty principle!
Hello Everyone, Daniel here, and this episode is called, “Heisenberg”, though, it’s not about the famed fictional methamphetamine manufacturer.
What this episode is actually about is a man named Werner Karl Heisenberg, and something he came up with, called the uncertainty principle. Which, if you hadn’t noticed, is the name of the show. Heisenberg was a german physicist of the twentieth century who played a role in the creation of Quantum Mechanics. The ironic part, is that Quantum Mechanics is very annoying to physicists. The traditional certainty and determinism of classical Newtonian physics–that being the physics which Newton basically invented and was the basis of physics up until the twentieth century–is replaced by statistics and probability in quantum mechanics.
This is where the Uncertainty Principle comes in. Published in 1927, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that, in terms of elementary particles like electrons, It is not possible to determine with certainty both Frequency, and Position at the same time. Understanding the difference between these two is a topic for a later episode, what you simply need to know is this: When determining these two traits about a particle, scientists can never collect all of the data necessary to make a prediction about it. Hence, uncertainty. This can often be confused with the Observer Effect, which simply means that the act of observation can cause unwanted change. This can be applied to more than just physics and can be solved by certain technological advances.
Conversely, the Uncertainty principle is a fundamental property of interactions at the quantum level. Because of this, physicists hate it. Or at least classical physicists. Scientists’ annoyance at quantum mechanics can be demonstrated on more than just the uncertainty principle. Many of you may of heard of the Schrodinger’s Cat Thought Experiment aptly named after its deviser: Erwin Schrodinger. Schrodinger proposed a hypothetical cat in a box with a vial of poison. The vial of poison would be hooked up to a device some radioactive element. If the element were to randomly decay into radiation, it would activate the device, breaking the vial, killing the cat. If the substance does not decay, then the cat stays alive.
But quantum entanglement says that certain particles, like radioactive ones, under certain conditions can exist in two states at once until observed. Schrodinger thought this was ridiculous and criticized it using this thought experiment. If such were true, then, Schrodinger thought, we would have to assume the cat is both dead and alive simultaneously until we opened the box. It was meant as a reductio ad absurdum argument. The thought experiment can often be mistaken as a philosophical description of the relationship of reality and observation. So now, imagine that you are a pre quantum mechanics physicist. It’s easy to see the glamour in physics. It’s methods are mathematical and absolute, leaving everything predictable. It must then be profoundly annoying when a whole new science comes along that describes the universe at a fundamental level functioning purely by chance.
Certainty is gone, and all you can do is account for every possible outcome.
But forget about the principle. Let’s just talk about uncertainty. After all, that’s what science is all about, right? The idea of taking not-knowing, and turning it into knowledge. It could even be argued that does not just apply to science, but that it’s all of life–figuring things out. But any up and coming scientist will quickly discover, uncertainty is ever present and eternal like gravity. In science, certainty, like infinity can only ever be approached, never reached.
Let’s illustrate this: the number Pi, being the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, has an infinite number of digits. Obviously we could never hope to learn every one of those digits in successive order but we can add more digits to our knowledge. As of december 2013, the number of known digits of Pi was 12.1 trillion digits. As time goes by, this number will increase, but no scientist, mathematician, engineer, or human being will ever release a statement saying they completed Pi
This is much like our ability to know things with absolute certainty. To know any scientific fact with certainty implies an amount of knowledge of the universe that we cannot obtain. We could know something with 99.9999999999999999999% certainty, we could know something with such clarity that to propose any alternative would ludicrous. But like approaching the speed of light, we can never get that last decimal point.
There is an exception to this: Math. The reason we can only approach certainty in discovery, is because of what is left to explore, and because we cannot experience reality outside of our own heads. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about philosophical ideas like objective reality in the future, but for now, we know that math, at least to an extent, is certain. This is because numbers and mathematical symbols are defined arbitrarily.
Sure they can be used to interpret reality, but what i’m talking about is pure, non applied mathematics. Consider the equation, and yes it is an equation, 2 + 2 = 4. This I can be certain of, because the number two and the number four are both ideas. If I define four as the sum of two and two then I can be certain of two and two equalling four because their definitions exist within my own mind.
So if you want truth in the world, certain truth, study mathematics. You won’t find anything closer to the truth.