#29 The quantum
Like most of the Western world, I spent a bit too much time this week watching Bernie Sanders memes. There is no doubt that this inauguration sparked better stories than the last. The crowds were smaller this time, though.
In terms of theatrics, however, something else stole the show. I’m referring to Alexei Navalny’s tour of Putin’s palace and corruption, which I watched breathlessly together with 80 million others. Navalny is no doubt a courageous man. His leaving the plane upon return to Moscow is a photo I will not soon forget. I recommend the video if only to show that all the money in the world still can’t buy you taste and that as an opposition leader, you can still be funny and informed about pop culture. I should finally begin learning Russian.
I visited Russia for the first time in 2014. Tensions were high at the time. I remember the driver who picked me up from Sheremetyevo airport turned his radio to an English language station — probably Radio Sputnik. The news was unlike anything I had heard at home. At Schiphol, border police had asked me if I was aware that I was traveling to a hostile nation. In Moscow, I heard of unfair boycotts, peaceful protests, and unjust suffering.
I’ve been to Russia many times since and have made wonderful friends there. In few places have I found people that are harder working, better read, and more hospitable. Every visit also puts the finger on a new part of my, Western-European, narrow-mindedness. (Two examples at the end of this update.)
That’s a long intro to what I wanted to write about today – the quantum. This week, every week, highlighted what to me is the core of quantum mechanics: We live in a universe where there is not a single true story, but rather one where all possible stories are valid depending on the observer.
To understand the cultural implications of quantum physics, it helps to know a little bit of its backstory. Of the few dozen books I’ve read on the topic, Adam Becker’s What is real? and Stephen Hawking’s final book, Brief answers to the big questions, neatly summarise this backstory and its broader implications.
Quantum mechanics is the physics of the very small. It complements and contradicts general relativity (Einstein’s famous theory), which describes larger objects. And while general relativity is already tricky enough to phantom, with its warped spacetime, quantum mechanics is virtually impossible to grasp. Elements of quantum mechanics, such as particles that influence each other’s pasts and the multiverse, are counterintuitive.
In short, in the world of Newtonian physics, everything was absolute. Then Einstein made space and time relative, and quantum mechanics added uncertainty to the universe. Quantum mechanics and general relativity together allow us to use lasers, understand gravity, and peer into the origins of the universe. This results in, as Stephen Hawking writes in Brief answers to the big questions, “A completely different picture of reality in which things do not have a single unique history, but have every possible history each with its own probability.”
Of course, we live in a world where things only have one observable story. This is the measurement problem, and grasping this problem has been one of the core discussions in quantum physics. In quantum mechanics, particles do not have a defined position but rather behave according to a wave function. Instead of pointing to a particle, you can only predict its location with a certain probability. However, when a particle is observed, it can no longer also be a wave, and its wave function collapses. Wave function collapse cannot be seen, which is the measurement problem.
A way I understand this culturally is through elections. Before an election, many possible stories exist. Competing polls give different probabilities to each story. Some expect a landslide for the incumbent; others predict a dark horse to win. Only the election – a measurement – pinpoints their stance. The moment the results are in, all probability disappears – the wave function collapses.
Significantly, however, the measurement influences the future potential stories, unlike measuring the temperature, which doesn’t change the actual temperature, measuring the wave function influences it. Elections have an effect on future political opinions.
In physics, general relativity and quantum mechanics are at odds with each other in the measurement problem. Therefore, solving the measurement problem brings us one step closer to a universal theory of everything, the holy grail of many fields of study. Becker describes the various attempts to solve the measurement problem.
The first, most widely accepted solution is to simply ignore it. This solution has been propagated by one of the most exceptional and influential physicists of the last century: Niels Bohr. His answer, which became known as the Copenhagen Interpretation, states that wave function collapse happens because of the measurement. What measurement is, is open to debate; a challenging debate, as it includes questions about what defines consciousness. Mathematically, Bohr is right. Ignoring the problem makes the problem disappear.
Other physicists have made brave attempts at not ignoring the problem. They are what makes Becker’s book a treat to read. It is a tale of a colorful group of ambitious but flawed individuals taking on the giant Bohr. Hugh Everett offered a many-world interpretation as the solution, which states that there is a multiverse of all possible histories. John Stewart Bell proved that the answer to a question depends on the context of surrounding questions at the same time. He showed how in the quantum world, particles can influence each other’s past, present, and future, even from miles away.
None of these competing interpretations was perfect, and their authors faced Bohr’s scrutiny, which was too much for many. Consequently, there is no generally accepted answer to the measurement problem until now and no theory that convincingly connects general relativity and quantum mechanics.
Here, people like Einstein and Hawking made their most valuable contributions by broadening the debate beyond physics’s confines. In his last book, Hawking debates the existence of a god, climate change, and the origins of life as part of his field's broader impact. Physics and its theories, it seems, isn’t limited to the study of atoms, planets, and gravity. Or, as Becker writes in his introduction, “science is about more than mathematics and predictions — it’s about building a picture of the way nature works.” So far, we have failed to create one single, exclusive image of how nature works.
I was pointed to a 2017 lecture by Tom Chi in which he describes how everything is connected. Tom Chi is a fascinating character who deserves his own update. For now, it suffices to say the 2017 lecture is not about the quantum, but it is about our universal, cultural entanglement. He combines insights from chemistry, cultural studies, and astronomy to provide an image of how nature may work. And how we all play a part in it.
I have long felt there is a parallel between the world of atoms and the world of ideas. When Hawking referred to ‘histories,’ he meant the journey of a particle through time. But he also implied real histories: the stories, ideas, and actions of humans.
We built our quantum culture method around this belief. While conferences and books about the organization of culture tend to portray a single, all-encompassing approach to the world of ideas, values, and practices of people, there are multiple competing – and equally valid – approaches. The method incorporates both the concepts of relativity and uncertainty into the world of culture.
Every decision we make about culture is a measurement problem; it reduces all possible histories to one and influences the future. Anyone convinced by the value of a diversity of ideas, values, and practices is well-advised not to make too many decisions. For the sake of argument, retweeting Bernie memes changes the future of the universe.
I promised two stories where my narrow-mindedness limited the range of possible stories.
The first is from a workshop in Moscow with students from one of its universities. We worked on storytelling. I had done a similar workshop many times in various European Union countries, from Italy to Germany. In each of these workshops, the stories' overall direction would be alike; participants made abstract ideas tangible through anecdotes or heroes. In Moscow, however, the stories were very different. Instead of inventing an anecdote or hero to tell a story, the participants chose from a wide range of real people’s actions to say a similar story. Because these real people invariable were flawed, the resulting stories were much more complex and multi-layered than any I had heard before.
The second is from the War of 1812. I have always been taught to see this war as a French loss. The French army of Napoleon was destroyed by hubris, cold winter, and the destruction of Moscow. While visiting the Hermitage, the same story was told as a Russian win. The armies of Kutuzov decisively destroyed the invading armies through strategic cunning and perseverance. Two different histories, each with its own probability.
Instead of Bernie memes, I probably should have thought more about all the other possible stories that could have been told this week had the measurement been different.
Thanks for reading to the very end of this newsletter. You didn't in many other universes, so I’m glad we’re in this one together. As always, Bernie Sanders notwithstanding, there was a lot I didn’t write about, chief among them the annoyance with all events that got canceled this week due to the C. I hope you and your friends and family are safe and well. Until next week, take care!