November 13, 2004

What the bleep do I know?

I think this is a good question to ask myself from time to time.

Tonight, I went to see "What the bleep do we know?", a kind of info-tainment movie starring Marlee Matlin and host of physicists, theologians, biologists and spiritualists. The movie itself was not a revelation for me. I would describe it as an attempt to popularize ideas from quantum theory for a general audience. I liked the "dramatic plotline" starring Marlee Matlin as a young woman overcoming her own negative patterns and making a conscious change in the direction of her life. Otherwise, I thought the movie was too light on the science and too heavy on new age philosophy, juvenile humour and childish computer graphics. What can I say? I love educational television. I'm a bit of a geek. But "What the bleep do we know" was generally enjoyable, and did remind me that I hadn't read much physics or philosophy in a long while.

If you have read anything about quantum physics, you might be familiar with the idea that's particles can have more than one simultaneous state or position (called "superposition"), and may even have an infinite possible number of positions. The act of observing a particle causes this superposition to collapse down into one position, which is the one we perceive. This is basically, a dang trippy idea, and must be difficult for many people to accept. It's fascinating if we extend the idea of these multiple possibilities up to a human level, because it implies that the world as we know it is not permanently fixed in form and space, but is variable and constantly in flux.

The most influential teacher in my life, British Art Educator Tom Hudson, once told me that even though many people are present in this century, in terms of their education and the core concepts they believe, he felt that many are living with a 19th Century world view. I think it's fair to say that many people probably have a 19th century acceptance of physics, in terms of their everyday experience and how these ideas affect their lives. I think I'm guilty of this myself.

In the 70s and 80s, my Dad was an electronics technician at TRIUMF, the sub-atomic research facility located the University of British Columbia. TRIUMF is most well-known for it's Cyclotron, one of the largest particle accelerators in the world, which whips particles around at 75% of the speed of light and smashes then into targets so that scientists can analyze the results. Mesons and lots of other particles have been observed and measured using this massive machine.

My Dad was a technician, not a physicist, but his scientific and technical background rubbed off on me. He taught me some basic physical laws like "energy cannot be created or destroyed, just transformed from one form to another". I absorbed other ideas from popular culture - mostly TV. Along with Mickey Mouse's ears and Groucho Marks' moustache, I grew up with the motto "E equals em cee two". Of course, when I was eight years old, I didn't understand what the formula meant, nor what an exponent was, but I read and memorized the characters and learned their significance years later. Thanks to Star Trek and science fiction, I got an idea of what a black hole is.

So, maybe many of us have some appreciation for these concepts from 20th Century physicists like Einstein or Hawking. But I have to ask myself, after more than two generations since it's discovery, just how much of quantum theory has integrated itself into my culture? How much has it affected my understanding of my existence and that of the world around me.

For example, my common experience tells me that my body is distinct from the air that surrounds it. Yet I have been told that at the super-duper small, atomic level, it would be difficult to determine where the air ends and my skin begins. If I keep this idea in mind, it's easy to think of myself as being truly integrated and part of the world around me. At that level, we're all very similar. However, I have never been at this level to experience it for myself, so in order to integrate it into my view of life, I must, somewhat ironically, take it on faith.

So, while I'm immensely comforted by the idea that modern physics can provide a scientific model that reinforces, say, the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness or interdependence, it's all too easily overlooked from my human "macro" level unless I make a regular effort to remember it.

So, if I have to make a small effort to maintain this belief in atomic physics, how much more challenging will it be to keep ideas like "superposition" in mind?

I guess that faith and discipline are needed in order to keep my non-religious world view alive and developing. Doesn't that sound a little ironic?

Some links and reviews of this bleepin' movie:

Movie Review: Roger Ebert
Movie Review: Movie Magazine International
Official "What the bleep..." movie web site

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