Sadly for Hamlet, the answer isn’t so simple. The question is what does it even mean to be? Now, this isn’t supposed to be a philosophical post–in fact, it’s a scientific one. Heck, why can’t it be both at the same time?
Let’s start off with the famous tree-in-the-forest. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to see it, did it actually fall? (Now, there is a version of this question that deals with the sound rather the sight but it’s basically the same thing.) The more practical-minded will say, “Yes! Of course it fell!” while other, more abstract thinkers will take a moment and say, “Maybe not.” This is a question of human perception, a sign of human arrogance and also an introductory thought experiment relating to quantum physics.
You see, we as human beings like to think we know everything. If there was something we didn’t know about existed, we’d act surprised. Why? Because we assume that thing didn’t exist until the moment we became aware it existed. But how do we assume something about something we didn’t even know about? Because you assume everything you know/believe in is real and everything otherwise isn’t.
So how does this tie into quantum physics? You see, as you go into the tiny things of the world, new rules start popping up and things become confusing and perception becomes everything. There. That’s the simplest answer to the question.
To clarify, many of the things in quantum physics only seem to exist at a specific time or place when you’re looking at it. Otherwise, it can be anywhere within a certain area with some areas more likely to contain what you’re looking for than others. In other words, the quantum object exists in waves of possibilities rather than in one particular particle, at least until it is measured. Perhaps a picture might help:
However, this isn’t the end of the mind trip. Apparently, something can only be a wave for as long as you’re not looking and once you look, that thing will be here or there like it’s been there the entire time. The wave of possibilities is known as a wave function and the collapse of the wave function is what allows us to use instruments to measure these particles. In other words, you know it exists but it can be anywhere within the wavefunction and you know nothing about its speed or direction right up until you measure it. It’s like having a little bug flying around a room in the dark and up until you turn on the lights, you have no idea where the bug is, how fast it’s flying and in which direction. But one of the things about measuring quantum particles is (say, an electron) that if you know the position of the particle, then you don’t know the speed and vice versa. Predictably, all of this is frustrating for scientists who want to have both for their data sets.
But that’s not all. Since the quantum particles seem to exist within the realm of possibilities up until the point of observation, that obviously means the particle is able to go anywhere within a certain area. What happens if you shoot these particles at a barrier with two slits? This is the famous Double Slit Experiment.
For brevity’s sake, if you’d like an explanation for how the experiment works, here is a video by Veritasium about said experiment.
Of course, this experiment did set off some well-established people of the time including Einstein who then said, “God does not play dice.” But now, we not only know that particles can have two forms but that particles that seemingly don’t have a connection to each other seem to mimic each other’s behaviour (albeit in opposite ways). It’s like having twins who know what the other twin is doing even if they are on opposite sides of the universe. However, this also raised questions about the legitimacy about such experiments.
If the particles do exist in this realm of possibilities and seem to be affected by unseen forces, then that means that any observations we make using our instruments can skew the results. From this line of reasoning, this may mean that everything we know about quantum particles, their behaviour and their properties may only seem the way they are because it is we that is observing them. In other words, the scope of our perception is limiting us to one perspective and it might be wrong. This doesn’t mean that quantum particles aren’t real. It’s just that the things we know about them might very well be incorrect. Or maybe what we know about quantum particles reflect only what we’re able to see.
This brings us back to the tree-in-the-forest. Everything we know about the universe is colored through our experience and our perception, therefore nothing truly is impossible because we have very limited senses of perception and if only we can get a “fresh” pair of eyes, we might be able to see more. In other words, when the Cheshire disappears, he’s still there. We just can’t see him.
What other philosophy/science mashups would you guys like me explore? Leave your comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.