Sunday, October 21, 2018

Mind Games

Subatomic particle

I am just finishing up Adam Becker’s book What Is Real? about the relationship between quantum physics and the real world it is supposed to represent. Becker tells a good story, especially as an introduction to the world of quantum physics, the players over the years, and the intellectual principles involved. His basic premise is that, while the equations that physicists use to predict the outcome of their experiments—and so test the value of those equations as representations of the underlying world of the very small—have consistently proven their worth, the physicists themselves remain in doubt as to whether the world that they are describing actually exists.

Without going into the entire book chapter by chapter, the issue seems to be one of describing a world so small that we cannot detect it without changing it. Atoms and their component protons, neutrons, and electrons—plus all the other subatomic particles in the Standard Model—are not fixed in space like pins on a board. As with everything else, they move, as do galaxies, stars, and planets. However, instead of occupying observable orbits and tracks across the night sky, atoms mostly vibrate with the energy of what’s called “Brownian motion,” and electrons buzz frantically and randomly around their nuclei like flies in a cathedral.

We can detect the larger celestial bodies—and even masses as small as freight trains and automobiles—with visible light without the danger moving or deflecting them much. Bounce a few hundred thousand photons off a teacup, and you will not move it one millimeter. But the subatomic particles are so small that the wavelength of light we can see is so long that it misses the particle entirely, passing over and under it with no impact. Imagine that the wavelength is a long piece of rope that two girls are spinning in a game of Double Dutch. If a human-sized person enters the game and performs unskillfully, the rope has every chance of hitting—that is detecting—his or her body. But if a flea jumps through the game area, the chances of that long, curved rope ever touching its body become vanishingly small.

To detect subatomic particles, physicists must use other particles, as if in a game of subatomic billiards, or photons with much shorter wavelengths and thus having much higher energies. A high-energy photon impacting a moving electron or proton will change its direction of motion. So the issue in quantum physics is that when you locate the particle you are observing here, it’s now no longer there but going somewhere else. In quantum physics terms, no particle has an exact position until it’s observed, and then it has some other position or direction of movement in response to the observation. Mathematically, the particle’s supposed position can only be defined by probability—actually, a continuous wave function that defines various probable positions—and this wave “collapses” into a single definite position at the place and time of your observation.

Well and good. This is what we can know—all that we can know for sure—in the world of the very small.

The first issue that Becker’s book takes up is that most of the original proponents of quantum physics, including Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, adopted this lack certain knowledge to an extreme. Called the “Copenhagen interpretation,” after Bohr’s institute in Denmark, their view insists that the entire point of quantum physics is the manipulation of the results of observation. The measurements themselves, and the mathematics that makes predictions about future measurements, are the only things that have meaning in the real world. The measurements are not proof that subatomic particles even exist, and the mathematics are not proof that the particles are doing what we think they’re doing. To me, this is like calculating the odds on seeing a particular hand come up in a poker game, or counting the run of cards in a blackjack game, and then insisting that the cards, the games, and the players themselves don’t necessarily exist. It’s just that the math always works.

Other physicists—including Albert Einstein—have been challenging this interpretation for years. Mostly, they pose thought experiments and new mathematical formulas to prove them. But the Copenhagen interpretation persists among quantum physicists.

A second issue in the quantum world is the nature of “entanglement.” Here two particles—two atoms, two electrons, two photons, or two other bits of matter that is sometimes energy, or matter that oscillates with wave-like energy, or waves that at the instant of detection appear as singular objects—become joined so that what one of them does, the other will do. This joining and the parallel actions persist through random occurrences—such as passing through a polarized screen—and are communicated instantly across distances that would violate the limit of light-speed travel for any object or piece of information. Here is the sort of “spooky action at a distance” that Einstein derided as a violation of general relativity.

A third issue in quantum physics is the nature of Schrödinger’s cat. To illustrate the limitations of measurement, Erwin Schrödinger proposed the thought experiment of putting a cat in a sealed box with an apparatus that releases a poison when triggered by the decay of an atomic isotope. Since the atomic decay is unpredictable, the cat in the box might be alive or already dead. It was Schrödinger’s point that until an observer opens the box, the cat exists in two “superposed” states—both alive and dead at the same time, expressed by a wave function of probability—and that the wave function does not collapse and reveal the cat’s final nature until the box is opened. As a thought experiment, this is a metaphor for measurement and observation. But some physicists insist that the superposition is real. The actual cat is physically both alive and dead until discovered.

This superposition has led some physicists to describe a splitting of the universe at the point of the box’s opening: one universe proceeds with a physicist holding a live cat; the other with a physicist mourning a dead cat. This is the “many worlds” interpretation. Both universes are equally valid, and both continue forward in time until the next quantum change that forces each universe to split again in some other way.1

Now, I freely confess that I do not have the mathematical skills to understand the equations of quantum physics. And mercifully, Adam Becker’s book does not focus on or discuss the math in detail, just the thought experiments and their supposed meaning. I also confess that I do not understand what condition enables two particles or two waves to become “entangled,” or how they interact at a distance in this state, or what might be required to untangle them. Becker does not explain any of this, either. Further, I confess that I can sometimes be simpleminded, rather literal and obvious about what I see, hear, and know, and oblivious to distinctions and nuances that other people perceive easily.

But, that said, it would seem to me that what we have here is a misinterpretation of a metaphor. The limitations of observation and measurement, as expressed in colliding particles and probabilistically dead cats, are simply reminders that we do not have direct perception of the quantum world in the same way that we can see, hear, touch, and taste, if necessary, a steam locomotive or a billiard ball. That’s a good thing to keep in mind: we don’t have all knowledge about all things. However, to insist that this metaphorical reminder means that quantum physicists are simply doing math, and that their calculations—no matter how enticingly predictive—have no meaning in the real world, that quantum physics is just a mind game … that’s taking things too literally.

I have criticized the use of mathematics to prove the improbable before.2 And I insist again that, if all you’ve got is a series of equations to prove your point, you may just be playing mind games with yourself and your fellow physicists. But the reverse is also true: the real world must exist at the quantum level. If the math works out, if the vision behind it holds together, then it must be describing something that has actual substance and energy. The details may not be exactly as we understand them. The description may be missing some elements, forces, or bits of math that we haven’t worked out yet. But the world must exist in the smallness of subatomic particles as much as it does in the vastness of stars and galaxies.

The math doesn’t exist in a quiet vacuum. The cards, the game, and the players must also exist to give the calculations meaning.

1. I have cheerfully used the many-worlds interpretation in my novel The Children of Possibility, about time travelers from the far future, and in its prequel The House at the Crossroads. But I know I’m having fun and don’t take this stuff too seriously. So much fun, in fact, that I’m now working on the sequel that picks up where Children left off.

2. See Fun with Numbers (I) and (II) from September 19 and 26, 2010.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Courage in Authority

King Lear’s Fool

King Lear’s Fool

We have a young man on the board of directors of our condominium homeowners association who is consistently negative. He routinely predicts disaster in every situation. If someone proposes a solution, he calls for more consultants, more bids, more analysis, more legal review. He always criticizes proposals and decisions by other board members for their lack of “doing their homework” and “due diligence,” or their failure of “fiduciary responsibility.” If he offers a solution of his own, it is numbingly complex—if not self-contradictory—and hedged with so many technical and legal caveats that it becomes simply unworkable.

He has been responsible at times for bringing the entire organization into a state of paralysis. And if other board members vote for a motion that seeks to override his objections, he always votes against it or abstains, in order to preserve his right to later criticize the decision. Yet he never considers—or offers to take responsibility for—the negative consequences of action postponed or prevented by his criticisms and time and money spent on considering his objections.

If this young man, his attitude, and his effect on the organization were unique to our homeowners association, this might make a good story but would hardly rise above a curious local anecdote. The truth is, we see this kind of negativity too often in our current politics on both a local and a national level—and too often in the corporate and other spheres. Problems are insurmountable. Solutions are insufficient, infeasible, unprincipled, illegal, or unconstitutional. Nothing can be done but, at the same time, the situation cannot be allowed to continue.

The position of the naysayer, the delayer, and the critic is an easy one to assume. It involves no great courage to demand that the organization take more time to consider, seek another opinion, gather more data, investigate all possibilities.1 The organization usually places no blame if we don’t perform an action, approve a decision, praise or support a member, or confirm a vendor. For if the action or decision is not made, or the person or situation is left in a state of uncertainty, there is no discernible result that might later be examined and criticized. It’s a no-lose position for any member of a group to take.

What requires courage is to take action, make a decision, or give your approval and blessing to another person or group. Of course, the action might fail, the decision lead to disaster, and the person in question turn out to be a liar, a thief, or a scoundrel. Those possibilities always exist. The best that anyone can do is make a judgment based on available data, personal experience, imaginative projection, good founding principles, and common sense. After that, the outcome is in the realm of probability or—in an older view—the lap of the gods.

Any position of authority requires such courage. Even when an organization has a second in command, a board of directors or council of advisors, a legal and technical staff, and an on-site actuary, most decisions come down to one person willing to act—or to formulate and spread a vision upon which others can take action. Any deliberative body, like a senate, assembly, parliament, or a condo board will, on any one issue, look to the person who will take the lead to find or imagine a solution, provide arguments for it, defend it against its critics and naysayers, and call for action or a vote.

That person must inspire confidence among those who will vote for the solution or be required to act on its implementation. They must believe he or she is a person of integrity, sound judgment, and experience. Moreover, they must believe he or she is acting in the organization’s best interest and not for personal advantage.

But still, the person in authority is taking a risk. If the action or solution fails, the proposer or promoter will be labeled a failure along with it. Even if the proposal had a unanimous vote behind it, the leader who complains, “But we all agreed …” is taking a weak position. The rest of the organization will simply respond, “Yes, but we agreed with you!

This is why we ask of people in authority that they possess and demonstrate courage along with their other qualities of experience, judgment, integrity, and sobriety. The CEO of a corporation, the captain of a vessel, the pilot of an airplane are all required to take responsibility for their actions. They must make judgments, recommend and follow courses of action—sometimes in an instant and without recourse to advice, consultation, and second opinions—and trust that the people around them—subordinates, employees, crew, vendors, suppliers—will perform appropriately. And if the performance of the people undertaking the action, or the mechanism of the ship or plane itself, were to fail, then the CEO, captain, or pilot stands ready to take the blame. If the person in authority did not have this courage, then the company would never do anything, the ship never leave the dock, and the plane never leave the ground.

It’s a simple lesson: Action takes courage. Delay is not always wise or safe. And the path forward leads upward and requires strength.

1. For the role of the leader in making a decision, see the story of “five heartbeats” in The Immediacy of Life from April 29, 2018.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The New Conservatism

Lenin on a Tribune

A. Gerasimov, Lenin on a Tribune

I believe there’s a common feeling among those who follow politics and economics, based mostly on the labels assigned, that “conservatives” want things to stay the way they are, while “progressives” want things to move forward.

Conservatives are supposed to yearn for the political, economic, and social conditions of their youth. In my case that would be rock-n-roll, ducktail haircuts, the postwar boom, Eisenhower political blandness, and stable nuclear families living in suburban housing with good schools. There were some downsides to be sure: duck-and-cover drills, Jim Crow segregation, Formica in loud colors, and Melmac dinnerware. But all in all, for the white middle-class majority, it was a good time to be alive in America. We didn’t see the social and economic problems or, if we did, we minimized them.

Progressives are supposed to look ahead to better times, which means focusing on the things that need to change right now. For most progressives these days that would be income inequality, industrial and automotive pollution, environmental damage and anthropogenic climate change, racial inequality, binary gender inequality, capitalist winners and losers, housing shortages, healthcare governed by insurance companies, and cultural hostility for “the other” leading to rampant hate speech. Sure, there are some good things: advances in renewable energy, administrative regulations on industry and finance, progressive income taxes, union protections, feminism, and the #metoo movement. But these things are not enough—may never be enough—when what is needed is a true social, cultural, and economic revolution to make people equal in both their expectations and outcomes, happier with their lives, and kinder to each other.

But are these labels correct?

I believe many conservatives have a forward-looking approach in many areas, including politics and technology. They believe the social and economic climate is improving all the time, compared to the situation fifty, a hundred, or two hundred years ago. They believe in continued evolution in this regard, but not abrupt revolution. Much of their expectation is based on humankind’s increasing knowledge and technological capability, derived from the application of scientific and humanitarian principles originating in the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.

In contrast, many progressives seem to be in the position of tacit conservatives. They don’t trust evolutionary change in social, political, or technological conditions, largely because such change is not predictable or guided by the principles to which they subscribe. In other cases, they actually want to preserve a static world which is safe and predictable until they choose to change it through a directed revolution.

Let me suggest three areas in which this is so.

First, union protections. The history of unionism has been one of fighting changes in technology and working conditions that might affect the number and skill levels of jobs, or require workers with seniority in a craft to learn new skills or enter new positions. The classic example of this tendency was “featherbedding” in the railroads during the 1930s and ’40s, preserving the jobs of firemen who stoked the boilers on steam engines when the railroad companies converted to diesel-electric locomotives. An earlier example was hand weavers who tried to destroy and ban mechanical textile mills because the machines put them out of work. Unions consistently choose older ways of working over new efficiencies if it means that certain jobs and skills will become outmoded. This is a bid for stasis over advancement and is, at least in spirit, non-progressive. What they will make of artificial intelligence and increasing automation in the workplace is totally predictable.

Second, capitalism itself. The basis of market-driven economics and capital investment is “creative destruction.” Every product and service, every company that provides products and services, competes in the marketplace for consumer attention and dollars. Consumer favoritism and brand loyalty only go so far—and not far at all if a product line or service deteriorates in terms of quality, usefulness, price, or some other dimension that customers value. Sometimes, however, frivolous products or variations are introduced and sold; the classic example is Bernie Sanders’s complaint about “twenty-three kinds of deodorant.”1 But by and large, new and useful products are coming all the time: consider the personal computer and the internet revolution.

Capitalism in a free market means giving people what they want, even if it means giving them what they only think they want—or what you can convince them to want, or deceive them into wanting. Capitalism is not predictable and directed, but decidedly uncontrolled. Sixty years ago, when I was a child, everyone confidently predicted that my car would fly by the time I was middle aged. But no one, looking at the basement full of vacuum tubes or single transistors that was the current state of the art in computing predicted the development of the integrated circuit, the microchip, and telephones that would eventually replace cameras, stereo systems, movies and television, telegrams, libraries, and retail stores. Creative destruction is a wild and woolly territory—just ask a taxi driver whose radio-dispatched cab is being replace by a cellularly summoned Uber or Lyft driver.

We’ve seen enough of the command-and-control economies that were spawned from social and economic revolutions in the 20th century to know how they operate. They were all focused on preserving the status quo in terms of products, processes, and services. None of them developed the advances in computing, personal communications, or consumer goods—let alone medical technology and energy infrastructure, to name a few more areas—that we have steadily enjoyed in the capitalist West.2

Third, the environment. Is the climate changing? Oh yes! It was changing before modern industrialization and transportation fueled by coal, oil, and gas began increasing the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide load. We live on a planet with a precession in its orbit, under a variable star, with an active geology based on plate tectonics. We have gone through periodic ice ages, glaciations, warming and cooling periods, and occasional long winters due to volcanic eruptions ever since humans started recording their history—even before, if you count all the cultures with a flood story in their mythology.

Sea level rises and falls, deserts grow and shrink, forests advance and retreat, rivers change their course, all without the influence of human activity. Life has evolved on this planet to adapt to these changes. Every extant individual and species was shaped to take advantage of a particular environmental niche—except humans, of course, who use their big brains and clever hands to build shelters and machines that let us exploit areas where we otherwise could not live. Since those environmental niches—particularly the ones with marginal populations—are changing all the time, some species must either adapt, move, or die out. It matters not how picturesque or precious a species might be, if it lives too close to extinction in terms of diet or tolerance for environmental stress, it will eventually disappear. In the long run, no one can save the panda.

And yet the current crop of environmentalists would try to prevent this change wherever possible. They want a static world in which every river, swamp, and forest remains unchanged, where every butterfly and exotic plant can be preserved. They want to fix the world’s climate at some preferred set point—usually around the time and temperature of their childhood—and maintain it … forever.

Even the politics of the progressives is frozen in place and time. Their view of “the arc of history” is guided by a 19th-century view of social and economic order as prescribed by Marx and Lenin and then communicated by the anti-war radicals and anti-capitalist activists of the 1960s. It is a world view that values world peace at the expense of national sovereignty and the primacy of human-muscle labor at the expense of technological advancement. If they were alive today, Marx would not be a Marxist, and Lenin would be busily adapting and promoting some other social and economic creed.

I believe we are at a time of great confusion over labels and intentions. I also think we are at a time that demands a new teaching, a new world view, a new politics and economics that is neither “conservative” nor “progressive” but adopts a new social and philosophical stance entirely.

I just wish I knew what it was.

1. I’m sure all the ladies out there wouldn’t mind using my brand of deodorant, which has the image of a sailing ship on the package. Or that Bernie wouldn’t mind using the Secret brand—“Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.” One of the comments about life in Russia in the 20th century was the prevalence of “Soviet scent,” as if one smell would fit all bodies.

2. To be fair, none of them made flying cars, either.