Friday, January 1, 2010

Our Strange Universe

This post is more than a little off-topic, but I think it's something that every person will find interesting and enjoyable. It starts off with a little background in science, leads into some of the latest theories in quantum mechanics (which are more interesting than they sound), and ends with some intriguing thoughts about life, death, and those we love.

For those who aren't familiar, the physics and theories of quantum mechanics are weird. Really weird. They leave even the smartest scientists scratching their head. Many experiments are underway to better try to understand the quantum world. You may have heard stories in the news about that big expensive 'Large Hadron Collider Project' in Europe, whose only mission is to spin particles around at 99.99999% the speed of light (or something like that, pardon me if I missed a decimal) only to smash them into each other. It's the biggest, most expensive scientific toy ever built, all in the hopes of learning more about the quantum world. (And no, it won't create a black hole that swallows the earth. Similar collisions are taking place all around us every day; scientists are merely building the equipment to control and measure those collisions.) It's the biggest question in science right now, and the race is on to better understand the quantum world.

The principles of quantum mechanics are so weird that many are tempted not to believe them. Except for the fact that these same laws of physics are at work throughout the world we live in. Be it nuclear technology, photosynthesis, solar panels, or the cell phone in your pocket, many principles of quantum mechanics are at work all around you. Although still a ways off, scientists are even in the preliminary stages of building quantum computers. I won't pretend to understand it all, but here's a few of the things that leave even the geniuses of science scratching their head:

Physics on the quantum scale seems to ignore all laws of the larger physical world. For example, one of the rules of quantum mechanics is that particles can simultaneously exist in two different places at once. Don't you wish you had this trick? A quantum particle can also seem to skip dimensions in space and time, disappearing one moment in one place only to reappear somewhere else. Again, a useful trick that would come in awfully handy. Quantum theories tell us there might be at least 11 dimensions to the universe we live in, with many parallel universes. Yet another particularly weird aspect of quantum mechanics is that of quantum entanglement. Einstein called this principle, "spooky action at a distance." The gist of it is that particles can become intrinsically linked absent any physical connection, and can thus interact with each other and affect each other from large distances...say, halfway across the universe. It's the equivalent of stomping your feet in Chicago and making a splash in a puddle in Florida. The smallest particles seem to be able to ignore and circumvent the laws of the physical universe we big things live in. If you were a quantum particle, you could watch your sons’ football game while also attending your daughters PTA meeting. You would be at the exact same time in two different places. You could freeze time when desired, or rather, simply 'hop into' the place and time you wished. You could wave your arm in an empty desert and push someone down who is 13 light years away on another planet, all while hopping out of one dimension and into another, only to reappear at your house in time for dinner. Like I said, weird.

The really intriguing thoughts and interesting possibilities come when you realize that our brains are essentially quantum computers. Theoretically, all those particles of thought created by neurons in your head can also be in two places at once. They may share the space within your head while simultaneously existing in a place halfway across the Universe in a galaxy far, far away. Which, come to thin~ of it, may explain the behavior of many of the people I've met. They can also theoretically jump in and out of different dimensions. Of particular interest for this article, they are, in theory, subject to the same quantum entanglement; meaning that as they interact with other particles of thought in other brains, they can become entangled; initiating the potential for this "spooky action at a distance" Einstein was referring to.

Let's go on to another area of science we know preciously little about: the brain. Sure, we understand its basic anatomy, and we can pinpoint certain areas of the brain and link them to certain thoughts or actions with fMRI scans or electroencepholography. We can dissect brains and look at neurons under a microscope, and we even know how the different chemicals work in the brain to influence our moods and emotions. Yet we still know precious little about how that 3 pound garbled lump of gray jelly--a mixture of blood, neurons, electricity, chemicals, white matter, and glial cells, among others--works to compose thought. We know even less about consciousness. It's not for lack of effort. In fact, scientists have even created a mathematical theory for consciousness. The problem is that it is so complex that all the current computing pow3er in the world, if put to the task, couldn't even calculate the state of awareness for even the simple roundworm, let alone deal with the complexity of the human brain.

One thing we do know is that when a person is placed under an fMRI machine, which monitors brain activity in almost real time, (a second or two delay) their brain seems to be altered by outside influences. This is evidenced by the brain "lighting up" in response to others. If a person watches a movie, that movie plays the persons brain like a puppeteer, with the deep brain areas responding to what they are witnessing just as if it were actually happening to them. When people watch others' facial expressions, their own emotional areas light up in response, "feeling" what the other person feels. Our brains come equipped with what are called 'mirror neurons,' which essentially mirror what they witness. First discovered by accident in monkeys, they are neurons in the brain that respond to what others are doing or feeling, thus attempting to mirror (or copycat) their actions, feelings, or state of mind. So we can feel what others feel, share their thoughts and emotions, and seemingly interact with each other through thought alone.

The field of quantum physics doesn't mingle much with that of psychology. So you can call me loony, but the activity observed while monitoring the brain (the quantum computers inside our head) seems eerily similar to some of these principles of quantum mechanics, especially that of entanglement. Our brains seem to be influenced, at a distance and without any physical connection, by our interaction with others, as if these neurons are reaching out and mingling with the world around them. This is why I was intrigued by an article in Scientific American, by science writer George Musser. It was about advances in the quest for quantum computing, but a particular segment leaped out and caught my eye:

"In the modern view that has gained traction in the past decade, you don't see quantum effects in everyday life not because you are big, per se, but because those effects are camouflaged by their own sheer complexity. They are there if you know how to look, and physicists have begun realizing that they show up in the macroscopic world more than they thought. "The standard arguments may be too pessimistic as to the survival of quantum effects," says Nobel Laureate physicist Anthony Leggett of the University of Illinois.

In the most distinctive such effect, called entanglement, two electrons establish a kind of telepathic link that transcends space and time. And not just electrons: you, too, retain a quantum bond with your loved ones that endures no matter how far apart you may be. If that sounds hopelessly romantic, the flip side is that particles are incurably promiscuous; hooking up with every other particle they meet. So you also retain a quantum bond with every loser who ever bumped into you on the street and every air molecule that ever brushed your skin. The bonds you want are overwhelmed by those you don't. Entanglement thus foils entanglement, a process known as decoherence.0

Most scientists tend to ignore ideas about quantum mechanics and the potential implications when it comes to the brain or thought, because it all seems, as this author notes, hopelessly romantic. I'm also a natural skeptic; one has to be to maintain a sense of logic, and most of the things people attribute to supernatural experiences can be easily explained through natural events or laws of randomness. That said, once in a while events in this world seem to defy all explanations, even those skeptics would provide. There are cases where a twin seems to know when her other half is in trouble, and with details that far exceed anything which could be produced through chance randomness. There are cases where a petite little mother gains instant superhuman strength to lift a car off her child. While there are physical explanations for this, (the body is capable of extreme things under stress), it shows that we have hidden abilities that can occasionally be tapped into. There are also so-called "near death" experiences. The ones I find particularly interesting are those among children, who are by nature open and honest, and lacking the knowledge, understanding or inclination to lie about such experiences. These children sometimes describe, in accurate detail, events that were happening in another room down the hall while they were clinically dead. They’ll often describe other things that would be impossible for them to know, such as a bald spot on the top of the head of a doctor they had never met, or the things ER techs were doing to resuscitate them at a time during which they had no brain activity and thus could not have been conscious of anything, according to science.
And to bring up another point, even the way anesthesia works, to this day, is somewhat puzzling to scientists. The subject of consciousness itself is still very much a mystery.

The latest theories coming out of quantum mechanics might allow for such extraordinary possibilities while also explaining the inconsistencies and inabilities to harness such superhuman powers. Quite obviously, we're not all mind readers. In fact, there has never been a documented case of a true "psychic." When put to the test and analyzed with scientific scrutiny, all self-proclaimed psychics fail miserably, even on simple tasks. Yet an inability to harness such telepathic abilities is not necessarily proof that they couldn't exist, and it does not preclude the possibility that our thoughts and minds are connected on some much deeper level that transcends space, time, and yes, perhaps even death. Yet as a result of all the "white noise" so to speak, these connections would be largely obscured.

I remember watching a television show where a woman solemnly proclaimed that her belief in God or something beyond death was shaken, because, after a close loved one had died, she "had not felt anything" at the time, despite it happening while she was alone watching TV. Simply put, she felt that she should have been able to sense that something was amiss, and the fact that she hadn't shoo~ her very foundational beliefs to the core. When I read this other article I also thought of her, and I'm sure such feelings are not unique. So to those out there in similar predicaments, take comfort: the potential for such telepathic connections to happen certainly doesn't mean that they will, and the fact that they didn't does not mean they can't exist.

The laws of the quantum world, the rules governing the smallest building blocks of life, that which comprises everything we see and touch, would seem to imply that we are all interconnected...much more so than we imagine. Not only to each other, but to the very Universe we live in. Principles of quantum theory have also been implicated in explaining photosynthesis by plants and the magnetism-sensitive molecules that birds use as compasses to guide their navigation. There are also other spooky things throughout the animal world that would imply some sort of invisible connection. For example, schools of thousands of fish will all move in precise unison, changing direction in a miniscule of a if they knew what fish number 2, 798 was going to do before he did it. As if their very thoughts were somehow connected by an unseen force. Animals can sometimes seem to sense an earthquake before it happens. Certain dogs seem to know the precise moment their owner heads home, even when that moment is chosen at random and differs from the person’s usual schedule. I believe it was a 20/20 episode that documented this. With synchronized watches, the owner headed out. Later in the day, when the owner was randomly told to go home now, video cameras caught a sleeping dog that suddenly and excitedly got up, tail wagging, and walked over to sit by the door. Another show documented a hospital cat that seems to know when someone is going to die within a few hours, and will go to sit and comfort that person in their last moments of life. In fact, these strange abilities have led some to suggest that it is the very intelligence of our species that drowns out our ability to sense such things.

At the end of the day, none of us truly knows for sure, and perhaps that's precisely the point of this article. Can parents sometimes sense their child's thoughts or predicaments from far away? The answer could be yes, although the amount of interference in the way would render such telepathic links obscured and useless in nearly all situations. Could one of these extra dimensions mathematical equations tell us exist be some sort of 'heaven?' One can only speculate. Could our minds (which are distinctively different from the brain) survive death? We don't know enough to be sure either way. What's interesting is that the more we learn, the more clouded such answers seem to become. If anything, the latest science is only expanding the realm of possibilities, not closing them down. Since both space and time are relative (and this is a documentable theory, not a hypothetical one) could those we have loved and lost be mingling with us right now at a different point in time? (Since time is dependant upon the illusion of space and speed, all times, in essence, are always in existence at once.) Might we meet up again in some other dimension, with the totally awesome ability to hop into places and times all around the universe?

Of course, this is all little more than speculation, and is likely to remain such for some time to come. Even trying to wrap ones feeble brain around the idea that time ceases to exist if one moves fast enough or steps "outside" of space-time is enough to make the average person dizzy. Yet contemplating the possibilities, and all the strange new doors being opened up, gives a geek like me a smile, and I figured there might be other geeks out there too. Regardless of what the answers to such questions may be, and regardless of whether or not we ever answer them, one thing is for certain: what an amazing, wonderful, intriguing place this part of the Universe we all live in is. At a time of the year when magic is in the air and many out there are remembering those they may have loved and lost, perhaps spending a little time just thinking about the possibilities will give some out there a little comfort. With every day that goes by, science is showing us that magic truly is all around us.

1. George Musser, "Easy go, easy come," Scientific American, Vol. 301(5):
25-26, November 2009

2. Christof Koch, "A theory of consciousness," Scientific American Mind, Vol. 20(4): 16-19, July/Aug 2009

3. G. D. Pelligrino et al., "Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study," Experimental Brain Research, 91, 176-80, 1992

4. K. Oschsner et al., "Reflecting upon feelings: An fMRI study of neural systems supporting the attribution of emotion to self and others." Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16, 1746-72

5. Tom Siegfried, "Success in coping with infinity could strengthen case for multiple universes," Science News, Vol. 175, No. 12, pp. 26-28, June 6 2009

6. Charles Q. Choi, "Quantum afterlife," Scientific American, Vol.
300(2): 24-25, February 2009

David Z. Albert & Rivka Galchen, "A quantum threat to special relativity," Scientific American, Vol. 300(3): 32, March 2009

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