Summary—This essay tells the story of quantum theory and argues that we need to understand it so we can finally come to know the ultimate nature of reality.
Western philosophy began 2,400 years ago when Plato dared to ask what existence would be like outside the cave. Modern Western philosophy began 400 years ago when Descartes tore down the medieval house of knowledge and rebuilt from the ground up. Postmodern Western philosophy began 14 years ago when I asked—Why is everything so complicated? Descartes was one of the greatest thinkers of all time. He never worked a day in his life and slept until noon almost every day of his life. He claimed he did his best thinking in a warm bed. While living in Amsterdam, Descartes was summoned to Sweden by Queen Christina to conduct philosophical tutoring for her. Christina insisted that he get up at five am for philosophy sessions. The frigid Swedish winter immediately took its toll on Descartes and he caught pneumonia and died within a month at age fifty-four. Upon hearing of his death the Queen said “My philosopher promised me he would live to a hundred. It seems he has not kept his promise.”
Quantum Theory. Quantum theory (1925) is a branch of physics that elucidates the behaviour of matter at the atomic and subatomic levels. It describes how particles comprise matter and how they interrelate with one another. Quantum theory tells us how the universe works at the material level. Quantum means simple or indivisible and can be used interchangeably with the term atom. Classical physics is an estimation of the equations of relativity theory (1905) and quantum theory. While classical physics describes the everyday world, relativity theory explains the macrocosmos with enormous velocities approaching lightspeed, and quantum theory explains the microcosmos with the extremely small Planck’s constant.
The Atom. The Greek Democritus (470-400 BC) was the first to introduce the idea of an atom as being a particle that is simple rather than complex. Atom means indivisible in Greek. Democritus put forth the idea that the universe is composed of atoms contained in the vacuum of spacetime. He argued that atoms are invisibly small and ceaselessly in motion. The idea of the atom was questioned by both Plato and Aristotle. Chemists around 1800 used the atomic model to predict the chemical properties of atomic elements. In fact, everything solid, fluid or gaseous is comprised of atoms. Atoms are extremely small. A single hair is about two million hydrogen atoms in width.
Splitting the Atom. The notion of the indivisible atom was shattered in 1897 when Sir JJ Thomson discovered the electron as a component of the so called atom. He revealed that the atom is not an atom at all, but is a particle that is complex rather than simple. Thomson proved experimentally that electrons can be extracted from atoms. Thomson put forth an atom as a pudding of positive matter with electrons like plumbs in the pudding. Bohr went to work with Thomson but soon fell into disfavor for criticizing the plum pudding atomic model. Bohr took Rutherford’s solar system of the atom and combined it with Planck’s quantum theory to form the precursor to modern atomic theory. Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) claimed that monads are the real atoms of nature. Both monads and atoms are indivisible particles. He developed calculus and his philosophy based on monads. As per the complementary principle, I would argue that electrons and monads are the same thing.
The Quantum. Max Planck initiated modern quantum theory in 1900 by making the transition from classical physics to modern physics with his quanta. Electrons are matter-quanta and photons are light-quanta. Planck first encountered the ultraviolet catastrophe thought problem while on his way to understanding why we are able to stand so close to a fire without being overwhelmed by radiation. Classical physics tells us the relationship between the temperature of a fire and the amount of radiation ought to increase linearly. Planck realized that the size restriction on escaping energy units causes a traffic jam—and thus we avoid the catastrophe that would occur if energy were allowed to escape the fire in lesser quantities. Nature strangely insists that we not be permitted to portion energy in units smaller than Plank’s constant. The discovery of this cosmic fixedpoint set in motion a sequence of cascading paradigms that culminated in the hard fought realization of quantum theory in 1925.
The Electron. Electrons are extremely small negatively charged particles of matter found in the atom. Positrons are electrons traveling backwards in time. Electrons, positrons, neutrons and protons comprise the basic building blocks of the atom. Electrons exist at the valence rings while neutrons and protons make up the inner nucleus. Electrons, positrons, neutrons and protons are among the smallest particles of the atom that we can identify. The definition of the atom is that it is simple rather than complex. Yet atoms are in fact complex in that they are made up of more than one part. Electrons determine how atoms behave with respect to one another. Freeman Dyson claimed electrons are active agents making conscious choices. Electrons exit the universe through the nucleus and then re-enter according to the valence waves described by Schrödinger’s probabilistic wave equation—like the waves that occur when an electron is dropped into an ocean. This allows electrons to be described as both particles and waves. Photons surf the waves and therefore may also be considered both particles and waves.
Preparing to Leap. In 1900 Planck discovered energy exists in discrete packets or quanta as defined by Planck’s constant. Heisenberg argued there was no evidence that electrons are actually orbiting the nuclei—although he knew the solar system atomic model was biting in the right direction. In 1926 Max Born argued that Schrödinger’s wave equation be interpreted probabilistically with the wave crests representing the highest probabilities coinciding with the discrete electron orbits of the solar system model. Imagine dropping a pebble onto a four-dimensional quantum soap bubble. The waves represent the probability of finding an electron at any given point within the atom—thus revealing that the certainty of temporal ordering or causality fails within the atom. And since Planck’s constant is a cosmic fixedpoint, we can say that causality ceases at the spacetime boundary of Planck’s constant.
The Quantum Leap. A quantum leap occurs when an electron leaps from one valence ring to another. Here it is used metaphorically to represent the leap from one paradigm to another. Ernest Rutherford proposed a solar system atomic model in 1911 based on the revelation that both the solar system and the atom have nuclei containing about 99.9 percent of the mass and occupying about one-billionth of the spherical space. Niels Bohr soon realized that electrons are held in orbit electromagnetically rather than gravitationally. Bohr then quantized Rutherford’s atomic model so as to produce a model with discrete electron orbits known as valence rings. Prince Louis de Broglie argued that matter has both wavelike and particlelike properties. In 1925 Erwin Schrödinger constructed an atomic model based on de Broglie’s concept of matter waves—while Werner Heisenberg constructed a model based on algebraic matrices of infinite dimension. Paul Dirac then nailed down quantum theory once and for all by proving that the two are equivalent. As we know—televisions, computers and laser disk players are all based on quantum theory.
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The uncertainty principle in 1927 refers to a variety of mathematical inequalities which contend that there is a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle can be known. Complementary variables include the position and momentum of a given particle. Heisenberg proved that the more precisely the position of a particle is known, the less exactly its momentum can also be known. John Gribbin wrote in his 1998 book Q is for Quantum that nobody has ever formulated a formal definition accurately characterizing the essence of the uncertainty principle. Therefore, my formal definition of the uncertainty principle is “Causality breaks down at the atomic boundary of Planck’s constant. An absence of causality means an absence of spacetime—meaning there is no spacetime inside the atom.”
Schrödinger’s Cat. Schrödinger put forth his classic cat-in-a-box thought problem in 1935 with the intention of demonstrating the absurdity of the probabilistic interpretation once and for all. A quantum-cat is placed in a box such that no one can know what is happening inside. A device releases either food or poison with equal probability, and the cat meets its fate—or does it? Schrödinger argued that the cat must be both alive and dead until the observer opens the box. This thought problem ironically leads to the counterintuitive conclusion that the observer’s consciousness is what actually determines the fate of the cat. We know for sure that consciousness determines physical reality. So Einstein’s thought problem as to whether the moon really exists when no one is looking at it is answered with an emphatic no.
Conclusion. This essay begins with a very brief history of Western philosophy. Quantum theory enables us to better comprehend innate reality. The terms quantum and atom are different ways of saying the same thing. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle tells us there is inherent uncertainty in our perception of true reality. Schrödinger’s cat thought problem tells us consciousness determines perceived physical reality. Quantum theory is not an abstract concept but is immediate to understanding the universe and our place in it.