Our language is inadequate to describe quantum reality

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Heaven knows what seeming nonsense may not tomorrow be demonstrated truth.” 

This is how the great mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead expressed his frustration with the onslaught of weirdness coming from the emerging quantum physics. He wrote this in 1925, just as things were getting truly strange. At the time, light had been shown to be both particle and wave, and Niels Bohr had introduced a strange model of the atom that showed how electrons were stuck in their orbits. They could only jump from one orbit to another by either emitting photons to go to a lower orbit or absorbing them to go to a higher orbit. Photons, for their part, were particles of light that Einstein conjectured to exist in 1905. Electrons and light danced to a very unique tune. 

When Whitehead spoke, the wave-particle duality of light had just been extended to matter. In trying to understand Bohr’s atom, Louis De Broglie proposed in 1924 that electrons were also both wave and particle and that they fit in their atomic orbits like standing waves — the kind you get by vibrating a string with one end fixed. Everything waves, then, although the waviness of objects quickly becomes less apparent with increasing size. For electrons this waviness is crucial. It is much less important to, say, a baseball.

Quantum liberation

Two fundamental aspects of quantum theory arise from this discussion, and they are radically different from traditional classical reasoning. 

First, images we build in our minds when we try to picture light or particles of matter are not appropriate. Language itself struggles to address quantum reality since it is limited to verbalizations of those mental images. As the great German physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote, “We wish to speak in some way about the structure of atoms and not only about the ‘facts’… But we cannot speak about the atoms in ordinary language.” 


https://bigthink.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/AdobeStock_73890415.jpeg?resize=480,270Credit: Mopic / Adobe Stock



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