Friday, October 16, 2009

Little Boxes

I have been thinking about boxes, recently. Their size and uncertainty, principally.
At the end of the  nineteenth century, physics was intoxicated with Promethean hubris – or pride - false, insolent, and destructive.  As a young man eager to pursue physics, Max Planck was advised by the head of the physics department at Munich "The important discoveries [in physics] have been made.  It is hardly worth entering physics any more."  - a piece of advice he chose, wisely, not to listen to.  Classical physics-that is, Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism-seemingly accounted for all observed natural phenomena. The universe was aggressively deterministic, it seemed.  The planets, whirling eternally with inscrutable precision; the ebbing and flowing of the tides; the oscillations of a pendulum; the way bodies exchange energy and momentum; waves of light propagating through space – all slaves to determinism  Some claimed that given the initial conditions of the universe, all of its future behaviour could be precisely calculated.
The box was, after all, finite in size. God had been corralled into a space, unimaginably huge, but finite nevertheless.
Planck chose not to listen to advice, plunging headlong into an abyss of unknown dimensions and alhough he did not initially appreciate it, he opened the door for a new paradigm that would assert itself with such vigour that virtually no scientific endeavour would be left untouched by it: quantum physics.   In particular, he had stumbled into the thorny briar of wave-particle duality.  Light seems to propagate like a wave and exchange energy like a particle.  Einstein remarked: ‘’All the fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no closer to the answer to the question, "what are light quanta? Of course today every rascal thinks he knows the answer, but he is deluding himself ‘’.
We continue to delude ourselves –in spite of de Broglie and the mighty Erwin Schrodinger, who took flight to a villa in the Swiss Alps in 1925, leaving his wife behind and gathering a former Viennese girlfriend.  What would come of this (presumably) quiet period of reflection would change the landscape of physics for ever.  Indeed, it changed the way we as a species comprehend the universe we live in.
The image is of a one-dimensional box of ideal rigidity constructed to solve the simplest one-dimensional Schrodinger wave equation.
And yet, a box is a box is….a box. The dimensions of the box are not ours to measure.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing how we humans make incredibly arrogant assumptions... makes me think of the elephant story. In getting hold of the tail, we assume that's all there is to know about elephants. We run the risk of getting s**t on. lol How fortunate for mankind that along with the predilection to arrogant presumption there is an equal and opposite tendency to rebel against being confined... defined... by someone else's box.
    Al hamdullilah!


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