Tuesday, December 6, 2011

People Are Not Particles

A few posts ago I mentioned "The Forecaster's Way" in the hopes that the philosophy of what makes a good forecaster could also be applied to daily life. During my time at Vipassana meditation I remembered a few other "tenets" of what might make a good personal philosophy (more on that tomorrow).

Before I go much further however, it would be good to recognize the danger of applying science analogies to daily life. A theme running through the meditation center's lectures was that quantum physicists have finally come around to recognize the truth in some of Buddhisms teachings. This includes ideas like matter is not solid, that instead it is made up of mere "subtle vibrations". Also, everything is impermanent, matter flicks in and out of existence trillions of times a second, etc.

Nothing rankles physicists quite like when non-scientists try to apply physics laws to their daily lives. The radio show This American Life has a fantastic and funny episode called "Family Physics" that discusses this; I highly recommend it. As some context, I have a physics undergraduate degree and spent a summer as a student working with the particle accelerators at Brookhaven National Labs.

Honestly, you might be surprised at just how far quantum physics is outside the realm of your ordinary daily life. It is entirely likely that you could survive in the woods for a long time without knowing anything about modern physics. This is because the laws of motion figured out over 300 years ago work (and will continue to work) just fine for human- or breadbox-sized objects.

Dilbert discussing the project uncertainty principle
In comparison, there is no survival challenge where you would need to apply the well-known Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. That is the one where the better you want to measure where something is, the less able you'll be able to know how fast it is going.

This is probably the most abused and misinterpreted physics principle, commandeered into cringe-worthy chains of logic like, "nothing can be measured exactly...therefore there is no universal reality." Granted, it may be true that there is no universal reality, but the proof to you is not going to be how electrons like to pass through a hole in a wall.... (As an aside, ponder that paradox! Can the statement "there is no universal reality" be itself a universal reality?... Far out!... But I digress...).

When you actually dig into the equations, if you want to measure something like a baseball toss or cricket ball pitch speed to within about 10%, the Uncertainty Principle limits your ability to measure the ball's location to within one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a millimeter, give or take. My GPS struggles to know where I am within 100 meters, so there are lots of other issues to resolve before quantum physics gets involved.

In the end, probably the most useful idea I got from my physics degree was that "People Are Not Particles." In the vacuum of outer space, "a body in motion tends to stay in motion", true. However, once your mother-in-law gets it in her head that the whole family is going to vacation in Greece this year, even though we already had plans to go to Bali, does that mean there's no changing her mind? Not necessarily. Or that "for every force there's an equal and opposite force" implies that Karma is going to catch up with you eventually? Actually, as Mark Twain wrote, sometimes the bad little boy doesn't get punished, and the good little boy doesn't get rewarded.

A quantum physicist should probably not be your first stop on the quest to discover the meaning of consciousness or to learn the behavior of the mind. It is probably better to ask a psychologist because they specialize in that kind of thing. Maybe you would even want to consult a positive psychologist if you are concerned about how therapists mostly focus on how broken you are. Maybe even consult a happiness engineer if that is what you're really after?

My advice is, "Don't Panic"

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