It is often stated that of all the theories proposed in this century, the silliest is quantum theory. In fact, some say that the only thing that quantum theory has going for it is that it is unquestionably correct.
– Michio Kaku
Just what on earth is Quantum Physics? Well. modern science has provided many mind-boggling theories of Reality over the past hundred years. One of the most recent is that our Universe is really a hologram – the world we experience isn’t real, but a holographic ‘projection’ of some other, bigger Reality. Or there are worlds existing parallel to our own (in one version you’re doing one thing, in another something else, simultaneously). In some cases, there are new discoveries of universal forces, like Dark Matter or Dark Energy, about which we know next to nothing. (Why they’re there, no one knows.) It is now scientists themselves who come up with the weirdest ideas possible – not neo-pagan mystics, prophets or conspiracy theorists – and it sometimes feels like these experts (who should know better) have taken leave of their senses.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, modern ‘quantum’ physics was born. It’s not too much say that there’s never been anything quite like it. It’s like no other branch of science, because it demands we change the way we look at the world. When we look closely at our apparently substantial, predictable universe, we get a shock. Quantum Physics – the physics of the unimaginably small – shows clearly that the world ‘out there’ is strangely connected to the one ‘in here’ – our Consciousness. Mind really does influence Matter.
Up until recently, quantum physicists said this link between mind and solid objects should be left to the philosophers to sort out. The ‘quantum realm’, this semi-theoretical world beyond matter, was really an anomaly, a paradox which broke the rules, as it did things that more conservative scientists didn’t like. It said that the real world is no longer sitting ‘out there’ nice and still, ignoring us as we set up our measuring devices. Spookily, it seems to be conscious!
And so, a new kind of science is afoot. Just like the old science, it has obscure jargon and Byzantine maths that only geeks can understand. But what the New Physics says overall, anyone can understand: when it comes to Reality you help to create it. To start with, the world you live in isn’t made of ‘real’ objects. If you think I’m making this up, listen to a physics Professor:
‘There was a revolution in physics at the beginning of the last century, consisting of the discovery of quantum physics. The message of quantum physics is this: the world is not made of matter.’1
When scientists start sounding like they’ve been at the cooking sherry, then something interesting is afoot. The above quote is from physicist Amit Goswami, one of the new breed of scientists who can see there’s more to Reality than meets the eye. So if the world isn’t made of matter, what then? Well, the New Physics says the very chair you’re sitting on, the very ground on which you stand, is mostly empty space. You, me, and the table before us are different forms of energy. (Einstein, with his gift for an apt phrase called all matter ‘congealed electricity’. This is a simplification, however; the reality is more mind-boggling. More of which, later.)
So, when we move beyond the cellular level, down past even molecules, we land in the region of the infinitely small, a world where even the tiniest area of matter contains billions of atoms. (A realm where ‘matter’ ceases to exist.) Almost everyone will have heard of atoms, they are the ‘building blocks’ of which the world is made. What may not be so well known is their dimension. If you want an idea of how ridiculously tiny they are, imagine an orange and ask yourself how big would its atoms be. In order to see the atoms in an average sized orange, you’d have to enlarge it to the size of the earth. (The atoms would then be the size of cherries.)
As Dr. Bruce Lipton puts it, all physical matter is ‘actually made out of immaterial energy’, for ‘atoms are not physical particles,’ and he likens them to ‘energy vortices resembling nano-tornadoes.’ That’s better – we all know what a tornado is – we can visualise it as a swirling vortex, like water going down your plughole. Unfortunately, Bruce Lipton’s ‘tornado’ is only metaphor. Now it’s time for the bombshell, for these descriptions of atoms don’t describe what they really are – and this is because atoms are not things. I’ll repeat that: atoms are not things.
This is what quantum physicists are fond of pointing out: an atom is not a speck of something, like dust or a grain of salt. This, for the philosophically minded, is the eureka moment. ‘The very attempt’, wrote Werner Heisenberg, ‘to conjure up a picture [of elementary particles] and think of them in visual terms is wholly to misinterpret them.’2 This isn’t what we’re used to – we rely on the luxury of a mental picture of what’s going on in nature; quantum physics says we have to give up this habit.
However, when we look inside the atom (the world of sub-atomic particles) we mostly find a void. The cherry-sized atoms in our example would have an invisible nucleus at the centre; to see it, one would have to enlarge that, too. (To the size of a large cathedral dome, say.) Even then, the nucleus would be no bigger than a grain of sand. This is why physicists say that matter is really empty space, except that there’s no such thing – in nature – as emptiness. (Even a vacuum contains ‘something’.) In fact, it wouldn’t be going too far to say that atoms and subatomic particles are phantoms. One of quantum physics’ pioneers, Erwin Schrodinger, noted that when we observe material objects they are ‘nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space.’ Atoms are just ‘schaumkommen’ (appearances). This is where we depart from ‘objective’ science – an ‘atom’ is a quantity of energy we’re trying to measure, one that’s constantly moving. It isn’t something we can just look at under a microscope. Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in 1927 that:
‘For all we know an atom may consist entirely of the radiations which come out of it. It is useless to argue that radiations cannot come out of nothing … The idea that there is a hard little lump there, which is the electron or proton, is an illegitimate intrusion of common sense notions derived from touch … Matter is a convenient formula for describing what happens where it isn’t.’3
The common sense notion Russell mentions is that there must be an objective particle ‘out there’ whether we’re observing it or not. But this doesn’t apply here. Fred Alan Wolf states the issue as follows:
‘Even the most basic idea of matter, the concept of a ‘particle’, turns out to be misunderstood if one assumes that the particle has properties totally independent of the observer.’4
Now you can see how the old scientific outlook has shifted position – we’ve moved from physics to metaphysics. From an objective ‘mechanical’ Universe, to one that’s organicand always includes us as an observer. Though it’s a baffling notion, the atoms studied by physicists do not simply ‘exist’ out there. This can be difficult to absorb, but we can make no definitive statement about the subatomic realm until we observe it. Werner Heisenberg put it even better: ‘We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.’5
So let us recap. Atoms are in fact abstract entities – patterns of movement, potential, energy, but the ‘real’ constituents of the universe. They are represented as ‘particles’ (and also ‘waves’, for that matter) but only for convenience sake. Everything is in vibration (at differing frequencies) and the world’s solid nature is merely an appearance. Observe the blades of a fan rotating at high speed and the semblance of a still, circular form. When the fan is switched off and the blades come to rest – you realise how something with rapidly spinning parts can give the illusion of solidity.
That the world might just be ‘congealed electricity’ (as Einstein put it) is the least confusing of our metaphors. For we have to think now in abstracts – what is really ‘real’ about the construction of matter must be conceived in terms of potential energy, of tendencies, of something not static, but dynamic. And remember, ‘particles’ in some strange sense, don’t exist when we’re not measuring them. In fact, it has been asked whether or not we create them simply in the act of looking. Do we have an impact on the world ‘out there’ – on the ‘physical’ reality that is the electron? It seems we do. Physicist Heinz Pagels put in this way:
‘There is no meaning to the objective existence of an electron at some point in space … independent of any actual observation. The electron seems to spring into existence as a real object only when we observe it!’6
Quantum physics shows the Universe as a potential energy field. Our own minds form part of this field, and our consciousness affects it. As Professor David Bohm asked, cannot consciousness ‘be a part of reality as a whole? … what could it mean for one part of reality to know another?’ He adds that, ‘there is a similarity between thought and matter. All matter, including ourselves, is determined by “information”.’7 If ‘thought and matter’ are similar then it has implications for the Law of Attraction or the supposed ability to change our circumstances via ‘subconscious force’. If we remember that ‘matter’ isn’t really solid and see it instead as ‘information’ (or energy), then isn’t this what our thoughts are, too? One is driven to ask – just how real is real, then?
2. In Koestler, Arthur, The Roots of Coincidence, New York: Random House 1972.
3. In Koestler, op cit. (p. 52).
4. Wolf, Fred Alan, Taking the Quantum Leap: The New Physics for Nonscientists, Harper & Row, 1981.
5. ‘Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science’, 1958. (Lectures delivered at University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Winter 1955-56).
6. Pagels, The Cosmic Code, New York : Simon and Schuster, 1982.
7. In Zukav, Gary, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Flamingo, 1982 (p. 327).