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Guest Editorial

Ironic Rebels
by Dan Duda
from the May, 2018 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission

There’s something unsettling about established orthodoxy, especially in science. Progress requires looking at the world in whole new ways. But as soon as you become welded to already “proven” ideas; as soon as you stop looking forward and set your sights, instead, on reinforcing current thinking, the engine of creativity seizes-up and progress trickles to insignificance.

Two giants of science (especially particle physics) are poster boys for this outcome. Let’s start with our favorite genius, Albert Einstein. As a patent clerk in 1905, what’s known as his “miracle year,” (it was just a few months) he wrote a series of five papers that upended our view of the universe. These include Special Relativity; Equivalence (E=MC^2); and Brownian Motion which proved for the first time that atoms exist and paved the way for the emerging field of particle physics.

He was a patent clerk because the science establishment shunned him. His ideas and his way of thinking didn’t fit their structure. In fact, he was the extreme opposite of science orthodoxy of the time. He challenged their ideas, so he was an outcast. But once he convinced other renegades to test his ideas, they became accepted theory, and he became an accepted leader of the science establishment. And there’s the rub—as a leader in the field his incredible output of paradigm shattering thinking leveled off. He even rejected the core concepts of quantum physics of which he was a founding father. He just couldn’t accept the “bizarre” conclusions that were a natural outcome of the results of experiments being conducted.

And here’s the irony. Late in his career he joined forces with colleagues (Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen) to publish the EPR Paradox. It was a thought experiment designed to “prove” quantum science could not be right. Information could not cross the universe instantaneously—that would mean, in a certain sense, space did not exist.

However, during the 1970’s and also more recently, the technology became available to put the paradox to a test. Surprise! We learned that information can and does move between separated particles with no time lapse. By trying to defend science orthodoxy Einstein uncovered another major facet of reality—quite the opposite of his intent.

The other ironic rebel of particle physics was Erwin Schrodinger. He had a problem with the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum reality. Like Einstein, he developed a thought experiment to prove how “silly” the QM view of reality was. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your take of QM) continued experiments support the “Observer Effect” on subatomic particles. The real nature of a particle changes when it is observed. So, the Copenhagen interpretation of reality is still quite viable. It remains to be proven what impact this effect has on larger objects, like people or planets. But there are legitimate hypotheses in support of even this bizarre conclusion on a macro-level as well.

As with Einstein, Schrodinger was a founding father of quantum mechanics. In addition to his “dead and alive cat” he is well known for the famous Schrodinger equation which predicts what characteristics in a cloud of possibilities will emerge at a given point. Once again, I’m convinced that the real breakthroughs in science are still ahead. We understand almost nothing about reality. In the words of John Gribbin (In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat):

“In the world of the very small, where particle and wave aspects of reality are equally significant, things do not behave in any way that we can understand from our experience of the everyday world...all pictures are false, and there is no physical analogy we can make to understand what goes on inside atoms. Atoms behave like atoms, nothing else.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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