A Storyteller Tries to Make Sense of Quantum Mechanics

by Will Maclean
Originally Published: 

I’ve been reading about quantum mechanics recently. I felt I should educate myself. If we’re going to have to live in a quantum universe—and experts say we almost certainly can’t move to a different neighborhood—I felt I should be a bit more familiar with some of the core concepts.

My degree was in English Literature, however, so I am experiencing the same frustration scientists perhaps undergo when they encounter Jane Austen. “But Will, why doesn’t Elizabeth just talk to Mr. Darcy and discover his reasons for the way he behaves?” Ah, you see, Science, stories don’t work like that, I’d say smugly, if our positions were reversed.

But they aren’t, and I am pretending that they are to compensate for the fact that I am out of my depth. Stories and narrative are my area, and even the little we know of quantum mechanics appears to resist both.

“If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.”

Fortunately, I’m not alone. Even quantum physicists find quantum physics slippery and weird. In fact, the physicist Niels Bohr once famously said, “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” My own findings indicate that Niels is 50 percent accurate here, as I am both profoundly shocked by quantum mechanics and also fairly certain I have not understood a word of it. Or as certain as one can be in a universe made of unknowable counterintuitive strings of energy. God. You can see the problem.

There are currently two main theories regarding the implications of quantum mechanics for human beings. My hilarious lack of qualifications notwithstanding, I’ll attempt to describe them briefly here.

Copenhagen Interpretation

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The first is the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation, created by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, among others. Along with many other strange features, Copenhagen places the conscious observer at the heart of things, simply by the act of observation itself, which collapses uncertainty and imposes definition. Which means, basically, that it’s observation—or measurement—that decides certain physical factors, most famously whether light is a wave or a particle.

Understandably, some people were not comfortable with this weird idea, and so a competing theory was born. Unfortunately, it’s even weirder.

The Multiverse Interpretation

The Multiverse—or “Many Worlds”—Interpretation tells us, at its most basic level, that when a decision is made, the universe splits in two to accommodate both choices, creating new universes in which both outcomes play out.

This Multiverse throws up bleak consequences for humanity. In the multiverse, everything that can happen does happen. Everything and nothing happens, and all states in between; nothing really means anything, as all decisions have equal weight in an infinite cosmos. In one set of universes, you are dead, or you were never born. In another set of universes, you were born, but you were a more terrible human being than Hitler. In the Multiverse, you can try to live the best life you can, but rest unassured—another you in another universe is always doing better.

The Multiverse was first proposed by the physicist Hugh Everett III as a response to Bohr and Heisenberg’s Copenhagen Interpretation, which Everett thought was absurd and unsettling.

In one set of universes, you are dead, or you were never born. In another set of universes, you were born, but you were a more terrible human being than Hitler.

Yeah, you read that right—in order to contradict a theory he found weird and unsettling, Everett came up with perhaps the most absurd and unsettling idea a human being has ever had. Nice one, Hugh. Me? I find both of them absurd and unsettling, which is a pretty quantum position to take.

It’s at this point that my scientific understanding breaks down, but the arts graduate in me takes over. If there’s one thing I do know, it’s that knowledge resonates best with human beings if they can access it in the form of a story or a metaphor. In fact, no matter how scientifically minded we are, I would argue that stories are something we can’t escape—they’re the medium through which we understand experience. Not just that, but just as we should cherish the necessity and artistry of stories, we should always be suspicious of them, as they reveal who we are and what we want.

And so, here we have two competing stories, or narratives: One tells us that our decisions deny the existence of other universes; the other that our decisions create them. However, both explanations tell us that our decisions are in some way important—even through their lack of importance, as our decisions manifest possibilities that the many-worlds theory says must be played out somewhere. Looked at this way, the two theories—Copenhagen and Multiverse—strike me as oddly familiar.

Viewed as a narrative, Copenhagen seems to be similar to the child’s-eye view of the world, as, in this view of reality, the observer or the act of observation is crucial. It reminds me of the way in which children comprehend the world—believing they’re the center of creation and that their participation in events is the defining factor in shaping all of reality.

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And if Copenhagen is the child’s-eye view, then the Multiverse is very definitely that of the stroppy nihilistic teenager. Nothing means anything, Maaan, and all decisions are fundamentally pointless. On this evidence, the Multiverse theory is almost certainly sulking in its bedroom, wearing black, and listening to Joy Division. (Or, perhaps more appropriately, Eels, whose lead singer Mark Everett is the son of Hugh Everett, inventor of the Many-Worlds Interpretation.)

Is this suspicion useful? Are our nascent explanations for the quantum universe perhaps modelled unconsciously on phases of our own mental development? Or am I sticking my Arts Grad nose in where it has no place?

If by some fluke it is true, then perhaps we can expect the development of a third theory—one based on the adult worldview, a synthesis of the experiences of both childhood and adolescence, yet with the coolly objective element that maturity brings. Maybe humans and the decisions we make are neither all-important nor of absolutely no consequence. Maybe the truth of the interaction between consciousness and cosmos is something more complex—a stranger and richer dance than either theory allows.

As I said earlier, I’m not a scientist. I’m merely an enthusiast, and one fascinated by the myriad possibilities each theory opens up (or shuts down, depending on your point of view. AARGH). But I’m also very interested in the stories we’ve told ourselves to account for our inexplicable presence in the universe and what those stories say about us. At this point, it seems apposite to bring out another well-worn quote that often gets aired on these occasions, but which I think I’m justified in repeating here: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Thank you, J.B.S. Haldane.

That said, I’m also aware of the science and technology journalist Michael Specter’s quote, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; however, everyone is not entitled to their own facts.” I’m not sure I haven’t confused the two here.

Oh God. Back to the drawing board. Perhaps somewhere, in some other, better universe, is a Will Maclean who understands quantum mechanics. Good luck to him. I’m off to re-read Pride and Prejudice.

Cover photo:flickr/robert couse-baker

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