NavigationMAP homepage AVM Homepage OnLine Magazine Contact us.

Physics: Time and Uncertainty

Connections Through Time,   Issue 4: July - September 1999

einstein gif from AIP. Click to go to Online Einstein Exhibit. Time is a mystery on both the objective and subjective levels..   On the objective (physics) level, there's the Special and General Theories of Relativity.   Space and Time are somehow intimately connected and distorted by the presence of mass.   Mass can never move faster than the speed of light (C) no matter how much energy is used to accelerate it.   And then this Energy = Mass*C2 thing was quite a surprise.   Einstein sure made physical reality a lot more complicated to understand.   Newton's world was much simpler...not as accurate, but simpler.   (For details see the American Institute of Physics online exhibit and these links on the Special and General Theories of Relativity.)

Einstein recognized the fundamental difference between the objective time that his theories utilized and the personal experience of time, i.e., subjective time. For example:
There exists, therefore, for the individual, an I-time, or subjective time. This in itself is not measurable.   Albert Einstein as quoted in "About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution" by Paul Davies.

heisenberg gif from AIP.  Click to go to Online Heisenberg Exhibit. Quantum Mechanics (QM) describes the behavior of subatomic "particles" (e.g., electrons) with exquisite accuracy based on what can be observed, i.e., measured.   In fact, the initial motivation of the theory was to work with observables, rather than using the earlier hypothetical model of "solid electrons" orbiting around a nucleus similar to the way the earth orbits around the sun.   Heisenberg was quite clear on this point in his breakthrough paper on quantum mechanics as quoted from his summary:
The present paper seeks to establish a basis for theoretical quantum mechanics founded exclusively upon relationships between quantities which in principle are observable.

Uncertainty, inherent uncertainty, in the physical observables was the next important result that Heisenberg presented to a skeptical world.   The cartoon by John Richardson for Physics World, March 1998, raises the important issue of how does the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at subatomic levels influence our normal macroscopic world!   At first, the answer seems to be that there are no effects since on any macro-scale the physical observable uncertainties are too small to be of practical importance.   However, quantum mechanical applications are all around us.   More importantly, the QM inherent uncertainties have deeper implications for science and philosophy. Here are the three most important, in our opinion:

    1.   Zero-Point Energy (ZPE)
    The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies to Energy and Time such that it is impossible to have a perfect vacuum.   So, even at a temperature of absolute zero (T = 0 degrees Kelvin) when classical theories would predict zero energy, there is spontaneous creation of particles and anti-particles for brief periods of time. On this point scientists do agree.   However, scientists disagree concerning whether useful amounts of energy can be extracted from this Zero-Point Energy, as discussed in this Scientific American Article, "Exploiting Zero-Point Energy and in the related discussion by Harold Puthoff, a leading researcher.
    Scientists are pressing ahead in their quest to apply ZPE, for example, "Can the Vacuum be Engineered for Spaceflight Applications?" Overview of Theory and Experiments was a paper presented at the 1997 NASA Breakthrough Propulsion Physics conference at Lewis Research Center by Puthoff.   A list of Puthoff's papers on the general subject of ZPE is here.

    2.   Quantum Information
    A new approach to information theory that uses fundamental quantum mechanical concepts with applications to computer sciences, cryptogrophy and possible new paridigms for physical reality itself.
    A quote from an online article "Beyond Reality" in NewScientist summarizes the situation quite well:
    So in the context of quantum theory, information and physical stuff are beginning to blur into a kind of supersubstance that goes beyond the properties of either.   "Information is such a fundamental thing," says Steane. "The ambitious goal is to discover its basic properties, and then from that deduce quantum theory."
    Andrew Steane is a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Oxford.   He is part of the Oxford Centre For Quantum Computing.

    3.   Consciousness
    Roger Penrose believes that a new physical synthesis bringing together Quantum Mechanics and the General Theory of Relativity is needed to explain consciousness.   In his book, "Shadow of the Mind" he proposes that the very thin cellular structures called microtubules within neurons (nerve cells) are part of complex quantum mechanical phenomena that, on a macroscopic scale, "creates" consciousness...somehow.   In another book, "The Large, The Small, and the Human Mind", Penrose summarizes his views which are challenged by two philosophers of science (Abner Shimony and Nancy Carwright) and Stephen Hawking, the well known theoretical physicist and cosmologist.   The debate itself is as significant, in our opinion, as the state of the ongoing studies working to connect physics and consciousness.
    Stuart Hameroff is another investigator in this field.   On his website, there is an excellent Lecture/Slideshow - What is Consciousness: The Penrose-Hameroff 'Orch OR'Model that describes the model and indicates how microtubules might relate to consciousness.

Online References

Albert Einstein - Image and Impact is an online exhibit developed by the American Institute of Physics.

Werner Heisenberg and the Uncertainty Principle is an online exhibit developed by the American Institute of Physics.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the role of the observer.

Quantum Vacuum Fluctuations: A New Rosetta Stone of Physics?   An older (1989) and largely non-technical discussion of ZPE, including the possibility that gravity and many aspects of quantum mechanics itself can be explained by ZPE and more classical physics.

Quantum Information Work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory

The book, "The Holographic Universe", by Michal Talbot explores the universe-as-hologram ideas of physicist David Bohm and Stanford U. neurophysiologist Karl Pribram.

Go to another section of this issue: Intuition: Spirit and Knowing       Applications: Action and Intention

Compiled and Edited by P-I-A. Comments and Questions.

Please send your comments to email to the editor, or use the contact link in the navigation bar at the top right of all our webpages.