When studying physics it becomes somewhat easy to really believe that say, the electron goes around the atom, and that atoms are made from quarks and so on. The mathematical description of these particles is so well established that we talk about them as if they are objects similar to a table or a house. The problem however is that those who have studied physics at a high level, sometimes forget to mention that these things don’t ‘exist’ in the same sense that other ‘normal’ objects exist. The statement “an electron can be in two places at once” has been said so many times that it has been accepted by the public without much thought to what the implications are.
Allow me to elaborate further by using a simpler example. Magnets. As children, many of us who have been exposed to permanent magnets have played around with them, and quickly found out that they can attract and repel each other. By tinkering a little bit, we discover that they only attract when the North and South pole of the two magnets are placed close together. Otherwise they repel each other. In other words, opposite sides attract, and like sides repel. Pretty simple.
Some people (especially adults) tend to stop asking after being told this information. It makes sense. They are too busy and know if they keep asking then they might get told something complicated and have to actually think about it. Regardless, they know that someone somewhere knows the exact reason and leave it up to them to worry about such matters.
Children however don’t have those expectations, so they dig deeper. They ask why magnets behave in the way that they do. If they ask their teacher she might explain that magnets produce a ‘magnetic field’ which is generated by the electrons inside the atoms. As these electrons are whizzing about inside the material, a magnetic field is generated and it is this field which causes the repulsion and attraction. She might even show them what the magnetic field looks like by placing a piece of paper on top of the magnet and then sprinkling on some iron filings. The iron filings then show the shape of the magnetic field. Makes sense right? Not really. None of this explains why the magnetic field is produced when electrons move. Then there is the bigger question of what the electrons are in the first place. If a kid asked the teacher to explain what the electrons are, and why they generate the magnetic field when they move, then the teacher is stuck (probably because the level of mathematics required to answer this question is way above the teacher and the child asking the question). The teacher might reply that she doesn’t know and move on to another (simpler) topic.
So, what do we actually know? Well…not much. We could go deeper and talk about how the magnetic force (the force that we experience when the magnets repel each other) is not only generated by a moving charge such as the electron, but also by the spin of the electron. At this level, my own understanding starts to get blurry and a proper study of quantum mechanics is then required to explain the details. The famous physicist Richard Feynman is interviewed in this wonderful video, where he talks about why it’s so difficult to explain why magnets attract and repel each other.
I think that our intuitions and familiarity with the world creates an illusion of normality. We think “of course rocks aren’t mostly made up of empty space” and it is self-evident that we can’t just go through walls. The time that our intuitions break down and the illusion of normality is dispelled occurs when we encounter small ‘glitches’ in nature. These glitches occur when we observe magnets repelling each other without ever touching. We can even feel the force that repels them, and yet we cant see anything producing this force. It is in these moments that we get a glimpse of the nature of reality. It’s like we briefly saw the outside world while being trapped in Plato’s cave.
If you had never seen a magnet before, and I simply told you that a magical rock exists that has a mysterious force that can effect objects at a distance, you’ll probably think I’m a quack. This is the way most rational people think about those that claim that magic is real, or those that say they have supernatural powers. However, rational people do sometimes ignore the apparent irrational nature of reality. The only difference between magic and the way that a magnet works is; we are used to the magnet and can predict its behavior. Many of us seem to think that because some phenomena is described accurately by science then it cannot be magical. Well, I think that the line between reality and whatever we used to call ‘magical’ is starting to get blurry. Whenever we push matter to its extremes, we discover weird, completely un-intuitive phenomena. If things go very fast, time slows down. If things get very hot or cold, matter changes form and starts to display completely different behavior. When things get together and increase in mass the very fabric of space starts to bend. Our understanding of how this happens is still not complete, but even if it was, it doesn’t make it any less magical.
Just imagine explaining to someone 1000 years ago that we will be able to fly, communicate at the speed of light and travel to other planets. They would think you’re insane. They would think that this very device that you’re using is a magical object and that you’re a witch/wizard. Even though we sort of scoff at thoughts like that and think of it as simply ignorant, it’s really not. The irony is that it actually is magical. We simply accept this form of magic as science and the other form of magic as well…nonsense. What we appear to be doing is just pushing the linguistic goal post further. Today space flight, black holes, satellites, touch-sensitive devices and esoteric objects like electrons are considered normality.
Now, I keep using the word magic even though I know how ridiculous it sounds. But that is sort of the point. Reality is completely ridiculous. The more I learn about it, the less it makes sense and the more I am in awe at how completely and utterly strange it is. In fact, whatever we think of as magic pales in comparison to what we understand about the world. Learning about ourselves and the cosmos is truly wonderful. Trying to escape from Plato’s cave is something I think we should all endeavour to do, because trying to understand the nature of the world is just another way for us to understand ourselves.