Most Recent Book Reviews
Other Types of Reviews:
The Cosmic Code, Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature
Educated people today have difficulty imagining how the universe was thought of by educated people before 1900. Many eight year olds today can talk about atoms, molecules, electrons, neutrons, and protons as if only an idiot can not know such things. But in 1900 even the most advanced scientists were still operating in what we call the "classical" mode of phyics. That mode is one of continuity. True, discrete mechanical objects on a human scale were an everyday concept. But electricity, magnetism, and light were thought of as waves in fluid. The atomic theory of matter was still under development, even though Dalton's theory of the existence of atoms and Avogadro's theory of molecules were accepted.
Two developments changed the way we think about space, energy and matter. The first was Max Planck's realization that energy exchanges by radiation took place in very small discrete steps. No one much liked that idea, not even Planck, but the math worked to solve something called the black-body radiation problem. Early experiments with electromagnetic radiation were done at low frequencies, what might be called radio and long-wave frequencies. At these frequencies, and power levels, radiation appears to be a continuous wave. But as you get to the higher frequencies of radiation, like the heat radiation from piece of metal, the equations don't work out in the field of thermodynamics. At first the idea that energy came in small bundles (very, very small bundles) was just a hypothesis.
Then along came Albert Einstein. He is typically portrayed as an out of left field genius, an example of why elementary schooling is not necessary and perhaps even harmful to your precious child. Nothing could be further from the truth. His father and uncle were in the new-fangled electricity business. He was surrounded by electromagnetic devices from childhood. He lived and breathed magnetic fields. It is not the least bit surpising that he invented his famous theory of Relativity and took Planck's theory one step further. In 1905 he stated that light consisted of discrete particles, or quanta. Again, most scientists resisted this idea for some time. But with the theory of atoms, Plank's and Einstein's finding, and the theory of the electron, the race was off. Within two decades scientists had successfully outlined the new quantum physics.
And it was weird. We think of particles being like grains of sand, just as we think of waves as being like waves in water. Experiments showed, however, that neither of these human-scale models (I'll follow Pagels and call them macroworld models) provided a very good basis for predicting what happens on an atomic, or quantum scale.
A secondary outcome of the science of quantum physics has been its effects on religious and philosophic thought. In particular the New Age movement has used its own interpretations of quantum physics to peddle its wares. Heinz Pagels' The Cosmic Code is published in paperback as a "Bantam New Age Book." It takes a serious (yet sometimes humorous) look at the findings of quantum scientists and their implications for philosophy and religion.
The Cosmic Code is a great book. The bulk of it is accessible to anyone who has grown up able to read and with a knowledge of science that can be picked up by accident in our society. And yet persons seeking advanced degress in quantum physics will also find it useful both for learning the science and for thinking clearly about philosophy.
Heinz R. Pagels was born in 1939, when quantum physics was well-established. He was a good student who received a PhD from Princeton University and then became a professional quantum physicist. He died in 1988 while mountain climbing.
After watching the notorious movie What the Bleep Do We Know!?, I dug out my copy of The Cosmic Code and re-read it, taking notes. I hope to write a series of articles on my philosophy and religion pages based on some of the contents. Here I will briefly develop a couple of points that I hope will convince you to read this book.
Pagels does state, on page 8, that quantum theory "maintains ... that human intention influences the outcome of experiments." Stop reading there, take that away, and you can believe all sorts of nonsense. Throughout the book, as the real scientific theory of quanta is developed, the specifics of what this phrase means become clear.
First of all, quantum phyics really only works with very small things. Even atoms, small as they are, are at the border of the quantum effects level. Subatomic particles like electrons, protons, light quanta, and quarks are mostly marked by their adherence to the "weird" (to us) rules, but even they can follow classic rules for many ordinary purposes. Throw even a few atoms together and you can usually safely go back to making predictions the same way that scientists did before 1905. Scientists and engineers have go out of their way to create experiments and devices where quantum interactions affect our macroworld.
One commonly discussed form of "quantum weirdness" is that quantum rules are based on chance. But these rules have no unusual effects in our ordinary world. Why? Think of it this way: a gambling casino does not know what will happen with any given spin of the roulette wheel. But the owners know that over the course of a year, with thousands of spin, they will earn a very precise ratio of the money bet on the wheel. Over time the chance events average out to something dully predictable, the behavior of ordinary objects in our human-scale world.
As Cosmic Code puts it on page 49, "The quantum weirdness comes when you start to ask certain kinds of questions about atoms, electrons, and photons. And it comes only when you ask these special questions and set up experiments to try to answer them."
Then there is quantum causality, another favorite for misinterpretation by New Age wishful thinkers. It is illuminated very successfully by Pagels.
The only criticisms I have are very specific arguments about Pagels use of language. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein, I believe much philosophical error results from carelessness with words. Pagels is sometimes sloppy in his use of the words "objective," and "real." But I'll leave the exercise of thinking about that to you.