Science & Philosophy Scientific Speculation

Quantum musing on Stephen Hawking and reality

While Stephen Hawking appears to have decided to further his PhD research of “Properties of Expanding Universe” by leaving the constraints of his body for something bigger, his departure forces me to muse a bit on quantum nature of his life and, in turn, reality.

Stephen Hawking was a special brain, but even more special was his body-brain relationship, as it displayed a quality of reality that we became aware of only after our brave departure from determinism of classical physics, and into chancy world of quantum physics where dice-throwing is indulged into by almighty time and again.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ASL), the disease that had gripped Stephen’s body is known to be a quick and certain killer, as it manages to suck the breath out of its victims (often literally, through deterioration of muscles linked with respiration) in less than five years after its symptoms become visible.

ASL is a disease that is considered quick and certain death, but what Stephen Hawking ended up with was to escape this certainty for half a century by a strange quirk of reality, an outlier event reflecting not the man himself, but something deeper, as it was possible only because we live in a reality run by probabilities of quantum physics and not certainties of classical physics.

With a hope that Stephen’s soul Rests In Physics somewhere in an alternate universe made from a different set of probabilities, I would like to use this day as an opportunity to engage in what he loved doing, i.e. musing over the nature of reality.

One of the greatest ironies of this universe is that we are armed with the tool of intelligence that is exclusively designed to look for patterns and certainty. Left to our own devices, we would have loved a deterministic world where we could calculate everything with complete accuracy. In a universe without a ghost in the machine, brain like ours can have a super-power to determine the future with certainty.

When we started empirical study of reality that we like to call physics, we were certain that it was certainty up ahead that we are bound to reach. This phase, now known as classical physics was an era of great comfort where scientists felt that it was only a matter of time before we had both time and matter figured out.

This, unfortunately, was a dream that was shattered with a slow but certain realization that universe was not as well behaved as we would like it to be. It had a reasonable amount of lawfulness built-in; but, time and again, it defied certainty, just as Hawking defied certain death.

As we moved past the layer of atoms and dug deeper into the sub-atomic fabric of reality, we encountered a quantum world where probability was the only handle to understand the order. With arrival of quantum physics, we moved to a brand new reality where the only certainty is that it certainly isn’t deterministic, and is surely probabilistic in nature.

Today we are working on reality using this newly found insight, but I have a strange question that is making me wonder if we are again falling for the same trap of determinism that our brain is designed to succumb to.

If I simplify modern physics, apart from the string theory domain, it is primarily a study of the behavior of elementary particles that are behind existence of matter and force. These particles are extremely tricky beasts as they are almost intangible and more and more of them are popping up into existence as we look closer at the microscopic reality they belong to.

As physics is all about musing, I propose a strange muse on them in memory of one of the greatest musers of all time (and space), Stephen Hawking.

As I look at the study of elementary particles, what strikes me is a strange contradiction. Science appears to be trying to determine the nature of these creatures that are behind the probabilistic nature of our reality. There is a grave danger that this endeavour can be founded on our love for determinism and may prove counter-productive to the quest of discovery of true nature of reality in long run.

We may be living in a world mixed with determinism and uncertainty made from elementary particles of matching nature. This may be a nightmare that we would like to avoid, but it is an option that we must keep our eyes open for.

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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