Every Day Uncertainty

The other day I heard an excellent layman’s definition of the Uncertainty Principle. It fascinated me. I think there are few things more beautiful than something complex put simply. “Observing a thing changes it.” That’s it. That’s the Uncertainty Principle. Do you see that definition anywhere on Wikipedia?

The Uncertainty Principle is one of the primary concepts in Quantum Theory. As a whole, Quantum Theory actually takes the idea of uncertainty one step further: it says that observing a thing causes it to be there in the first place.  Spooky, huh? Yep, that’s what Einstein thought too. “Observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it….We compel [the electron] to assume a definite position…. We ourselves produce the results of measurements.” Applications of this infamous ‘theory’ are responsible for a great deal of modern technology, up to 1/3 or more of our economy, yet we are still nearly as uncertain about it all as Einstein. Neils Bohr, who you might remember from junior high school chemistry class for the “Bohr Model” of the Atom, said that “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”

I was obsessed with Quantum everything a few years ago, and moved on because all I could find to read on it was scientific nonsense. It was impossible to understand.

“Observing a thing changes it” is something I can get my head around. Such a common definition for this phenomenon is important because it is such a common thing.

For instance: I moved into a new apartment recently. It’s winter time and the heat needs to be on, though for some reason cranking up the thermostat wasn’t doing any good. When my pipes froze and suddenly there was no water in the kitchen I called the Superintendent. Walking in the door, he instantly noticed the apartment was cold, and checked the vents. Surely enough there was no heat. Well that explains why the apartment was so cold, duh… But wait. After seeing the vents not working he left to go buy a couple of heaters for me. In the mean time I did nothing. When he returned with the heaters, I instinctively put my hand to the vent and a funny thing happened: Heat. Just like that, the vent was hot. When I said it was working he stopped, checked for himself, and was visibly confused when I said nothing. Being his first time in the unit, for all my superintendent knew the heat had been working before and it just cut out for a while. One of those things, oh well. I on the other hand had been tolerating the cold for weeks, never thought to check the vents, now wondering what happened.

Observing a thing changes it. Hmm…   **Credit for the definition goes to Aaron Sorkin– it appeared on an episode of the West Wing.

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