I hated science lessons at school. Looking back, it was miraculous that the science curriculum and those that taught it managed to make a subject so fascinating – a subject with such universal appeal to the inquisitive minds of children – so dull. I imagine my science teachers put this skill to use in their downtime by going to parties and turning all the wine into water.
Bill Bryson expresses a similar concern in his Introduction to A Short History of Nearly Everything. In writing this book, Bryson produced the grand daddy of popular science books but beyond him there is a wealth of non-fiction science books aimed not just at Physics MSCs, but rather anyone that has a healthy mind and enjoys asking the question “why?”.
The more science I read, the more I appreciate it’s place in the arts alongside philosophy and psychology. Marcus Chown, in We Need To Talk About Kelvin – What Everyday Things Tell Us About The Universe, attempts to help us rekindle our child-like enthusiasm for intellectual discovery by describing how normal things can prove mind-blowing concepts. And so on to the question at hand; a question which is seemingly philosophical in nature.
It could easily be argued that nothing is random. Much of human behaviour has been shown to be predetermined by our genes and our behaviour. A coin toss is caused by gravity, resistance, the velocity and angle of the throw and the detail of the surface it lands on. One could argue that if these causes could be perfectly simulated then the result could be predicted. Due to technological limitations we are not able to produce such a perfect simulation but it is a compelling argument nonetheless.
What does Chown say to the question ‘is anything truly random’? His answer is: “yes, God plays dice”. What everyday thing proves this according to Chown? Your reflection in a window.
Imagine looking through a window when the light outside is low. You can see your reflection in the glass, but you can also see beyond it to the other side of the window. Let’s say that the glass appears 60% opaque. So what? Well, some light is reflecting back and some is continuing through. This makes sense if light is a wave, like a ripple in a lake spreading out and continuing despite hitting a small floating obstacle. However, light is also a stream of photon particles, each particle identical. Commons sense and observation tell us that the overall effect is stable; so how is it that some photons pass through and some reflect?
It took the genius of Einstein to realise that this dilemma was a bomb-shell dropped into the laws of physics. The only logical answer is that 40% of the particles are being reflected back. Giving that each photon is identical, each photon has a 40% chance of being reflected and a 60% chance of continuing straight through. This means it is impossible to predict what a single photon will do when it reaches the glass; it effectively has to ‘decide’ itself. Unlike the lack of computing power required to simulate a coin toss, predicting the behaviour of a photon when it reaches the glass is not a practical issue. It is impossible to predict because the photon’s beahviour is completely and utterly random; effect without cause. It’s not just light either; at the microscopic level, the entire world is governed by chance.
But this is just the beginning of the madness. Chown goes on to draw further conclusions from this everyday observation. It can also be demonstrated that light is both a wave and a particle, that a single photon can be in two places doing two things at once, and that particles can break the speed of light by instantaneously influencing another particle at any distance.