06 Mar 11: The past few days have been really blissful, yet troubling. I was happy, I was optimistic, but at the same time, I felt a sense of dread creeping around the recesses of my mind. I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling, until I talked it out with a friend and had a little “epiphany” earlier this evening when I was out with my parents for dinner. Once again, physics takes centre-stage.
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle
“An electron is zipping down the TPE and gets pulled over by a traffic police.
The police walks over and asks, “do you know how fast you’re going?”
Electron said, “Nope! But I know exactly where I am!”” – Matthew Choo, my good friend
The uncertainty principle in Quantum Mechanics, in layman terms, describes that for any particle, it is impossible to determine a pair of physical properties (in the case of physics, momentum and position) with high precision simultaneously. This means, that if I were to measure property A up to a high level of precision, I can expect a low-precision reading of its paired property B. No matter how we take our measurements, there is no escaping the uncertainty element that is dictated by Heisenberg.
This principle is applicable in the field of quantum physics – the physics of very, very small objects. Hence, it is ridiculous for us to apply it to objects beyond the scale of nanometers. For instance, I am quite certain you can measure your personal momentum and position with a reasonable amount of precision without incurring the “wrath” of the uncertainty principle. Nevertheless, the quirkiness of this principle has left me quite intrigued that there is always an element of unknown, no matter how much we try to make everything definite. I will highlight this again when we talk about life later on.
(For more details about the uncertainty principle, click here)
“The scientist only imposes two things, namely truth and sincerity, imposes them upon himself and upon other scientists.” – Erwin Schrödinger
I am not going to put the equation on my blog, because I can’t grasp the mathematics behind it. For the sake of the general non-physics public, the Schrödinger Equation is a representation of the quantum state of any physical body. Like the uncertainty principle, this equation is mainly useful in describing quantum particles by representing it in the form of a wavefunction, where every possible state and action is pegged to a certain probability. For instance, in the case of an electron within a hydrogen atom, the equation can be used to describe the probability of an electron existing at any particular location at a point in time. As a result, we don’t actually “see” a single electron orbiting the nucleus of the atom, but a “probability” cloud of this single electron, with areas of greater density representing a higher possibility of the electron being there.
The most general form of the equation is known as the time-dependent equation, which describes the quantum system as it evolves through time. This got me thinking about drawing parallels between these physics concepts and life as we see it.
(For more details about Schrödinger’s Equation, click here)
We are to sub-atomic particles like the Universe is to Us
As I read more about how humans poke around with things too small to observe even through the most powerful microscopes, I can’t help but think about the possibility that there is someone or something larger than is poking around with us too. The universe is so large, and to an entity the size of the universe, we are like how sub-atomic particles are to us. This triggered me to draw parallels between quantum physics and the life as we know it.
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle reflects a very important nature about life: we can never be too certain about ourselves; where we are, what we’re working towards, etc. There will always be that amount of trade-off when we attempt to chart out our lives in our minds: Think too much about our current self, and we spare no thought for the future. Look far into the future, however, and you will lose sight of the things immediately around you. It’s like how a DSLR cannot put in focus the entire image at once, because the lens has been set to focus at a particular length for the shot.
To avoid the possibility of us falling into the long-sighted/short-sighted trap, we often attempt to resolve both the long and the short at once, but with the uncertainty principle in mind, our lives can only be charted down with that much precision. Even our immediate lives and surroundings have a certain measure of uncertainty to it. For instance, your father may be serving a bowl of hot soup to the dining table, but whether he will make it there unhurt is always uncertain, no matter how stable he is.
Schrödinger’s Equation and its modeling of quantum states into probabilities reveals to us that all our possible outcomes in life are all a measure of probability too. For instance, when I was sixteen, there was a probability that I would grow up to become an MD, or a researcher, or an engineer, or maybe even a useless bum. Every single available option is being weighed with a probability, with some being more probable than others depending on the initial conditions given to the measurement. However, what is interesting is that these probabilities will remain there until the day you make the “observation” (i.e. the action), of which your choice becomes absolute and all other possibilities collapse to zero. A couple of years ago, I made the decision to reject the offer by NUS YLL School of Medicine, and took up the offer of A*STAR’s scholarship to study Biology in Brown University. This single decision immediately collapsed my probability of becoming an MD to zero (well, almost. I could do graduate med), and raised the probability of me studying biology to one. But until we make that critical decision, everything else in life is a measure of numbers and probabilities. It’s only a matter of which is more probable than the other.
Taking Control of these Probabilities
But unlike sub-atomic particles, we have the (limited) ability to take control of our probabilities in life. Instead of being resigned to fate, we have the power to shape and change our futures as we want it, regardless of the uncertainty ahead of us. Numbers are absolute, but they are not fixed. People do not become successful because of the probabilities that have been laid before them, but because they are able to wrest control of them from other forces of nature and subsequently shape their desired destiny.
It’s high time we take control of the “probabilities” in our lives. Bend them right, and we are on the road to success.