31 October 2011

The Veil

The ancient Celts believed that the Samhain marked the time between summer and winter. This "cross-quarter" day (half-way from the Autumnal Equinox to the Winter Solstice) actually makes more sense as a seasonal dividing line for those of us living in the temperate zones. After all, it has been below freezing at my house--just south of the 42nd parallel--for the last week. The Celts also believed that this time of year was when the veil between the material and the spirit worlds was the thinnest. Thus you made masks and carved scary faces in vegetables (probably turnips, pumpkins are from the New World) to keep the ghosts of the dead away. I love the fall, and the approach of winter is always exciting because I like to ski. This last week I've been reading a book called The Meaning of Quantum Theory by a UK writer named Jim Baggott. This remarkable theory is at the heart of contemporary physics and is wildly successful at predicting the outcomes of experiments. The problem is that no one is quite sure what it means. The results of quantum theory are spooky and give a picture of "reality" far at odds with that of the classical mechanics of Newton. Quantum mechanics probes the veil between physics and metaphysics. What the theory tells us is unequivocal: particles behave like waves some of the time and like particles some of the time, measuring the position of a particle makes it impossible to also measure its momentum, and the properties of two separated particles appear to be dependent on each other. Quantum mechanics may possibly violate the postulates of special relativity (another wildly successful theory) and might entirely upend our notions of causality and the flow of time. Or not. No one is quite sure even though the leading minds of the world have been working on it since the 1920s. I'll finish the book tonight if I don't get interrupted too often by trick-or-treaters. It's good stuff. I'll admit that I have to skip most of the math parts as calculus was over thirty years ago. There's like this veil between the squiggles on the pages and my brain!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mark -- Always enjoy your commentary. Thanks for keeping it up. I wish I could read as well as you do -- but I always learn something from you. Thanks. N.