Correcting my limitless lack of knowledge, one post at a time.
Sunday, June 5, 2011
Remember a couple of weeks ago when I said I wasn't going to do any guest request posts on particle physics? You don't? Then, uh, never mind. Actually, I don't even know what particle physics really is. I'm assuming it's the physics of subatomic particles, but this might be an inadequate description.
I do know that physics, and quantum physics in particular, has been every blessed place I turn lately, and I'm guessing it's high time to nail this sucker down. Except as it's all about indeterminacy, that's probably the one thing you actually can't do. We'll see.
But don't worry. This time around, I'm only looking at the actual word 'quantum'. With maybe a few random thoughts.
So, what exactly is 'quantum'? Here's my very sketchy idea of it. Quantum physics is the physics based on the data that comes from being able to study matter at the subatomic level. It 'overrides' the theories of classical physics, and is pretty wild stuff. But why 'quantum'? I think quantum refers to a subatomic called a quanta. I also think its etymology may be Latin. Okay, enough of this humiliation. Let's find out the truth.
Okay, I'm relieved that quantum is actually a plural noun from quanta, yet chagrined that I failed to discern the underlying relationship to 'quantity'. A 'quanta' is the smallest possible discrete unit of any physical property. It comes from the Latin quantum, "how much" or "amount". Around 1610, it came to mean "one's share or portion" in English. It was recoined for modern usage by Max Planck in 1900, when he sought to account for the way iron changes color when heated, which is not accounted for in classical physics. He explained this by positing that radiation existed in discrete units rather than continuous waves, just as matter does.
Obviously, none of this is new stuff, even if I am just getting around to it. There is a surprisingly entertaining and coherent article from a 1930s edition of Scientific American that I stumbled across in my researches. Interestingly enough, the current issue has as its cover story "Living in a Quantum World". Which leads back to my recent interest. As this recent issue has it, we are used to thinking that quantum mechanics applies mainly to the subatomic world--i.e., one which, in our daily life, we need not particularly concern ourselves. Classical physics works well enough. But apparently most physicists now concur that there is no gap between the subatomic world and the day to day one--it's only that they're finally able to see the effect on a larger scale as well.
I am not really of a scientific bent, so of course my real interest comes through literature. We've been doing a little Finnegans Wake reading group here in Santa Cruz, and more and more its become apparent to us that the at the time relatively new understanding of quantum physics influenced Joyce in writing the book. In fact, as I just learned in the beginning of a paper written by Andrzej Duzsenko on Joyce and quantum physics, its clear that Joyce, who wrote the Wake between 1923 and 1939 was highly influenced by this revolution in scientific thought, as were many other artists of the time.
Nevertheless, my sense is that it is only now that real understanding of the implications of this new model are truly beginning to work their way through our collective consciousness. Or am I just behind? Maybe all the rest of you switch frequently from the mindset of classical physics and the mindset of quantum physics. If so, please enlighten me how it's working out for you. And if you've tried any quantum jumping, let me know that too. Just don't send them any money on my account.
Or from my account either.
Oh, the blog plug. Let's do a fast one for Brian O'Rourke , who has been a bit out of blog land of late, due to new fatherhood, but who seems to be returning a bit, a habit I hope to encourage. Brian is one of those freewheeling blogs where I've learned a bit about everything from beer pong to great movies, but right now he's doing one of his hallmark features called "Promote Whatever You Want". I suppose there are some restrictions, like not promoting, say, napalm, but the only real rule is that you can't promote him. On the blog. So technically, I'm not cheating.