Serendipity led me to Terence Tao’s blog where I discovered a wonderful analogy on the non-classical nature of quantum mechanics. Before I get there, I must tell you who Terence Tao is. He is a famous mathematician and the youngest ever Fields Medal winner (he won it in 2006). I learnt about him from a recent profile (unfortunately, subscription required) in New York Times. (If you are interested, you can watch his talk “Structure and randomness in the prime numbers” here; the slides are here).
If you go back to pre-Copernicus days, you encounter the concept of sublunary, literally “below the moon”, existence. At that time, the belief, at least in the Western world, was that there is a strict division between the pristine, lawful, unchanging cosmos above and our messy, fickle existence on Earth. Copernicus made this division obsolete. Eventually it triggered a different social order.
Then Charles Darwin brought the living and nonliving into the same realm. He showed how the astonishing diversity of life could arise from the physical process of natural selection. We now come to understand biological replication in physical terms. This understanding is still rippling through our social consciousness as we wrestle with issues related to cloning, genetic testing, nature versus nurture, etc.
In this context, quantum mechanics, despite its 1924 vintage, hasn’t permeated the social consciousness yet. There is no doubt that it’s made a big impact in terms of technology – we owe all of modern electronics to it, for instance – but that’s about it. QM has remained inaccessible to all but a few graduate students of physics. This is a shame. Wouldn’t it be nice to have good intuitive analogies for QM so that more people could appreciate it.
This brings me to Terence Tao’s insightful post on “Quantum Mechanics and Tomb Raider”. It uses a modified Tomb Raider computer game to describe many aspects of QM: the “many-world” existence of reality, the dual particle and wave existence, the quantization phenomenon, Bell inequality violation, and more. The post is simply delightful. I strongly urge you to read it.
It’s interesting that computer games that borrowed the concept of avatar from (Hindu) philosophy are now being used to provide viable analogies for QM. It’s possible that we might now see a connection forming between theoretical physicists and computer gaming much like the connection that exists between mathematicians and music.
On a deeper note, what if QM ceases to be so esoteric? Might it not then have a social impact much like Copernicus’ heliocentric theory and theory of evolution? I wonder what that social impact will be!
[You may be interested in a related post “Send Mathematics to the Rescue”.]