June 1, 2021
Quantum mechanics is over a century old, yet most of us still struggle to truly understand it. This week theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli is on the show to discuss his new book Helgoland and help Adam begin to truly understand how quantum physics can fit into a broader picture of reality. Check out Carlo’s book at factuallypod.com/books.
107 — Making Sense of Quantum Mechanics with Carlo Rovelli
Speaker 1 [00:00:02] Hello welcome to Factually, I’m Adam Conover, thank you so much for spending an hour of your day with us once again, talking to some incredible experts and learning some new things. Today, let’s talk about physics. Physics is in many ways the ultimate science, you know what I mean? In the great halls of scientific inquiry, physicists walk around with a little bit of extra swagger. Because, hey, all those other sciences (all that biology, sociology, psychology, hell even chemistry), why all those just devolve into physics, right? At root, physics is the study of what truly exists and everything else is details. Physics is foundational and on top of that, it has also made massive progress over the last few centuries. And that progress has not only helped us understand the universe at a fundamental level, it has not only brought us immense technological change that’s benefited all of us (and also killed a lot of people, let’s not forget that), but it has also produced some of the most incredibly surprising and counterintuitive results in all of science, results that many of us struggle to comprehend even a century after they were established. So let’s not just talk about physics. Let’s talk about quantum fucking mechanics. Yeah, quantum mechanics. I know a chill just went down your spine. You’re like, ‘Uh-oh, this conversation is suddenly going to get completely incomprehensible and also really woo woo. Right? Is Adam going to start talking about multiple universes?’ No. Let’s talk about why we are so fascinated yet also so confused by quantum mechanics. I mean, these ideas were developed a century ago and still most of us struggle to make sense out of them. Book after book has been written about it. Documentaries have been made about it. I have read and seen at least five or six of them, and I am still no closer to understanding what the fuck it means and I think you might be in the same boat. This is frustrating because while I am not a scientist, I do consider myself someone who can understand scientific concepts. If I read something written for the layman (or maybe I can even dive into a paper or two) I can get my bearings and understand the broad structure of a field even though I don’t understand how the math works. I can listen to the experts and form a working knowledge. With quantum mechanics though, it’s sometimes just feels that there’s a barrier between me and a true understanding that I cannot get past. Let me give you an example: I went to a liberal arts college and the idea of this college was that everybody should know a little bit about everything. So we had distribution requirements. It didn’t matter how bad you said you were a math, you had to take a science course. The idea of this class was that it was taught by a physics professor but it was a quantum physics class for humanities and social science majors. You could learn about quantum mechanics but you wouldn’t have to do any math. That was the idea. We could get that base level understanding without actually having to do the equations. And so the professor did his very best and he was explaining to us Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If you don’t remember it, I’ll refresh you on it. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is this weird piece of quantum mechanics that tells us that if we can learn everything about where a particle is located, we will then know nothing about how fast it’s moving. And if, alternatively, we know it’s momentum, we have no idea where it is. And this is because that just by observing a particle, we are changing it and thus we can only ever know one of those properties at a time. When the professor explained this odd concept, my friend who was next to me in the class, put up his hand and he said, ‘Well, hold on, maybe there is a way to figure out the speed and direction of the particle at the same time but we just haven’t found it yet. Maybe we are going to learn how to do it soon.’ And everyone in the class kind of nodded and said, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe he’s right.’ The professor said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, that’s not possible. It’s not possible. It’s just part of quantum mechanics. You can never know both at once.’ And my friend replied, ‘Well, I don’t know, maybe we just haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe one day we will soon.’ And the professor said, ‘No, no, no, you really can’t. I’m telling you that it actually will never happen.’ And my friend said, ‘Why?’ And the professor replied, ‘Because the math says it’s impossible. OK, fine. I know there’s going to be no math in this class, but let me just show you.’ And he staggered up to the whiteboard and quickly wrote out the math and said, ‘See if you could know both, then zero would equal zero or whatever. So therefore, it’s impossible. OK, you got me.’ This class again was supposed to give us an understanding of quantum mechanics without math and yet the professor was unable to explain quantum mechanics in a way that was intelligible to us (very smart, very curious students) without using the math that was banned in the classroom. And since none of us understood the math, then we in that moment failed to understand quantum mechanics. We still could not quite get it, despite this very patient professor’s best efforts. But what is it about quantum mechanics among all the sciences that makes it so difficult for us to grok? Newtonian physics, I get: force equals mass times acceleration. Easy. Force equals mass times acceleration. I learned it in 11th grade, I still know it today. But quantum mechanics, it has never quite gotten through my skull until I did the interview that you’re going to hear today. Our guest today helped break down quantum mechanics for me in a way that for the first time made me feel like I am actually starting to get it and not just get it in some kind of superficial, ‘OK, I don’t know, maybe multiple universes exist’ kind of way but a way in which I actually started to get an intuitive understanding of how the universe is different if we truly understand quantum mechanics. In the same way that Copernicus’ revolution changed our view of astronomy, in the same way that Newton’s revolution changed our understanding. My guest today, Carlo Revelli, helped me begin to understand how quantum mechanics could similarly change my perspective of the universe in a fundamental way. So, look, I’m not going to preface this any more. This was one of the most fascinating interviews I have done on this show in quite some time. I think you’re going to love it. My guest today is Carlo Revelli. He’s an eminent physicist and most recently the author of a new book called ‘Helgeland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution.’ And once again, you can pick up that book (like you can get the books of all of our guests) at factuallypod.com/books. Please welcome Carlo Revelli. Carlo, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [00:07:01] Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
Speaker 1 [00:07:02] So you’ve written a new book called ‘Helgeland.’ Did I pronounce it correctly?
Speaker 2 [00:07:08] Perfectly.
Speaker 1 [00:07:09] And this is a book about quantum mechanics, which is a topic I have tried to understand many times throughout my life. I’ve taken classes, I talked about it in the intro. I took a class when I was in college called ‘Schrodinger’s Cat and All That’ that attempted to explain quantum physics to liberal arts students, and I sort of got it. I’ve seen documentaries. I’ve read books. It’s a very difficult subject. You write in the introduction to this book that taking quantum mechanics seriously is an almost psychedelic experience because it asks us to renounce in one way or another something that we cherished as solid and untouchable in our understanding of the world. I relate to that. Why do you write that?
Speaker 2 [00:07:50] Because you’re telling me that you never understood quantum mechanics, right? That’s what really you’re telling me, and you were right. So you understood correctly that you didn’t understand. I think I had the opposite experience. At some point I became a good student in physics, not early, but at some point I really plunged into this thing. It was late in my university years. I was a science student. So I read five books on quantum mechanics and I said, ‘I got it. I understand, it’s completely clear.’ And I spent a few years like that saying, ‘OK, I’ve understood quantum mechanics.’ And then I sort of thought better and I realized that in fact I had not understood quantum mechanics because quantum mechanics is subtle, tricky, complicated, confusing. In fact, I moved to the States and I started teaching at a faculty in Pittsburgh and the older scientist, my master there, used to tell me, ‘Oh Carlo, you think you understand quantum mechanics? Explain it to me.’ And I soon realized that I didn’t. So that put me on a path of trying to understand it better. It is really complicated. It’s tricky.
Speaker 1 [00:09:07] In what way is a tricky? Give me an example. I understand that the math is difficult, for instance, and I don’t feel that I will ever understand the math fundamentally because that’s not my forte. But I also don’t understand the math behind Newtonian physics. But Newtonian physics makes sense to me. I understand the principles behind it.
Speaker 2 [00:09:26] No, it’s not about the math. The math, in fact, if you want to do it in the full complexity yeah, space is a complicated thing. But in reality you can do quantum mechanics with just plus and minus and multiplication and just couples of numbers. If you study it in the book by Feynman; Feynman is the greatest scientist of the second half of the twentieth century, he makes it very simple mathematically. So the complications of the mathematics, it’s what you’re saying; the mathematics is clear and using it, it’s easy. Every engineering (well, sorry to the engineering) – a lot of people use it; chemists, astrophysicists. You use the theory and somehow you have a quantum system, a quantum system is an atom, a piece of matter; your computer, one of the chips of your computers or the sun. The way the math works is that you look at something, for example I see that the atom is so-and-so. You make a calculation to predict what you’re going to see next. Do a little calculation, not too complicated. You check and bingo. It’s always right. It’s a sane theory, it’s always right. So you can stop here. Be happy. You have understood quantum mechanics. But then this little voice inside you that tells ‘OK, so this is what I see first. This was next then the calculation tells me how to go from here. What happens in between?’ And in between you try to make a story and the story is strange, it’s just very funny. The quintessential thing is that you have a wall with two holes and you have a particle here and you want to compute where it goes on the other side. You do a calculation, you see where it goes. There’s a probability that it might go here or here. It works very well. OK, so where the particle goes from here to here, there’s two holes. I want to know which hole it goes through. And if you ask this question everything falls apart because if you go through one hole, you get a result. If you go through the other hole, you get the same result. OK, but that’s not the result predicted by the theory, the theory tells you that goes to both wholes but how could it go through both holes? And it’s over and over again. The theory tells you that the Schrodinger cat is alive and also dead, that you see one thing and you see the opposite. This is only if you ask what happens between the observations. So then everybody gets confused at this point because some people say, ‘I don’t want to know what happened when I don’t look. I only want to know what happens I look’ and then people say, ‘Wait a moment, this is science. We’re supposed to ask questions.’ And if you try to ask what happened in between, everybody comes up with a story and many stories are out there. And all of them are strange, incredibly strange.
Speaker 1 [00:12:36] I remember the experiment with the holes. I remember this from high school physics and this is the point at which I stopped understanding
Speaker 2 [00:12:46] Everybody stops understanding because it makes no sense.
Speaker 1 [00:12:49] Is this where the particle goes to the holes and it starts to begin to act like a wave?
Speaker 2 [00:12:54] Exactly. So that’s another way of viewing it. So if one way of writing the theory is to write this wave function. You have a particle and it opens up like a wave and a wave passes through both holes; because if you have a pond and you make a wave with your hand and if there are two passages the wave passes between both. So that seems very reasonable. You say ‘Ah, I got it. A particle is a wave, very easy.’ There’s a problem, you never see the wave you always see the particle at one point when you look – poof, the wave disappears. So your calculations, what you do in your calculations, it’s incredibly funny. You see the particle here, then you make a calculation that it waves around, it’s all over and then you see the particle at one point and then the wave – pop! – just focus there. It’s called the collapse of the wave function, but it’s nonsense. How can a wave which is all over just suddenly collapse in a point? I wouldn’t believe that. But it is a wave, because it passes through both but it’s not a wave because they see a particle. That is the confusion
Speaker 1 [00:14:08] This is what I remember from my high school class. And you’re right; you can do the math, you understand how it works and it works in an applied sense. An engineer could make use of this phenomenon in a very predictable, repeatable way. But when you try to understand – it’s when we try to do the next step and say, ‘What does this mean about the world? How does the world work?’ We meet immediate paradoxes.
Speaker 2 [00:14:38] Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. So you can try to make sense of what happens in the world but whatever you do, you get to something. Some strange thing. Let me give you an example,
Speaker 1 [00:14:50] Please.
Speaker 2 [00:14:50] Some people say, ‘Oh no, no, no, no. The point is that it’s really a wave. I mean, it’s just a wave.’ So this opens up and the wave and the electron is really spread out. And then you say, ‘Why is it that when I look at it, when I interact with it, I see it in one point?’ OK, so be careful. Hold onto your chair, because some people and the very serious philosophers, very serious physicists (and all respect) what they think is that, ‘OK, this is because you, Adam, also are a wave.’
Speaker 1 [00:15:27] Oh, no.
Speaker 2 [00:15:32] Yeah. In Oxford, philosophers, they all believe that and they are some great friends of mine and great scientists. So when you see the particle interact with the electron, your wave spreads out. So this means that there are two Adams; this one that sees the electron here and one Adam that sees the electron there. They’re both real, very real.
Speaker 1 [00:15:52] Oh, my God.
Speaker 2 [00:15:54] Now, why do you say ‘I see one position, not the other of everything else as well?’ Because you’re one of the two. So this is a copy of yourself that is seeing the other, OK? People believe that, people take that extremely seriously. I don’t think that’s the right way of going. But you see, it’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because whatever you do, you end up in something funny.
Speaker 1 [00:16:19] Yeah and you immediately run into what seem like metaphysical questions in the philosophical sense, and that’s unusual for science. Most scientific fields don’t lead us to those questions quite so quickly. Certainly genetics has a tendency to interfere with people’s sense of self or psychology or things like that. But with quantum physics it seems that the mind recoils in some way, in some fundamental way. And it often seems to me like it’s a bridge I’m never going to get over. That I’m never going to understand it in a truly deep way, that the paradox will always be there and that at some point maybe the point is to stop worrying about it and just fucking get on with doing the math.
Speaker 2 [00:17:07] No, I agree with what you say, but I don’t think I agree with the last sentence. That maybe we should just – because it’s true that in some senses philosophy is not science. And in fact, some scientists take that position, especially if they work in a context in which it’s ‘good enough.’ Many people do, including many people working in the lab. But look, let me give an example. When Copernicus did the Copernican revolution, he found different ways of computing the way the things go around and he said, ‘I have understood that the Earth is not the center of the universe, the center of the universe is the sun.’ Now, think for a moment, is that a scientific statement? No, because there’s no way to know what is the center of the universe. It’s just metaphysics, it’s a reinterpretation of the motions. But it’s good metaphysics because it opened up the right way of thinking that led to Newton, Galileo, Hagans, Canon and modern science. Another example, because you see this happens much more commonly than what you see. There was a discussion of the end of the 19th century about atoms. Atoms were used a lot by chemists, just a mathematical way to talk about a combination of substances; you want to make water in the right universe then you need one part of oxygen and two parts of hydrogen. So they say ‘One atom oxygen and two atom of hydrogen’ but nobody really believed that these were actually particles gluing together into the molecules, little things. So it was a huge discussion. Are they things or not, are they just mathematical? And some scientists (who turned out to be the ones who were right) say ‘No, no, no. These are really a thing. And look, there really little are little balls there and water is really made of little things which have one oxygen and two hydrogen. It’s not a calculation. It’s for real.’ Einstein is one who took them seriously and with that idea, he was able to deduce all sorts of things. So the boundary between what you can measure and the right way of thinking, it’s fluid. Science is not just about mathematics and what you can measure. Science is about getting the right perspective, getting the right ideas. Like anything in life, you don’t want numbers. You want the right way of thinking about things. To make a political decision; it’s not just a bunch of data. You have to have the right framework. What are the important issues here? You have to figure out what the important issues are of your life. Your life is about seeing it from the right perspective, friend comes to you and says, ‘Adam don’t look this way. Look that way.’ You say ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ Now you can go ahead.
Speaker 1 [00:20:16] So you really feel we should be trying to reorient our perspective as a result of quantum mechanics rather than saying, ‘Oh, this is too – I’ll never understand this.’ Or ‘It’s too inhuman in some way,’ like our minds can’t wrap around it. We should instead be trying to adjust our perspective based on what we learn from it.
Speaker 2 [00:20:37] Exactly. I think that to be a good scientist is to explore new ways of thinking, explore new ways of conceptualizing. That is what Newton has done, that is what Maxwell has done. That’s what Einstein has done, that what Boltzmann has done. All these great scientists – this is what Feynman has done – all these great scientists have learned the physics of their time and they have not just written a new equation. They have said, ‘Look, these are the wrong concepts,’ Einstein didn’t know whether two things are simultaneous. Well, it’s obvious what simultaneity means. No it’s not obvious, you have to think about it. Give it up, that thing that seems obvious. Think a different way and that’s going to work better.
Speaker 1 [00:21:22] Much of your book is about Heisenberg and about his own struggle to understand these issues. Tell me about that piece of it.
Speaker 2 [00:21:33] That’s probably the best part of my book I think, is the beginning, because it’s a story and it’s a fantastic story. The guy’s 23. Adam, your audience, how many are 23? That’s a moment in which you can do great science.
Speaker 1 [00:21:50] Many of them are
Speaker 2 [00:21:51] All the friends he does quantum mechanics with are kid his age. I can say kid, I’m past 60, so 23 is kids for me. It’s their absolute radicality; this courage of thinking something completely new, they don’t take for granted what they’ve been taught at school. It’s that which leads this group of kids to this incredible evolution: all our contemporary physics are based on that. It didn’t come from the blue though. He was totally focused on the problem, studying a lot; studying physics, studying philosophy, reading all sorts of things. And everybody was confused about how the atoms work. And Heisenberg goes along on a little island in the northern sea between England, Denmark and Germany there’s a tiny island which has no trees, windswept, very wild with few people. And he goes there because he suffers from some sort of allergy and there are no trees there. So it’s good for his health,
Speaker 1 [00:23:05] That’s a big response to allergies. I know a lot of people who have allergies in the springtime. I don’t know any who do this kind of thing
Speaker 2 [00:23:11] Tell them ‘Go to a little island without trees, stay there and maybe you find a quantum theory maybe you find the greatest revolution of all,’ maybe that’s a part of how you do it. So he goes there and he focuses. We have his diary when he talk about that and he focused completely on the problem. Totally miserable, he’s alone. Alone. He reads poetry; he reads Goethe. The poems about Islam and Iran, Persia. Goethe is the greatest German poet and he has this collection of poetry about Islam, his love for Islam. So it’s this incredible mix of ideas; poetry, Islam and philosophy. He was really remarkable, all the questions about atoms, all that. And he tries to solve this thing that nobody was able to solve. How does the atom move? How does electron move in the atom? People tried equations, forces. Nothing was working. And there he has this idea. I mean, forget about the particle is not a particle. Forget to describe where it goes. Just describe what you see, what it enters, what it exits. And he cooks up some little mathematics and then the mathematics magically start to work. And he writes that the afternoon of June 7th (we have the date exactly) the math starts to work. So he’s all excited, and he does his calculations. And then because he’s excited, he makes mistakes. So he start making mistakes so that he has to correct that. It goes deep into the night and at some point he gets the right results, the one with chemical experiments. He just get the results of the experiments from his gut. So he understands that he’s the first to see a new level of reality, so to say. So he goes out in the night, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, he climbs a rock (the island has these huge rocks that go out over the sea) and he waits for the sun to come up, full of this emotion of having been the first who has seen something new about reality. It’s a great story. And then he comes back, he published his paper and with a few friends he just put up this what we call ‘quantum mechanics’ today.
Speaker 1 [00:25:29] It gave me the image of the painting by Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.’
Speaker 2 [00:25:36] Yes, the German romantic painting.
Speaker 1 [00:25:38] It’s this man standing in front of rocks with waves crashing. I saw it when I was in college and it always stuck with me. That’s exactly what you’re describing, is this image from this painting.
Speaker 2 [00:25:51] That’s right. That’s exactly right and there is something about German romanticism in this account that Heisenberg gave of this story and it is something romantic. I think that’s the beauty of science. Science is not just numbers, brute facts, not just ‘there are fifteen particles and there are four forces.’ That’s the boring part of science. I think the beauty part of science is when you jump into the empty space of knowledge, you see something new that nobody else has seen before or this emotion; Darwin suddenly understanding that animals and us have common ancestors. You think, just, ‘wow.’ It just changes what you mean by human. I am a brother of that little squirrel there, we’re really cousins. Not metaphorically; the mother, the mother of the mother of the mother of the squirrel and the mother of the mother, a mother of mine is the same person. Wow. Science is the best.
Speaker 1 [00:26:57] Absolutely, but what really strikes me is the intro, the sentence from your introduction that I read about quantum physics being a psychedelic experience. That’s also often a characteristic of a psychedelic experience, is that you have that feeling of understanding something about the world and being astonished by it. And so there’s a way in which science and and psychedelics and religious experiences come together, that astonishment of clarity.
Speaker 2 [00:27:30] Yes and of course, there are huge differences between.
Speaker 1 [00:27:36] Yeah, of course. Of course.
Speaker 2 [00:27:38] The difference are important and absolutely should not be diminished. But there is something visionary in science, which I think is not so much the discoveries. The discovery is that there are other ways of viewing reality, I think that’s the key. The way we think about reality is not unique. It’s not the only possible one, and if you think for a moment that’s the main message of science, right? Look around you; there is a flat earth, the sky is only that and the down is only earth. That’s not true. It’s true, in some approximations but there’s a better way of thinking. We are sitting on a sphere and the sphere is spinning. Science is redrawing the world for you. It’s rearranging, telling you things might be different. In a sense, religions do the same thing. They make you rethink everything differently. Now you think that you are a Buddhist, that you can meditate and have a completely different sense of yourself or if you’re a Christian that you’re instrument in the hands of God (or whatever). You re narrate to think differently and the psychedelic experience; I think the good part of it is exactly that it opens the mind to the fact that there is not just one way of viewing reality. There are many different ways. And if we are open minded, I think we might become a better scientist and even a better person, perhaps.
Speaker 1 [00:29:24] It’s really interesting to me that in that account of Heisenberg, you mentioned that he was reading Gerta and that there’s a place for that sort of thinking in this story as well. Why do you center that, why is that an important part of the story for you?
Speaker 2 [00:29:44] Because I think that nowadays (some countries more and some less) science is talked about in isolation from the rest of culture. You go to a science class and you vaguely know that behind those names, there were actually human people with their passions and their ideas and the complexity of their culture. Sometimes you mention the Maxwell equation, so you vaguely know who Maxwell was. So you take science out of the story, but I think that’s misunderstanding what the entire scientific enterprise is about. Scientific enterprise is people trying to make sense of the world and they do that with – I’ve been teaching the history of science also and spent a lot of time with the history of science. It’s not that science is autonomous, science has developed under the influences of the philosophical, political, religious ideas of the people involved in the game. Very different ideas and sometimes in contradiction with another. Schrodinger, which is one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, was passionate of the Vedanta (a part of the Veda) in Hinduism. Heisenberg was deeply immersed in the philosophy of Mach, a phenomenalist. Newton was reading philosophy. Einstein, when he was in his twenties, had read Hume and the original Kant; he was passionate about Schopenhauer. He read Poincaré’s philosophical writing and if you look into his physics you find exactly all this influence. You find what he got from this, from that. It’s only in the recent years somehow – that to some extent is specialization, right? If you want to do something, you just do that and forget all the rest. You need some specialization. But to go ahead in science, you have to widen your horizons, and science has gone ahead by widening it’s horizon. You mentioned biology, Darwin is perhaps the greatest step ahead in biology. How did he do that? He jumped into the ship and went outside England.
Speaker 1 [00:32:16] Yeah, right. He went to the Galapagos
Speaker 2 [00:32:18] He went all over the world! But it’s just going to places and people, looking around. So just get out of your way of thinking, that’s a key point. So everything is good, including poetry about Islam.
Speaker 1 [00:32:33] Science has become beyond professionalized, so technical. Physics now is done by – My sister, before she was a science journalist, was working on a big neutrino experiment on a team with dozens of other people. And they would fly to France and then they would meet dozens more people. The Large Hadron Collider is as big as NASA practically, in terms of how many people (perhaps bigger, I don’t know). You can’t get all those people together and have them all read Gerta. But that is part of the enterprise and it’s often been left out.
Speaker 2 [00:33:14] That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. And I think that in education it’s good to keep it wide as much as possible also, because you do one thing well but you do it better if you at the same time if you have a larger perspective, it seems to me.
Speaker 1 [00:33:29] Yeah. OK, I have so many more questions for you, but we got to take a really quick break. We’ll be right back with more Carlo Revelli. OK, we’re back with Carlo Revelli. So when Heisenberg left Helgeland with this insight and with this mathematics, what did people think when he told them? It’s baffling enough for me today, a century later or so. But were they like, ‘This is baffling, how could this be?’
Speaker 2 [00:34:08] It raised a huge debate very rapidly because clearly he was onto something, because his calculation worked. Worked in the sense that first you could calculate what had been observed in the behavior of the atoms, but also predict new things which were then confirmed. And let’s put it this way: this was 1925, ninety seven years ago.
Speaker 1 [00:34:42] Wow.
Speaker 2 [00:34:43] So soon there will be the centenary. So he comes back. He does this with Max Borna, his teacher (so to say, he was in his 40s) and the other were all kids, together with Jordan who was his age. And in the UK, Dirac also used this Heisenberg paper and put the same theory together. So the theory, they found it in two places at the same time in Germany and in England. Then Powley comes in, he’s a good friend of Heisenberg but he’s also 23. So these are all kids and they are onto something and in the small world of atomic physics, there were a few people discussing that at the time. Einstein was following very closely. Einstein has a reaction, he writes to a friend saying ‘Every theoretical physicist,’ which means his little group of friends at the time, ‘is following with enormous interest these witchcraft calculations that Heisenberg and his boys are doing.’ Einstein himself said, ‘My God, what are they doing, these kids?’ They’re all kids. In the environment, they were calling their physics ‘Knaben Physic,’ which in English means ‘boys physics’ because they were in their 20s. Now, imagine today a group of five kids in their 20’s that come out saying ‘We have a new fundamental theory. Here it is, what do you think about that? Look, it gives the right spectrum of the helium.’ Fifteen years later (20 years or whenever it is), with those equations they made the atomic bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So this Knaben Physic has a power which nobody denies. Thank God, there are many better things than the atomic bomb; there is all the more modern technology, microchips of computers work with quantum mechanics (atomic powers and quantum mechanics), lasers, lasers are so much more now than a single applications. It was CDs at the time, now there is no CDs anymore but there are lasers all over. You enter a door, it opens and it closes on it’s own, often that’s a laser. Medical application MRI (how you say in English) it’s a quantum mechanical phenomenon. More than that, you explain the basics of chemistry just out of the equations of quantum mechanics directly. Nobody doubts that what these kids put together is something totally deep about the structure of reality.
Speaker 1 [00:37:48] But did he understand it?
Speaker 2 [00:37:48] Nobody understood it and the way Heisenberg did it, there was no wave. I remember we started by talking about this wave. There’s no wave, just probability from here to here. You have a particle here, you can compute whether you will see here or not. In between, forget it. And then Schrodinger in 1926, the year after, comes out with this wave which sort of fills in between observations of what happened in between. And those guys start fighting with one another because, Schrodinger says, ‘Well its a wave.’ And Heisenberg would say, ‘No, it’s not a wave, because you see it and it just collapses into a particle’ and 100 years have passed and we’re still debating the same thing. I don’t think it’s a wave. It is not a wave, forget the wave. If you forget the wave, you understand it much more clearly. You see in the book, I talk about my own way of thinking about this.
Speaker 1 [00:38:44] Please, I would love to hear this.
Speaker 2 [00:38:48] Let me try, you really have to go through the book to get it. So my take on this is: forget the wave. It’s not a wave. A wave is just a way of doing calculations. The key point is that when you take an object, any object; like my pen here, the property of this object is not in the object. It’s the way the pen affects me or affect something else, another physical system. Everything is relations. I think this is what in death, Heisenberg has discovered. It’s not the way I see it, it is the way this affects any other things. This affects this microphone, this computer, this air around it. So we always have to think about how things affect one another and not how things are. And then you start to make sense, because the mistake is to ask, ‘What is the thing isolated?’ And we should never ask ‘what is a thing isolated’ because things are not isolated. They are interactions, the interactions come before the things, in a sense. The working title of my book was ‘Relations’. Before calling it ‘Helgeland,’ ‘Helgeland’ seemed a good title because nobody understand what it means.
Speaker 1 [00:40:00] It’s mysterious. I want to know what this Helgeland is.
Speaker 2 [00:40:04] Exactly. Exactly. So relations is the key way to understand quantum mechanics, and that’s deep. I think what Heisenberg understood, I think 100 years later, is that you should think about the world as a network of relations and not as a set of isolated things. To some extent, we know that already. This pen is gray. Gray was not the property of the pen, it’s the property of the light interacting with the pen, interacting with me and my eyes. So we understand the grey in the example. An animal, it’s a predator. It’s not a predator by itself. It’s a predator because there’s a prey and it’s a relational thing. I don’t know if your brother or sister, but being a brother is not the property of you being a brother, is a property because there’s another brother, and so on. And somehow quantum mechanics is the understanding that it’s all the way down like that. It’s relations all the way down.
Speaker 1 [00:41:11] But that is a boldly philosophical statement, as opposed to a scientific statement to say – That almost sounds like something an ancient Greek could have come up with; that things don’t exist in themselves. Or it sounds like it’s in dialog with Kant: not the idea of the thing in itself, instead that everything is a relation. Your way of understanding quantum physics, is through philosophical insight.
Speaker 2 [00:41:40] Yeah, that’s correct. That’s absolutely correct. I think that it is a philosophical idea and I think we need philosophical ideas to make sense of the way we understand the world. When Newton and his friends, in the 18th century, came out with an idea: we have a way of understanding the world. There’s little particles moving in space. Nobody thought the world this way before, in middle age Europe people thought about the world in terms of angels and spirits and the reality around us being sort of a mirror of a spiritual world. And physics came out with a very beautiful picture of matter moving in space and the forces. But this was taken from philosophy as Democritus idea. It worked very well, of course it was rearranged and then proven by some mathematics and become super effective, but it’s a philosophical idea and maybe good to some approximation but it’s not good anymore for quantum theory. We have understood the world approximately and we describe it like that, but not exactly. If we want to describe atoms and the small things we have to give up this idea of a little particle moving in space, each one with its own essence (nature, natural properties) and we have to talk about how things interact. It’s all about interaction, it’s not about single things and I think it’s a good way of thinking; that it’s useful not just in physics. We know it’s useful in general. We should abandon the idea that beyond the complexity of relations, there is just a substance with properties. We know it’s more complicated, it’s relations all the way down.
Speaker 1 [00:43:43] Wow.
Speaker 2 [00:43:43] In this way, one can make sense of quantum theory.
Speaker 1 [00:43:47] This is so fascinating. I love this. I love the comparison you drew earlier to the Copernican or Newtonian revolution, in that I still talk about the world as though the sky is up and the ground is down and I’m walking around on a flat plane. But I do know (and I have integrated into my world view) the fact that I’m actually on a giant sphere that is moving around according to its own physical laws. That doesn’t pose a philosophical problem for me. I understand why someone might be baffled by that if they heard it for the first time in the year 500 A.D, but I understand it. I get it and it is a philosophical change, in addition to a scientific viewpoint. It is a philosophical viewpoint; that I’m not at the center. There is no center to the universe and that the world operates according to immutable physical laws and what you’re describing sounds like another philosophical revolution along the same level. That if I was brought up to believe that everything in the universe is a relation, that it could seem intuitive to me. Does it seem intuitive to you at this point, after having thought about this idea and come up with it? Are you able to live your life according to this way of looking at the world?
Speaker 2 [00:45:07] I think you put it very well at the beginning, particularly well. I very much appreciate it. You said something very, very on the point at the beginning. You said, ‘I know that I’m sitting on a spinning globe right now. And I also know that this is not in contradiction with the fact that I consider the ground solid and fixed and not moving. And that’s how I can sit down and work.’ I know that there is a story that connects the two. I don’t have to think about this story. I know that if I want to think about it I can – For instance if you see a sunset, the sunset is real. You say, ‘Oh, the sun goes down, it enters into the ocean. How beautiful it is.’ And then somebody comes to say, ‘You know, the sun is not moving. It’s not going down. It’s just staying there.’ It’s fine, but it doesn’t make the sunset false or illusory, it’s still true. It’s just that it’s a more complicated story. So you can hold up the two pictures of the sunset in your mind together without any problem. In a sense we’ve learned that already in science. When we know that solid objects made of atoms, they seems smooth but I learned at school that it is smooth only because they’re very teeny, teeny, teeny, tiny things, zillions of zillions of them. So it’s not smooth, in reality. A lot of empty space with little atoms is what is really is, and that’s consistent with the fact that it seems smooth to my finger. We can hold that. We can at the same time, think in the normal way because it’s appropriate to what we are doing and realize that more precise scientific thinking has allowed us to have a deeper way of knowing how things work; where this is made by atoms, the earth is turning, and quantum mechanics is telling us that the world is not a bunch of particles bouncing around. It’s relations between system affecting one another. So, yes, I think that it’s going to be a matter of getting used to this way of thinking and it slowly will become (I hope it will become) accepted. Like the idea that you and I are actually moving at 10 kilometers per second, that’s the velocity of the rotation of the Earth. When you think about it you go, ‘Oh, my God, that’s too fast! Stop this!’
Speaker 1 [00:47:55] That’s an astonishing point of view but it is one that has had wide adoption. The number of people (flat earth does get a lot of press but there’s very few of them) and even folks who believe in the literal truth of various religious scriptures would probably agree that we’re on a big spherical ball that’s moving very quickly. I would imagine a very large portion of humanity now agrees on this. Do you foresee a future in which we as a species have a more intuitive understanding of quantum mechanics akin to that?
Speaker 2 [00:48:30] Yeah, if we don’t destroy one another with nuclear war first. If we stop fighting like idiots because ‘I want to be bigger than you, my country stronger than you,’ then probably. If we survive this idiocy of us all, then I think with all this, if we keep learning, yeah. Not even in a long time, I think. Quantum mechanics is already talked about very minimally, meaning a few things, in high school in many countries (I don’t know about in the US). In many countries, there is a little bit of quantum mechanics, a little bit. It’s very preliminary, so it’s without any clarity. But I think in a couple of generations, if people start learning quantum mechanics with their kids that will become a more reasonable way of thinking and then they’ll say, ‘Oh, grandpa, how do you think that things are just things with properties? You don’t know that obviously they have relations?’
Speaker 1 [00:49:35] It is taught, it was taught to me to some extent in high school but it was the advanced class; it was like calculus. Everybody needs to know a little bit of algebra, but calculus; that’s only for the kids who are really good at math and calculus is where I couldn’t hang anymore in math and I stopped taking the classes at that point. Quantum mechanics, I went through the first level of it and then I said, ‘Not for me,’ but yeah, it could be something that we taught more widely.
Speaker 2 [00:50:03] But the way it’s taught in high school is, it’s just a bit of things, right? This doesn’t make much sense. Just some grains of facts thrown in there.
Speaker 1 [00:50:16] Schrodinger’s cat, for example, I learned about the particle in the wave and I learned about Schrodinger’s cat and then my teacher kind of went, ‘Yeah, I mean, crazy, right? I don’t get it either’ and then we just kind of moved on. It was presented as almost like, ‘Does a tree fall in the forest if no one’s around to hear it? I don’t know. Anyway, fun to think about. Let’s talk about something else.’ Not an idea that we really take seriously in our education or talk about what the implications of it are.
Speaker 2 [00:50:45] Exactly, exactly, exactly. And I think there will be a moment in which the Schrodinger’s cat story will be used to make clear how relations are more than the things by themselves. In the Schrodinger’s cat story, the point is that it seems that the cat is alive and the cat is dead at the same time, but that’s not the right way of putting it. You have to be perspectival. You have to be relational here. With respect to the cat, he’s not both things at the same time. It’s just one thing. If you’re a cat, you’re either alive or dead. You either are seeing something or you’re not, period. There’s no other story. But this does not immediately imply (that with respect to somebody who is outside) the state of the cat. So you have to see, the point is how things interact with somebody who’s outside. So you can get a full description of what the guy who is outside sees, perceives in respect to him and the full description of the interaction with respect to the cat. Everything is coherent, if the cat sees red and then you the box and you ask the cat, ‘What have you seen?’ ‘Red.’ And you also see red. But you shouldn’t just imagine that there is some outside view that sees everything at the same time. You should think about the view of the cat, the view of the person, and there might be little discrepancies. Quantum discrepancies, that’s it.
Speaker 1 [00:52:22] I’m starting to get this because, another theory (the implications of which are very fast) I feel I understand and I have understood intuitively better; is the theory of relativity as relates to time. I went to the planetarium when I was a kid and they said ‘There’s no single objective time. Time depends on the rate of speed of the observer.’ So someone goes at the speed of light and they come back and they’re very old and all that sort of thing. I understand it. They’ve made movies about it, I get it. I understand that this is a property of time and I can think my way around it and this to me almost sounds similar. I hope I’m not drawing a false comparison, but that the mystery of Schrodinger’s cat is: the reality of the situation is that it’s not objective. It’s in the relation between the two parties.
Speaker 2 [00:53:12] Exactly. You’re not misunderstanding. You’re right on track here. The similarity with relativity is strong because you get confused if you think, ‘No, no, no, no, there is THE time. The common time, a unique time that’s the same for everybody.’ And until you hang on to that, you just keep getting confused. If you think, ‘I have my time, another person has his time,’ that doesn’t mean that we are in separate universes; we meet and when we meet we are in the same time. But when we’re not together, things might be different. The timing doesn’t have to match in any sense. Like in the movies in which you meet your grandfather or you meet your children and they old and you’re still young. Why not? What would prevent the universe from doing that? Well, universe does that and so it’s a similar story. It’s a perspectival story. If you think about this, this is something that is a step that humankind has taken many times. You take something that seems absolute and you realize that, ‘Well, no, it’s not absolute. It’s just the way I do things.’ Like, ‘This is up.’ But somebody is in Sydney so up is the other direction. So who is right? But come on, it’s not right. This is my up and that’s your up, which is a relative notion.
Speaker 1 [00:54:43] I have to say, this is honestly making quantum mechanics seem much more approachable to me. OK, I have to ask you about this before we run out of time. You’ve written about how your reading of Buddhism has affected your work here and I’m curious how those things integrate.
Speaker 2 [00:55:00] People were coming to me and saying, ‘Oh, I heard about this way of thinking that you guys think about quantum mechanics. Have you read Nagarjuna?’ I said, ‘Who is Nagarjuna?’ And then another guy is coming over asking about Nagarjuna then after five, six times that people (completely different people, knowledgeable people) asked me ‘Have you read it?’ And this is not just, ‘Do you know about my guru who knows everything?’ No. These are completely different people who are not necessarily religious, pointing out that this Nagarjuna; who is a classic Buddhist Indian philosopher. Like Aristotle for the Western civilization or Plato for the Western civilization; it’s a super classic in Indian civilization. So I decided to read it because you get bored of doing the ignorant thing which is to say, ‘Oh, who is Nagarjuna?’ So I read it and it was a shock because it’s something written in the second century. So it doesn’t know anything about science, about quantum mechanics. But it’s a little bit what you were saying before, philosophers come out with a perspective that can be useful. And in fact, I found a lot of very useful ideas in his perspective because he has a completely relational description of reality. His main thesis is that no entity exists by itself. Entities exist only in dependence to all entities, which is present in Buddhist philosophy. It plays a role in the Buddhist worldview. He articulates very well, he goes on and on explaining that everything you think is fundamental and then all the rest builds on it, it’s not really. It depends on something else. And then it sort of arrives at the point in which it convinces you that you don’t need something fundamental on which to build the rest. You can have all things making sense together without having to ground something. It’s a great read (it’s not an easy read), I read it with some commentary from some Western philosophers, but it helped me clarify my mind and make it more clear what we were trying to say about quantum mechanics.
Speaker 1 [00:57:33] Yeah, I’ve read that in my own readings (light readings) of – I’ve never read Nagarjuna but this idea in Buddhism that there is no self or the self is empty because it’s relational. That seems to be a very fundamental idea in many, many Buddhist traditions. Do you think that idea follows from quantum mechanics at all, or is that a bridge too far?
Speaker 2 [00:58:01] That’s a very good question and a deep question, let me try to think of the right answer here. I don’t think at all, that quantum mechanics explains the self; the mind or whatever you want to call it, they’re different stories. We are not quantum systems. Some people were trying to use quantum mechanics – I mean, we are quantum system because atoms are quantum. So everything is quantum in a sense, but it’s not specifically quantum that helps us understand why we have this subjective view of the world. So directly, there is no relation. However, I do think (together with probably the majority of contemporary neuroscientists) that the Buddhist idea that the self is not an entity, it’s a complex thing. That it comes out from the relation in our neurons and that’s correct. I think the quantum mechanics is telling us that the physical world is not made by entities, but by relations. Now if you bring everything together, the apparent discrepancy between the material world and the mind almost vanishes. If you think the mind is an entity (a sort of spiritual entity) and the world is all these little stones bouncing around. Come on, these are two different things. But if you think that both of them are actually relations between complexities, then they are just two aspects of the same thing. This doesn’t explain the brain, the neuroscientists have to do that job, of course. Which they haven’t yet because we don’t understand how we work, exactly. But it does take away the sense of, ‘Oh, my God, they’re 2 separate things; my mind and reality. Cannot be the same thing.’ So yes, in that sense, I think that the relational thinking of physics that quantum mechanics suggests takes away a lot of the strangeness of the problem of consciousness. I don’t think there is a problem of consciousness. Once we understand better our brain, the so-called problem of consciousness will just disappear. We don’t have a problem with hurricanes, we just know how hurricanes work.
Speaker 1 [01:00:33] This is one of the most long standing problems in modern philosophy, is the mind/body problem; the problem of consciousness. And you feel that once we fully understand quantum mechanics and we understand the relational nature of reality, it’ll disappear or it can disappear as part of that same change in perspective. That we will say, ‘OK, well, yes, I experience my conscious mind but I also know that it is simply a relationship with the rest of the world.’
Speaker 2 [01:01:08] Yes. I think it will disappear for real when we understand the actual mechanisms in the brain better. We do not yet. The brain is very much a closed machine that works fantastically and we don’t know how it works. If we knew how it worked, we could perhaps make another one, and we’re extremely far from from that. We really don’t understand the mechanism, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not understandable. I don’t understand how a Ferrari works, but we put it together and it’s just a machine. Even if it is strange and somebody might find it beautiful. I don’t know.
Speaker 1 [01:01:58] God, I could talk to you for hours but I need to ask you a final question, because we’re almost out of time. OK, you have very important thoughts to have and very important things to do. You wrote that you believe one of the greatest mistakes made by human beings is to want certainties when trying to understand things. Tell me about that and how do we get out of that? Why is that, and is that a trap that we can escape?
Speaker 2 [01:02:23] Yeah, I think it’s a trap we can escape, and I do think it’s a trap. I think we want reliable things. Reliable does not mean certain and that’s a subtlety. If I say that, you would say ‘of course,’ but we always fall in this trap. What do I mean? This is my standard example. If I come downtown in a city I don’t know and I ask ‘What is the direction to go to Trafalgar Square in London?’ And somebody tell me, ‘You go right, then left’ etc. Am I certain that’s the right indication? Well, no, the guy may dislike me (maybe he hates Italians) or maybe I misunderstood or maybe I said it with the wrong accent. Or maybe I put it in my smartphone and I mistyped it. But does this lack of certainty prevent me from finding Trafalgar Square.? No, most of the time, no. So I am happy with it. I am happy with reliable information, this guy seems reliable and I think I typed correctly and that’s what we need in life. That’s what we need in moral decisions. That’s what we need in a political decisions. That’s what we need in science. If we ask the question, ‘Do I have complete certainty?’ First of all, if you’re honest, we should say no. And worse, if we believe we are certain then we don’t learn anymore. We learned because we were open to have our moral beliefs, religious belief, scientific belief, and/or political belief challenged. People came out with the wonders of the modern world because they challenged some previous thing. So thank God there is challenging. We should be open to challenge, which means (I believe) that we should never think we are certain. We should think ‘I have good reasons to believe in that because I have been challenged many times and somehow the belief has survived, my scientific believe has survived. But I’m not certain, maybe somebody will come up with better arguments; better scientific arguments, better moral arguments, better political arguments and I can change my mind.’ I think this is better. We don’t have a receipt against human stupidity, but certainty has led to massacres to all sorts of horrors. Doubts are better, I think.
Speaker 1 [01:05:03] That is a message right after my own heart, and I think it’s a wonderful place to end. Thank you so much for coming on to the show. I really can’t thank you enough. This conversation has been beyond fascinating. The book is called ‘Helgeland.’ People can pick it up at our special website factuallypod.com/books or at your local bookshop. Thank you so much for coming on.
Speaker 2 [01:05:29] I thought that was wonderful. Thank you very much. I really enjoyed this exchange. Thank you for your question and for everything.
Speaker 1 [01:05:35] Thank you. Well, thank you once again to Carlo Revelli for coming on the show. If you enjoyed that interview, if you want to check out his book; you can check it out at factuallypod.com/books and just remind you once again, when you do so, you will be supporting not just this show, but your local bookstore as well. I want to thank our producers, Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman. Andrew Carson; our engineer, Andrew W.K. for our incredible theme song. The fine folks at Falcón Northwest for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I’m recording this very episode for you on. You can find me at @AdamConover wherever you get your social media and AdamConover.net. Until next week – oh, and by the way, I forgot this: if you want to hear a new topic on the show, you can email me at email@example.com. Until next week, thank you so much for listening. We’ll see you next week on Factually.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books