For me, 5th grade science class was a constant struggle. Completely mentally exhausting. It became nearly impossible to focus on my school work when, for the first time in my life, Lucy was ALL I thought about. Biology, though, separated Lucy from me by 2 walls, giving me enough mental space to hear something my teacher said.
She talked about the particles that composed our world, and it just made sense. Protons and electrons – easy. Atoms – no big deal. Nucleus runs the show – yeah I got it. This picture below – boom. Memorized.
It all made sense. We are composed of atoms, which are like tiny little planets of small particles. Electrons orbit the nucleus like the moon orbits Earth, and the nucleus is the brain. No big deal.
For almost 20 years I never questioned what I was taught, never thought to myself, “Hey, maybe while you were drooling over Lucy, the stuff you learned in 5th grade science wasn’t quite right!” Because, well, why would I?
Enter: The Quantum World
How Do We Know This?
Max Planck, in 1901, solved what was known as the “Ultraviolet Catastrophe,” which was this annoying problem bugging physicists. Hot things (like ovens) emit radiation at all wavelengths. As the temperature increases, more radiation at shorter wavelengths is emitted. However, you’ll notice in the graph below that at the smallest wavelengths, the radiation emitted decreases. You’re probably asking, “So what’s the catastrophe?” The catastrophe, though not a Chernobyl-level catastrophe, was that all the physicists’ prediction models said at the smallest wavelengths, the radiation should go to infinity.
Okay, but who cares? Well if their models were right, then taking a chicken out of your hot oven should have fried each and every chef in the world with a blast of radiation. At shorter wavelengths, the amount of radiation emitted was far lower than their math said it should be.
So physicists knew their models were wrong, but had no better ideas until Max Planck decided to put away his preconceived notions of how energy worked, and built a new model that fit the experimental data that people don’t get fried cooking chicken.
Up until this time, physicists assumed energy was continuous, so that for any wavelength, the intensity of the energy could be any possible value. You can think of continuous values as being like a person’s height. You can be 36.3842738472934872… inches tall, and this value can get larger at it’s 100,000th decimal place. A quantity much smaller than the human eye can distinguish. When you’re growing up, you don’t get taller 1 inch at a time. Continuously (and constantly) you get a little taller moment by moment.
What Planck figured out was that energy isn’t actually continuous like your height. He realized that energy can only possess discrete values from a set of accepted values. This is the equivalent of Planck uncovering that humans aren’t actually continuously growing, and in fact each time we grow it’s by an entire inch. So you are 5’4" and then instantaneously you would become 5’5" – without ever becoming 5 feet and 4.5 inches tall. Obviously that’s not true about our height, but it is true for energy.
Energy is composed of tiny, discrete packets. Super smart people call this quantization of energy. Simply meaning that energy can only change by discrete values (AKA if energy were a prepubescent boy in my 5th grade biology class, it would grow by inches at a time).
The amount energy can change by is super small though, which is why for so long we thought it was continuous. Planck developed “Planck’s Constant” which is 6.626 x 10-34 Joules * Seconds. If you’re trying to get some perspective on how small something that is 6.626 x 10-34 is, we can flip it and see how big something that is 6.626 x 1034 is.
Imagine you are 6.626 feet tall. That’s about the size of a typical NBA player. Now we multiply that by 1034. That’s the equivalent of a person being the size of 22 round trips to and from the sun (1 round trip is 189 million miles).
That’s one big dude.
So Planck’s Constant is to the size of an NBA player, as the size of an NBA player is to 22 round trips to and from the sun.
That’s one small constant.
Fun fact: Planck’s Constant and quantized energy was so revolutionary at the time that even Planck didn’t believe it to be true because he knew it would change our fundamental perception of reality.
This was the start of the quantum revolution.
Einstein Joined The Party
Physicists realization that energy was quantized brought about a whole new slew of problems, and Einstein wasn’t one to stay out of the mix.
Before Einstein, it was common knowledge that light behaved like a wave. In 1801, some super smart dude put together an experiment that you’ll be hearing more about called the “Double Slit experiment”. Basically he shot light through two slits in a wall (pictured below), and since light behaves like a wave it creates what’s known as a diffraction pattern (this pattern is created by the waves crashing into each other). This was used as the “proof” that light is a wave.
If light behaved like a particle, shooting it through the slits would be like shooting tennis balls through the slits. You would end up with something that looks more like this:
In 1905, Einstein rolled in and uncovered that light acted both as a wave and a particle with his famous Photoelectric Effect experiment.
When you shine a light onto metal, electrons are emitted from the metal. Classical physics believed that the atoms of the incoming light were vibrating when they hit the metal, causing the electrons on the metal to vibrate as well, ejecting them from the surface.
So a more intense light will have greater vibrations, causing the electrons to shoot off the metal plate with more intensity.
This makes sense, if light acts as a wave.
But through experimentation, it became clear this wasn’t the case. Can you guess which property Einstein figured out caused the electrons to be emitted?
Single Question Quiz
So you could have a super low intensity beam of light with a high frequency, and electrons would be ejected. Or you could have a very intense beam of light with a lower frequency – no electrons ejected.
Physicists were stumped until Albert Einstein extended Max Planck’s discovery of energy to the realm of light. Einstein called the discrete tiny packets of light “photons”. This actually explained the photoelectric effect, since electrons were ejected when struck by a photon of light with sufficient energy.
Low frequency photons don’t carry enough energy, and high frequency photons (even with the faintest beam of light) individually have enough energy to eject an electron.
So Einstein had explained why sometimes light acted as a particle and sometimes it acted like a wave. This property of being both a wave and particle has been dubbed “wave-particle duality”. Confused? Yeah, you should be. Trying to wrap your brain around what it means to be both a particle and a wave is confusing, but you kinda just have to roll with it for now.
This “wave-particle duality” sent waves…
or are they particles 😝
through the physics community and quantum physics started to gain steam.
Physics jokes are fun.
Bohr & de Broglie Came To Say “Sup”
Niels Bohr looked at Planck and Einstein and thought to himself, “You know what?! Maybe this applies to electrons too!”
Narrator: “And it did.”
Bohr realized that electrons in hydrogen atoms jump between energy levels by certain discrete amounts. When electrons jump a level, some radiation is emitted from the atom.
So now we have energy, light, and hydrogen atoms all showing these quantized properties.
Louis de Broglie (pronounced “Broy” not like 🥦) saw all of this happening and decided if this wave-particle duality applied to energy, light, and hydrogen atoms, this probably applied to all matter.
No way though, right? There’s no way that my cup of coffee sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes like a particle. Waves can’t hold coffee, right? How would you even test that?
Well you’d do the same tests they did for light. Instead of shooting light through the double slits, this time you’d just shoot electrons and see how they behaved.
The results of the test rocked the physics world.
Electrons showed that same diffraction pattern that had been present for light. So, if electrons have wave-like qualities, and all matter is composed of electrons, then all matter has wave-like properties.
However, the wavelength of matter is inversely proportional to the mass of the object. So electrons (very small mass) have detectable wavelengths. Humans, with much more mass, have negligible wavelengths – which is why your coffee mug doesn’t just dissolve on the floor as if it were an ocean wave trying to hold your coffee. But, as counterintuitive as it may seem, your mug has wave-light properties. So does your body.
Schrodinger & His Kitty
So far we’ve met Planck, Einstein, Bohr, and de Broglie. Those are some heavy-hitters. Together, they left us in a state where we know less about matter than we knew before we started. By showing that matter can be both a wave and a particle, they’ve left us not really knowing what to think.
At this point, many physicists had started to believe that when electrons (and matter) are in wave form, they’re not in a typical wave like you might be thinking. It’s actually more like a cloud of probabilities. The cloud of probabilities is densest in the areas where the electron is most likely to be when we observe it (or look at it).
So consider an electron in a box. Up until the point that we open the box to look at the electron, the electron exists as a kind of “cloud of probabilities” and it’s not in any one spot – it’s kinda in all the spots at once in various densities depending on the probability it will be in that spot (I know…I know…That’s wild). We call it quantum superposition.
However, when we open the box and look at the electron, boom! The electron picks a point to be in (based on the probabilities) and we see the electron as a particle in an exact location.
So Schrodinger thought something similar to what you’re probably thinking right now, “this seems bananas,” and proposed a thought experiment to highlight just how ridiculous this theory actually was. Schrodinger’s theory goes like this:
You have a cat inside a box with a radioactive atom that becomes poisonous when it decays. According to this kooky quantum superposition, as long as you haven’t opened the box and you don’t know the state of the radioactive atom (AKA whether the poison has been released), the cat is both alive and dead at the same time.
That’s a ridiculous take. I mean the atom has to either have decayed and poisoned the cat or it hasn’t. It can’t be both at the same time, right?
Well…actually it’s probably more accurate than you’d like to think.
Einstein didn’t like this at all and is famously quoted as saying,
I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.
Quantum Entanglement Will Tangle Your Brain
Hopefully you’re thoroughly confused. That means you’ve understood everything I’ve written.
Einstein, was also confused and wasn’t exactly a big fan of this superposition of states, cats being alive and dead until you look at them, and the idea that unless observed, things may not exactly exist like we think they do. In an effort to show that Quantum Mechanics couldn’t possibly be correct, Einstein dug into the mathematics.
According to the math, if Quantum Mechanics worked as Bohr and others described, one would be able to take two tiny electrons, pair them together, and then separate them by very large distances. When you measured one of the electrons, you would be able to find it’s spin (either up or down). The other electron, which could be light-years away (according to the math), would instantly show itself as being the opposite spin. So if the electron you measured was “spin-up”, the other electron would immediately be “spin-down”.
Einstein thought he had come up with the “Gotcha,” essentially proving that what we thought we knew about Quantum Mechanics was incomplete. He assumed that if the math were right and entanglement did work, the entangled particles must have some hidden variable that pre-determines their spin. That way, when the particles are separated, this hidden variable tells them which way to spin. The reason he was so confident he had proven Quantum Mechanics incomplete? Well, if this entanglement aspect were true, his famous Theory of Relativity would be disproven since these entangled particles would have to be able to communicate faster than the speed of light.
And nothing can communicate faster than the speed of light? Right?
I say (probably) because deep down, we don’t actually understand how this works. Maybe the particles communicate faster than the speed of light? Maybe they communicate in a way we’ve never considered. But the point is they communicate faster than our pre-quantum physicists believed should be possible. And that, is a worthwhile thing to take a closer look at.
Einstein went to the grave without ever coming to grips with the fact quantum entanglement is real and there are no hidden variables. He died in 1955, and it wasn’t until 1964 that John Bell designed an experiment that showed the hidden variable theory incorrect and that entangled particles can either communicate faster than the speed of light or there is something more spooky going on (maybe involving other dimensions).
Did that prove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity false? On a subatomic level, probably.
Does any of this actually matter?
That’s a valid question, and honestly I may have just wasted part of your life you can never get back. But, yes, I do believe this matters. We all have a preconceived notion of how reality works, how our body works, and especially how our minds work. Before learning about Quantum Mechanics, I thought the world (and reality) functioned according to laws developed by Newton and other famous physicists. And, for the most part, it seems like the world around us works like that.
But a rudimentary understanding of Quantum Mechanics shook my preconceived notions to the core. I realized that I didn’t actually have any understanding of how anything works. It led me down a path of re-learning over the past year, where I’ve started to learn more about how my mind works, how my body works, and how the world around me works. As nerdy as it sounds, Quantum Mechanics changed me. Learning about quantum entanglement allowed me to open my mind to re-think my views on spirituality, ancient mystical traditions, other dimensions, and even time itself.
I know it sounds wacky, and it is. But to me, there exists a small chance that maybe we’re overlooking something bigger. Maybe we’re getting so caught up in our day to day dramas, that we’re missing the bigger picture of what we’re doing on this planet.
Maybe we should see if we can find out.
If you’re interested in coming on this journey with me, you can join my email list:subscribe