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Quantum Uncertainty and the Limit of Knowledge

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Quantum mechanics has always fascinated me.  It is the field of science in which science loses all intuitiveness–particles have probabilistic, not definite properties.   This submicroscopic level  is so beyond the grasp of our minds that even expert physicists have only a superficial understanding of its inner workings.

I recently read this article about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: http://news.yahoo.com/wacky-physics-uncertainty-uncertainty-principle-160401302.html  In overly simplistic terms, the uncertainty principle states that the measurement of one attribute of a quantum particle (such as position) will decrease the accuracy of the measurement of another (such as momentum).  Our observation affects what we observe.

The uncertainty principle is sometimes generalized to state there is a limit to how well we are capable of understanding the universe, that there is a limit to human knowledge.  It is often the belief (or at least hope) of scientists that full understanding is possible and even inevitable with time, but could there really be a dead end in scientific progress?  Will physics become a Sisyphean task?  Will we ever give up, disappointed or stop, content in the knowledge we have gained?

  1. February 26, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    I don’t think scientists will ever exactly “give up” the search for knowledge. Yes it’s true that we can only measure with limited accuracy the momentum or position of subatomic particles, but I believe scientists will always continue to pursue new ways to apply this knowledge. Quantum computing for example is one possible vehicle for the application of quantum mechanics that can be pursued even taking into account the lack of precision of associated with the uncertainty principle.

    • HK
      February 26, 2012 at 11:05 pm

      I think you’re right, scientists will never give up, but I think there’s an important distinction within the definition of science between the expansion of human knowledge and the application of what we’ve learned through science. It’s true, there may be many ways of applying quantum mechanics to technological advances, but can we ever fully understand how it works thanks to this uncertainty principle? What I meant in my original post was not to ask weather scientists might stop trying to apply science to real-world problems, but to ask will the attempt to understand the universe eventually become futile.

  2. anthonypribadi
    February 27, 2012 at 3:32 am

    Hi HK. You know what. This quantum mechanics thing always fascinates me too. The fact that “observation collapses the wave function” is also something that is amusing to me. Anyway, I think science will keep on improving on every aspect. Discoveries after discoveries and inventions after inventions. However, I don’t think we (human beings) will be able to attain a perfect knowledge of the universe at any time. Analogously speaking, I would say that the amount of knowledge out there is infinity. While at the beginning of the civilization we might only have 0 knowledge, we keep on improving to 1 (maybe when humans found how to kill animals), 2, 3, 6 (maybe when humans made first simple weapon), 10, 50, 100, 1000, 80000 (maybe when Newton’s Law was published), 9825431, 9944328, and so forth but no matter how big the knowledge human will posses, it will never reach infinity since by definition any number is smaller than infinity. That would be my take.

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