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potential realities

(published 7 June 2011)

The estuary at St Germans as stunning as ever, the bright sun glinting from the freshly rain-touched greenery and the river; the Tamar. Separating Cornwall from the rest of the country the beautiful inlets and waterways coming to a head, from the perspective of the train at least, as we pass over the Brunel Bridge at Saltash, and out to the sea beyond. As we cross the bridge I leave behind the gentle comforts of home, and pass the ‘realities’ of militarisation, dockyards, the urbanisation of Plymouth, heading into other versions of the world beyond, up country.

I have started reading Werner Heisenberg’s ‘Physics and Philosophy’, first published in 1962. In the late 1920s Heisenberg was famously uncertain about the possibility of knowing where anything is and the concurrent speed at which it is travelling, although, apparently paradoxically, was able to accurately know the probabilities of these attributes. Einstein was unconvinced by the idea of this fundamental unpredictability in the physical world, famously retorting “God does not play dice with the universe” to the notion. Heisenberg’s view, known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, tells us that the observations of, for example, an electron, are what result in the existence of the electron. Measurement of the position of an electron creates an electron-with-a-position; test its momentum and an electron-with-momentum is created. An electron, in this view, is not a physical entity, but it and other fundamental particles “form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts”. The reality, apparently, is the observation, not the electron.

And with such thoughts and words I am firmly back on my path into the world of electronic physics, striding out as if wearing high platform shoes with super-wobbly blancmange soles. Off I lurch, to observe the silicon photonics laboratory, wondering what art realities will result. It sure is good to be back.

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