Sunday, October 26, 2014


One of the things that makes magical thinking, such as any religion,work is that the realm itself from which the magic comes is unreachable. It is by its very nature ‘supernatural’. The faithful walk a fine line here. The magical world is real for them and yet we cannot fully fathom it. On the other hand the magical world does intercede on occasion and we can request that the magical world enter our world to help us or give us comfort which as we all know may or may not actually work. This is all very convenient. When something good happens FOR YOU you might happily ascribe that goodness to a higher being who cares for you even though it might also be explained as what happened in the natural course of events. And, when something bad happens you get to say that exactly how the magical world works is unknown and unknowable so it only seems really bad without seeing or being able to see the entire picture or that you are being punished by a harsh (yet all loving) being. I guess similar to the really big picture into which the holocaust fits in nicely. This is all very similar to the gods who lived on Mount Olympus who only occasionally decided to interact with mortals for good or evil or the occasional impregnation of a virgin.

Surprisingly there is a seemingly similar motif in physics.

As we venture downward to the microscopic to the atomic level and beyond we reach a state where the actual ‘view’ is by its nature unattainable. It’s not that our machines are not clever enough it is that seeing itself does not work with the ultra small. The simplistic version is that to see something you have to bounce light (photons) off of it but that very process disturbs or ruins that which you were attempting to see. That’s the uncertainty principle (I think). In even simpler terms think about trying to detect something with waves. Water waves come to mind. At a beach you could detect the changes in depth using the behavior of the water waves. You could detect the location of boats and wharfs by the reflection of water waves. Maybe even a swimmer. But could you detect the existence of a 1” diameter pole (like the ones that hold up Martin houses) sticking out of the water by the behavior of the waves? Probably not. The pole is too small compared to the size of the waves (wavelength). With smaller waves you might though and so it is with light and seeing. The smaller the thing you’re trying to see the shorter wavelength light you need to see it. But, darn it, when I try to use smaller and smaller wavelength light I am automatically using photons of higher energy which disturb the object I’m trying to see even more.

So, by its very nature, the sub-atomic world is un-seeable. You might be tempted to think this is just like a magical world then where there is a built in stop-gap to prevent you from knowing all.

But no. The difference is between un-seeable and un-knowable. I venture to say that at this time we know just about everything there is to know about the atom and the nucleus and we’re never going to ‘see’ it. Knowing means to be able to predict the behavior of a system given initial conditions. We have no holes in our knowledge about the atom and nucleus at this time. We have models of behavior and at times it helps to actually draw those models such as the classic atom with a nucleus and electrons orbiting. We’ve never actually seen that and we’re not going to! But the atom behaves like that and when I use that image (mathematically) to make predictions I get verifiable results that agree with my model.

And so it goes adding bells and whistles to the model as more and more hypotheses and experiments come in and our KNOWLEDGE of this un-seeable world increases.

There is nothing you can do to increase your knowledge of a magical world by its very nature - a nature that has been made up in the minds of humans. It must be unfathomable or it wouldn’t be magical.