When I flush the toilet, I don’t know the chain of pipes, sewers, treatment plants and filters which lead to my flush rejoining the water supply. But I do know I’m happy that, through sheer weight of numbers I’ve put in over the years, tonight some handful of molecules of my reconstituted excrement will pour out of a tap to wet Garth Crooks’ toothbrush. I may not understand how the sewage system works, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the perks at the other end of it.
Much like the sewage system, Quantum Mechanics — as well as being Stoke’s #1 supplier of chromed Ford Ka light fittings and off-brand “BNW” alloy wheels — is a study based around the idea of things getting flushed down one end, coming out the other, and you not understanding what happened in the middle. Imagine I’ve just whipped a gunny sack off your head and you find yourself strapped to a chair in a dark featureless room containing only a projector and a tattered white screen. No, those sounds from the next room aren’t screams. Don’t listen to him: he isn’t Terry Wogan, and I did not impale anything in his knees.
You have never watched a Star Wars film. You understand it is a revered movie franchise, but you don’t know what to expect. I am going to play you a Star Wars film selected at random from these unmarked DVDs. Before the film starts, I am going to leave the room and shut the door behind me. There is a 50/50 chance you will be watching one of the three good films, or one of the three bad films. I will have no idea which. Best of luck. Once again, those aren’t screams.
While I wait outside not smashing Mutya from the Sugarbabes’ knuckles into couscous with a ball-peen hammer I have no way of telling whether you are being thrilled by your movie or bitterly disappointed. I will not know until I open the door. From quantum mechanics’ point of view, whether you are happy or disgusted is only decided when the two hour long coin flip lands heads or tails the moment I open the door and observe your reaction: either grinning ear to ear, or shouting racial epithets about Rastafarian aliens.
Many physicists, including Albert Einstein, have found it difficult to accept the idea that the world is governed by coin flips. They believe there must be something we’re missing — some rule we could use to tell whether Clone Wars or Return of the Jedi was playing all along. We can’t just accept it’s down to chance, they argued, that’s just lazy.
If one day a week, every week, your car broke down because there was a dead dog jamming up the pistons, you wouldn’t say, ‘Well, on 14.28 per cent of days a dog gets eviscerated in my Hyundai. But hey, that’s just the way the world works!’ No. You would check under the bonnet, scrape the mangled Alsatian feet from between your radiator fan and realise maybe it’s not such a great idea to put beef sandwiches at the bottom of your engine bay.
Physicists spent decades looking for some system behind quantum mechanics, but didn’t turn up anything. It was as if they dug under the foundations of their houses and found there wasn’t a single pipe running out of their toilet or any into any of the sinks. Just by magic, the flush was teleporting out the bottom of the basin and somehow coming back clean out of the tap. The physicists fiddled with building their own pipelines, bodging together elbow and u-bends to try to and rationalise the magic, but none of their DIY plumbing lasted long before bursting, blocking up or overflowing. All they had proved was that it was a literal impossibility to understand the middle bit. And their carpets were ruined.
Now most physicists, exhausted from digging and sheepish about attempting any more plumbing for fear of ruining their new lino floors, have accepted the rule of magical non-existent pipes and coin flips. Like me, they have come to the conclusion that even though they don’t understand how the system in the middle works, they can still enjoy the perks at the other end of it. The quantum model — in which the world becomes a sort of drab Dungeons and Dragons knock off where every event is governed by an elaborate system of dice rolls and where your epic quest involves filling out student finance forms and remembering to look both ways when crossing the road.
Not to mention scything down marauding packs of hideous half-human monsters (if you happen to live in Oldham) — has lead to revolutions in computing, microscope design and cryptography.
The scientists developing these innovative world-changing technologies don’t need to worry about how they can’t understand the middle bit, so, because of that, they don’t. If all their quantum computers suddenly start crashing, maybe they’ll phone a plumber.