Quantum mechanics

science

Quantum mechanics blows my mind.

No matter how many times someone patiently explains (usually with the help of ping-pong balls) that it is possible for atom-sized objects to exist in two places at the same time, or to be both a particle and wave at the same time, I end up saying, "Wha... Bu...?" and looking gormless. Inside my head, my inner Scotty1 yells into an intercom "The engines cannae take it, Cap'n! The dilithium crystals are gonnae blow!", while being showered with sparks from an overloading console. I think of myself as a relatively intelligent person, and I do a fair bit of thinking about abstract things most days, but I can't seem to get a mental hold on a theory that involves completely non-intuitive ideas that blow raspberries in the face of common sense. I do enjoy it though; it's the intellectual equivalent of riding on a really intense rollercoaster -- very scary, but rather exhilarating.

So I could sympathise completely with the look of terrified bewilderment on E's face as various physics professors tried to help him understand quantum mechanics in the documentary Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives. E (Mark Everett of the band Eels) was trying to find out about his father Hugh Everett III, who was the originator of the idea of parallel worlds (the 'many-worlds interpretation'). Hugh died when E was quite young, and it sounds like he didn't communicate much with his children when he was alive. E lost all of his immediate family within a relatively short space of time, so it's understandable that he has -- until now -- found it quite painful to think about. It was a wonderful documentary, both from the perspective of the science, and the personal journey E went on. After talking to friends and colleagues of his father, he ended up feeling like he knew Hugh a bit better, and seemed to be more at peace with his past.

One of the bits I enjoyed most was when E was listening to some dictaphone tapes his father recorded, which he had never heard before. He wasn't even sure that he would recognise Hugh's voice, because he died so many years ago, and spoke so seldom in the home. In the end, he did recognise his voice, and was amazed to hear him sounding so talkative and enthusiastic, while chatting with a colleague. E had already said that his father was quite tolerant of his adolescent drum practices, and sure enough, half way through the tape, a loud drum solo comes in the background, and we know exactly who is responsible.

1 What? You mean you don't have an irascible Scottish Starfleet engineer in your brain? Just me then...

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