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The Reality of Quantum Weirdness -

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IN Akira Kurosawa’s film “Rashomon,” a samurai has been murdered, but it’s not clear why or by whom. Various characters involved tell their versions of the events, but their accounts contradict one another. You can’t help wondering: Which story is true?

But the film also makes you consider a deeper question: Is there a true story, or is our belief in a definite, objective, observer-independent reality an illusion?

This very question, brought into sharper, scientific focus, has long been the subject of debate in quantum physics. Is there a fixed reality apart from our various observations of it? Or is reality nothing more than a kaleidoscope of infinite possibilities?

This month, a paper published online in the journal Nature Physics presents experimental research that supports the latter scenario — that there is a “Rashomon effect” not just in our descriptions of nature, but in nature itself.

Over the past hundred years, numerous experiments on elementary particles have upended the classical paradigm of a causal, deterministic universe. Consider, for example, the so-called double-slit experiment. We shoot a bunch of elementary particles — say, electrons — at a screen that can register their impact. But in front of the screen, we place a partial obstruction: a wall with two thin parallel vertical slits. We look at the resulting pattern of electrons on the screen. What do we see?


What this research implies is that we are not just hearing different “stories” about the electron, one of which may be true. Rather, there is one true story, but it has many facets, seemingly in contradiction, just like in “Rashomon.” There is really no escape from the mysterious — some might say, mystical — nature of the quantum world.

But what, if anything, does all this mean for us in our own lives? We should be careful to recognize that the weirdness of the quantum world does not directly imply the same kind of weirdness in the world of everyday experience. That’s because the nebulous quantum essence of individual elementary particles is known to quickly dissipate in large ensembles of particles (a phenomenon often referred to as “decoherence”). This is why, in fact, we are able to describe the objects around us in the language of classical physics.

Rather, I suggest that we regard the paradoxes of quantum physics as a metaphor for the unknown infinite possibilities of our own existence. This is poignantly and elegantly expressed in the Vedas: “As is the atom, so is the universe; as is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm; as is the human body, so is the cosmic body; as is the human mind, so is the cosmic mind.”

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