Einstein and Bohr Reality

Like most people, I think that there is something real out there, entirely independent of us and our models, as the earth is independent of our maps.  But this is because I can’t help believing in an objective reality, not because I have good arguments for it.”   Steven Weinberg,  New York Review of Books, February 10, 2011.

Great Scientists today hold that it is an open question if anything is really real, and they are pretty sure that we can never really know. They echo the great debate of their towering forebears – Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein.

At the turn of the twentieth century, science turned its attention to the very small, and found the quantum.  Max Planck, (whose son Irwin was tortured and hanged by the Nazi’s in 1944, for participating in a plot against Hitler) was investigating the strange creation of light from the heating of matter, when he discovered that energy changes always occurred in discrete quantum jumps. These jumps were mysteriously instantaneous, with no travel in space in between.

Subatomic investigations soon revealed the strange fact that matter and light behave both as discrete particles that collide and bounce, and as continuous waves of flow that peak and trough with patterns of interference.  A wave’s mathematical equation seemed to represent the probability of a particle’s location, yet even a single particle was found to act like a wave. Detecting a particle’s location, by measuring its position or momentum,  would mysteriously make a particle appear out of the flow of the wave, and then the wave itself would disappear.  Reality was a strange chameleon.  100 years later this is still so.

Niels Bohr accepted this.  Albert Einstein could not.  For Einstein, an observer-independent reality, and a continuous, uninterrupted causality are fundamentals of truth. The Quantum’s instantaneous ‘jumps’- entanglement “spooky action at a distance”, particles created by the act of measurement, these could not be the full story, there must be “hidden variables”.

God doesn’t play dice.”  “Do you really believe the moon doesn’t exist when you are not looking at it?

In this, and only in this, Einstein has so far been wrong.

Bohr grasped that science was encountering a fundamental limit of knowledge.  We can only know what is knowable – measurable attributes, which must be either/or essences – like the quantum, like bits. We can only know the information of reality, not its ultimate essence. We can’t know what isn’t measureable.

any property or feature of reality “out there” can only be based on information we receive. . .  the distinction between information and reality is devoid of any meaning. . . information is quantized in truth-values of propositions. . .the quantization in physics is the same as the quantization of information.”  Anton Zeilinger,  Science and Ultimate Reality, 2004

Bohr may not have realized that he was bringing forth the science of information. At a meeting in Europe, he and Claude Shannon crossed paths. Shannon went on to create the modern theory of information, the theory that led to computers.

Einsteinstop telling God what to do!


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