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Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” – Max Planck

On September 1, 1927, The New York Times reported on a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The featured speaker was the young German quantum physicist Dr Werner Heisenberg, who came to explain the mysteries of quantum physics.

The newspaper’s correspondent Waldemar Kaemppfert reported: “Fully 200 mathematical physicists listened to his brief exposition of a conception which will make it necessary to modify belief in what we are pleased to call ‘common sense’ and ‘reality.’”

The Times correspondent noted that explaining quantum theory and its modification by Dr Heisenberg and others was even more difficult than explaining relativity and that the new science could be expressed only mathematically.

He concluded his report with a thought that turned out to be prophetic: “Planck, the originator of the quantum theory, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and De Broglie have shown that the whole science of mechanics must be rewritten. And when it is rewritten, no one but a mathematician will be able to understand it.”

In the following decades, physicists fleshed out quantum theory with the discovery of new particles and they proposed new theories that tried to reconcile Albert Einstein’s Relativity Theory with the standard model of quantum.

Both relativity and the standard model are widely considered unassailable but they can’t be reconciled in a so-called “Theory of Everything.” Einstein spent the last decades of his life trying to find such a unifying model but to no avail. But physicists have not given up. They believe that a unifying theory is the Holy Grail in quantum physics, and they produce a steady stream of new theories.

“This is fine as far as it goes. From here on, it’s who you know.”

Virtually all new quantum theories, most unproven, are extrapolations of earlier theories: quantum gravity, black holes, God particles, M-theory, dark energy, multiverse, and various iterations of string theory.

Physicist-turned-writer Jim Baggott vented his frustration with what he called the “fairy tale physics” generated by quantum physics. In his book Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, Baggott argues that physicists pile one unwarranted assumption on another. He quotes the famous physicist Richard Feynman, who reportedly said, “String theorists don’t make predictions, they make excuses.”

Today, much of quantum theory resembles a mathematical parlor game perpetuated by eye-catching headlines in the mainstream media and popular science magazines. One day scientists claim to have found evidence of black holes, later we are told unequivocally that black holes do not exist.

“Black holes have long captured the public imagination and been the subject of popular culture, from Star Trek to Hollywood,” we read on the PhysOrg. “They are the ultimate unknown  –  the blackest and most dense objects in the universe that do not even let light escape. And as if they weren’t bizarre enough to begin with, now add this to the mix: they don’t exist.”

The researchers do not suggest, propose or speculate that black holes do not exist, they show they don’t exist.

As an astute science writer once remarked: Scientists are rarely in doubt, but often wrong. In 1922, a Dutch astronomer first proposed dark matter. In the following decades, scientist developed numerous theories to explain this presumed phenomenon.

A Google search on dark matter produces tens of millions hit, including an article on space.com, where we read: “Dark matter is the elusive, invisible substance [sic] that appears [sic] to make up more than 80 percent [sic] of the total mass in the universe — far more than accounted for by the ‘regular’ matter [sic] that makes up things like stars, planets and everything astronomers can directly observe. A new study makes the bold claim, however, that perhaps dark matter doesn’t exist at all.”

Slovenian physicist Amrit Srečko Šorli argued recently that the so-called Higgs particle is based on pseudo-science:

“The mainstream science has in a kind of religious belief that the ‘discovery’ of Higgs boson is a scientific confirmation for the existence of the hypothetical Higgs field. If you pose any sensible question regarding the existence of Higgs field, you are out of the game, you are dissident, you are a disbeliever. It is incredible how the scientific mind which has no awakened observer as a supervisor, can go astray and build pseudoscience. Higgs mechanism is pseudoscience.”

Reading Šorli’s arguments, we find confirmation of the New York Times reporter in 1922: When the history of (quantum) physics is rewritten, no one but a mathematician will be able to understand it.

Both popular and academic articles about new theories or the debunking of old theories rarely discuss the origin of quantum physics. The word quanta has its roots in quantifying and quantization. The modern usage of the word quanta originated with Max Planck, which gave quantum physics its name. In the 19th century, Planck and other scientists studied black body radiation, a term that refers to the thermal electromagnetic radiation within or surrounding a body that is in thermodynamic equilibrium with its immediate surroundings. Understanding this phenomenon would explain, among others, why iron emits a red glow when heated to a high temperature.

An experiment is a question which science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature’s answer.”  –  Max Planck

Planck’s initial black body radiation law assumed that light and electromagnetic energy was continuous (a wave), in line with the majority opinion at the time. His model closely described experimental results. But Planck discovered that his model would improve if he “quantized” the continuous wave in discrete values which came to be known as quanta (quantizing is the equivalent of “sampling” an analog sound wave into discrete binary values). In a curious twist of faith, the choice of a specific form of mathematics would lead to the birth of quantum physics.

Dr Scott Bembenek wrote in his article “Quantum Confidential: The Lost History of Quantum Mechanics”:

“The actual mathematics (of calculating the entropy) required that Planck chop up the energies available to his resonator [testing device] into discrete ‘chunks.’ [Ludwig] Boltzmann had done this as well when considering the energy available to a gas atom (rather than a resonator). However, Boltzmann considered this nothing more than a mathematical trick, and he therefore eliminated these convenient yet  –  what he considered to be  – nonphysical chunks of energy at the end of his calculation. But for Planck, this wasn’t an option; he needed the chunks in order to arrive at his radiation law. In this way, Boltzmann’s mathematical trick became Planck’s physical reality: energy comes in chunks, or energy quanta.”

Planck’s mathematical sleight of hand turned out to be a curious case of serendipity. In the 1880s, Heinrich Rudolf Herz had discovered that if if you shine light of high enough energy on to a metal, the metal will emit electrons. In 1905, Einstein used Planck’s discrete mathematical model of entropy to describe this phenomenon, which later came to be known as the photo-electric effect. Einstein’s discovery, for which he received his only Nobel Prize, was crucial in the development of quantum physics, the science named after the “chopped up” wave that Planck had called quanta.

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Quantum physics changed chemistry and electronics, and led to the development of a host of technologies ranging from holography to thermal imaging. But questions remain.

Do photons and electrons have an objective independent existence or are the “induced” by the electric equipment used to generate and measure them? Are waves and particles inherent in nature or forced into existence? Is the apparatus we use to detect such phenomena comparable to a stone thrown in still water to induces ripples and waves?

If a statistical model for a phenomenon on the scale of subatomic particles is 20% off, and the model is multiplied by a million or even a billion times for a phenomenon of cosmic scale, can the extrapolation produce misleading conclusions?

“Every particle in our body communicates with the entire cosmos.” – Sadhguru (Yogi Jaggi Vasudev)

Einstein, Heisenberg and Niels Bohr had their differences but they and the other pioneers of quantum physics had one thing in common: They all believed that ancient Asian classics like the I Ching and Bhagavat Gita suggested an intuitive understanding of the “non-material” world laid bare by quantum physics.

Bohr found the Chinese yin-yang principle of complementary opposites a useful metaphor for his Complementarity Principle, which argues that light and electrons sometimes behave like waves and sometimes like particles depending on the experimental arrangement and the apparatus used for the measurement. Referring to the particles that make up matter Bohr said, in one of his most quoted statements: “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.”

Werner Heisenberg, father of the Uncertainty Principle (the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be predicted from initial conditions, and vice versa), saw features of quantum physics in classic India thought. Fritjof Capra, the author of The Tao of Physics, recounted a meeting he had with Heisenberg:

“In 1929 Heisenberg spent some time in India as the guest of the celebrated Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, with whom he had long conversations about science and Indian philosophy. This introduction to Indian thought brought Heisenberg great comfort, he told me.

“He began to see that the recognition of relativity, interconnectedness, and impermanence as fundamental aspects of physical reality, which had been so difficult for himself and his fellow physicists, was the very basis of the Indian spiritual traditions. ‘After these conversations with Tagore,’ he said, ‘some of the ideas that had seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense. That was a great help for me.’”

The implications of quantum physics were a mental hurdle for scientists in the early 20th century. Newtonian physics dominated science for 200 years and scientists had a mechanistic, materialistic worldview. The work of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, the fathers of electricity, offered an early indication that nature had another, non-material dimension. this was confirmed by quantum physics and made a new, broader view of nature inescapable.

Quantum physicists described the subatomic world mathematically, but scientists found it virtually impossible to explain this invisible world in everyday language. Asian sages had addressed this very problem, which explains their appeal to the early quantum physicists.

Many of today’s physicists are dismissive of the supposed parallels between quantum physics and ancient Asian thought. They may rightly claim that Asian thinkers did not develop the scientific notion of proof and did not carry the empirical method far enough to develop hard science, but that misses the point.

Quantum physics has, in the words of Deepak Chopra, brought us the portal of the “sub-empirical.” It has led to philosophically and spiritually questions about the nature of reality and the source of creation, the “eternal unknown” referred to by the Bagdawat Vita as “that which cannot be seen but without which there is no seeing; that which cannot be perceived but without which there is no perception.”

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Explaining quantum physics mathematically does not make the world it describes part of our experience. The nature of reality and the source of creation can not be understood through the intellect alone.

Indian yogi Sadhguru points out that science is the product of the intellect, our primary survival tool. The intellect is one of four parts of the mind. The other three are memory (our accumulated information), identity (family, country, gender, profession, etc.), and pure consciousness that is unsullied by memory and accessible through special training like yoga and meditation. Science uses the intellect together with memory, the storage of data we receive through the five senses. Take away the memory and our intellect becomes useless.

Sadhguru argues that modern society has focused on intelligence at the expense of experiencing life. Quantum physics tells us scientifically that everything is connected, yoga is a technique to personally experience this connectedness by developing our sensory body and mind. Sadhguru points out that the mind is only a small part of the human body. The body has many more cells, neurons, and subatomic particles than the conscious mind. When we optimize our sensory body and develop an exuberant mind, we experience the entire universe as ourselves and we get closer to the source of creation.

“I think with my whole body,” said Sadhguru. “There is a way to do this. It may not necessarily be a conscious thought, but there is a way to perceive information through your body because your body processes far more complex information than your mind.”

He noted that yoga can make us realize that our body communicates with the entire cosmos, but it requires us to empty our memory, discard our likes and dislikes and overcome our identity. Said Sadhguru: “Look at everything as an infant does  –  absorbing everything, not judging anything, not labeling anything.”

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Jan Krikke

Jan Krikke is a former Japan correspondent for various media, former managing editor of Asia 2000 in Hong Kong, and author of Quantum Physics and Artificial Intelligence in the 21st Century: Lessons learned from China.