What is the Quantum Theory?

(1) Quantum Reality

This level of reality requires introducing concepts from the most successful scientific theory created by the human mind: Quantum Theory. This marvelous theory is the physicist’s theoretical structure which describes the activities of energy and matter on the atomic and subatomic level.

It is well known that Quantum Theory is the ‘belle of the ball’ among members of the scientific community, but there is another well-dressed and doted-upon prima-donna with an enormous reputation in the scientific arena: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Relativity explains how the universe behaves on the largest scale: galaxies, galaxy clusters, supernovas, and so on. In contrast, Quantum Theory explains the galaxy on the smallest scale: atoms, electrons, and subatomic units like quarks. Both explain nature’s work, but they are as compatible as my neighbor’s malicious cat and my charming canary. The rules that govern the “invisible” Quantum universe are not applicable to the universe that we perceive with our senses and vice versa.

At any rate, in spite of these discordances, both theories have been very successful independently. Obviously both cannot be correct at the same time… right? So, who is correct? Quantum or Relativity?

Unbelievably, both are indeed concurrently valid!

Currently, the ‘Standard Model of Particles’ is the bible of the atomic world. This model recognizes a universe of super-minute pieces of matter which interact among themselves via particles of forces. The particles of matter are called Fermions (quarks, electrons, etc.), while the particles of force are called Bosons (photons, gluons, etc.). The model also defines three of the four fundamental forces of nature: electromagnetism, strong nuclear force, and weak nuclear force. The fourth, gravity, is defined by Einstein’s relativity theory.

Now, if we magnify an atom, we will detect a dense nucleus surrounded by a “cloud” of electrons. Between the diameter of the nucleus and the diameter of the orbiting electron cloud, there is a ratio of 1:100,000. In order to visualize this, think of the primary atom of the universe: Hydrogen. Hydrogen is composed of a simple nucleus with one electron. If you enlarged its nucleus to the size of a basketball, its electron would proportionally be the size of a grape orbiting the nucleus at a seven-mile radius.

What is there in the space between the hypothetical basketball and grape?

Nothingness! Nada! Void! Or simply… Vacuum; what scientists call empty space.

So, if you were to compress all of the atoms that make up your body with an imaginary press to eliminate the empty space, your total body mass would hardly fill half of a thimble! Moreover, if these diminutive electrons (with almost no mass) were to stop their dance around the nucleus, you would become invisible to the naked eye. Imagine that!

However, the biggest surprise of all came about when Quantum Mechanics demonstrated that tiny pieces of matter in our Universe (the building blocks of galaxies, stars, planets, and all living things) have dual comportment. That is, they can act as two separate entities at once: electrons sometimes behave as waves and at other times as particles. In sum, particles are waves and waves are particles. At face value, this fact is as irrational as affirming that you can be solid as an iron ball, and at the same time as thin as tissue paper!

So, all matter and energy have the wave-particle duality as a fundamental attribute.

Another enormous discovery of Quantum Theory is that nature interacts through a complex web as a whole; that is, nothing is independent. In other words, there are no isolated entities or separate existences, and incidentally, you are one-hundred percent included in this cause-effect mesh.

There are hundreds of other strange examples which, if you try to understand them without mathematics, will likely drive you to insanity or launch your career as a “new-age” guru. Appropriately, the German nuclear physicist, Werner Heisenberg, once curiously quipped: “Can nature possibly be as absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?” Certainly this Quantum perspective is like being Alice in Wonderland, but like it or not, it is an accurate depiction of the landscape that makes up what I like to call our “Quantum Reality.”

Even though Quantum Theory and its “progeny” can be seemingly incomprehensible to us when utilizing our worldly logic and common sense, it has greatly strengthened our burgeoning information-technology era. Furthermore, it has, time after time, withstood vigorous experimental testing.

When this confrontation between relativity-physicists and quantum-physicists was ready to morph civilized discussion into a street fight, a new generation of young physicists developed the Quantum Theory of Gravity. This theory attempts to settle the differences between Relativity and Quantum theories, utilizing what is now known as Superstring Theory.

(2) Superstring Theory

Superstring Theory defines the following:

  • Subatomic particles are in fact infinitesimal, one-dimensional loops of a single string. Quarks and electrons appear as dissimilar particles only because the resonances of their strings are different.
  • Electrons and quarks make up atoms.
  • Atoms make up matter.

The most updated version of the ‘Superstring Revolution’ is called M-Theory, and to make our life a little more complicated, M-theory guarantees that the spatial fabric of our universe has eleven dimensions (ten of space and one of time) instead of Einstein’s four dimensions (the space-time continuum).

Why we do not perceive these other dimensions? Because seven of the space dimensions are curved up into a tiny space, says M-theory. The renowned Physicist Stephen Hawking says: M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find. The fact that we human beings –who are ourselves a mere collection of fundamental particles of nature– have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a triumph.

Is M-theory the theory of everything which explains in one set of equations the whole universe? Maybe, but at the moment, the most interesting prediction of this M-theory is the existence of an enormous number of other universes created out of nothing. To be more precise, these universes of spontaneous creation are estimated to number at approximately 10500! This number is so infinitesimally large that it is essentially impossible to visualize. Additionally, it is possible, under M-Theory, that each of these universes contains a different set of universal laws! For instance, in one hypothetical universe, matter might consist of something entirely different than atoms! Additionally, within this vast multiverse, a very similar universe to ours should likely exist somewhere else. For secular folks this M-Theory is like a chocolate cake with ice cream on top. For religious folks, this could be tantamount to pouring salt on an open wound.

(3) Additional Remarks 

Four points are important to mention:

  • Due to our perception, reality is extremely limited: what we believe is the real-world is just a set of abstractions that appear to be true only in our mind.
  • Energy can create matter (E=MC2).
  • Atomic units vibrate; hence, they are constantly emitting energy in the form of waves into and across the universe.
  • Uncertainty and probability are major attributes of the Quantum universe.

Karl de Azagra