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Buddhism and Quantum Physics

by Jnanavaca

Buddhism and Quantum Physics
by Jnanavaca

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM729

Talk given at the Western Buddhist Order Convention, 2005

‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true
art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to
wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.’

So, that’s some words from Albert Einstein. I wanted to start with words from Einstein,
who is I think a heroic figure; particularly because it is the hundredth anniversary this
year of Einstein’s discovery, or formulation, of Special Relativity, and of two other
papers that he published in that year: one which proved conclusively for the first time that
atoms really existed – that matter was made of atoms – and the third paper was on the
nature of light, on what light was.

That was all in 1905. He was twenty-six at the time, and he had a day job as a patent
officer. He had been rejected from university posts – he didn’t have a doctorate – because
he wasn’t seen to be disciplined enough, or good enough. So he was working in this
patent office and (presumably in the evenings) formulating these ideas, and he published
these three papers which overturned the whole of physics. Relativity overturned our
notions of space and time, and the papers on atoms and light, in a way, laid the
foundation stones for quantum physics. [Einstein] is sometimes thought of as the
grandfather of quantum physics; not so much the father, as the grandfather of quantum

Interestingly, he hated it – quantum physics, that is. He was never reconciled to the
grandchild that he had helped to spawn. He thought it was a bizarre, inelegant,
fundamentally flawed theory that he spent the rest of his life trying to disprove...

Anyway, all that aside... his words speak to me, because they speak of the sense of
wonder, and I think it is this sense of wonder that at least partly led me to want to study
physics. Partly it was also that I knew it was a not very popular option and if I wanted to
go to university I might get a place more easily! But it is also, in a way, part of what has
led me to the Dharma – this sense of wonder, and a sense of wanting to get to the truth of

And at the time, as a young eighteen year old, I thought that physics would get to the
truth of things. I was disappointed... in a way, fortunately.

Smritiratna prefaced this series [of talks] by talking about ‘absorbing influences’. In a
way, I feel a bit of a fraud to say that quantum physics is an absorbing influence. It’s
more like a tangential fad! – a fad that I have recently come back to over the last couple
of years through doing these courses.

And I looked back at my physics notes in preparation for things, and found that I couldn’t
understand a word of what I had written – which is quite disconcerting when you find
that it’s your own handwriting, and you can’t understand a word! So, most of what I am
going to talk about is gleaned from popular layman’s books on quantum physics that
anybody can read.

So, that’s me coming clean, as it were!

Mainly I am just going to talk about the physics. I’m not going to talk too much about the
Dharma. I am going to leave you to make the Dharmic parallels yourself – partly because
there isn’t time, and partly because I don’t think I need to spell things out too much and
join the dots for you. So, you can make the Dharmic links yourself.

What I’m going to do is say a few words to set quantum physics into context. Then I’m
going to actually have a look at it, and say, ‘What does it have to say about the nature of
Reality?’ Then I’ve got some reflections of my own, or gleaned from various sources –
and then I’ll conclude.

Introducing quantum physics; the physics of the very small; atoms as mostly empty

So, what is quantum physics? (This is the ‘contextual’ bit).

Well, it’s the physics of the very small. Physics, of course, concerns itself with matter –
that is what it is primarily concerned with, the science of matter – and quantum physics is
the physics of the very small bits of matter; the smallest bits of matter there are, that we
can imagine. It is primarily about atoms, and the bits that make up atoms. And atoms
make up everything else.

So I thought – well – how small? I would like to give you some illustrations of how small
is the very small. So I’m going to use some analogies:

If you take a granule of sugar – brown sugar – the light stuff, not the thick muscovado or
whatever, but the light demerara sugar... a grain is probably about a millimetre across,
isn’t it; a millimetre-ish. That little millimetre square, or cube, of sugar contains in the
order of a thousand billion billion atoms. A thousand billion billion (and a billion is a
thousand million – or at least that’s how I’m using it).

So, a thousand billion billion. That’s 1... if you wanted to write it out, it would be ‘1’
followed by twenty-one zeros – yeah?... which is... which is a lot, isn’t it?...
[LAUGHTER] ...It’s a lot. And that is in a grain of sugar, give or take probably a few... I
don’t know... billion? [LAUGHTER]

Another way that I came across of thinking about it was if you had a millimetre of ‘stuff’
– I don’t know – sugar, or anything else... and you wanted to count how many atoms you
would have to lay end to end to just form a millimetre line of atoms, it would be
equivalent (roughly) to laying pieces of paper on the ground, from the ground up to the
height of the Empire State Building. It would take as many sheets of paper to cover the
height of the Empire State Building, as there are lines of atoms in a millimetre.

So... that’s huge, isn’t it. That’s huge. And another fact which might help (or might not!)
– might help at least to bamboozle you – is that the little bits of atoms weigh roughly a
billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a gram – yeah? So, one gram of ‘stuff’ would have
to contain a billion billion billion of these things.

So I thought, well, what does a ‘billion billion billion’ look like? I mean it’s hard to know
what a billion billion billion is... and I came across this thing which said if you took sugar
cubes... (sugar seems to feature largely in my life!) ...if you took sugar cubes that are
about a centimetre cubed, and you laid them out end to end, how far would a billion
billion billion sugar cubes stretch?

And they would stretch to the distance of a billion light years – which is about a tenth of
the distance to the furthest known thing in the universe. So it’s about a tenth of the
distance of the observable universe – yeah? That’s how many a billion billion is!

So you could say that the quantum world is to a sugar cube as a sugar cube is to the entire
observable universe. It is that much smaller, to a sugar cube. So perhaps it is not
surprising that the physics of atoms is weird – very, very weird. I think it is extraordinary,
in a way, that human endeavour has been audacious enough to want to even try and probe
into that level of smallness.

But even more astounding is that within an atom mostly there’s nothing. One way of
thinking about an atom is that most of the stuff in there – most of the matter – is
condensed into a tiny, tiny, tiny bit at the centre, and that the rest of the ‘stuff’ is just
whizzing around it, flying around it in empty space.

So, an ‘electron’ is a bit of an atom that is flying around this stuff at the centre – this
nucleus. If you blew an atom up to the size of St. Peter’s Dome in Rome, which is the
largest dome, I’m told, in the world, then the stuff at the centre – the nucleus – would be
the size of a fly buzzing around that dome – yeah? The rest would be sort of empty space.

So what we think of as ‘solid stuff’ is largely empty – empty space. There is nothing
there. We have this illusion of solidity.

The relevance of quantum physics

So then I would say it’s worth asking, ‘All this physics of the very, very small, does that
have any relevance to our lives, to our ordinary experience, at all?’

And I just want to say why it does – in three ways.

Firstly quantum physics is the most successful scientific theory of matter that has ever
been developed. It is successful in its explanatory power – in how much it seems to be
able to explain of the material world – and also in its predictive power, so it can predict
how things should work. And much of modern technology, for good or ill, we owe to
quantum physics.

So, without quantum physics you wouldn’t have a laser – you wouldn’t have lasers at all.
So you wouldn’t have bar codes ...

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