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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 physics.

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... nsuccessfully.

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 things.

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 being read in the supermarket, without quantum physics. Without quantum physics you wouldn’t have computer chips. You wouldn’t have mobile phones. You wouldn’t have, actually, most of the technology that we seem to rely on in the 21st century which depends on computers – none of that would be there without quantum physics. You wouldn’t have nuclear power, of course, but nor would you have molecular biology. You wouldn’t have genetic engineering. Much of modern molecular biology is based on quantum physics.

Quantum physics also explains how metals conduct electricity. For a long time before quantum physics, people knew that metals ...

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