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The world of the small has been understood with perfect accuracy · But does this theory make reality disappear while also constantly multiplying it a billionfold?
The Classical Physics World
The Physics of our Normal Experience
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The Weird Quantum World
Particles stay connected across vast spaces
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What's Reality Really Like?
Is there even reality under our measurements?
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The Small-vs-Big Mismatch
Quantum and Relativity Contradict Each Other
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No More Objective Reality, Sorry.... While Isaac Newton (1643-1727) developed his amazingly-accurate "Classical Physics" understanding of the Universe, it didn't last. Around the turn of the 20th century, very strange experimental results drove scientists like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Max Planck to develop Quantum Physics. Not only had the "Classical World" of Newton begun to fail in cosmology, the new sciences of optics and thermodynamics were also giving funny results for the universe's very tiny objects that Newton's theories couldn't predict. But these problems were actually proof that Science was being done carefully and correctly: older theories were being tested, and were coming up with wrong answers (that is, were being "falsified") in these new sciences. Scientists actually get excited about this kind of "problem," since it promises to provide new understanding.

While this new Quantum Physics performed perfectly, however, explaining all those funny results with amazing accuracy, it also forced scientists into extremely uncomfortable ways of looking at the world. In fact, most scientists concluded that "objective reality," a reality that existed even when we weren't looking, was just an illusion. Instead, "reality" was constantly being created by interactions like the collisions of subatomic particles, and even by their process of scientific measurement itself. The discomfort of this problem went right to the heart of Science itself, since it had to investigate reality, not some illusion. To Science's credit, while it pushed hard on this idea of reality as an illusion, it never allowed its discomfort to deny the principles of Science in order to save objective reality.

But Quantum Physics wasn't out of the woods yet. As scientists continued to put it to the test, it became clearer and clearer that Quantum Physics could not fit with the other major theory with a perfect record of predictions: Einstein's theory of General Relativity. At least one of these two theories, each of which worked perfectly in its own regime, had to be wrong.
Where's the Science?  Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) took science into the modern age. His gravitational equations flawlessly predicted the behavior of falling objects. Newton invented new mathematics and developed most of what is known today as classical physics. He developed an extremely detailed picture of the universe where distance, speed and time scaled linearly throughout space, just as though you were measuring them with a nice straight ruler and a perfect clock. And that picture worked with total accuracy.

Under those ranges of distance, time and speed so familar to us, that is, in our daily lives as humans, the world appears to be governed quite correctly by this "Classical Physics". It's Newton's physics that we still rely on for practically all of life's ordinary decisions, expectations and activities. Swing a hammer and drive a nail? Newton's your man. Take a corner on a racing bike? Classical Physics knows Friction well. As long as you're not going a noticeable fraction of the speed of light, as long as you don't weigh as much as the Earth, as long as you're not trying to communicate over several million miles (okay, or do things that violate common sense), you can generally rely on Classical Physics to help you do it.

Carefulness was both the hallmark of Newton's work and also its downfall. Scientific carefulness, like self-skepticism and a commitment to falsifiable theories and repeatable results, led Newton to the kind of trustworthy understanding of the universe that others didn't find. But better-constructed theories, more capable instruments and more powerful experiments eventually began to show Classical Physics's cracks and faults. Here as always scientists were excited to find these difficulties so that better, more accurate theories of the universe could arise. That's just Careful Science at work. Still, just because it looks like Classical Physics only applies in a limited space-and-time regime doesn't mean you should count it out yet. There are serious, well-respected scientists today who are exploring the possibility[1] that a classical view may yet be applicable well into the regimes of quantum physics or general relativity. And that is exactly the kind of unwillingness to take the official answer that continues to fuel scientific progress.
Albert Einstein and his collaborators realized early in the history of Quantum Physics that the world's rules changed terrifically under that field of science. Some of the seemingly-impossible behaviors predicted and observed included measurements that created the reality they were measuring, objects winking out of existence between measurements, particles existing in more than one state simultaneously, and something called "entanglement", where two distinct particles stayed connected across vast distances and where both took on measurement values when only one of the two was measured.

Does something exist only when it's measured? The standard interpretation of Quantum Physics, called the "Copenhagen Interpretation", says yes. Before you look for something, all you know is the probability of finding it where you look. And that step of looking for it is what makes it appear where it is!  Needless to say, this way of looking at the world has not sat well with many scientists. But the good news for Scientific Method: when this view of the world was tested, and tested, and really, really tested, it held up solidly! Self-skepticism built an outstanding foundation under this view of quantum physics.

Questions arise, however, about the explanations some scientists have proposed to account for this strange idea. Some of the proposals for theories that may explain the absence of an "objective reality" fail the test of falsifiability or testability. One main candidate, called the "Many Worlds hypothesis," proposes that every time a measurement is made, or otherwise-undetectable particles collide, or any other interaction occurs to produce some observable result, the entire universe's path through time forks into two separate paths, duplicating everything in the universe on each path. As wild as the idea may seem, though, its main problem is that we can never access any of the diverging paths but our own. Because of this, the explanation cannot be disproved or falsified. And so, no matter how distinguished are the scientists who argue for this explanation, it can never be a scientific theory.
So have scientists really pushed hard on the idea that there's no objective reality? That's not a conclusion you'd want to reach lightly. Scientists understandably wanted to salvage the possibility of an objective reality, so in 1964 a scientist named John Bell developed a definitive test for such an "ultimate" underlying reality. If two events violated certain mathematical criteria, called Bell's Inequalities, then that ruled out any underlying connected reality between them. What did scientists find? They found that events were indeed connected to each other as expected. But here's the twist: even events that were clearly connected in an experiment violated Bell's Inequalities.  So there was no underlying reality connecting them! But if no underlying reality caused the events, what did cause them? The answer was that the measurement caused them, just as Quantum Physics claimed.

So this result argues that an underlying objective reality indeed doesn't exist: instead, the "classical" reality we experience is caused by the countless interactions constantly occurring among subatomic particles. These act like measurements and keep the world in a more-or-less "found" or "measured" state[2], just as we normally experience it.

Yet we still experience a stable, regular world! Quantum Physics and Classical Physics both demonstrate necessity (also called repeatability). That means that if the conditions are the same, the same event will result every time. Quantum Physics adds in an innate uncertainty, but it's always exactly the same uncertainty for any given conditions, so there is a regularity to that as well. So a measurement may show (or make!) a particle's state to be either up or down, but the particle's state will never be a banana. So does a fundamental reality exist? If not, careful science will still recognize that the universe has stable characteristics that will do as good a job of being reality as we will ever need.
Quantum Physics knows essentially nothing about gravity. "Quantum Gravity" is in fact the current cutting edge of Quantum Physics research. But so far, scientists have found no good way to connect Quantum Physics and its tiny graviton particle to Einstein's General Relativity Theory with its picture of gravity as vast distortions of the shape of space itself.

But what's the problem, you might ask? The problem is how to get from one to the other smoothly as we go from either small to large or large to small in our thinking. If scientists start from General Relativity and try to travel to Quantum Physics, the first speedbump is the fact that General Relativity is a "classical" theory like Newtonian Physics. That is, General Relativity knows nothing of quantum states: it assumes that everything always exists, and does not need to be measured to be real. Going the other way, if scientists try to solve that problem by developing a "quantum-aware" version of General Relativity, when they set down the key parameters for this theory, it turns out that scientists need an unlimited number of them, but can't tell which ones are correct. Another disconnect is the treatment of time: General Relativity sees time as a variable parameter of the universe and its contents, while Quantum Physics requires time to be unvarying and independent of the objects it describes.[3]

Scientists have addressed this problem of this mismatch between Quantum Physics and General Relativity with reasonably-careful thinking. The main reason for this may be that the size of this intellectual problem is huge, and as a result this divide tends to produce comparative humility in scientists' efforts to breach it. While most proposed theories to bring these two disciplines together cannot be validated today due to the huge energies of the effects they predict, Roger Penrose has proposed a possible interaction between gravity and quantum physics that may be just on the edge of testability.[4]
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