Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Let's go for a walk... Part 5: The Quantum Mechanics of Children

My two younger kids were out of school last week. For this post, the importance of that is that they "got" to go on the noonish dog walk with me. "Got" being a relative term. But let me digress for a moment.

Quantum mechanics is a... difficult... field of study. One of the fundamental principles of quantum theory is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. It is so difficult to understand that many quantum physicists don't fully understand it. In fact, when Heisenberg originated his principle, it was largely intuitive, because they didn't really have the instrumentaion to actually demonstrate what Heisenberg was really saying. At any rate, it was a demonstration of vast intelligence and understanding.

A simple way of stating the uncertainty principle is this:
Oh, wait, there is no simple way. Okay, well, without getting into the actual physics of it, the best way to say it is that the act of observing something changes its behavior. Yeah, I could explain how this pertains to subatomic particles, but it works just as well as I've said it for my purposes here.

The interesting thing is that this doesn't just apply to physics. Think back to the last time you were alone, there was a song playing that you really like, you were belting it out at the top of your lungs, only... Only you weren't alone. You didn't realize, though, until halfway through the song that you were being observed. Your face turned red. Your voice constricted. The sound choked off. The observer probably smiled and told you to carry on, but you couldn't. Not now. You were being watched.

At least, that's the typical response. The alternate response is to sing even louder in an effort not to have the typical response.

Try watching kids play. As long as they don't know you're watching, everything is good. My favorite, though, is when a young child, around 5, falls and gets a scrape. If they think no one is watching, they pretty much shake it off and go about their business. If they know an adult saw, or, sometimes, even another kid, it's time for hysterics and water works.

But how does all of this pertain to my kids being out of school and walking the dog? Well, I'll tell you. And you may get a bit more of the physics with this, too.

Walking with my kids and the dog is rather like being an atom. I suppose that makes me a proton while the kids and the dog are electrons. They really don't orbit like planets do they way they teach you in high school. No, electrons orbit in electron clouds layered around the nucleus of the atom. And that's what it feels like to be walking with my kids. I mean, here I am, a proton, trying to mind my own feet and walk down the path, and I have these electrons bouncing all around me. And it doesn't matter how much I watch them, analyze their movements, as soon as I think I know where one of them is going, BOOM!, their position suddenly changes! As soon as I think I know where one of them is, BAM!, their direction changes!

I don't suggest trying to walk that way, especially when one of the three electrons is physically tethered to your arm. I think I must have looked like a drunk proton, because I certainly couldn't follow a straight line.

So, yeah, these are the thoughts I have when walking with my kids... I had a whole walk dwelling on the uncertainty principle just because I could never figure out which way they were going.

But, wait! There's more!

It also occured to me that writing should be sort of like this. At least, it should look like this from the point of view of the observer. Um, I mean the reader.

Here's the thing, when writing is like the planets, i.e. predictable, it's boring. The reader knows where everything is going, and, after a while, doesn't even need to pay attention anymore. It becomes like watching a clock. Tick tick tick. No one likes sitting and watching a clock. Because the act of observing a clock makes it stop altogether. Right?

However, when we write on a more quantum level, the reader can never quite figure everything out. They can't quite tell what direction one thing is going in or they can't quite figure out what's happening in this other place. It keeps the reader interested and keeps them observing longer.

Now, this doesn't mean be completely crazy. After all, electrons tend to stay with their nuclei. Well, unless some outside force acts upon them. At any rate, the reader wants to be able to get some idea of what is going on; that's why they're watching (reading) in the first place, so it can't be too unpredicatble. I mean, you don't want to be studying a carbon atom and find out that it's spontaneously become an oxygen atom. That would just be weird. Although, if you could duplicate it, you'd probably get a Nobel Prize for it.

So, I guess, I don't mind too much that my kids bounce around so much and the dog takes such sudden tangents. It does help me to work some quantum mechanics into what might be purely classical mechanics writing. And we wouldn't want that.
I urge you to do the same... Let's get quantum!


  1. Quantum physics is so dense and incomprehensible that it's probably just a bunch of baloney. I mean that thing with the cat in the box seems pretty ridiculous. But the point you made about singing makes sense. People do have a public persona and a private persona with certain rules each follows, especially the public one that dictates things like singing in public are generally not acceptable.

  2. I have been known to sing at the top of my lungs in a room that I thought was empty. When I get caught, I usually end up doing some kind of slapstick fall to the floor where I hope it'll just open up and swallow me whole.

  3. That's an interesting way to look at your kids. But the reason behind the changes in behavior when being observed as opposed to when not being observed boils down to simple self-confidence, shame, and whether or not someone enjoys putting on a show.

    What goes on at the atomic level and increasingly greater particles of size (Hawking used bucky balls to illustrate the idea in his book written with Leonard Mlodinow) has nothing to do with shame or self-confidence.

    Einstein was famous for saying to his partner "Can you prove to me that the moon is there when no one is looking for it?"

    The answer to this is (oddly enough) No.

  4. So if I am singing but no one hears me am I really making a sound?
    Makes sense for writing. But the whole cat in the box thing doesn't.

  5. I'm so completely nervous - even though I'm a teacher I am very self conscious.

    And when I do group work with students I noticed that they mostly do better when I back off and let them work together than when I'm not close.

  6. This is also like singing in the car with your whole heart belting out tunes, then pulling up to a stoplight and you just hum until the other cars drive away and then you're back on stage in your head again..

  7. Grumpy: The cat in the box is more of a philosophy thing; although, I did consider using it as part of the analogy.

    M.J.: Has that ever worked? The floor opening thing?

    Michael: Well, yeah, I know that, but the analogy works all the same. It is the process of being observed (on the atomic level) that causes the changes that make things unknown which is very similar to how people react to being observed. It's the process.

    Alex: That depends... are you deaf?

    Pish: Have you ever been singing in the car and realized that the person next to you is staring?

  8. Actually, I really like to observe people in their cars when I can, because people have the sense that being in their car is a private space. Do you have any idea how many people pick their noses at stop lights because they feel like they're alone?
    If they only knew...

  9. I'm happy that Star Trek has Heisenberg compensators - because then you don't have to worry about those pesky physics problems - they've been compensated for.

    Anyway, I've always enjoyed trying to make analogies about some given and then applying them to everyday phenomenon.

    Like most kids probably did, that electron cloud, that you pointed out is generally incorrectly described in text books as a mini-solar system, always made me think of the teeny little people that must inhabit those little solar systems. I would waste hours trying to think of our own solar system as an atom, and what giant beings might be wondering if beings could possibly live in those atoms.

    Oh well, it's fun to let the mind wander, that's when I have most of my flashes of insight.

  10. "I think I must have looked like a drunk proton."

    That's a great quote.

    And yes, we should all be more quantum with our writing. I've never thought of it that way, but I do hate when something is so predictable you're just waiting around for it to happen.

    For me, another fun variation to just being quantum is setting up a blatant predictability and then shattering that with something completely different. Take THAT, reader! That's what you get for assuming!

  11. Michael, if Einstein said that, he was either joking or dumb. I can prove the moon is there without seeing it by looking at the tides, which are caused by the moon.

    I love the Leon Uncertainty Principle of Kids. Far more useful to the everyday person than Heisenberg's own theory, which had the detriment of mucking up what until then had been a pretty clearcut world. I mean, a while back, we had just the four elements: Air, Fire, Water, and the other one that nobody ever remembers. Then "science" had to come along and say stuff about junk and suddenly everything was complicated.

    Yeah, sure, we got mp3s out of it, but can you prove that those still exist when you are not looking at them? Think about it.

    I believe I may have overmedicated myself today.

    Anyway: It's been a while since I checked in here and I am willfully blowing off a brief I'm supposed to be doing to read this. And I want to say again that I have been reading "The House On The Corner" like crazy; I've just gotten up to the part where they play D&D and in light of what you've written here today, I will say that you NAILED IT: I have no idea where the story is going but it's a great story nonetheless. At least three times I have thought "OK, that's what this story is" and then it's not that thing AT ALL.

    Everyone who reads this blog should, if they have not done it already, immediately go buy a copy of your book.

  12. I read something recently about some sort of bacteria or something that actually acts differently when being watched through a microscope (versus how it acts when being filmed through a microscope with no human nearby). It's annoying me that I can't remember WHAT it was.

    So, yeah, that would be more impressive information if I remembered what the heck it was. Sigh.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  13. Rusty: Can I have some compensators?

    I used to have similar thoughts about atoms and the solar system. However, I was, actually, glad to find out that atoms don't really work like the solar system. I'm not sure why that is.

    ABftS: Yeah, that can be a good thing to do. Unless the reader comes to feel like the author is just screwing with them. Mostly, I see this in movies/tv shows, though. Like, we were watching No Country For Old Men, and my wife got pissed at the ending because it was like that.

    Briane: Um... I think that one you're looking for is Dirt.

    I'm glad you're enjoying the book. I couldn't resisit re-printing your comment. Thanks for that :)

    Shannon: That sounds very interesting. I think I have a vague memory of hearing about that. I may have to try and look it up. If I can manage to remember to.

  14. I don't know that I stop singing, I just try to sing better so the behavior still changes. I love seeing a kid fall and then look around to see what kind of response the fall got before deciding whether or not they are going to cry. Let me clarify, I don't love seeing kids fall.

  15. Nancy: I know! Isn't that a great behavior to observe. Watching to see if they'll shake it off and go on. But still being there in case they need a hug.