Ghost States and Collapsing Possibilities (Micro Edition)

We are continuing our walk through Chapter 2 of What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell.  If you haven’t read part one, click this link here and then come back and join this conversation.

Now that we have a tiny inkling of how immense the universe as a whole is, Bell changes direction to observe the opposite end of the spectrum.

“The Greeks had a word tomos, which referred to cutting or dividing something.  Out of this they developed the concept of something that was a-tomos, something ‘indivisible, uncuttable,’ something that everything else was made of.  Something small, of which there is nothing smaller.  Something atomos, from which we get the word atom….

Atoms, as it turns out, are small…

A single grain of sand contains 22 quintillion atoms (that’s 22 with 18 zeroes).

An atom is in size to a golf ball as a golf ball is in size to the Earth.

That small.” (location 393-394)

We scale from the grand magnitude of planets and black holes and quasars and galaxies down to the mighty, little atom.  The basic particle from which all others are made up of.  Or so we thought.

“But atoms, it was discovered are made up of even smaller parts called protons, neutrons, and electrons.  The protons and neutrons are in the center of the atom, called the nucleus, which is one-millionth of a billionth of the volume of the atom.  If an atom were blown up to the size of a stadium, the nucleus would be the size of a grain of rice, but it would weigh more than the stadium.” (location 405)

Personally I find it difficult to grasp the scope of smallness even more difficult to grasp then the scope of largeness.   We have the Hubble Telescope capturing the majesty of the heavens and sending back beautiful pictures of unseen galaxies.  At least we have reference points when considering planetary bodies.  But an atom?  It seems purely theoretical to me!  We have the atom, broken down into protons and neutrons and electrons.  But WAIT! there’s more!

“…it was discovered that those particles are actually made up of even smaller particles.  And then technology was developed to split those particles…

Down and down it went, smaller and smaller, further and further into the subatomic world.

…..led to the discovery of an astonishing number of new particles over the next few years, from bosons and hadrons and baryons and neutrinos to mesons and leptons and pions and hyperons and taus.  Gluons were discovered, which hold particles together, along with quarks, which come in a variety of types – there are up quarks and down quarks and top quarks and bottom quarks and charmed quarks and, of course, strange quarks.” (location 405-415)

Charmed Quarks!  That is the name of my new Math Metal band.  Bell reminds us that there have been over 150 subatomic particles found so far, with the Higgs Boson being the latest.

Believe it or not, this is all laying a foundation for what is to come.  Let your inner science geek loose for a few minutes and take this journey with me.  Bell goes on to say that scientists

“…learned that electrons don’t orbit the nucleus in a continuous and consistent manner; what they do is disappear in one place and then appear in another place without traveling the distance in between.

Particles vanish and then shop up somewhere else, leaping from one location to another, with no way to predict when or where they will come or go.

…physicists realized that particles are constantly in motion, exploring all the possible paths from point A to point B at the same time.  They are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.

A given electron not only travels all of the possible routes from A to B, but it reveals which path it took only when it’s observed.  Electrons exist in what are called ghost states, exploring all of the possible routes they could take, until they are observed, at which point all of those possibilities collapse into the one they actually take.” (location 435-444)

Put on your thinking cap and re-read that last paragraph.  Electrons, part of the fundamental fabric from which the entire Universe is built, are “simultaneously everywhere and nowhere” at the same time.   This isn’t philosophy or theoretical physics.  This is tried and true science, with repeatable and predictable experiments.

Let’s look at the double slit experiment:

When we observe the experiment, we actually change the results!  (I fear I’m going down a tangent, so let me refocus my thoughts here.)

Bell continues in chapter 2 by telling of the dual nature of light.  It is both a particle and a wave, exactly like in the video above.  He talks of complementarityor how something can be two different things at the same time, and entanglement.  Entangled quantum particles show that they are aware of each other after they have been separated.  There is no signal involved,   There is explainable connection between the particles, but if you interact with one, the other does the same thing while no explainable connection exists between the two.

Then, finally Bell asks the question you are asking yourself right now, “What does any of this have to do with what we talk about when we talk about God?”

His response is this:

“Three responses, then, beginning with energy, then moving to to involvement, and then a bit about surprise.

Surprise.”  (location 511)

I always fear that I ramble on too long, and I don’t want to bore you. I will finish up next time and explain how this energy, involvement and surprise helped lead me back to theistic thinking.