(My last post was very late because I had taken part in a 10km walk on the Sunday and spent the week recovering.)
There’s a fundamental dichotomy at the heart of our Universe which I believe throws some light on why we see it the way we do. It’s the dichotomy between the discrete and the continuous.
A rock is single distinct thing, but if you look closely, it appears to be made of a smooth continuous material. We know of course that it is not really continuous but is constructed of a mesh of atoms each of which is so small that we cannot distinguish them individually, and which are connected to each other with strong chemical and physical bods.
If we restrict ourselves to the usual chemical and physical processes we can determine to a large extent determine what the atoms are which comprise the rock, and we can make a fair stab at how they are connected and in what proportions.
We can explain its colour and its weight, strength, and maybe its magnetic properties, even its value to us. (“It’s just a rock!” or “It’s a gold nugget!”) We have a grab bag of atoms and their properties, which come together to form the rock.
The first view of atoms was that they were indivisible chunks with various geometric shapes. This view quickly gave way to a picture of atoms as being small balls, like very tiny billiard balls. Then the idea of the billiard balls was replaced by the concept of the atom as a very tiny solid nucleus surrounded by a cloud of even tinier electrons.
Of course the nucleus turned out not to be solid, but to be composed of neutrons and protons, and even they have been shown to be made up of smaller particles. Is this the end of the story? Are these smaller particles fundamental, or are they made up of even smaller particles and so on, “ad infinitum”?
It appears that in Quantum Physics that we have at least reached a plateau, if not the bottom of this series of even smaller things. As we descend from the classical rock, through the smaller but still classical atoms, to the very, very small “fundamental” particles, things start to get blurry.
The electron, probably the hardest particle that we know of, in the sense that it is not known to be made up of smaller particles, behaves some of the time as if it was a wave, and sometimes appear more particle like. The double slit experiment shows this facet of its properties.
The electron is not unique in this respect, and in fact the original experiments were performed with photons, and scientists have performed the experiment even with small molecules, showing that everything has some wave aspects, though the effect can be very small, and is for all normal purposes unnoticeable.
A wave as we normally see it is an apparently continuous thing. As we watch waves rolling in to the beach we don’t generally consider it to consist of a bunch of atoms moving up and down in a loosely connected way that we call “liquid”. We see a wave as distributed over a breadth of ocean and changing in a fairly regular way over time.
At the quantum level particles are similarly seen to be distributed over space and not located at a particular point. An electron has wave like properties and it has particle like properties. Interestingly the sea wave also has particle like properties which can be calculated. Both the sea wave and the electron behave like bundles of energy.
You can’t really say that a wave is at this point or that point. A water may be at both, albeit with different values of height. If the wave is measured at a number of locations, then by extension it has a height in between locations. This is true even if there is no molecule of water at that point. The height is in fact the likely height of a molecule if it were to be found at that location.
By analogy, and by the double slit experiment, it appears that the smallest of particles that we know about have wave properties and these wave properties smear out the location of the particle. It appears that fundamental particles are not particularly localised.
It appears from the above that at the quantum level we move from the discrete view of particles as being individual little “atoms” to a view where the particle is a continuous wave. It points to physics being fundamentally continuous and not discrete.
There’s a mathematical argument that argues against this however. Some things seem to be countable. We have two feet and four limbs. We have a certain discrete number of electrons around the nucleus of an atom. We also have a certain number of quarks making up a hadron particle.
Other things don’t appear to be countable, such as the positions a thrown stone can traverse. Such things are measured in terms of real numbers, though any value assigned to the stone at a particular instance in time is only an approximation and is in fact a rational number only.
At first sight it would appear that all we need to do is measure more accurately, but all that does is move the measurement (a rational number) closer to the actual value (a real number). The rational gets closer and closer to the real, but never reaches it. We can keep increasing the accuracy of our measurement, but that just gives us a better approximation.
It can be seen that the set of rational numbers (or the natural numbers, equivalently) maps to an infinite subset of the real numbers. It is usually stated that the set of real numbers contains the rational numbers. I feel that they should be kept apart though as they refer to different domains of numbers – rational numbers are in the domain of the discrete, while the real numbers are in the domain of the continuous.