Last week I read Quarantine (Greg Egan, 1992), a science fiction novel that explores one of the more vexing conundrums in basic physics: the measurement problem. Egan’s stories (novels and shorts) often explore some specific aspect of physics (sometimes by positing a counterfactual reality, as in the Orthogonal series).
In Quarantine, Egan posits that the human mind, due to a specific set of neural pathways, is the only thing in reality that collapses the wave-function, the only thing that truly measures anything. All matter, until observed by a mind, exists in quantum superposition.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to explore how this ties into the plot without spoiling it, so I’ll have to tread lightly.
Too Weird For Words!
I started with the idea of physical determinism and what it implies about free will and the future. Then I touched on chaos theory, which is sometimes raised as a possible way around determinism (short answer: nope). In the first article I drew a distinction between “classical” mechanics and quantum mechanics because only at the quantum level is there any sign of randomness in reality.
It turns out that the quantum world is decidedly weird, and while we have math and models that seem to describe it extremely well, it can honestly be said that no one actually understands it. This time I’ll tell you about some of that weirdness and how it may (or may not) apply to the world as we know it.
The key question here is whether our brains make use of quantum effects.