Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Quanta versus Machines



Image courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

Image courtesy of Emok (Wikimedia Commons)

This essay discusses Casimir effects, quantum phenomena that gum up minuscule machine parts. Since we now have very tiny machines, you can expect to see this happening. My iPhone died mysteriously two weeks ago. I took it to the store and the people there couldn't figure out what had happened. I wonder whether its micromirrors (as mentioned in the Science Daily piece) got gummed up this way. The effect occurs when two components are very close to one another—even in a vacuum.

What interests me mostly is that this is another deconstructive nail in the coffin of believing in a hard, thin ontological firewall between “macro” and “micro” scale events. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation and subsequent conventional wisdom, quantum phenomena are limited to a microcosmic domain. Hmm, where have I heard this suspicious binary before...back in the Middle Ages, maybe, when I was being burnt at the stake?...

I've been posting recently about how quantum phenomena are now visible to the naked eye and about how photosynthesis employs quantum entanglement. Photosynthesizing molecules are definitively macro, in case you're wondering. And about how we still cling to Newtonian physics even though it's only a good-enough working approximation—we still believe somewhere deep down in little shiny ping pong balls.

I've also been reading about how there is (as deconstruction would predict) a non-thin, non-rigid boundary between quantum and classical scale phenomena. All kinds of anomalous things occur at this shifting boundary. Casimir effects would appear to be one kind of complication for people wanting smooth, rigid worlds.

It's also another blow to mechanism in general. (It's a misnomer, really, “quantum mechanics”—should be called “quantum non-mechanics.”) Niels Bohr used to take his colleagues up to a certain clock tower in Copenhagen to show them the large cog wheels (it was Vor Frelsers Kirke), and then explain that the Universe just wasn't like that at a deep level. The Casimir effects presumably work by making two separate components cohere with one another—share particles or splash into one another (whichever takes your fancy).

What does this have to do with ecology? Everything! For a start, last time I checked, life forms were made of matter. And matter does this weird wavy stuff. The quantum view is also profoundly ecological—even more so than biology in the sense that an actual electron, say, only exists as such because of its surrounding environment. Tweak the wave functions and it's something else.

This happens all the time. Think about radiation. It penetrates your skin—because matter can be wavelike. You can easily imagine one wave sloshing through another one. Now of course if there really are little ping pong balls down there, we live in a nihilistic realm of miracles where things can travel faster than light, etc.

Two great flavors: Classic and Quantum

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