One Thing Does Lead to Another

One Physics misconception that I still see bandied about, frequently, is that quantum physics is somehow fundamentally different than the classical physics we observe at larger scales.  Inevitably, Schrodinger’s cat is mentioned in there somehow, as a wearisome “example” of just how strange quantum physics is, compared to classical physics.  This entire meme drives the eyebrows right off my face, every time I see it.

There is no need for me to describe for you what I mean by this, since Philip Ball, a well-known science writer and an author of at least two dozen books (including Critical Mass:  How One Thing Leads to Another, which won the 2005 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books), has already described it so well.  Ball wrote an article for The Atlantic, titled “The Universe Is Always Looking,” which puts it all into perspective quite nicely.  In the article, Ball discusses how quantum coherence inevitably dissolves into decoherence at classical scales.  The article is a modified excerpt from Ball’s most recent book, Beyond Weird:  Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Physics is Different. 

In the article, Ball says that “(i)f we can understand how measurement unravels coherence, then we would be able to bring measurement itself within the scope of quantum theory, rather than making it a boundary where the theory stops.”  That is where The Enlightening comes in.  In the book, Merle Akeetheran performs a modified version of the double-slit experiment, and in so doing he explains exactly how attempts at measuring the quantum objects in the experiment collapse their interference pattern—i.e. how these attempts collapse their state of coherence.

Ball hints at the answer himself, extrapolating upon “the surrounding environment” regarding the decoherence of classical physics, at larger scales.  The truth is, the surrounding environment—namely the space-time continuum- is responsible for both coherence and decoherence, depending on the complexity of macrocosmic scales, and disruptions by measurement at much smaller, quantum scales.