Everyday Semiotics

Monday, January 02, 2006

Spooky action at a distance

This past week in the New York Times science section there were two articles, not quite side by side, that together in my mind posed a question of some interest and relevance to this blog.

How is science to be defined?

One of the Science Times articles was about the efforts of a number of self-identified scientists and one "concerned citizen, amateur pirate or person of negligible education" to undermine creationism and intelligent design through humor. Many of my readers will no doubt be familiar with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, founded recently in response to the Kansas Board of Education's re-definition of science to include intelligent design.

There was also an article on quantum mechanics, apropos of nothing, but nonetheless quite interesting and almost readable. Therein the reporter often refers back to Albert Einstein's early apprehension about quantum mechanics, when it was still entirely a thought experiment and had not been submitted to laboratory techniques. The simple problem was it just did not track with reality. Or at least it did not track with reality as it is construed by the scientific method.

Quantum mechanics apparently flies in the face of natural laws like the law of conservation of energy and the speed of light, though mathematics and now laboratory tests show that at least some of the early theoretical statements hold true. Individual particles can be found to exhibit opposite qualities at the same moment -- they can spin clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time, for example. The actions of one particle can have an instantaneous and corresponding effect on other particles elsewhere, distances seems to be of no consequence; likewise, groups of particles have been found moving in exact synchronicity. A single particle can even be demonstrated to exist in two different places at the same time, a sort of proof of the possibility of teleportation, at least on the atomic level. Scientists are now preparing to demonstrate this on a large scale by duplicating a small mirror, according to the article.

So on the one side we have an irreconcilable difference between science and itself -- quantum mechanics disproving the laws of nature or vice versa -- while on the other side we have the insertion of a (to an agnostic) reasonable though mystical notion into the once fairly exclusive continuum of science. In either case the long-standing definition of science and the scientific method is jeopardized.

Far be it from me as a semiotician to criticize the Kansas Board of Education's wordplay. Truth be told, the quantum mechanics example demonstrates an inherent instability of any definition of science that relies upon a codified methodology.

Einstein and company concluded in 1935 that quantum theory was either incomplete -- that is, there was more to explain the strange properties of subatomic particles than met the eye -- or that, somehow, observing one particle somehow changes the behavior of other seemingly unconnected particles. "Entanglement" as this strange property was dubbed, is where the violation of the speed of light comes in, since their interaction, the spread of their influence, is instantaneous, occurring precisely at the moment the first particle is observed.

I hadn't ought to pretend to be an expert on this, but the crux of the matter appears to be as follows. Following the tenets of quantum mechanics, scientists can very accurately predict the position and movement of a particle without even observing it, by observing an entirely different particle released by the same atomic explosion. The supercollider does its thing and scientists find one of the orphaned electrons, and based on its position and movement, they know exactly what the other electron is up to. When they do finally observe the second electron, it's doing exactly what they thought it would. Whether it was acting thus all along can't be known; in fact it can barely be assumed, if my understanding is correct.

From the article (NYT 27 December 2005, "Quantum Trickery: Testing Einstein's Strangest Theory," by Dennis Overbye):

"Before a measurement is made, so the traditional story goes, the electron exists in a superposition of all possible answers, which can combine, adding and interfering with one another.

"Then, upon measurement, the wave function 'collapses' to one particular value."

One hypothesis is that particles radiate waves representing every possibility, waves that "collapse" under observation for some unknown reason. Another hypothesis, the theory of "multiple worlds," is that all these possibilities do come to pass, though in alternate realities.

(Cf. Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 163, "Parallels," wherein Worf unwittingly flies his shuttlecraft through a quantum anomaly and experiences a number of alternate realities, each of them stemming from previous moments in his life in which events could have unfolded a number of different ways.)

Erwin Schrodinger made a pointed criticism of Einstein's somewhat paranoid musings on "entanglement" and the idea of pre-observation "superpositions" with his famous cat-and-radioactive-isotope-in-a-box routine. In this scenario, the isotope has a 50-50 chance of decaying and therefore releasing deadly radiation. If we were to think about this scenario like a quantum physicist, Schrodinger said, then we would accept that the cat was both dead and alive while locked in the box, since there would be no empirical proof that it was either dead or alive until the box was opened.

Schrodinger's parody has a startling similarity to Lacan's assertion that there is no subject outside of language. Both arguments are metaphorical, though not entirely. In both cases, it is a means of quantification that constitutes existence or event. One is the scientific method, which is so many different kinds of observation and so many different forms of measurement. The other is language, which is so many different predetermined but unstable ranges of description and qualification.

The problem of science is that it is mitigated not just once, and perhaps more than twice, by systems of communication. First there is empirical data -- velocity, molar weight, etc. -- which indeed tells the scientist quite a bit. But does this information tell the scientist everything he needs to know? The NYT article makes several references to a realm "behind the quantum veil" where more physical laws, ones we haven't theorized about or observed yet, obtain. Second there is language itself. The empirical information -- numbers, that is -- are meaningless until they are placed into the format of the description of an experiment.

But to get back to the question -- How is science to be defined?

Perhaps relation to any kind of reality -- something that exists even when it is not observed -- shouldn't be included. Niels Bohr was less bothered by quantum theory than Einstein; he said science is about reproducing results under lab conditions, not about reality.

But even so there is still a method, which leads to findings, which leads to theories and eventually laws of nature. Evolution is necessarily still and only a theory – the creationists, sadly, are right on that point. Not the least of the reasons it is still a theory is because the results can't quite be reproduced to prove it a law -- for that we would need several Earth-sized laboratories and a few trillion years to observe each of them closely in its turn.

At this point in the argument, then, it seems that if intelligent design isn't science, then neither is evolution. The key difference, used in the recent Pennsylvania court case about the teaching of intelligent design in schools, is that evolution at least attempts to follow scientific methods, whereas intelligent design makes no such attempt. While we don't have any Earth-sized laboratories or a few trillion years to work with, we do have human and chimp genomes to compare, and the similarities make for a compelling argument in evolution's favor.

And what about quantum mechanics? Is that science? Based on our more deeply held beliefs about the laws of nature, it seems more like magic, and quantum physicists are quick to say so. ("Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood a single word," said Niels Bohr.)

If science is to be defined by its methods, then it must be a relatively loose definition. Semiotically speaking it must of course exclude a lot of meaning, but it must also include a great deal -- reproducible lab results, genetic comparisons, theoretical mathematics, and a good deal more I'm certain.

If, on the other hand and as the Kansas School Board has seen fit, science is to be defined not just as the search for natural explanations to phenomena, then perhaps the word science should be done away with altogether and replaced with "possibilities."

Like an electron in its superposition prior to observation, the true story of humankind's origins is for the time being one of infinite potentially true stories. It will take an instrument infinitely more powerful than an electron microscope, however, to observe the matter and find out whether we were created by random chance, God, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.