The queer realm of quanta

Since I finished the Sagan book on the evolution of intelligence, I’ve been working my way slowly through Kenneth Ford’s The Quantum World. It spends a lot of time defining the ‘fundamental’ particles (which are in scarequotes because we think they’re the fundamental particles…but then there’s string theory, for one) and discussing the original experiments that demonstrated the existence (and distinctness, esp. of the different neutrinos) of various particles. Apparently great scientists do their most notorious work within a year or so of age 26 … with several important exceptions.

Frankly, there is a lot more detail in the book than I can really absorb, although it is giving me a little better idea of certain ideas that I had been aware of only vaguely. The quantum tunneling effect is one of those — I knew of it, but not even by that title. The idea as I knew it was that some particles at the smallest level could actually pass through a solid wall (think 50m thick dense metal alloy). Or maybe it would be more appropriate to call it an “impenetrable barrier” — it’s more likely a field of electric charge. This is not something that they should be able to do, according to classical mechanics. It looks like the wavelike properties of particles have something to do with tunneling; anyway the fact that particle positions at a given time are based on probability definitely does, and the part I’m getting to now is saying that wavelengths and probability are related in the quantum world.

…So, actually, I don’t think I can say any more about it than I could before, except some vague and tentative rubbish about waves. But you know how there are like a million neutrinos passing through your body every second? (And by “a million,” I mean “a lot.”) And you don’t even blink about it? Well, you do now. Neutrinos are neutral; they have no electric charge. IIRC, that’s why they pass through most matter like … a stroll in the summer breeze. Most of the mechanical-type interactions (bumping, colliding, rebounding off of objects) between bits of matter are electromagnetic; without a positive or negative charge, neutrinos blissfully ignore* all those positive- and negative-charged bits and pass on by.

This is a weird subject. It seems sensible enough when I’m reading, but away from the book I don’t feel like I have any idea what it’s talking about. (By the way, everything spins, and everything that’s heavier than something else in its little clique will eventually – i.e. probably in less than a hundred-thousandth of a second – decay into that something else, along with some stuff like neutrinos or photons to balance out the charges in the equation. Balancing equations is nice. It’s more familiar.)

If I’m horribly wrong about something I just said, or if you can explain it to me better, please tell. I don’t feel like I get it, but I do have a tendency to make things harder than they are…or at least to believe that I don’t understand something that in fact I do understand.

* Not blissfully; neutrinos can’t be blissful. They have no will, so they literally couldn’t care less.


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