Friday, April 10, 2009

The Copenhagen Interpretation, Why I hate ordering in Restaurants, and Why you can’t tell God what to do.

As most of us know, quantum mechanics is the study of atomic and subatomic systems. Within these systems, we find a range of tiny particles, such as protons, electrons, neutrons, photons and neutrinos. Imagine you are squinting at an atom of carbon. Can you see the six electrons flying around the nucleus? Didn’t think so! They could be anywhere!

Particle physicists describe the probability of the location of such particles as a wave function.
This is, in effect, a set of the locations in which the particle might be found. Sounds pretty lazy, huh? It is more natural for us to believe that everything is observable and has a definite position.

But what happens when we actually observe the particle? Now we know where it is, so the wave function is no longer useful to us. The set of locations collapses into a single location. A dot. This theory of the collapsing wave function is known as the Copenhagen interpretation.

So what has this to do with ordering in a restaurant? When I look at a good menu, there could be up to a dozen things I want to try. A set of menu items, arranged in my mind like a gastronomic wave function. All possibilities are equally tantalizing, equally probable. Belly of pork dripping with pear jus, steaming lobster glaring in beady-eyed recrimination, paella pretending it is not just leftovers in rice, cruel and tempting jalfrezi scattered with landmine chilies, overrated sea bass drizzled with cheap olive oil and the ever-present, dumb slab of cow arse with choice of sauce.

I ride the wave like a rollercoaster. I send the waiter away three times. I demolish all of the bread and ask for more. Finally, I opt for the safe bet, boring old cow arse. The wave collapses. Out of all those dazzling possibilities, I have chosen steak for the 172nd time in my life. The disappointment is crushing. Maybe I shouldn’t have ordered at all.

Now, Einstein would argue that you can’t play dice with God. Things are as they are and all those possibilities never really existed. The electron was only ever in one location. I was always going to order the steak. Niels Bohr (who was from Copenhagen and therefore probably knew more about this than anybody) told Einstein to shut his cake hole. ‘Don’t tell God what to do,’ was his response.

I believe you should be able to tell God what to do. After all, he’s our God, isn’t he? I’d tell him to get his ass into the kitchen and get me a plate of everything. With mustard, gravy, strawberry sauce, and a fried egg on top.

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