Ever wish you could be in two places at once? Microscopic systems like atoms, molecules, and even cells can be in two places at once. So, why can’t macroscopic systems, like a human body? Or can we??
In our everyday reality (called the classical world), our physical laws say it’s impossible to be in two places at once. But, according to quantum mechanics, microscopic systems can be in two or more places at the same time, a principle called superposition (also called quantum weirdness—no explanation needed). Atoms and electrons can be in two places at once. New discoveries are showing that molecules in plants and cells in birds also share this seemingly impossible characteristic. And, some theories now suggest that the neurons in our brain and, incredibly, DNA might also use this special ability.
The really neat thing about objects in superposition is that they remain somehow interconnected and can communicate even when they are separated, a characteristic called entanglement. In addition, what affects one will instantly affect the other even if they are separated by great distances.
One question bothering some physicists though is: why can’t larger objects in the everyday world, like a ball or a person, achieve quantum superposition and be in two places at once? The problem with superposition is that, the larger an object, the more easily its fragile quantum state collapses and is reduced to only one of its two locations. No one knows why a superposition collapses, but two of the most well known theories include:
- the conscious observer, who by observing or measuring the quantum state, induces it to collapse; and,
- the multiple universes view in which, when a superposition collapses, each state branches off to form another universe, resulting in an infinite number of universes.
The Penrose Interpretation
A third theory, known as the Penrose interpretation, was developed by Sir Roger Penrose, a respected and at times controversial physicist. Penrose theorizes that the collapse of large objects from their superposition is caused by gravity. Electrons, atoms, and molecules are so small that their gravity, and the energy needed to keep them in two places at once indefinitely, is insignificant.
However, large objects cannot exist in more than one place because of their significant gravitational fields that cause their superposition to collapse almost immediately. Penrose calculates that a person collapses to one place in a trillion-trillionth of a second. In comparison, a dust speck takes a whole second before collapsing (funny, I could swear the dust specks in my house are continually in superposition, given the number of them…).
Penrose and other physicists are still working on experiments to prove, disprove or refine the Penrose interpretation. But, let’s suppose for a moment that gravity is a factor in the collapse of a superposition, could that help to explain the phenomena of seeing someone’s double?
On June 22, 1893, Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon walked through the drawing room of his family home in London, looking straight ahead, without exchanging a word to anyone at the party being given by his wife. What made his appearance quite strange was that he was supposed to be on a ship off the coast of Syria. His wife later discovered that he had gone down with his ship, the HMS Victoria, that very same night.
Doppelgängers, bilocation and apparitional experiences are all instances in which an individual appears to be in two places at the same time.
- Bilocation is the state of being or the ability to be in two places at the same time and is often attributed to saints and religious figures.
- A doppelgänger is a tangible double of a living person that, to some, is a harbinger of bad luck or evil. The word is also used to describe the sensation of having glimpsed oneself in peripheral vision, when it could not have been a reflection.
- Apparitional experience is a term used in psychology and parapsychology to describe the unusual experience of apparently perceiving a living being or an inanimate object that isn’t physically there.
In most cases, these “doubles” appear to be solid and not transparent, and can be very realistic. An apparitional figure does not usually engage in any verbal or other type of interaction, and just disappears after a very short time. In some traditions, a doppelgänger seen by a person’s friends or relatives portends illness or danger.
If certain conditions are in place, could a brief moment of superposition be the cause of these unexplained sightings? If Penrose’s theory is correct about the importance of gravity in superposition, would it be possible for a person to experience a longer moment of superposition if their gravitational field is momentarily greatly reduced?
People who meditate or who experience sudden trauma or intense emotions often report a feeling of extreme lightness, of pure energy and/or of feeling detached from their physical body. Out-of-body experiences (OBEs), when a person’s conscious awareness appears to detach itself from the physical body and to travel to another location, occur most often during sleep, meditation, anaesthesia, illness, near death or sudden trauma. Could this physical lightness somehow cause a large enough reduction in a person’s gravitational field, allowing their superposition to remain intact for a bit longer than usual?
Other factors must come into play since, otherwise, all people who sleep, meditate, are anaesthetized, have an illness, are near death and suffer sudden trauma would be walking all over the place. Now that would be intense quantum weirdness.
Future posts will talk more about the scientific exploration of quantum superpositions and their potential importance in our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual lives.
Sources and Further Reading
Folger, Tim. “If an Electron Can Be in Two Places at Once, Why Can’t You?” Discover. June 2005 issue; published online June 5, 2005. Accessed February 1, 2011. http://discovermagazine.com/2005/jun/cover
“Penrose Interpretation” on Wikipedia. Accessed February 1, 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penrose_Interpretation
Gao, Shan. “On Diósi-Penrose Criterion of Gravity-Induced Quantum Collapse.” International Journal of Theoretical Physics (2010) 49: 849–853. (DOI 10.1007/s10773-010-0266-9) Published online 9 February 2010. Accessed February 10, 2011. http://www.sciencenet.cn/upload/blog/file/2010/8/2010810193411623942.pdf
Romero-Isart, Orio et al. “Toward Quantum Superposition of Living Organisms.” New Journal of Physics. 12:033015, 2010. Accessed at http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/0909/0909.1469v3.pdf on February 7, 2011.
Webb, Richard. “First quantum effects seen in visible object.” New Scientist online. Published 18:00 17 March 2010. Accessed February 7, 2011. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18669-first-quantum-effects-seen-in-visible-object.html
Kruglinski, Susan. “Roger Penrose Says Physics Is Wrong, From String Theory to Quantum Mechanics.” Discover. From the September 2009 issue; published online October 6, 2009. Accessed February 8, 2011. http://discovermagazine.com/2009/sep/06-discover-interview-roger-penrose-says-physics-is-wrong-string-theory-quantum-mechanics/?searchterm=”roger penrose”. Accessed February 7, 2011.
Musser, George. “Twistor Theory Reignites the Latest Superstring Revolution.” Scientific American. June 7, 2010. Accessed February 8, 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=simple-twist-of-fate
Interview for Insight, an Australian magazine sponsored by the Center for Human Development. Reprinted on website of Stuart Hameroff, MD (who is working with Roger Penrose on consciousness). Accessed February 8, 2011. http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/roundabout.htm
Awschalom, David D. et al. “Spintronics” Scientific American. Published May 13, 2002. Accessed January 7, 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=spintronics
Hameroff, Stuart. “Base Pair Qubits.” On his website at http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/dnaquantumcomputera.htm. July 4, 2010. Accessed February 9, 2011. Based on a recent paper by Rieper, Anders and Vedral; arxiv.org/abs/1006.4053: The Relevance of Continuous Variable Entanglement in DNA.
“Quantum Entanglement Holds DNA Together, Say Physicists.” Technology Review. 06/28/2010. Accessed February 9, 2011. http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/25375/
Keim, Brandon. “Everywhere in a Flash: The Quantum Physics of Photosynthesis.” Wired Science. Published February 3, 2010, 2:40 pm. Accessed on February 9, 2011. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/02/quantum-photosynthesis/
Apparitional experience. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Accessed February 10, 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apparitional_experience
Doppelgänger. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Accessed February 10, 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doppelg%C3%A4nger
Bilocation. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Accessed February 10, 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bilocation
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