Are there some things that are simply unimaginable? Not in the religious or philosophical sense, but are there things in our physical world that simply defy understanding?
I’ve been trying to recall what Aldous Huxley said about this. As I remember, he wrote that until 1905, a well educated man or woman could achieve a working knowledge of anything in the natural world by simply devoted studying.
In 1905, however, Albert Einstein published several papers that forever marked the dividing line between laypeople and the priests and acolytes of science, specifically, those working in the field of physics. The known world could no longer be grasped by ordinary people.
In that year Einstein laid out the foundations of quantum physics and introduced his theory of special relativity, concepts so difficult to understand that only students in those concentrations could possibly understand them fully.
For the rest of us, only inadequate word descriptions give us a paltry explanation as to what these scientists describe. They communicate with each other using the language of physics on a chalkboard, pure math, while we grasp at these ideas using similes and metaphors.
I was thinking about this while trying to read Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore. Called an allegory of quantum physics, it tries to explain the odd acting universe of atomic particles. In introducing his work, Gilmore points to a problem that lies beyond understanding the field, even if one were to grasp it. This quote is quite lengthy but gets to the heart of the matter:
“Insofar as it has been investigated, quantum mechanics appears to be of universal applicability. On a large scale, the predictions of quantum theory lose their random aspect and agree with those of classical mechanics, which works very well for large objects. On a small scale, however, the predictions of quantum theory are consistnetly borne out by experiment. Even those predictions, which seem to imply a nonsensical picture of the world, are supported by experimental evidence. Intriguingly, as discussed in Chapter 4, quantum mechanics would appear to be in the strange position of agreeing with all observations made, while disputing that any observations can be actually be made at all. It seems the world is stranger than we imagine and perhaps stranger than we can imagine.”