Saturday, April 29, 2006


The Joy of Uncertainty

Miss Prism has been discussing "that's cool" science moments. This is a somewhat rambling, late night, one glass of wine too many response to her post. Somewhere in here lies a point. I think.

A few years ago I asked someone to tell me something interesting about science. They told me about the uncertainty principle. It was a good choice. It swept away many of my preconceptions about science in a single moment of "that's ace".

Life is much more interesting with a little uncertainty. So is physics.

I started reading more about it and got very excited about how well some of the concepts fitted people (I was working as a psychologist at the time).

One of the things that always concerned me in psychological experiments was the impact of the experimenter. People simply don't behave 'normally' in an experimental situation; the act of observation changes them. And hooray, the same thing happens in physics.

At this point I should apologise to any physicists reading. It's about to become blatently obvious that I remain horribly uninformed in the subject. Sorry.

In the double slit experiment physicists found that an unmeasured (unobserved) particle effectively existed here, there and everywhere on a probability wave, but if they observed it they forced it to be somewhere specific, collapsing the wave into a single point. Apart from being really, really cool it also gave me a new way of thinking about opinions.

I've always thought that it's important to be willing to reconsider an opinion and change your mind. Admitting you were wrong isn't a bad thing; it's inevitable if you continue to investigate and learn. Unfortunately a lot of people seem to avoid it. Then I realised....

Opinions exist in a state of quantum duality!

When you're just thinking about a topic to yourself you look at all angles and think around it and muse over the different possibilities quite happily. You weigh up the different sides to an argument and come to a decision, and when it's only in your head you tend to be quite willing to adapt it.

Once you've expressed your opinion to someone else, you get a bit more attached to it. If you express the opinion to the world, you find it very difficult to back down.

Personally, I think the world would be a better place if we fought this instinct. Admitting you were wrong should be seen as a good thing; if you're battling against the universe surely it's a strength, not a weakness. We need to reward people in power (politicians leap to mind) for being prepared to reconsider a topic. Things change. Opinions should too.


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