By addressing the subject of theoretical physics, one is compelled to ask, how in the world can an understanding of nature’s deepest truths enrich one’s life experience? What exactly are the benefits that understanding quantum mechanics, based upon first understanding relativity, yields, that can be applied in everyday practice? How can the contemplation of the motion of subatomic particles, particles that are far too small to ever be seen and whose existence can only be inferred, improve our participation in the big motions occurring around us and in us? Why learn such a seemingly abstract subject?
First, to explain why, it is appropriate to state that, from the point of view of those individuals who have acquired such an understanding (not the least of which are the collaborator and the author), gaining it is as worthwhile an endeavor as one could ever pursue. According to this view, achieving an understanding of the founding principles, upon which nature – indeed, upon which existence – is based, matches the thrill of living the most exciting adventure, the satisfaction that comes from solving the most elusive puzzle, or the fulfillment of gratifying the deepest passion (all of which the collaborator and author have both genuinely known first hand). Indeed, such an understanding of the physical world can be bliss itself. Nonetheless, the realization of these esoteric rewards is always subject to the preferences of the individual, not to mention the faith that an individual might have in realizing them. So, one need not, necessarily, seek only these apparently intangible benefits, anticipating no others; there are others also.
The most practical and tangible reward that an accurate conceptual understanding of theoretical physics renders is that it makes understanding everything that ‘is’ reality much easier too, than does a lack of such an understanding. Having it, we can consider nature’s phenomena using altogether new ways of thinking and using ideas that we probably (unless we already possess them) never imagined before. Remarkably, by having this new understanding, we can even shape our very wants, by understanding ‘why’ we even ‘want’ at all. That is to say, an understanding of quantum mechanics provides genuinely new ways of dealing with the world, ways that can provide the mind with completely new concepts and wholly new insights upon which to base its (i.e. our) decisions, concepts and insights that would simply never exist in our old ways of thinking (unless these old ways incorporated a valid theoretical model). In understanding the pursuit of natural truth – which is what genuine science is – we gain intellectual tools that we may have imagined only others ever being capable of possessing, not us. But ‘we’, meaning anyone, can possess them too!
Armed with these tools, we (anyone) can begin to see nature’s founding design. Nature’s ways need not be mysteries if we choose that they not be. Beyond mystery’s illusion lies an elegant, abstract beauty that nature’s design encompasses. In recognizing the depth and extent of this beauty, one can’t help but come to appreciate the rigors utilized, that provided the means for arriving at these new ways of thinking, rigors that we (again, anyone) can apply in understanding anything. Nature does not use mysterious powers for performing its apparent ‘miracles’. It doesn’t ‘use’ such things because it flatly never needs to.
Most wonderfully, and perhaps more so than all the other benefits, an understanding of physical theory
(but in particular, an understanding, be it only in the most simplified, general, and conceptual terms only, of quantum theory) can identify those conventional notions that fail in the face of accurate understanding, exposing them for what they really are (and always were anyway): simply untrue. This, in turn, provides the opportunity for embracing those notions that demonstrate themselves to be consistent with nature and hence to be true in it, which are the very notions revealed by the theoretical model. Ignoring false notions and replacing them with true ones reveals the elusive yet magnificent beauty that quietly hides in nature’s seeming mysteries, introduces reason as an alternative to reaction. This hidden beauty waits, patiently indifferent, to be revealed by our understanding of it; starting with the simple idea of natural truth. Real science is the pursuit of natural truth, objective truth, truth that may be much, much different from what one might imagine truth being according to ‘conventional’, nonscientific views. Ideally, truth is not subjective for science.
The science of physics, like any discipline, can be a time-consuming labor to learn and understand. This is due to the simple reality, as the chapters will serially explain, that thinking, and therefore learning and understanding, are motion, no different from the motion of our overt actions, like when we walk or talk (or read). And, just as it is required for ALL overt motion, such as walking or talking (or reading), the motion of our thoughts requires time too. Time is required to think, and, unless our understanding is innate, time is required to understand, anything, meaning that time must be spent to learn and understand relativity and quantum mechanics. But, given enough time invested, which is not that much (a few months or so), and given a meaningful description of these theories and the conclusions that they yield (this book), ANYONE (like the reader) CAN eventually learn and understand, if only in purely conceptual terms alone (and, in the case of the condensed explanation of relativity, only in the most brief, general, and summary terms) these proven theories that model and describe physical reality so impeccably well – ANYONE.
That is the intention of this book (among many), to educate anyone in the principles of modern theoretical physics. In particular, this text was designed for those individuals with the least access to the means, material, and resources necessary for gaining such an understanding (e.g. the poor). Anyone, even the most uninformed or least formally educated, if they read the text enough times (provided that they read the entire book FIRST, in its entirety [this, reading the whole book FIRST, is critically important] then rereading it [easier each time]: rereading the long paragraphs, if necessary, repeatedly), should ultimately grasp the ideas and concepts underlying the two physical theories (relativity and quantum mechanics), upon which all modern theoretical physics is built. To put it bluntly, anyone can, at least in summary fashion, learn and understand just what this book is trying to teach! – again, ANYONE. And ‘anyone’, includes the reader. Should our culture ever recover from its arrogance and its achievements survive, then someday school children will begin their studies of geometry using relativity (by simply understanding how light’s speed never changing explains gravity), and initiate their explorations of science with at least a conceptual introduction to the ideas that underlie quantum theory (like nature’s necessity for life to observe it).
In short, if you can read, you can understand the content. Convinced that it is really possible to gain an actual understanding of theoretical physics, it only remains to be adequately motivated to make the appropriate effort by investing the time it takes to learn. Doing so one begins to understand why these theories are, indeed, why they must be, true. In other words, if the reader does indeed accept, and in so doing, ‘believes’ in their heart that it is truly possible to really understand the two theories, accepting what they reveal about the nature of reality, then the reader need only ‘want’ badly enough, to spend the time necessary (which may vary from individual to individual) reading, slowly and carefully, and, most importantly, taking the time necessary to think, contemplating thoroughly the concepts that the words reveal (haste fails). By taking the time required, and by understanding that it is indeed possible for anyone who can read to do so, one can begin to understand the very foundations upon which all real science is ultimately based, and thus realize that any science that is not consistent with physical theory either someday will be, or instead, be recognized as having never been a ‘real’ science (as truth’s pursuit), in the first place.
So, in order to begin to develop a true understanding of physical existence we must make one,
tremendously important step. That step is to ignore everything (which means precisely that, ‘everything’) that we might, intuitively, believe or presume being true about physical reality. We must ignore our intuitive beliefs and assumptions (unless they agree with working theory), because that is precisely what one absolutely must do in order to genuinely grasp the principles that underlie nature. Indeed, the history of physics is a history that, at each step, and with each of its new achievements, demonstrate that our conventional, intuitive notions are far less than truthful; that is, except for a single such notion that all of us can hardly avoid having, namely the notion of how two straight lines can be perpendicular to one another.
Ignoring ALL the other intuitive notions that we might have, we can start with this single notion of perpendicular, and build upon it. By understanding this simple, commonplace concept, one has the necessary foundation to imagine geometry (as an organized labeling system for a set of distances and directions). And, utilizing, by imagining, geometry alone, one can understand in general though nonetheless unambiguous and most importantly accurate terms, just how these theories (relativity and quantum mechanics) work, and precisely what they say about the character of nature and those things constituting its phenomena.
Now, in ignoring every last notion we might have about physical reality – except, of course, the single notion of perpendicular – we must replace such notions with altogether ‘new’ ones. This, however, is not as simple as it might, at first, seem to be. For, upon incorporating new notions into our thinking, we must start thinking in what may be wholly unfamiliar ways. Unavoidably, this is what we must do (that is, think in what may be wholly unfamiliar ways), in order to think in the altogether new ways that we must in order to begin building a 'true' understanding of nature, because that is exactly what learning theoretical physics is.
Thinking, in completely new ways altogether (ways which may completely contradict 'old' and very fundamental ways) is the price we pay for understanding. We MUST be willing to pay this price, or we will understand little at all; our intuitive notions, just like our preferences for how nature ‘should’ or ‘must’ work, will stand between us, and what is genuinely true about nature, no less than they did throughout the history of our physics – until about a century ago, with the discovery of two very, very important sets of ideas: the Theory of Relativity, and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics, which are the subject of this book.