Changing the World with a Glance

watching-sunrise-throught-a-lens-ball-riviera-romagnola-picture-id985916104 Changing the World with a Glance

The power of seeing is well known to everyone, and many examples exist. There is love at first sight and Alexander Fleming noticing that penicillium mold kills bacteria. Galileo as a youth in church was the first to notice that a pendulum swings in a regular rhythm, setting the basis for pendulum clocks. Isaac Newton famously discovered gravity by watching an apple fall, although this tale was told second-hand and is probably a romantic fiction.

But what if a mere glance has untold power, literally the power to create reality? The opening for this idea came from what is known in quantum physics as the measurement problem a hundred years ago. A quantum is a tiny unit of energy, and if a specific quantum like an electron or a photon is considered a thing, it should be measurable. You should be able to know where it is at a given instant in time, for example, or how fast it is moving, how much it weighs, and the other properties that we assign to things in the everyday world.

But measuring the quantum turned out to be very tricky. Early in the era that begat quantum physics, two important closely related discoveries rocked the very notion of what a thing is. The first discovery was that a quantum appears in a double nature, depending on the circumstances of observation; it can behave like a particle but in other circumstances it could also behave like a wave. In many ways a wave is the very opposite of a particle, in that it extends infinitely in all directions, having no localized position. The particle aspect of a quantum became knowable only through an act of observation, converting it from an indefinite possibility to a concrete existence, known technically as the collapse of the wave function.

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