Thursday, July 31, 2014

God's Dice

Luke & Dad's Eighth Year

Rachel’s surgery and recovery have gone well and she is cancer-free. Hooray! We are one minor operation from putting this episode behind us.

Today we are in Telluride, Colorado enjoying some needed time off. Its funny, Rachel always blooms in the mountains. She looks fantastic as she returns to her pre-cancer fitness level. Yesterday, Rachel climbed a thirteen-er with little trouble. She has been impressive to say the least and we are are thrilled she is back in action. I love her very much.

The cancer experience has changed us in many ways. In particular, we find ourselves reflexively pursuing a question:  

What caused the cancer?

Rachel and I have taken different approaches to this mystery, one we know is ultimately unanswerable. Instead of looking backwards for clues, Rachel has peered forward, reviewing the most recent research and identifying the best practices to mitigate recurrence.

She has sharpened her exercise, sleeping, eating and drinking (very little alcohol) practices knowing her body will return the favor. It has. She has come to grips with never knowing the cause and is focused on influencing the future. As they say, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

Where Rachel has been productive, I’ve entangled myself in questions about the nature of “cause” itself. What is cause and does effect always follow it? Many believe things happen for a reason, that events are preordained from an initial set of conditions. Oddly, both theologians and scientists believe the universe plays a very deterministic role.

The scientific method is anchored on causality. If you understand the laws of nature and have sufficient facts, science plays the pool shark reliably predicting the outcomes of a succession of colliding celestial balls. As professor David Wong said, if you have all the preconditions right, “the rest is chemistry!"

This thinking was held until the middle of the twentieth century when researchers started studying subatomic phenomena. The findings in this area, known as Quantum Mechanics, revealed the basic laws of nature as fundamentally statistical, governed by chance. Yes, chance.

If this is unsettling, you are in good company. Einstein himself struggled with the idea that nature could, at its core, be probabilistic. The idea was intolerable to him until the end of his days. Yet, the seeds of this quantum reality were an extension of his own General Relativity Theory.

Early in his career, Einstein observed that light not only behaved like waves as was commonly accepted, but also like particles he called photons. It appeared that light was both wave and particle at the same time. Whether it conformed to wavelike or particulate behavior depended solely on how you studied it. He used photons to explain why atoms, when hit by light, absorbed discrete amounts of energy as if interacting with a particle.

What Einstein didn't foresee was this dual nature of photons would be applied to all physical nature, including matter! Yes, matter too behaved as both wave and particle. Einstein felt that treating matter like light was going too far, saying, "A good joke should not be repeated too often."

His discomfort rose out of the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that said the mere act of observing dual natured particles affected what one was observing -- you could not observe both the location and the momentum simultaneously, but rather one or the other. Whatever attribute you measured left the other to uncertainty.

Specifically, if you measured the location of a particle, by observation you could not measure its momentum with certainty. Visa-versa was also true. If you measured the momentum of a particle, the position of the particle is not knowable aside from a probability distribution.

The statistics don't just describe the reality; they are the reality. Barton Briggs was right when he said, "Logical deductions are just probabilistic relationships where the probabilities are really high."

Einstein hated this. He famously said, "God does not place with dice." He believed that the uncertainties physicists like Neils Bohr seemed more and more willing to accept would, in time, be explained by deeper underlying theories. He rejected that the universe, at its core, was governed by chance and did away with causality. And he might well be proved right some day.

In my case, however, I take solace in chance underlying the universe. I don't want my free will to be a grand mirage resulting from a vast chain of cause and effect reaching back to the explosively colliding subatomic billiard balls of the big bang.

And, perhaps, just perhaps, Rachel's cancer too was just by chance. If so, I pray she never gets it again. She has worked hard to nudge the odds in her favor.



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