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Wily Wikipedia And The Uncertainty Principle

What exactly is The Uncertainty Principle?

Before you read any further, take a second and skim through the Wikipedia article.

So, uh… see you next week?

Just kidding.

If you’re like me, you probably noticed a couple of things while skimming through the article.

You probably noticed that A) the page contains a small book’s worth of information, and that B) maybe only one or two sentences of that are intelligible to the average human being.

In a second, I’ll make an attempt at an actual explanation of The Uncertainty Principle.

But first, I think it’s worth taking a quick moment to explore why the ever-faithful Wikipedia has failed us so uncharacteristically.

What’s The Deal, Wikipedia?

Why is it we like Wikipedia so much?

For starters, it’s free. It’s also accessible, and updated regularly, and generally quite accurate.

But, perhaps more than any of those, I think we like Wikipedia because it’s approachable.

By approachable I mean that it’s generally not written like a textbook. It’s written by and for real people. Experts are real people. But so are you and I.

And that’s the big difference with Wikipedia.

That said, when I try and read through the article for The Uncertainty Principle (as I have several times now), I don’t see much of ‘the real world’ in it.

I see numbers and equations and, well, this:

Listen, Wikipedia, you can conclude whatever the heck you want.

But when I see those ‘relations’ (if that’s what you want to call them), that pile of gibberish  is hardly the first ‘conclusion’ that comes to mind.

So what exactly is going on here?

Separating Science And Mathematics

You might have imagined already that I don’t actually think Wikipedia is to blame.

I think this page is unintelligible to most of us because most of us don’t speak the language in which it was written.

That language is mathematics.

And though it’s the most universal language of all, few of us know much beyond the basics (and I am not one of those few).

The real question, though, is this:

Why can’t we just ‘translate’ it?

And here we find the crux of the matter, for the sciences (and theoretical physics in particular) are bound to mathematics like few other ideas.

Just as two plus two is bound to equal four, two apples plus two apples are bound to equal four apples.

The problem is that sometimes the equations predict strange things.

And that is the case with The Uncertainty Principle.

What Is The Uncertainty Principle?

The equations that led to what we call The Uncertainty Principle predict many unusual results, but the simplest of them is this:

The more I know about where a particle is, the less I know about where it’s going. The more I know about where it’s going, the less I know about where it is.

Because of the dual nature of particles we talked about on Tuesday, there will always be this trade-off. And this trade-off will always limit how much we can precisely know about the world.

The more certain we are about x, the less certain we can be about y.

This, mathematics tells us, is fundamental.

 

*Photo Credit: Gwen Vanhee (Creative Commons) 

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