Quantum Freedom

Quantum particles interacting with each other.
I like quantum particles. I like them because of their weirdness.

You see, before quantum theory, one of the prevailing ideas of classical physics is that if you know all of the circumstances in which an event takes place, you can predict with 100% certainty what will happen in the future in perpetuam. Meteorologists with enough information could predict whether or not it will rain on your birthday three years from now. Gambling wouldn't work, because given a careful analysis of the conditions in which a game was played or dice were thrown would, after some pretty heavy computation, be obvious. (And if you want to know more about that, I got it from this book.)

It doesn't take a great leap to realize that though our thoughts and actions can seem spontaneous, the mechanism that produces those thoughts and actions is made up of the same elements a star makes when it explodes (Did you know most of the stuff in the universe is created when stars go supernova?) and must also follow the laws of physics. Predicting, directing, and manipulating the way we think and act is child's play to most people--we do it unconsciously. Marketing and advertising professionals do it purposefully, sometimes to great effect. Teachers do it, parents do it, governments do it--it is not a secret that even our most private thoughts and impulses can be strongly influenced by outside control.

We know that certain chemicals in the brain react with our neurons to create these impulses and that we react to stimuli we receive through photons bouncing off objects and hitting our retina, molecules vibrating across distances and twiddling our eardrums, etc. Even our motivations can be traced back to physics: what is life but elements bound together in a specific way and charged by electricity?

So, if all existence, and all reality is simply dominos flicked over by whatever caused the Big Bang, where is our free will? If all can be predicted via logical cause-and-effect, what says that we have any control over what we do at all?

Here is where I am reassured by the quantum theory: uncertainty.

Werner Heisenberg
You have probably heard of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. It says that you can not know simultaneously two measurements of a particle. You can know how fast it's going or where it is, not both. This sounds completely counter intuitive, because you can open up the map app on your smartphone and see a little blue dot with an arrow that shows you where you are and how fast you are moving. But YOU are not a quantum particle. And quantum particles are...well, they're a bit different. They follow their own physics. Scientists haven't yet figured out why tiny things follow different rules than big things, but there it is, clear as day: quantum particles are flakey, flighty, odd little creatures.

So, a slight departure to illustrate a point. If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a noise? Intuition says "Of course, you can't stop a tree from making noise as it falls. You can't stop the vibrations as it falls through the air and the leaves and branches jostle each other." And that is most likely true. But if it is a quantum tree, the answer is no! Quantum particles do not have a position before their position is measured. They are only more probably in a certain location than others.

So you can't reliably predict when or where a quantum particle is. You can only find the probability that it is in a certain place.


So maybe that uncertainty doesn't trickle up and allow us free will. But it is enough to reassure me that not all of nature is predestined. I am not just a domino who thinks it is choosing to fall at a certain time and in a certain direction. There is true randomness in the universe. And that's all I need.


The Uncanny Valley

I really do not like monkeys.

I know that many people think monkeys are cute, endearing, funny. When they see them in a zoo, they exclaim how similar they are to us. Even I have experienced this, holding up my grandma's "magic mirror" to the pane of glass and watching the little dark brown monkeys with their silky black fur coming up and looking at themselves in the mirror. These monkeys, catlike, with their thick fur and long glossy tails, didn't offend me much.

But then our zoo got a large habitat for chimpanzees.

These were not cute. They we're like hairy, messy, shameless humans. They screeched loudly. They stuck dirty fingers in up their wide nostrils and leered at the people who came to see them. They scratched their bare butts with long, cracked nails. They bared their teeth and shrieked.

The chimpanzees in the new section of the zoo were big news in my town. But I only lingered at their area for a few minutes before moving on. They made me uncomfortable, with their big, wet lips flopping back and showing brick-like yellow teeth. I wasn't bored. I was disgusted. And fearful. I felt uneasy, the way you do moments before something scary happens in a movie. I had to move away.

I had fallen into the uncanny valley.

The Uncanny Valley is the term for when an artificial character is very close to being human, and therefore eliciting a positive emotional response, but something about it is wrong and provokes feelings of revulsion or disgust. For example a corpse of a human looks exactly like a person...but instinctively we know that it is not alive and we are repulsed by it. For me, monkeys fall into that valley. They don't look like animals to me. They look like deformed humans, and that "close-but-no-cigar" quality makes me uneasy. It's the same reason people are afraid of clowns, dummies, ghosts, mummies, vampires, werewolves....they resemble humans, but a key element is missing. There is simply a wrongness that can be hard to define.

One way to bridge the Uncanny Valley is to employ cuteness. To me, that sounded a little like saying, "The way to make it better is to make it better," or "To look more beautiful, you have to make yourself beautiful." That statement gives no actual direction. But a little bit of research led me to the definition of neoteny: retention of immature characteristics into adulthood. When we say something is cute, that something generally resembles the young form of an animal: a proportionally large head, small ears and nose, big eyes. And baby animals are made to be cute so that we instinctively want to protect, nourish, and feed them. Small dogs have been bred down to mature sexually but not physically--to us, a pug or a beagle or a dachshund is cuter than a wolf. Giving something that falls into the uncanny valley features of cuteness can trump the revulsion we feel when we look at it.

Take the Navi in Avatar for example. By definition, they should fall into the uncanny valley: they strongly resemble humans, but they clearly are different. They should elicit revulsion. But I, like many people, found them endearing and attractive. The designers of the Navi crossed the uncanny valley on the Feline Bridge: they made them look vaguely cat-like. They clearly have cat ears, they have small, wide noses like cats, and their heads are slightly larger in proportion to their bodies than we are.

The uncanny valley is one of those concepts that I love, because it accurately describes something that I feel but can't articulate. It's something you hear about and exclaim, "Yes! I know exactly what you mean!" It's why monkeys make me uncomfortable, but blue humanoids with cat ears don't. It may also be a survival mechanism brought to us by our good ole friend Evolution. It may have helped humans (and other animals) avoid sick, contagious members of the species. I am always fascinated by the way we've outgrown our evolution and really have to decode our own reactions and instincts.