Posts Tagged ‘bears’

Quantum Bears

February 17, 2008

Hello all! It has been a very long time since I last wrote; I have been going to and from CERN as we’re preparing for the LHC. I’m in Geneva right now, and I just came back from watching En Pleine Nature (Into the Wild). Without giving away too much plot, this movie contains a bear that did not eat anyone. It made me think of Grizzly Man from a few years ago, in which another bear did. What impressed me most about Grizzly Man is that the probability of being eaten by a bear, should we find ourselves face-to-face, is not a simple 20%. It depends a great deal on who the bear is, what he thinks about humans, how hungry he is, what I smell like, the weather, his mood, etc. There’s a whole space of parameters, and some regions of this space are filled with nearly 100%, others with nearly 0%.

Let’s say we’re doing a scientific study of bears eating people. In our first experiment, we put 100 people in the woods and just count how many get eaten. Then we’d like to get more grant money, so we do a more in-depth analysis by controlling for several variables: some of our volunteers are smeared in honey barbeque sauce, others aren’t. Our sequence of studies slowly sharpen the focus on the bear-eating parameter space, identifying the high-probability regions and the low-probability regions. Where does this process end? If we could do infinitely many studies, would we find that each point is either 100% or 0% (deterministic bears)? Or not (uncertain bears)?

Framing a discussion of quantum mechanics in this way illustrates a feature that is often missed: the connection between quantization and uncertainty. Usually these two topics just fall out of the postulates with little indication that they are related. As it turns out, quantization makes fundamental uncertainty possible.

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