Rediscovering quantum physics and realizing the importance of stepping back to see the big picture

I studied electronic engineering at university in the mid 90’s. Somehow I managed to get through the whole thing without any real appreciation of how important quantum physics was. During my studies, I had to learn the technicalities of an atom or a particle and know that light waves acted as both just like you would expect but I remember doing a lot of difficult maths and working my way through calculations like mechanical exercises without stopping to ask why.

I was too busy getting my work done to see the big picture.

Maybe I was too excited about the possibilities of the new high end programming languages that had just been released. Java had just come out and was sending the computer science department into a frenzy (yes it was that long ago). I was swept along and within a few months of my degree, I knew programming, or coding, was what i wanted to do when I graduated.

It’s been 20 years since my degree and many years since were spent in the industry designing, developing and product managing new technical solutions. I found myself one day musing on the nature of time. It could have been an age thing or possibly a lack of time itself that got me interested in the subject and what it consists of. That’s when I came across Carlo Rovelli’s book The Order of Time which drew me into the origins of the strange and special quantum effects that were intertwined with time. He had a beautiful way of describing the mysteries of quantum behavior and the building blocks which paved the way to the discoveries. It was like learning it all over from scratch.

How did I learn about wave particle duality (I concluded I must have done during my degree) without realizing what an amazing phenomenon quantum physics was? Light behaves like a wave and a particle at the same time! Particles are at two places at once! This is like magic.

Niels Bohr, one of the leading contributors to our understanding of quantum theory once said

If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.

Like a lot of science that’s complicated to understand, the concepts are overlooked in the teaching in favor of the facts you need in your posession to get through the course. I was good at passing exams and doing coursework, but sadly I did not have anyone explaining to me why quantum physics was so fundamental and groundbreaking, and had led to so many inventions that came after. Perhaps if I had, my career would have taken a different course.

After reading Rovelli’s book, I read some of his others, went back to Richard Feynman (I’d only read his autobiographical books mostly for the amusing stories) and realized why there was so much respect for his research and teachings. I signed up to Quanta Magazine to find out some of the latest research and even bought Einstein’s theory of relativity by the great scientist himself to make sure I was hearing it in the same way that the people of the day would have done, no doubt in awe of what was being presented before them. I finally read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time after years of avoiding it because I’d heard a rumor it was too hard to understand — yes amazingly after many years studying the physics, I still feared I might be fazed by it. The result I’m pleased to say was that I loved it even more. I was curious fascinated and couldn’t get enough.

There was something about the mystery involved, the fact that it didn’t conform to the other classical theories, and the excitement surrounding the grand experiments at CERN that always appeared to prove the theories true. Even the most intelligent researchers and scientists scratch their head when they try and understand why, which only made me like it more.

What does all of this have to do with the humans and technology and the purpose of Recknsense which is to encourage people to make technology that’s better for humankind? Well my rediscovery of quantum physics so long after I was formally taught it, made me realize that we can think we’ve understood something when we haven’t and it’s important to be aware of that when building new products.

We can do all the calculations correctly, pass the exams, get the qualifications but yet manage to miss the main point. 

For years it was unthinkable to scientists that quantum physics could arrive on the scene and exist with solid evidence to support it when it was so at odds with the classical theories of the time. How could both theories be right? In the same way, we have many assumptions we take as fact in our design of technology. Some of it around user behavior, some of it on what the limits of the technology is but all of it is up for being challenged one day when a new concept is discovered that turns everything upside down. We could experience the unthinkable despite what all the know-it-alls tell you.

My own experience has taught me to be wary of thinking we really know something and to be especially wary of others if they claim the same. At every turn, we should test our assumptions and reframe it in the bigger picture. To put it in context for today, we may think we have understood the mechanics and human impact of a new technology like self driving cars, intelligent assistants, or virtual reality but a lot of people involved will be grinding through the calculations, using the old data we know from before and possibly not understanding or appreciating what it really means.

The only solution I can offer to my younger self and those learning new concepts today is that we need to constantly step back and see the big picture. You owe it to everyone to do that.

It may be you’re trying to get through the details, meet the deadlines, hit targets but you could be missing something beautiful that could change what we build in unimaginable ways.

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