The husband and son No.3 have gone fishing, all the way to Weymouth which is miles away. They’ve gone night fishing and will be home at roughly 2 am, which means I have to sit up until that ungodly hour, with all the lights on and the back door wide open so I feel some connection to the life outside – as opposed to a connection to the undead lot floating about upstairs. Luckily for me Pitch Perfect 2 is on Sky movies and is running in the background, providing a happy acapella soundtrack to my terraced-house lonely fears.
Write something on your blog, I thought, to while away the time. But who is the ‘I’ that had the blog writing thought? The ‘I’ who’s tapping along to the Barden Bellas. I’ve been thinking (and consequently reading) about atoms and Quantum Theory– a lot.
I’m made out of atoms. Atoms make up everything and they begin everything. What Lego bricks are to the toy universe, the atom is to the actual universe. They’re the tiny (so tiny they’re invisible, which begs the question how does anyone know they actually exist?) building blocks which make up life, the universe and everything. And atoms are not alive. And yet all living things are made from atoms – already I don’t get it.
Atoms are not alive, which means they don’t die – there are atoms, possibly floating around in you and me, right this second, that came floating out of the Big Bang. You probably think of yourself as a unique person. An individual with a distinct personality but there are atoms inside you, currently doing a good job as your spleen or perhaps that mole on your left cheek, which circa 400 years ago possibly helped make up a strand of hair on Shakespeare’s head, before he shed those atoms via an Elizabethan comb and they came to settle on an Elizabethan rug, which got beaten on an Elizabethan clothes line, sending those atoms into a bit of air, which got inhaled by the butcher down the street, where they took up residence, until he died of small pox releasing them into a patch of grass, which got eaten by a cow and so on and so on, until they ended up in you. I don’t know if that’s really how atoms get around because I really, really don’t get it.
Atoms you see are kind of immortal (I think.) And they get re-cycled over and over again, given a lengthy enough passage of time. So, an atom currently forming the basis of the thing I know as a couch could once have been part of a leaf, or a prehistoric ant, or a supernova. And staying with the couch, which I’m currently reclining on, the couch and I are experiencing a weird atomic relationship. Bill Bryson tells me in ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ that atoms attract and repel each other via electrical energy and they don’t like to get too close. That when I sit on my couch, I’m not actually in direct contact with the couch, because my atoms are repelling the atoms inside the couch, causing my body to ‘levitate’ less than a hair’s breadth of a hairs breadth above the couch. And yet the cushion beneath me is feeling very, very solid indeed, in fact I’m sinking into it (the cholesterol lowering lifestyle has a way to go yet) – I don’t get it and I don’t think I believe Mr Bryson.
And I’m not the only one. Niels Bohr, one of the early developers of quantum theory, stated that: ‘if Quantum Mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.’ Even physicists don’t fully ‘get’ Quantum Theory.
Atoms are tiny and used to be the tiniest things in the observable universe (as opposed to the rest of the universe currently hidden from view) but then physicists discovered the quark and the lepton, even more fundamental particles inside the atom, and believe that the splitting and splitting of the atom is unlikely to end there. The quark and the lepton are the properly fundamental particles, appearing at the Big Bang and creating nuclei, but not the atoms. A few thousand, thousand years later and electrons appeared, whizzing around the nuclei, creating the atom and then everything really got going.
So the ‘me’ that is typing at this keyboard; the ‘me’ that lives inside my head, because that’s where my thoughts seem to come from. I mean I never feel that a thought is coming from my stomach or my elbow; the thoughts seem to be centred inside my head, right about where my eyes are and just behind them. Which, oddly enough, is exactly where scientists know that the ‘higher thoughts’ come from, in the upper part of the brain known as the cerebrum, rather than lower down the brain, at the back of the head in the cerebellum (which is probably where a football hooligan’s thoughts originate.) That ‘me’ is the sum total of all the activity going on inside my brain, and that brain is made from inanimate quarks and leptons, which make up inanimate atoms, which come together to form molecules which bind to form cells, which create tissue and organs, which form an organ system, ending in the organism known as me.
And that organism, which I so fondly like to think of as ‘me’ and to which I hold such a dear attachment, so much so that the thought of the ‘me’ organism coming to an end is a thought filled with dread and fear, is nothing more than a temporary collection of atoms, which randomly bunched together to add one more human to the human race, until the day the living me ceases to exist and those atoms randomly disperse, taking up residence in a rock on mount Everest, or inside a butterfly’s wing.
The New Age lot love Quantum Physics. It seems to validate all their theories – atomic redistribution is nothing but reincarnation. The fact that we’re all buzzing away, filled with atomic bundles of energy points towards the mystical energy of life – Chi to the Chinese. But the Scientists are having none of it and in fact get quite irritated about the whole thing.
Religious people like to think that the mind is separate from the body – the mind-body problem as scientists call it. That the part of me that is typing away at this keyboard will live on after death, its memories and personality remaining intact, residing in a place not of this world. But it’s clear that, whatever the mind is, it tends to fall apart should brain damage occur – meaning that the biology of the brain produces the mind, and is not independent of it. Some dementia patients undergo complete personality changes, often beginning with shortened tempers and violent outbursts. They lose all interest in life and the people around them. Talk to the spouse of a dementia patient and they will say he/she is not the person I married, that person has gone but what can I do? When the mind/consciousness is so easily affected by disease, then isn’t death likely to obliterate it.
And you don’t even have to be ill. Just dropping off in a deep sleep effectively renders you unconscious, waking an hour or two later with no sense that time has passed or that you were a living, sentient being here on planet earth. Nobody knows where consciousness comes from. Some theories point to emergence. That consciousness emerges from the interconnected set up in the human brain, like life emerged from the interconnecting atoms, and that’s it, it’s nothing special, just a by-product.
But I was thinking about atoms. There’s something called entanglement, whereby particles remain connected even if they’re miles apart. That is, actions can be performed on one entangled particle, and this action will affect the other entangled particle instantaneously, however great their distance apart. This behaviour seems to verge on the paranormal. Einstein called this ‘spooky action at a distance’ and from it reasoned that Quantum Theory is a load of rubbish.
Which it could be for all I know, but it has somehow managed to give us lasers (and subsequently CD’s and DVD’s) transistors, computers , MRI’s etc etc. And all that ‘spooky’ action going on in the Quantum universe only applies at the Quantum level anyway, which means that living, and non-living things, don’t have to pay much attention to it – which is very useful for those of us who are a bit thick and useless at maths and the suchlike.
The husband and son No. 3 are back, so I’m going to bed.