Quantum Physics and Vedanta - Part 1/4

By Jayant Kapatker  •  Apr 16, 2015

by Jayant Kapatker

On the surface Quantum Physics (QP) and Vedanta may look very different. One is part of the scientific tradition and the other in some ways is philosophy, some may even call it religion. Science is trying to understand the universe ‘out there’ and Vedanta is trying to understand the universe ‘inside you’. Everyone will agree that there is only one universe; both ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ are parts of the same universe. If this is true, both must have the same underlying reality. If you are part of the universe then your underlying reality must be the same as the underlying reality of the universe ‘out there’. There cannot be two independent realities for the same universe. Both science and Vedanta are looking for the same underlying reality. Besides, they share common ground which we’ll explore in this article.

The goal is the same, but the approach of science and Vedanta are quite different. Science started out by looking at all the objects ‘out there’ in the universe, how they function, what they are made of. As scientific understanding improved, scientists wanted to learn more about these objects and to understand the building blocks of the universe. They started looking inwards from molecules, and then into atoms, into sub-atomic particles, into quarks, and strings; they are now looking for the unifying force which is the building block of the universe. Science now realizes that there is a unifying force, the ‘The Theory of Everything’ or a Singularity which is the underlying reality of the universe. What could this be? This is where science or quantum physics has reached a stumbling block, Vedanta takes a different approach, it started looking ‘in here’ and the ancient Rishis found that the single unifying force is within themselves. They understood that this single unifying force is also the underlying reality of the universe. Based on this, they posit that this single reality is then divided into an infinite number of diverse objects and this is the physical universe we see.

Basically Science started from ‘out there‘and then moved inwards to find the underlying reality. Vedanta started from ‘in here’ and then moved out wards to understand the universe. The ultimate goal for both of them is the same.

Physics, which is an important part of science, can be divided into 2 distinct divisions or phases:
- Classical Physics
- Quantum Physics

Classical physics started with Newton, who made many different discoveries and formulated many different laws, which are relevant even today. Newton’s laws did not focus on atomic level objects but on macro objects we can see around us. Based on these laws, people believed that the universe was a giant machine, where one can easily predict the motion of the planets and the objects therein. This way they knew exactly what was happening in this universe and in some way could even predict all the future movements of celestial bodies. Physicists thought they knew everything in the universe and there was nothing new to discover.

In the early 20th century, things took a dramatic turn. As physicists started exploring atomic
level particles, they found none of the classical laws were applicable to these particles. Classical physics became outdated at the atomic and sub-atomic levels. To understand and explain the happenings in the realm of the sub-atomic, quantum physics was born.

As we shall see in the coming section, sub atomic particles behave in unpredictable ways. Quantum physics is trying its best to provide a proper explanation which is rooted in science and supported by experiments. Sometimes, a particle is a ‘wave’ and at some other times it is a ‘particle’. This discovery marked the starting point of quantum physics. Quantum physics has explored this contradiction over the past century. Many questions have been successfully answered, but with every answer new questions come up. And so the search for answers doesn’t seem to end.  Some of the questions cannot and will not be answered by science, because they are outside the scope of science. We will looking at all these issues in this article.

In many ways this is quite similar to Vedanta. Vedanta teaches us that the mind is made of waves or ‘vrittis’ and these ‘mind waves’ become the objects which we see around us in this physical universe. Are the ‘waves’ described by quantum physics the same as the ‘waves’ in the mind? I strongly believe both are the same and this may be the common ground between quantum physics and Vedanta. The focus of this article is to show that this is true. This will help quantum physics to apply Vedanta principles, which, it must be said, follow rigorous logic, that any scientific mind will be satisfied. This will help resolve many of the unanswered questions being faced by quantum physics. And that’s the main focus of this article.

What is Quantum Physics – A Brief Overview?

Quantum physics is the study of the behavior of matter and energy at the molecular, atomic, nuclear, and even smaller, microscopic levels. We’ll give a quick overview of quantum physics by highlighting some of the key developments that are relevant to this article.

Light is a Wave:

Double SlitIn 1805, Thomas Young demonstrated that Light was a wave. He used the famous double slit experiment. There was a light source and in front of it there was barrier and this barrier had two slits. On the other side of the barrier was a photographic plate to study the light’s propagation through the slits. The result on the photographic plate clearly showed that light was not a particle but a wave. If it was a particle, there would be only 2 bands on the plate, but the plate showed multiple bands, proving that the light was a wave which passed through the two slits and then combined to from all the different bands. Watch the following video in YouTube.

Light is a Particle

In 1905 Einstein published a paper on ‘Photoelectric Effect’ phenomenon, which showed that the light is a particle. In 1921, Einstein got a Nobel Prize for this discovery. It is surprising that he got the Nobel Prize for this discovery and not for the ‘Theory of Relativity’, for which he is better known. In this experiment, you shine light (which is a wave) on a photoconductive metal and you get light reflected on the other side. On studying or observing this reflected light, Einstein found that the reflected light was not a wave, but it was made up of packets of energy. Each packet is a unit of fixed energy and this packet is known as a photon and has all the characteristics of a particle.

Max Planck also found the emission of photons or discrete packets of energy when he tried to understand the emission of energy from a black body. Depending on the color of the heated black body, photons with different energy levels were emitted. The hotter the black body, the higher the level of energy in the photons emitted. Also, these higher energy photons had a higher frequency of light as compared to the lower energy photons which had a lower frequency of light.

Higher Frequency = Higher Energy of photon

The double slit experiment explained earlier was updated slightly, instead of two slits, there was only one slit. Light was passed through a single slit and then onto a photographic plate. In the two slit experiment, they found a series of bands on the photographic plate, which suggested that light was a wave. When a single slit was used, they found only a single band on the photographic plate, suggesting that the light was a particle and not a wave. The curious part of this experiment is, what made light behave as a wave when there were two slits and then behave as a particle when there was only one slit?  This experiment was repeated again and again and the result was always the same. There was something which was telling light when to behave as a wave and when to behave as a particle. This dilemma was the birth of quantum physics.

Matter is both Wave and Particle

So, light exhibits properties both of a ‘wave’ and of a ‘particle’. In 1923, de Broglie, a French doctoral student made a bold assertion that not only light but all matter must have both ‘wave’ and ‘particle’ properties. Here matter means matter, including, you, me, planets, cars, in fact any living or nonliving object in this universe. The tree in front of you is a particle, and using the de Broglie formula; you can also calculate the wavelength of the tree based on its energy content. In 1927, the de Broglie hypothesis was proven experimentally - thus, all matter is both a wave and a particle. In 1929, de Broglie was awarded the Nobel Prize for his theory. He was the only one to ever receive a Nobel Prize based on his doctoral thesis.

How can we comprehend that everything that exists is both particle (matter) and a wave (non- matter)? Is this possible? The tree outside my window definitely looks like a particle, so the question is when is the tree a ‘wave’. Is it ever a ‘wave’? It must be a ‘wave’ otherwise the de Broglie theory would be wrong. Let’s try to understand this. If I turn my back to the tree, is the tree still a ‘particle’? Is the tree even there? You really cannot be sure, because you are not seeing the tree. Maybe the tree is now a ‘wave’. This type of logic can be applied to all objects in the universe including any living being. For example you are talking to your friend sitting in front of you. You are sure he a ‘particle’ because he is right in front of you and you can see him. You now move to the next room and you cannot see your friend anymore. Is it now possible that your friend has become a ‘wave’?  When you come back to the room; your friend is once again a ‘particle’.  All this may sound strange, but this is what happens when you try and understand quantum physics. You now ask your friend ‘were you a wave’ a short time ago? He may think you’ve gone mad, but out of politeness he will confirm he has always been a particle. The friend may want to play the same game with you. He may say to you ‘I did not see you when you went to the next room, were you a ‘wave’ till you came back to this room and till I saw you once again? He has a valid point. When you moved to the next room, you may think your friend is a wave and your friend would also think you are a wave.

Looking at the example of the tree and your friend, it would suggest that anything in your presence would always be a particle, but if something is not in your presence it could mean that it’s a ‘wave’. Your presence is necessary for anything to be a particle. This is the implication of the de Broglie theory.

Can something be a ‘wave’ and a ‘particle’ at the same time or must it be either a ‘wave’ or a
‘particle’ at any given time? If the tree is a particle, then it just cannot be a ‘wave’ at the same time, and vice versa. Science has no answer to this question. Here’s some food for thought - if an object is a particle, then where is the wave residing? Is the wave also part of this space time framework or does the wave reside in another dimension?

There are so many questions which the de Broglie hypothesis generates about matter being ‘wave’ or ‘particle. Unfortunately, science has not answered them so far. In the coming sections we will try and understand these questions using the teachings of Vedanta.

Schrodinger’s Wave Function

Like Newton’s law of motion is the heart of the classical physics, Schrodinger’s wave function is the heart of quantum physics.  To understand the ‘wave’ part of the de Broglie theory, Schrodinger formulated a complex equation for the wave function. Without being too technical, Schrodinger’s wave equation is represented by the following

1. Schrodinger’s equation represents a physical system and this physical system always consists of an observing system and the observed system. The observed system is a wave function, and this wave function is the wave component of the wave/matter duality as postulated by de Broglie. The de Broglie hypothesis says every object in this universe is both a ‘particle’ and ‘wave’, the wave part can be represented by the Schrodinger’ wave equation and this wave is being observed by the observing system

2. The Schrodinger wave equation represents only ‘standing’ waves and not ‘traveling’ waves. We see traveling waves when we throw a stone in a pond and see the waves traveling outwards, or when we see waves in the ocean. Standing waves in turn are waves which propagate in an enclosed environment; they keep bouncing off the enclosed ‘walls’.  Electrons, as waves, are standing waves because they are enclosed within an atom. For the observing system to observe a standing wave it must be enclosed in some type of environment.

3. Schrodinger’s wave equation is a generic equation which represents all the possible standing wave functions in the universe. The main variables of Schrodinger’s wave equation are time and energy. If you input the correct variables for a particular observed system, the Schrodinger wave equation will represent that wave function. If you input the energy variables of the electron wave, the Schrodinger equation will represent the electron wave function over time. Understanding the energy structure of electrons, photons, molecules and other micro objects are simpler, therefore it is possible to apply the Schrodinger wave equations to these wave functions. Macro objects have more complex wave functions and it is much more difficult to input their variables to create the Schrödinger wave function. In conclusion, we may say that the Schrodinger wave equation is applicable in every wave function both simple and complex. The only limitation is that science still does not understand the input variables needed for the complex waves representing macro objects like you, me or cars and planets.

4. You can convert the Schrodinger’s wave function into a probability wave function by squaring the wave function. The probability wave function contains all the possible outcomes. There could be infinite possibilities. To explain this, the famous Schrodinger cat example is given. A cat is enclosed in a box which contains a veil of poison attached to an atomic trigger. The atomic trigger can randomly trigger the poison veil. One is never sure if the cat is dead or alive at any given time. As the per the probability function yielded by Schrodinger’s equation,  the cat could be dead or alive and it could also be half dead or half alive, 1/3dead or 2/3 alive and all the other different possible mix of ratios between dead and alive. It has infinite possibilities, but only a few logical possibilities. You cannot have anything ¼ alive and ¾ dead.

5. Another important aspect of the physical system for the Schrodinger wave equation is the observing system. When this observing system interacts with the observed system at any given time, the wave function of the observed system collapses to only one of the logical possibilities at that given time. In the example of Schrodinger’s cat, if you open the trap door to see the cat, the cat will be alive or dead. If it is found alive all the other possibilities become zero. In other words, when the observing system interacts with the observed system, the wave collapses to one of the possibilities for that given time and then all the other possibilities have a zero chance of occurring. Till the trap door is opened, the cat is in a wave form with infinite possibilities and when the door is opened by the observing system the ‘cat’ wave collapses to being alive and then all the other possibilities became zero.

In the case of the two slit example described earlier, a light wave passes through the two slits, and it has all the possibilities of striking anywhere on the photographic plate on the either side. When the light wave touches the photographic plate at a particular location, the wave function of the light collapses at that point and that point is no longer a wave but shows the characteristics of a photon particle. Once the wave function collapses, at that point, the probability is one and the probability at all other points is zero. In this case the observing system is the photographic plate which collapses the wave function.

Here is a direct hint that the wave function only collapses in the presence of an observing system. If there was no observing system, the observed system would continue to be a wave function. Before interacting with an observing system, the observed system was a wave and the moment after interacting with the observing system, the observed wave function collapsed to become a particle.

>> to Part 2

Continue reading

Related Content