A Planck length of time

Science fiction writing is fun. You get to combine scientific and technical knowledge (interstellar travel, subatomic physics, TCP/IP networking, ant behaviour, you name it) with a large dollop of imagination and bingo!, you’ve got a story. Well, nearly. You also need to be perfectly happy sitting in a room, on your own, for umpteen hours, with little to show for it… “What have you been doing?” “Writing.” “Can I see it?” “No.” “Is it good?” “Dunno.” “Will it be published?” “Don’t know.” “Right… how long have you been doing this?” “For about two-thousand hours.”

With that in mind, I enjoyed this quote from the Nobel prize winning physicist, Max Planck:

“New scientific ideas never spring from a communal body, however organized, but rather from the head of an individually inspired researcher who struggles with his problems in lonely thought and unites all his thought on one single point which is his whole world for the moment.”

It seems that research scientists and writers aren’t that different, at least when it comes to their daily life. They also share a thorny problem; what if they discover something that is going to land them in a whole heap of trouble? What if their research clearly shows something that’s going to make many other professionals in their field (and a few members of the public) think they’ve gone nuts?

It’s time for Max Planck again. His research, discoveries and theories were crucial to the development of modern physics since he was the scientist (or at least the primary scientist) who developed quantum theory. As a young man, he was very good at music but decided to do physics instead. It’s hard to believe, but the Munich physics professor Philipp von Jolly advised Planck NOT to go into physics, saying, "in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes." Oops. Planck ignored this advice, which in hindsight couldn’t have been more wrong (but was the established view at the time) and eventually became a theoretical physicist professor in Berlin. From there, his work on black-body radiation and the quantum effect of electromagnetic radiation began the field of quantum physics, leading ultimately to semi-conductors, lasers and all sorts of whizz-bang techie marvels (and atomic weapons. Hey ho).

Max didn’t just do the maths. He thought intently about what quantum physics had revealed about the world. He came to the following conclusion:

“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

Had Planck gone nuts? Well, in my article,
Schrödinger’s Shed, I did my best to put forward a logical argument for the Mind creating Reality, an idea also postulated by the brilliant mathematician John Von Neumann (I’m not just being nice; he WAS brilliant). Max, I think, would have been happy with my explanation (although he might have picked holes in its logic, accuracy of evidence and possibly grammar) but apart from all that, he probably would have given it an approving nod, I think.

But, at this point, things get weird. The ‘Minds creates Reality’ idea is logical and based on clear evidence. In fact, the founder of quantum theory thought it was true, but the idea is STILL not accepted as fact by the scientific establishment. At my last check, the only reason I could find was that the theory was ‘controversial’ (that’s from the New Scientist). But if two of the most brilliant scientists of the twentieth century thought the idea was true AND the evidence supports it and there’s no evidence against it, why isn’t it accepted as fact? Why isn’t mainstream science exploring what we can do with the Mind and its ability to shape Reality?

I think there’s a simple reason for this and it stems from a mistaken interpretation of the scientific method.

The scientific method is a great thing to believe in. It has showed how the world physically works, what is factually correct, often when that result goes counter to our common sense or intuition. The fact that trees gain their material from air and water is a classic example, something I talked about
here. BUT… here’s the big butt, the fact that the scientific method can only show us physical behaviour doesn’t mean only physical behaviour exists; it simply means that the scientific method can’t help us work out if non-physical stuff exists. If a scientist falls for this logical fallacy, they can easily become a materialist, i.e. that they believe only physical things exist. And, as far as I can tell…

The dominant belief system of twenty-first century science is materialism.

And it’s not about shopping sprees. Most scientists are materialists in that they believe that
only physical things exist. Note that this is a belief, not a conclusion gained by logic from evidence. Max had something to say about this too:

“Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.”

But when your belief is at odds with the evidence, what do you do? For example, if you are a materialist and you believe that
only physical things like atoms and molecules exist, then not only can you not believe in the Mind (which is bizarre, since you ARE conscious), but you can’t actually believe in the logical consequences of quantum physics either (that the Mind creates Reality). Materialist physicists have found a couple of ways to deal with this second problem. Since they can’t reject the evidence - quantum physics has been brilliant in its accurate understanding of physics - many believe that, every time an observation is made, an entirely new universe is created containing the alternative outcome. This is a very odd point of view, since any observation would therefore causes an entire new universe to be created and there’s no evidence at all that any new universes are being created. Secondly, they just ‘shut up and do the maths’. Physicists who believe in materialism therefore seem to be choosing between bizarre delusion or self-censorship. Both are closely related to denial and are psychological states generally agreed to be unhealthy for the mind (if there is one).

How long will this go on for? Max Planck had an answer for that too, which leads me to the title of this article. The shortest measurable length in physics is named after him, being a rather small 1.616199(97)×10−35 metres; the
Planck Length. This is 0.000000000000000000001 x the diameter of a proton, i.e. really teeny, thereby making the phrase ‘as thick as two short Plancks’ misleading, but Max’s most famous quote, probably, is not about a length of distance but one of time:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”