This was supposed to be a column about how the universe functions at its tiniest level because that’s what I’ve been reading about for quite some time. However, for all my effort the only thing I have learned that I know to be true is that I don’t understand anything, especially on the smallest-of-small “quantum” scale.

I mean, how complicated can the smallest interactions be? Basically light, when it hits something “solid,” interacts with the electrons of whatever atoms make up the solid. Sounds simple: you have photons that make up light (and also the photon torpedoes on “Star Trek”) hitting electrons. There aren’t a lot of parts here. It’s not a Swiss watch or even a Swiss Army knife.

Turns out, things not only get complicated but they get weirder than afternoon tea at the bottom of a rabbit hole. Our normal rules about time, distance, speed and probably American football no longer apply. They had to be changed to match experimental results.

Electrons, for example, do not have a direction of motion and a position at the same time. This may be because none of them wears a watch and none will play the quarterback position, but it’s more likely that they have a different definition of time which may not flow smoothly, or in one direction for that matter. It just gets more bizarre from there.

So why are you and I interested in what is happening on the infinitesimally small level? We would gain real insight into how the universe operates. Ultimately, it would result in a better cell phone signal. Maybe if we know the action that underlies everything that happens in the universe we will be able to understand the bigger questions like why my insurance rates are so high, my credit score so low and how much time we have before the sun explodes.

I’ve been slogging through a skinny, 152-page book for a time now about how light interacts with matter. It was written by Richard Feynman in layman’s language so that we could all understand what physicists have been doing since they left college and started working at highbrow brainiac jobs with billion-dollar pieces of equipment and only the best pocket calculators. Apparently I am not fluent in layman’s language because the author left me behind around page 56. By the time page 90 came around I was so lost I may as well have opened some other book to a random page.



Trudging on, I was hoping that the book would reveal something significant that all of this explaining was leading up to. Lo and behold, on page 110 I found it when I read “… all the vast apparent variety in Nature results from … repeatedly combining just these three basic actions.”

I was very excited. The secrets of the universe were here. Re-reading the previous page, however, I could not identify the three “basic actions.” It didn’t even help going back half a chapter.

The answer in the book turns out to be just like an electron, where it is possible to know its position or its momentum but not both with any certainty. Only in the book, you can know either the questions or the answers but the closer you get to knowing one, the further you get from any idea of what the other is all about.

It bothers me that my ability to grasp these concepts would land me in the “slow group” if I were still in school. Someone might ask and the teacher would say, “Oh, he’s nice but the lesson concepts are just over his head so he spends his day with Play-Doh.”

My only comfort is that the very smartest people who have studied the smallest actions in the universe (a field called Quantum Mechanics) have this to say about our grasp of reality at that level:

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” ? Albert Einstein

“I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” — Richard Feynman

“Women. They are a complete mystery.” — Stephen Hawking

Hopefully, someday we’ll look back to this time and laugh, saying, “Those were the days we didn’t know anything about quantum mechanics! Now we have perfect cell phone signals and low insurance rates. Too bad the sun will explode next week Friday.”