A dummies’ guide to quantum physics

2011-04-02 00:00

I RECENTLY began a love affair with quantum physics. The field is at the cutting edge of science; the height of evolutionary thought, and is truly fascinating to wrap your head around.

It has also become clear to me that people’s desire to answer the bigger questions in life (where do we come from? Why are we here? etc.) stems from understanding the smaller things, specifically the sub-atomic world.

It’s an astonishing thought that 99,9% of what an atom is, is nothing. In other words, one of the smallest units that collectively make up solid matter is almost entirely a vacuum or empty space. Ergo, we are mostly nothing, and the universe is mostly nothing. If all this empty space were to be removed from a person, they would be the size of a grain of salt (which would still weigh the same as the person did before being deflated). This radical realisation leads physicists to thinking of atoms as tendencies rather than as things.

To illustrate, if we were to liken the dense nucleus of an atom to a pin-head, the electrons that orbit the nucleus would be roughly a kilometre away. Another comparison is that of a fly buzzing in an empty cathedral.

What’s more is that the electrons and nuclei of atoms seem to pop in and out of existence all the time. This gives credence to the idea that thoughts can have some sort of physical effect on the world, that reality is not necessarily what we perceive it to be, and that ideas of alternative universes or spiritual plains are highly possible.

More exciting from a quantum physics perspective is the realisation that we live in a universe of infinite possibilities. Every conscious being is one of those instances and possesses the power to make desirable possibilities a reality. In other words, human beings especially, have the power to change their external world from within.

What’s frustrating is that the tendency is to believe that the world already exists “out there” — independent of our experience. According to quantum physics, this is not the case at all. Rather, everything is a possibility of consciousness that requires our input to manifest into experience. In other words, the observer, or rather consciousness itself, must play a significant part in creating reality.

The most esteemed quantum physicists readily admit that they know what an observer does, but have no idea what it is. Yet we all have a shared experience of being an observer. Scientists have scrupulously searched all regions of the brain for something they can confidently call an observer, and have found nothing. As a result the observer is often referred to as “the ghost in the machine”.

What I find most appealing about theories of quantum physics is how they spill over into other fields of thought and practice. Biology, psychology, history, chemistry and even several self-help ideas are all integrated. A good example to illustrate this is the idea that we are only able to see what we believe in, or what we believe is possible.

For example, it is believed that when Columbus first reached the Caribbean islands the native peoples were unable to see his ships on the horizon. The tribal chief was only able to see ripples on the water and assumed that something must be causing them. After days of observation the ships eventually took form in the mind’s eye of the chief, who was then able to describe them to others also once blind to the ships’ presence. Urban legend or not, we are all subject to the same limitations, which may suggest why we are unable to see UFOs if they appear in a form unfamiliar to us.

In 1993 an experiment which may also be hard to believe, was undertaken in Washington DC to reduce violent crime. Four thousand people from a hundred different countries were brought together to collectively meditate for extended periods of time to prove the theory that thoughts have substance and effect. Several prior studies had already been undertaken on smaller scales, but it is reported that this particular exercise yielded a drop in crime (as defined by the FBI) of 25%.

There is a further fascinating experiment which shows the effects that thoughts or blessings can have on water molecules, but that will have to wait until next time…


If this has spurred your interest in quantum physics a great introductory documentary that explains all the above is “What the bleep do we know?” The short film is also where you’ll find the references to the Washington experiment and the Columbus story. Another great BBC series I would recommend is The Atom.

At the moment there is about one new interpretation of quantum physics every three months, but most of them fit into one of the following categories


Your consciousness affects the behaviour of subatomic particles

- or -

Particles move backwards as well as forwards in time and appear in all possible places at once

- or -

The universe is splitting, every Planck-time (10 E-43 seconds) into billions of parallel universes

- or -

T he universe is interconnected with faster-than-light transfers of information

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