What Are the Chances?

By | November 12, 2004

Via Kurzweil
AI
, Space.com
is running a series of articles on a SETI
proposal to perform the famous
double-slit experiment
over interstellar distances. The experiment will
show that quantum effects are not just microscopic or localized phenomena. The
first article in the series provides a good summary of how truly strange the
quantum picture of the world is:

This, the simplest of quantum weirdness experiments, has been the basis of
many of the unintuitive interpretations of quantum physics. We can see, perhaps,
how physicists might conclude, for example, that a particle of light is not
a particle until it is measured at the screen. It turns out that the particle
of light is rather a wave before it is measured. But it is not a wave in the
ocean-wave sense. It is not a wave of matter but rather, it turns out that
it is apparently a wave of probability. That is, the elementary particles
making up the trees, people, and planets — what we see around us — are apparently
just distributions of likelihood until they are measured (that is, measured
or observed). So much for the Victorian view of solid matter!

The shock of matter being largely empty space may have been extreme enough
— if an atom were the size of a huge cathedral, then the electrons would
be dust particles floating around at all distances inside the building, while
the nucleus, or center of the atom, would be smaller than a sugar cube. But
with quantum physics, even this tenuous result would be superseded by the
atom itself not really being anything that exists until it is measured. One
might rightly ask, then, what does it mean to measure something? And this
brings us to the Uncertainly Principle first discovered by Werner Heisenberg.
Dr. Heisenberg wrote, “Some physicist would prefer to come back to the
idea of an objective real world whose smallest parts exist objectively in
the same sense as stones or trees exist independently of whether we observe
them. This however is impossible."

Stephen
and I were chatting about probability the other night. The specific topic was
video poker, which I sometimes play virtually while doing other things (e.g.,
sitting on conference calls.) When I say I play virtually, I mean that
there is no real money involved. I play with fictional, electronic dollars,
but the games are (presumably) the same as they would be if real dollars were
at stake. That presumption is borne out by the fact that I generally loose.
Stephen opined that he would never play a game where the odds are stacked against
him, which is the case with any typical Las Vegas casino game. The one exception
might be Black Jack dealt from a one-deck shoe; the conventional wisdom is that
a sufficiently skilled card-counter can work the odds to his advantage in that
setting.

I wonder whether the appeal of games of chance isn’t built into us at some
fundamental level? We ourselves are clusters of probabilites, our lives are
an ongoing series of likelihoods (and unlikelihoods) that we have to negotiate.
Celebrating out fourth wedding anniversary last night, my wife and I talked
about how vanishingly unlikely it was that she and I would ever meet
— much less begin dating, fall in love, and get married. From the vantage
point of the past, my present life is very
unlikely indeed
.

So the choice we have to face is whether we are going to let the probabilities
grind us along, as I do when playing video poker, or whether we’re going to
try to "rig" the game in our favor, as Stephen insists we must do
in order to make the game worthwhile. I think most of us are with Stephen. I
know I am. Here are some of my original thoughts on this subject. I think the
subject is worthy of more attention.

Here are some of my earlier thoughts on how we might rig the game.

What’s a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel
Divvying up the Future
Types of Future
i Space
Reality’s Flashlight
And Now the Extremely
Good News

Give Yourself a Present
Roots of the Modern
World