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'Is Nature Just Teasing Us?'

January 25, 1987

No, nature isn't just teasing us, as you ask in your editorial (Jan. 11). It does not have a random, and chaotic nature that we can observe and then a thoroughly ordered sub-atomic world. The accurate predictions made concerning the behavior of sub-atomic particles proves the proficiency of quantum mechanics in explaining their nature. Yet randomness is still found even in this theory.

Certainly, predicting exactly where a piece of paper will land when dropped from an outstretched hand is not possible because all of the forces acting upon it cannot be completely and accurately known. Mathematics can only give us the most probable location where the paper will land. Thus we come to the conclusion that nature is random. But it is random throughout its realm, not just in everyday occurences that we observe.

Quantum mechanics, a refinement of Newtonian mechanics, mathematically describes the nature of sub-atomic particles in terms of probabilities. A physicist may state that the radius of an electron's orbit in a ground-state hydrogen atom is 0.000000000053 meters. In actuality, the most probable radius has this value but an experiment designed to measure this value may yield a slightly different although quite accurate result.

The theory of quantum mechanics states that electrons have discrete orbits. The probability of finding an electron between orbits is extremely low. The discrete electron orbits are quite predictable; no half orbits have been found. The randomness exists in predicting which orbit an electron will occupy. This explains the variation of the electron's radius in the hydrogen atom.

A key fundamental tenet of quantum mechanics is the uncertainty principle, which states that position and momentum cannot be accurately measured simultaneously. Rather chaotic, wouldn't you say? Such a statement appears contrary to common sense. However, in everyday life we observe the motions of large bodies consisting of so many individual atoms that departures from average behavior are unnoticeable. The actions of a single particle may vary considerably from those of a like particle.

Quantum mechanics is a probablistic model, not a definitive one. But the theory does support scientific observation. It provides insight and a certain orderliness to the random chaos that is nature.


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