Monday, May 2, 2011

The Double-Slit Experiment As Explained by Famous Physicists

As you start journeying down the rabbit-hole into quantum mechanics, you are presented with the famous "double-slit" experiment, in which you must confront what it means when a single particle, say, an electron, is given the option of two slits to choose from and yet seemingly does not choose at all, but rather acts as if it went through both slits at the same time.  (If you are scratching your head right now, see if this helps.)

Madness!  Luckily, great minds are here to explain, in order of increasingly accurate personality approximation:

Newton: No no no, you must have done it wrong, this is impossible! The electron must pass through one slit or the other, as everyone knows it is nonsense to think a particle can dividing itself or otherwise being in two places at once.

De Broglie:  But actually the electron is a wave, so this is not a problem.

Einstein:  God does not play dice! This experiment reveals something about the electron of which we are utterly unaware and perhaps unable to determine.

Born:  No, see, this is a result of an altered probability of where the electron will land, a probability which is determined by it's wave-function, which interfered with itself in the double slit.

Feynman: Forget that.  The electron really did go through both slits at once, and also went to the moon, and also up your nose, and also out to lunch and back.  This violates possibly every law of physics that we know including the inability to go faster than light speed and also the inability to suddenly be two places at once--but you've got to accept that nobody understand quantum mechanics.

Greene:  If you go even more deeply then we'll ever be able to prove then you'll find that the electron and slits both are really a vibrating string and by the way isn't the universe so incredible!

Physics is at the point where oftentimes "what actually physically happened" becomes a meaningless concept, or at least very difficult to tease out from the models we impose to understand things.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Environmentalism and Question I Don't Have Answers To

It seems that most environmental policy involves regulation by a governing body, and most environmentalism on a personal level involves self-sacrifice.  If we are going to get serious, really serious, about the issue of climate change, is it inevitable that we adopt heavy-handed government mandates to get our emissions under control?

As environmentalists, do we just have to accept that human nature is to fail to grasp environmental consequences until bad problems result, and so helpful actions must be externally enforced to have a hope of being implemented effectively?

I'm not sure that I know enough about economics or sociology to intelligently answer this question--but it is an important one, because it cuts to the heart of some of the political difficulties with environmentalism.  Because on the other side of the argument is the Rand-ian elevation of individual rights and the critical importance of personal liberty in allowing creativity and innovation. In this view government regulation only stifles our potential, and individuals doing things for the greater good or against inclination is not just silly, it's immoral, in part because who has the right to define "greater good?"

There is plenty of evidence that lack of oversight is detrimental:  Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons is a great place to start. But does that oversight have to come from the government?  And is regulation from the government in the name of curtailing our own tendencies toward destruction really such a bad thing?

I find it extremely hard to believe that X Large Manufacturing Company That Happens to Have a Polluting Process, absent any environmental regulation, is going to add any environmental safeguards just cause hey that's the right thing to do.  The employees might have the same desire for clean air and water that we do, but if all the competitors of X aren't doing it, X would go out of business if it chose to raise it's overhead cost in a way no other competitor was bothering to do, and the employees of X would also like to have jobs.  But if the playing field has been made level to the point that all of X's competitors must treat their sludge and scrub their smoke stacks, that becomes the cost of doing business.  Sure, I the consumer pay a higher price.  But you know what, the price I would otherwise pay is chloride rivers and asthma, and honestly a higher price for a good is a bargain in comparison.  It's not just that clean air and clean water are pretty and endemically valuable in themselves, although they are that, it's that the doctor's bill for asthma costs a lot of money, it's that chloride rivers might contaminate my drinking supply without somebody ensuring it doesn't, it's that if I ever wanted to start my own business using that river that wouldn't work if it were chloride, well that's just too bad.

In other words, clean air and water regulations have to be the cost of doing business, because otherwise, dirty air and dirty water are going to be the costs of having an economy--but only an economy which allows for dirty air and dirty water activities.  Personally I'd rather have a diverse economy and clean air and water too.  I've seen economists argue that these things are still luxuries when compared to the basic necessity of employment in order to gain sustenance, and sure, when our grand economy developed, we didn't have those things.  And we realized how bad an idea that was, and consequently we are not Haiti.   As for clean air and clean water verses money to eat--one will kill you sooner yet too much of the other may well kill you later, but either way, life's better if you can have both.

That leads me to climate change, because we've sort of mostly figured out how to create a decent balance of clean air, clean water, and economy, but we're still at a loss about how and even if to do something about carbon emissions while maintaining an economy and standard of living that depend deeply upon emitting carbon. There is no other way to describe this unique situation in history except to say that it royally sucks. And it looks like most of the feeble solutions we've come up with are full of imperfection on many fronts, heavy-handed government intervention and the necessity of mass personal sacrifice being high among them.

Two ideas, both of which are politically dead as dead can be, match two common economic strategies for dealing with "externalities," which in economic terms are bad consequences caused by an entity which don't directly penalize that entity, resulting in little incentive within the market structure to do much about it.  One could call climate change the largest externality our global economy has ever created.  One proposed solution is a tax on carbon, getting everybody who uses it, which is most of us, to pay per unit of use.  When the price of something goes up, demand goes down, so that would force reductions somewhere along the way.  Since people use carbon as a matter of necessity for things likes getting to jobs that give sustenance and getting the sustenance to stores too, that is going to have bad consequences for those who can't afford the higher price, the counter argument being that none of us can afford climate change and this way we are, at least, fairly paying according to our contribution thereof.

Another dead solution is a carbon cap and trade scheme, which mimics what we've already done with decent success to get other air pollutants under control.  This seemingly puts the cost on large-scale polluters but will really put it on us too, because anybody providing a service whose costs go up must of necessity raise their prices all the same as if we'd all been taxed.  The advantage, in my mind, in this kind of approach, is that it allows companies already doing better at reducing their emissions to be rewarded, and in general leaves more room for innovating in order to comply with the rules.

Both of those involve heavy government intervention--but they are still market solutions, far from "this must be this way" laws.  Yet both of those were politically killed dead by most Republicans and not a small number of Democrats, see once again "wow this situation sucks" and the fact that no matter what we choose, some people are going to be burdened. 

Other solutions:  "investment in the green economy."  I don't think this will work without further clarification of intent, because what is the "green economy" really? "Green jobs" seems to mean jobs for people who go out and install solar panels and put insulation in your attic--but somebody's got to be buying those solar panels and that insulation first--does the average homeowner have money for that? I sure as heck don't, and my observation is that despite everyone clamoring about how great that economy will be, these "green jobs" are largely a myth at the moment.  Maybe Science! will give us new renewable energy and nuclear technology that will be awesome, but we need workable solutions now already, and have quite a few at least workable technologies already, with only economics and rapidly only politics standing in their way.

Ron Paul, as one example of the opposition to governmental intervention in all things environment, when he's not calling climate change a hoax, insists that removing oil subsidies and letting the price be what it is will go a long way to fix the problem naturally--again, not without pain. George W. Bush shared this sentiment, and sometimes attempted to structure policies this way while he was in office.  It seems to me that doing this would at the very least solve a few birds with one stone:  cut deficits though perhaps not substantially, have the same effect as carbon tax without having to actually tax people and deal with the associated bureaucracy, and would likely work to reduce carbon emissions as well as any other idea.  And it may well severely staunch our recovery by damaging the oil and gas industry which even now employs millions of Americans.

None of these fixes are what I would call socialism, and have been shot down for economic reasons, rather than philosophical ones.  Yet a rising timbre in American political discourse pre- 2012 election calls for reduced business regulation and also a symbolic return of rugged individualism to the tune of Ayn Rand, and this does not seem to bode well for fixing an externality associated with a large swath of our individual behaviors.  And so with all proposed solutions so far struck down and a new sentiment a'brewing, this raises the philosophical question:  are there any solution to climate change that don't involve unprecedented self-sacrifice where it's willing and social engineering where it's not?  Do all practical environmental solutions equate to accepting some incremental new level of socialism, and is that always such a terrible thing?