A professor of Electrical Engineering, Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southern California since 1980, Martin Gundersen, Ph.D, has had more than a few interests in the world of science. He’s been teaching and conducting research in areas from pulsed power science and technology to lasers, applied plasma physics and quantum electronics. His work has led him to a wide variety of honors and stints at places like MIT, CERN, CalTech and UCLA. An intriguing biographical note is that he has organized workshops with the American Film Institute for scientists interested in writing for TV and film. Fans of Professor Gundersen know that he was the technical advisor for the extensive science and laser scenes in the cult film, Real Genius. But it is not generally known that he inspired the parameters for the academic work and accomplishments of the film’s scheming Professor Hathaway, portrayed by William Atherton. It should be duly noted, it was clearly not Professor Gundersen’s affable (and frequently funny) personality on which the character was based. We caught up with the professor in one of his favorite cities, Monterey, California, to explore how quantum mechanics can be made practical for the general population and other related subjects.
In Part 1, Professor Gundersen gave readers a basic definition of quantum mechanics and some examples of where we find QM principles at work in our everyday existence. He also discussed the lasers in Real Genius, the popular 1980’s film he worked on as a scientific advisor and he spoke about the relation of positrons and electrons and some of the important early experiments that were done. In Part 2, he looks at the atom, takes on the New Age practitioners who claim to be using QM and discusses the future of QM in devices being developed now
LITTLE ATOMS AND A LOT OF SPACE
Q. Can you explain how the vast majority of everything is considered empty space—99.999999999999–12 9’s %? I read someone said we don’t sit on a chair, we sit above a chair.
A. Oh yeah! Well, that’s kind of interesting. Let’s say the chair is made out of atoms. And the atom has protons and neutrons in the center and electrons going around it. What is the size of those particles? There’s a lot of space between them. There are strong forces between the particles that hold it all together, but the particles themselves appear to be something less than about a ten thousandth of the size of the atom. In this sense the atom is mostly free space. If the nucleus is the size of this coffee cup, the electron is probably all the way over in Salinas. So that’s what they mean by the atom is mostly free space.
Q. What about a metal object? I’ve always understood that it’s much denser than say, a plastic bottle. It would have more electrons in it, no?
A. It depends on the metal. The density in terms of mass or weight is higher because most individual metal atoms —copper or iron atoms, for example—are heavier than the constituent atoms of plastic—carbon and hydrogen atoms. The number of atoms in a small volume is comparable and the distance between atoms is comparable. I want to say it’s a little less than a billionth of a meter. There’s 3 x 1019 atoms per cubic centimeter. Now 1019 is a million times a million times a million times ten. A million, million, million times ten. That’s how many atoms are in something about the size of my thumb.
Q. So how can there be all this space between them if we’re going all the way to the next town, Salinas, from your example before?
A. Well, they’re very small, but they’re held together by strong forces. The atom has a certain size. It’s really defined by where the electron is. Within that, the nucleus of the atom is about a ten thousandth of that volume and there’s all that space. So even though there’s ten million, million, million times three molecules…there’s a diatomic molecule—it’s oxygen, O2 and nitrogen, N2. They’re just sitting there, spinning around and there’s millions and millions and millions in the size of a thumbnail. And when you look at the atoms, there’s the electron, inside there’s the nucleus. It’s about a ten thousandth of the size of the atom.
Q. And the explanation that we’re not really sitting on the chair, we’re sitting above the chair?
A. That’s terminology. When you sit on the chair, you’re physically very close to the chair. What’s involved is the force of gravity which is your weight on the chair and the electromagnetic forces holding atoms together in the wood, the fabric, etc. which ultimately are described by quantum mechanics. I think it’s okay to say you’re sitting on the chair!
CONSCIOUSNESS, NEW AGE IDEAS AND PHYSICS
Q. I wanted to ask about consciousness and our thoughts in relation to quantum mechanics. I’m interested in this personally and I know a lot of people are. In those films that had some impact a few years ago–What The Bleep Do We Know? and its sequel—there were several quantum physicists in these films and they made the case that just by our observing something, you can alter what happens, affect the electrons. Is that possible?
A. I don’t think that happens. I don’t see a mechanism. With physics, you have to have something that induces something and you have to observe it and document it and have reproducible experiments. I don’t know how to do that with this.
Q. This kind of idea though, seems to be getting more and more mainstream.
A. Not for me!
Q. Is it in any way possible that our thoughts can affect the universe to help create what we’re thinking?
A. You know, I don’t know. For me, it’s a little like asking the stars to orient themselves to help a tiny organism on a tiny planet. In terms of what I do as a scientist and an engineer, I don’t see a mechanism for moving things around or in other ways affecting things at a distance. There is a thing in quantum mechanics where the observer influences what’s going on, but it’s not that.
Q. What is that influence the observer has?
A. It’s the actual process of measurement at the quantum or microscopic level where you alter the properties of the thing you’re measuring. You can impact the motion or state of a particle. For example, how do you see where an electron is? You shine a special kind of light on it and the light influences the position and momentum of the electron itself.
Q. Would you say that’s in some way related to what I asked about?
A. There’s an uncertainty associated with that. And that’s a very quantifiable property. It’s embodied into Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle. It comes out of the Schrödinger Equation. It actually comes out of very elementary quantum mechanics. I was asked to read some scripts with science themes once and it seemed as if half the scripts had somebody who would think something and the guy on the other side of the room would feel great pain in their head. These scripts all depressed me!
Q. Dr. Larry Dossey has a book called Be Careful What You Pray For…You Just Might Get It where he described experiments being done in universities—for example, he talked about experiments with prayer. People who were very ill didn’t know that many people were praying for them while others who were very ill did know—
A. I know there’s been experiments done, but I have not seen results that are quantifiable experimentally.
Q. Experiments you can repeat over and over and they always hold up?
Q. Do you feel these things can happen occasionally?
A. I don’t know how the world really works, but I have to constrain my feelings to what I can prove, at least as a scientist. In terms of science, people have to be able to reproduce the experiments and have a mathematical model that embodies the physics and allows you to make calculations about what happens. I’ve seen it for decades where experiments are alluded to that aren’t quantified properly. I’ll give you an example. A hundred years ago, what was all the rage? To communicate with someone who’d passed on. People would have séances. One of the best physicists of that era was Lord Rayleigh. He wrote well, too. He was just marvelous. He went to some séances to see if there was anything to it or not. My recollection is that he concluded most situations were outright fraud. He found some things he couldn’t explain, but he couldn’t find a demonstrable situation. So he didn’t form a final conclusion that these things work.
Q. What about the studies that are presented in some of these popular New Age books?
A. There are too many for me to comment on, but any study has to be valid. A valid study has a predictive model–you do something and you can predict what happens.
Q. These studies can’t be valid if they don’t have a predictive model?
A. Not as far as Mr. Physics is concerned!
QUANTUM MECHANICS AND THE FUTURE
Q. What kinds of things are being worked on for the future utilizing quantum mechanics?
A. Smaller and smaller devices with more and more applications. In this nano world, there are things called carbon nanotubes that are very small. They’re long and small and have marvelous electrical properties. People are trying to figure out how to make transistors out of those, so transistors will get even smaller and we’ll get more of them in small spaces. There’s a tremendous amount of work on this and there will be applications in many areas such as health, business, safety and things we haven’t imagined yet. Quantum mechanics becomes more relevant as these develop.
Q. How small could devices ultimately get?
A. In the world of nano-electronics, new devices are being imagined that are on the atomic scale––the size of a few atoms.
Q. The products that incorporate that kind of technology would be quite different from what we have now.
A. You’ll see sensors and computers embedded in a lot of things, maybe even in the body to see how we’re doing healthwise, for therapy and treatment of diseases. In Spielberg’s film, Minority Report, there’s a scene where Tom Cruise is in a subway and people are reading newspapers that are acquiring information and presenting it as if they were watching it on a television. That’s nano-technology implemented on some weird form of paper! People are working on things related to that. You can see things going in those directions.
CERN – THE ULTIMATE EXPERIMENT
Q. Last question is about what’s going on at CERN and whether you think they’ll be successful.
A. That’s outside of my area. It’s the biggest accelerator in the world. It was created to see if a tiny particle called the Higgs Boson exists. It says something for us as a species that we are pursuing experiments as difficult as that. It’s a great thing to see. I was on sabbatical at CERN about twenty years ago and there was another accelerator for colliding electrons with positrons. It was used to prove a physics theory that led to the present theory and experiments. They were converting it to the large Hadron Collider. I think it’s 26 kilometers around and it’s buried deep under the ground. You look down and it’s 100 meters deep in places and yet when you drive around, there are cows and pastures. It’s just amazing. The purpose of it is to accelerate these protons, bash them into each other and produce what’s called the Higgs Boson. They’re doing experiments now and they haven’t found it yet–unless there’s news today! Now, what do I think? I don’t know. There’s billions of dollars going into that kind of experiment. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something that we’re missing, that it’s not the whole story. I think the preponderance of feeling is that it’s going to turn up, but I for myself don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t but is actually something different we haven’t thought about yet. We have to do the experiment to find out.
Q. It must be incredibly exciting for a scientist to work on this.
A. There are thousands of people who’ve worked on this and weren’t involved in the original ideas. Locally, for me, the large Berkeley Lab has the flavor of CERN. I’ve worked at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Berkeley was a seed for these kinds of experiments.
Q. Anything else you want to impart about quantum mechanics before we close?
A. Quantum mechanics is the way things work. For somebody that’s curious about how things work, it’s a very fundamental, wonderful, intellectual thing with outcomes that ultimately are important in our real lives. Puzzles with meaning, you might say. There have always been challenges to understanding how things work, but for physicists, satisfying one’s curiosity is really enjoyable.