Sunday, February 12, 2006

Picasso and the probability of particles

We went to see Picasso at the Lapin Agile at the Little Theatre of
Alexandria last week. If you haven't already seen it, I don't think it ruins anything to tell you that it involves Picasso and Einstein in the Lapin Agile, discussing the significance and beauty of art and science.

The subjects that Einstein expounds on include probability and the nature of observation. Using a Picasso drawing, Al demonstrates that there can be many divergent observations of one object, but that they don't change the object.

This is essentially the story of the blind men and the elephant retold in a French cafe at previous turn of the century by one of the greatest minds in history. As I was walking Barky around the bowling alley the next morning (the fun never ends around here), I got to thinking about what Einstein said about the importance of the perspective of the observer. Then I realized that in the case of the blind men and the elephant, there was one observer whose perspective was never accounted for: the elephant.

While the blind men were busy categorizing the elephant by his or her parts, the elephant was probably busy thinking that this was a pretty strange deal. Or perhaps the elephant was having a bad day and was wondering when all these people would leave. In the case of the elephant, it might not have made much difference, but say a person was being observed by a doctor. Does the patient's mood affect the doctor's observations?

It seems possible. What if the patient is depressed, and his or her heart rate is lower than normal? Or agitated, which raises the patient's heart rate above normal? In either case, the doctor's observations are likely to be affected by the perspective of the observed.

Which leads to the obvious question: do particles have perspectives?

And, if they do, how does that affect our observations of them? Given that we extrapolate from those observations into the larger world around us, how do the intentions of these particles affect how we view our world?

These questions relate--in my mind, anyway--to the opening general session of the conference that I also went to last week, in which the speaker, Thornton May, challenged us to think about the future. It was difficult for any of us to do much more than project present trends into the future. May observed that most of us have this difficulty because we're stuck in our current mental models.

A classic example of mental model shifting is the story of Tom Sawyer painting the fence. Although it was work, and Tom knew that it was work, he changed the mental models of the kids around him so that they saw it as something worth paying him for. Most of us, however, can't or don't make those shifts, which would allow us to make our own futures rather than carrying the present into the future.

But, what if the particles that we're observing are shifting their mental models and making their own futures? Will we be able to keep up with them? And, if we could keep up and shift ahead with them, what would we see? And, are there particles that we are missing, because we can't, or aren't, taking into account their perspectives?

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