This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month Something Deeply Hidden by Sean Carroll.
Sean Carroll, author of From Eternity to Here
, takes on some of the most challenging and mind-bending questions in modern physics in his new book, Something Deeply Hidden
. In lucid prose, using accessible and hard-to-refute arguments, Carroll lays out his case that there are more than one of us — of everyone — in the universe. A persuasive, fascinating, and landmark work of physics. — Jill O.
The important thing to remember while reading Something Deeply Hidden
is that quantum physics is supposed to make your head explode. Even its premise — that electrons behave differently when observed (in other words: what we see isn’t necessarily what is) — is completely baffling. How do we know what electrons do when we’re not observing them if we’re not observing them? Does this mean that electrons have consciousness? If an electron is a wave function, as Carroll argues, and an unobserved electron is in a superposition of every possible location (being a wave and not a zippy little dot), is all unobserved matter — including our observer — also a wave and also in a superposition? Meaning that there are potentially limitless probable positions for observer and observed; limitless universes in which the observer and the observed occupy slightly different positions and therefore slightly different realities?
The Many Worlds Theory of quantum mechanics, Carroll’s preferred theory and the main subject of Something Deeply Hidden
, suggests so, and it’s a terribly seductive idea. It’s easy to leap from the Many World reading of wave function and superposition — the idea that every event with multiple possible outcomes splits the world into alternative realities in which those outcomes are taking place — to fantasizing about a manifold reality where you’re a lowly office worker in one universe but a rock star in another; anything is possible! So stop and take a deep breath. This is physics, not The Family Man
One of Carroll’s essential points is that although we use quantum mechanics on a daily basis for things like MRIs and semiconductors, physicists as whole shy away from the elephant in the room, which is that no one understands how it works. He calls this the “shut up and calculate” school of physics and argues convincingly that while applied quantum mechanics is well and good, it’s in physicists’ interests to pursue its foundations. While Carroll presents the Many Worlds Theory as the most elegant and plausible approach, he skillfully walks the reader through alternate interpretations of quantum mechanics like Quantum Bayesianism, which posits that the “spooky” behavior of the electron when observed is explained by its interaction with its surroundings. And, as Carroll explores toward the end of the book, many physicists argue that Many Worlds falls short because it doesn’t adequately account for gravity and its conceivable role as an anchor on reality.
Let this be said: Something Deeply Hidden
isn’t easy to read. Even though Carroll eschews the math in favor of a lucid, friendly approach to the material, if your physics days are well behind you, you’ll need to reread at least a few sections several times (and maybe do some Googling) in order to fully digest the complexity of fundamental concepts like wave function and quantum decoherence. Ultimately, although the flashy idea of multiple “yous” is being used to market the book, Something Deeply Hidden
is the opposite of flashy. Carroll wants other physicists and laypeople to take the Many Worlds interpretation seriously, and he lays out a serious case for it. The result is a fascinating, challenging, and mind-bending book about the nature of reality. For anyone interested in questions of space and time — from the time-travel fiction enthusiast to the Stephen Hawking
devotee — it is well worth the delightful trouble it takes to read it.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here