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Reality Check (by Paul W. Smith)

Reality can be disappointing. Self-help books and motivational speakers tell us the answer is to set ambitious goals and reach for the stars. When the results don’t meet our expectations, disappointment soon follows. There are many ways of dealing with this.

In the 60’s, one answer was to give up on reality completely and settle instead for a good fantasy. For some, pharmaceuticals were involved. Others sought to question the very nature of reality, suggesting that even time itself is not what we think. One neuroscientist proposed that our brains are merely receivers, and the consciousness we believe originates within is transmitted from somewhere else. Perhaps The Matrix was more science than fiction, and the true nature of our reality is under external control. Of late, there is a burgeoning movement to augment reality, making it digitally better than it really is.

We have consumed a lot of energy throughout history trying to understand and improve on reality, mostly to no avail. Perhaps we have been wasting our time. What if all those efforts failed because there is no reality after all? There are some smart people who believe this may be true.

One such person is a scientist who can be found in the annals of the Nobel Prize for Physics. He is Eugene Wigner, best known for his famous, nameless friend. If you are not a physicist, this may seem unreal.

The mysterious field of quantum mechanics has many seemingly unreal paradoxes, one of which is that the universe could conceivably accommodate two observers, e.g. Wigner and a friend, who experience different versions of reality. For over 50 years and counting, physicists have used the “Wigner’s Friend” story to fuel their arguments over whether objective reality can even exist. For the practical folks among us, this has little value. Imagine telling your spouse that, in an alternate reality, you did in fact feed the dog and take out the trash.

One important detail that has limited Wigner’s friend to cocktail-party fodder is that he is part of a thought experiment – something that physicists do when an actual experiment is unrealistic. The Nobel committee thought it was good enough to award Eugene their Prize, but it was hardly a compelling argument that reality doesn’t exist - at least until now.

Massimiliano Proietti and a few of his colleagues in Edinburgh appear to have created different realities and compared them. The details involve multiple entangled photons and so are still somewhat removed from our daily experience with reality, but the idea that this can be shown in a real physical case has created a buzz at those cocktail parties.

Massimiliano’s real experiments involve quantum mechanics, photon polarization and superposition – concepts best reserved for the physics classroom. Suffice it to say that Wigner and his imaginary friend would observe two very different experimental outcomes and are unable to resolve the difference.

Real physics experiments have long been based on the assumptions that there is a reality we can agree on, individuals have freedom of choice in their observations, and one observer’s choices don’t influence another’s (know in physics-speak as “locality"). The Edinburgh team was forced to conclude that either objective reality doesn’t exist, or there is some loophole they have overlooked. The first option makes for a much more exciting research paper.

Most scientific breakthroughs are soon followed by a rush to commercialization, although it’s unclear what the patent office might think of this one. I suspect that the jump from entangled photons to practical applications may present some challenges. Wigner himself said “It is taking so long, in fact, to train a physicist to the place where he understands the nature of physical problems that he is already too old to solve them.” Still, further research may be justified.

Imagine a world where an imperative like “Get real!” is ambiguous, and the question “What reality are you living in?” might be a legitimate ice-breaker. What about a world where two of us see things differently, and we are both right?

Scientists may someday clarify reality, but until then the augmented version may be our least disappointing option.


Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40

years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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