Adapted from One: how an ancient idea holds the future of physics by Heinrich Bass. Reprinted with permission from Basic Books, Copyright © 2023.
Since the discovery of the atom, physicists have adhered to a reductionist philosophy. According to this idea, nature can be assimilated into a unified understanding by analyzing everything around us into pieces made up of the same small components. According to this popular narrative, everyday objects such as chairs, tables, and books are made of atoms, atoms are made up of atomic nuclei and electrons, atomic nuclei contain protons and neutrons, and protons and neutrons are made up of quarks. Elementary particles such as quarks or electrons are understood as the building blocks of the universe.
Over the past 50 years, to work on and install this view, hundreds of thousands of pages have been filled with complex equations full of strange symbols. To test these ideas, giant particle smashers, tubes several miles long and worth billions of dollars, have been built to accelerate subatomic matter near the speed of light, allow it to collapse with violent collisions, and search for the smallest or so far. Undiscovered pieces. With the help of NASA and the European Space Agency, engineering wonders have been launched into space to eavesdrop on the first occurrences in the universe to understand what the world looked like when it was just a soup of hot particles.
This philosophy has had tremendous success, but there is a blind spot. Atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, and quarks are described by quantum mechanics. According to quantum mechanics, it is generally impossible to decompose an object without losing some key information. Particle physicists strive for a basic description of the universe, one that ignores any information. But if we take quantum mechanics seriously, it means that, at a fundamental level, nature cannot be composed of components. The basic description of the universe must begin with the universe itself.
Like any other professional physicist, I work with quantum mechanics on a daily basis. We use quantum mechanics to calculate and predict the results of experiments, observations, and problems that interest us, whether it be particle collisions in giant accelerators, scattering processes in the primordial plasma of the early universe, or the behavior of electric or magnetic fields in a solid-state laboratory experiment. But while we always rely on quantum mechanics to describe specific observations and experiences, we don’t usually apply it to the entire universe. This has a mind-boggling outcome. As I will argue in this book, once quantum mechanics is applied to the entire universe, it reveals a three-thousand-year-old idea: that at the basis of everything we experience there is only one universal thing — that everything else we see around us is a kind of illusion.
Admittedly, the claim that “all is one” does not sound like a brilliant scientific concept. At first glance, it seems absurd. Just look out the window. Most of the time, there will be more than one car on the street. It takes two people (at least!) for an affair, “two or three” believers are required to hold Mass, and twenty-two players are needed for a proper football match. Since ages, astronomers have convinced us that Earth is not the only planet in the universe, and today modern cosmology knows countless stars.
But quantum mechanics changes everything. In quantum systems, objects are so completely and completely integrated that it is impossible to say anything at all about the properties of their components anymore. This phenomenon is known as “entanglement,” and while Albert Einstein and his collaborators first pointed out it some eighty years ago, it is only now that it has been fully appreciated. Apply entanglement to the whole universe and you end up with Heraclitus’ doctrine of “of all things one”.
“Wait,” you might object. Quantum mechanics only applies to small things: atoms, elementary particles, and possibly molecules. Applying it to the universe makes no sense.” You would be surprised to learn that there are increasingly many good allusions that this conviction is wrong. Between 1996 and 2016 alone, six Nobel Prizes were awarded for so-called macroscopic quantum phenomena. Quantum mechanics seems to apply universally, and it is A result that is just beginning to explore its consequences.
You might raise your hands and protest that such a discussion is pointless. Physics seems to work fine without any metaphysical reasoning. The truth is, it doesn’t. Nowadays, physics is facing a crisis that is forcing us to reconsider what we understand as “fundamental” in the first place. Currently, the brightest particle physicists and cosmologists are isolated by experimental findings of highly improbable coincidences that so far defy any explanation. At the same time, the search for a theory of everything deprives physics of its foundational concepts, such as matter, space, and time. If these are gone, what remains?
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Quantum cosmology suggests that the underlying layer of reality is not made up of particles nor of small, vibrating one-dimensional objects known as “strings,” but the universe itself—understood not as the sum of the things of which it is made but as everything. Compass unit. As I will argue, the idea of ”all is one” has the potential to save the soul of science: the conviction that there is a unique and comprehensible fundamental truth. Once this argument takes hold, it will turn our quest for a theory of everything on its head—to build on quantum cosmology rather than particle physics or string theory (currently the most popular candidate for a quantum theory of gravity). This concept also refers to the need to understand how we might experience the world with so many things if all were “one”, after all. This is ensured by a process known as “decoherence,” which is necessary for almost any branch of modern physics. Decoherence is the factor that protects our everyday experience from much of quantum weirdness. And she realizes the rest of Heraclitus’ credo: “From everything.”
As a result, we will have to work on how this idea changes our perspective on philosophy’s deepest questions—”What is matter?” “What is space?” “What is time?” “How did the universe originate?”—and even on what religious people call “God” ( Centuries ago, the concept of universal unity with God was defined). We will also have to face why monism is so unpopular, if it follows so directly from quantum mechanics. Why does this seem so strange to us? Where does our negative reaction come from? To understand this bias Really, we have to delve into the history of monism.
The first is the story of a serious crisis in physics and the almost forgotten concept that has the potential to solve it. It explores the idea that “all is one,” and that matter, space, time, and mind are all just artifacts of our jagged view of the universe. Along the way he tells how the concept evolved and shaped the course of history, from ancient times to modern physics. Monism not only inspired the art of Botticelli, Mozart, and Goethe, but it also informed the science of Newton, Faraday, and Einstein. So far monism has become an implicit assumption underlying our most advanced theories about space and time. This is a story full of love and devotion, fear and violence – and the latest science. This is the story of how humanity became what it is.