Imagine if the world around you was a (huge, multidimensional and interconnected) jigsaw puzzle. All of the different aspects somehow connected with each other to create a grand big picture. Individually, we live in the realm of singular puzzle pieces. Throughout our lifetime, we see a couple of different aspects of reality; a doctor may have seen the depths of human suffering and life. A social worker may have explored compassion and the helping nature of humans. Your quirky distant relative has explored the meaning of identity in his last trip to the Himalayas where he tried to “find himself”. But together, all of the known and unknown observations of the universe form existence.

To complete the puzzle of life, we must identify what the pieces are (the colored pieces are what we know) and then connect them

Every tidbit of knowledge is interconnected, even the seemingly contradictory ones. The puzzle pieces I am particularly interested in are the ones regarding the nature of matter and energy itself: physics. If you think past your annoying high school physics curriculum, physics is filled with rich information about how the world around us behaves on a fundamental level. After all, it’s the science of the nature of the universe itself.

Before we get started, a quick disclaimer: these are MY interpretations of physical laws, and should not be taken as the truth. I encourage you to think independently and question my conclusions!

So without further ado, let’s embark on the journey of connecting the interactions and structure of matter with the grander picture of existence!

Puzzle piece #1: Superposition

Imagine there is a box. It is totally opaque, and you can’t tell what is inside. The box has a coin inside and you need to determine if it’s heads or tales.

is it heads or tails?

With much anticipation, you open the box and see… heads! Under classical physics, the box contained the coin as facing heads the entire time. This outcome was predetermined. However, under quantum mechanics, this coin was neither heads nor tails before you opened the box. It existed in a superposition of both states, with no certain value until you finally opened the box. When you opened the box, you essentially took down this curtain of uncertainty and caused the coin to collapse into a state: heads. Before opening the box, you could only ascertain the coin’s value through a certain probability for heads or tails.

While this sounds fairly mind blowing (at least to me), this is what happens with subatomic particles. Particles, such as electrons, exist in a superposition of multiple different states. Its spin does not have a certain value; instead it exists as a waveform with different probabilities for different spins. However, as a result of conscious observation “measurement” or particle collisions, these waveforms “collapse” into a particle.

Like the Toy Story characters, particles collapse when they are observed

Scientists discovered this perplexing quality in the famous double slit experiment. In this experiment, electrons were shot through a double slit. For reference, when light is shot through a double slit, it interferes (they are waves so the crests and troughs overlap with each other) and creates an interference pattern on the board. When electrons were shot through, they also created an interference pattern, showing that they behaved as waves as well. However, when scientists tried to see how particle-like electrons were able to behave as waves and interfere with each other through the slits, the electrons stopped behaving as waves and maintained a particle behavior. The interference pattern did not occur. It was almost as if the conscious act of measuring the state of a particle/wave caused it to collapse. Everything in existence has a wave-particle duality, in fact. However, the wavelike properties of macroscopic items like you and me are very difficult to detect.

How this fits into the puzzle: It seems to me as if there is an opaque curtain separating reality and the quantum realm. The world that we experience is just a sliver of the near infinite possibilities of what could manifest, represented by the waveform of a particle. An interesting implication of superposition is the Many Worlds Interpretation (which, keep in mind, is just a theory). This states that there exists a universe for every possible outcome of a quantum event; in other words, there is a universe in which the coin is heads and another one where the coin is tails. All of these universes are parallel to one another and connected by the waveform of these particles. For every new quantum event, the universe branches into multiple different instances, leading to an almost infinite number of parallel universes. Then, time would be an unimaginably complex tree diagram. To me, the next logical step from this theory seemed to be that free will existed as well. If a person was faced with a decision, there could be many potential universes with each option, some more probable than others. Once the decision is made, that particular potential universe could manifest into the person’s reality. Time may not be a static, predetermined dimension. Therefore, destiny is an illusion, and so is fate.

Puzzle piece #2: Special Relativity

The theory of special relativity was developed by our beloved Einstein in 1905. It states that the speed limit of the universe is the speed of light, c, regardless of the reference frame. Secondly, the laws of physics are constant in all inertial reference frames (when they are not accelerating). This results in some pretty crazy properties like time dilation and length contraction.

time dilation
length contraction

Furthermore, an event that is simultaneous in the eyes of one observer will not appear simultaneous to another if he/she is in a different reference frame (for example, he/she is moving).

Lastly, this theory leads to the famous equation, E = mc². This was derived using kinetic energy and the Doppler effect, and essentially means that mass and energy are different forms of the same thing. Find the nearest pencil to you. It is only around 0.005 kg but it has 4.5 * 10¹⁴ Joules of energy, equivalent to around 110,000 tons of TNT.

That’s nice and all, but why is it called “special relativity”? The “special” is because this theory does not account for gravity and the curvature of spacetime (that came two years later, in Einstein’s general relativity). It is “relativity” because time, distance and velocity is all relative to a reference frame. It is never absolute. The only absolute, according to the theory, is the universal speed limit of light (quantum entanglement may defy this, but our current understanding has failed to initiate faster than light communication).

Imagine you are flung into space, all alone. There is absolutely nothing around you that you can see or detect. How fast are you going? Where are you going? Who are you?

Out of my pity towards you all alone in space, I throw your best friend into the mix and give you both flashlights. Now, you can see your friend hurtling towards you and the questions above have been somewhat answered. You are heading in your friend’s direction. It is still a mystery whether you are the one in motion or your friend, because in either scenario, your relative motion is still towards each other.

Just for fun, I add a third observer who sees what you and your friend are up to. This observer states that you are the person in motion and your friend is stationary. However, it is still in question whether the third person is moving relative to you and your friend. With every new person I add, you gain more insight about what is happening, but there is still no absolute truth. It can approach an absolute truth, but it will never reach it.

My key takeaway from this theory is that nothing is definitive in this world. Everything we experience is relative to other things. The theory relates this law to motion, where your perspective of an object’s motion is just relative to your unique frame of reference. What if we could go further and apply this logic to our perspectives and thoughts? Is our individual set of facts that we accept as true actually true?

Let’s define the word “true”

True /tro͞o/

(Adjective) in accordance with fact or reality.

An idea that is true is just something that is in accordance with reality. But earlier, we just discussed how our reality is relative to other things.

Everything we think is true in this world is just a matter of our perspective. Are you actually a tall person, or are you just taller than the people around you? Is your idol a respectable person, or just more respectable than the general human population? Our idea of what is real is just based on comparisons with other things. Everything we know is built upon this existing network of what we accept as objective facts. When you are born, you learn as a child that 2+2=4, the earth is a sphere, stealing is wrong, etc. As you grow older, you build upon these foundational ideas; you learn advanced mathematics based on 2+2=4, and you learn more about the intricacies of science and society. The statements we perceive as objective facts are subjective to our time period. Centuries ago, it was a true fact that the earth was flat. Now, we laugh at that idea (except for you flat-earthers). It’s a little ironic how people look back at the past and scorn all of the crazy beliefs people once held, and then turn to the present and have the audacity to claim their current beliefs as true. Maybe in the future, we will realize that we’ve been living under a rock in 2020.

On top of this, everyone is living in his or her own reality. Based on your upbringing, specialized social media feed, and external influences, you gain a unique set of facts that you hold as true. This perspective differs from the people around you, even your closest friends or siblings. If all 7.8 billion people do not completely agree with what is true and false, can there be an absolute truth? There are certainly trends: most people have incorporated 2+2=4 into their reality. It’s an accepted fact. But if you look closely at the fabric of society, you’ll see the loopholes between the strings drawing it together.

If we think this grey shirt is the truth…
…looking closer, it’s filled with loopholes!

Maybe the big picture is that there is no big picture. Maybe there is no “true” reality or existence, and maybe the puzzle is meant to be unsolved. Regardless, the boundaries of human knowledge are continuing to expand exponentially into the unknown. Every day, we are picking up new puzzle pieces of the world around us at an unprecedented rate. So join me in my quest to break through the boundaries of the human race and come up with a narrative to describe the world we live in!

Quantum Computing Enthusiast | Innovator at The Knowledge Society | CS @ UPenn | Social Entrepreneurship