Review: The Dancing Wu Li Masters

Posted on Jul 18, 2003

Let’s get this out of the way, right off. This book has, as far as I can tell, two goals: to pique your interest in quantum physics and its sub-fields, and to convince you that certain beliefs that you’re likely to have about the world are not supported by experiments performed in it. He accomplished both goals with this reader.

Unlike your physics classes, which featured a lot of sleeping on your book, this one starts on your stove. A physicist named Max Planck back in 1900 tried to figure out why your stove glows red when it gets really hot. The most convincing theories concerning how objects behaved when heated in the Newtonian physics predicted that it would be blue, not red. The answers he came back with led directly to Einstein’s theory of special relativity. On your stove!

I’m not going to summarize the book; I feel you should read it yourself. It’s not long, challenging, or expensive. I will say that it is not an argument, or at least it doesn’t appear to be one to me. It appears to be a history, indicating there’s no other way you could logically process the information. I was very impressed with this, and I wish more books were that way. I guess that’s why I’m reading non-fiction these days!

I was initially very concerned, because the “Mass Market Paperback” places this book in the New Age section, which evokes things that I’d rather not have mixed too closely with this book. Fortunately, I find his touch with this topic perfectly acceptable, and maybe even likely to intrigue some people who might not have started reading the book with an interest in Eastern schools of thought. None of these references occur in the middle of describing experiments or anything like that. He merely points out (and not as often as you might expect) how the results of these experiments might be interpreted by the Eastern viewpoint.

I can’t possibly resist some spoilers here. I can only hope that seeing where you end up will make you want to buy it.

Bell’s Theorem states that on a subatomic level, the principle of local causes does not hold. The alternative to Bell’s theorem is denying that quantum physics predicts the results of experiments, which is kind of like saying that the free dummy from that Deep Thought By Jack Handey wouldn’t even fall to the ground at all.

So, what does that mean, that business about local causes? It means we have a contradiction for which there are four possible resolutions. The first, is you are free to logically believe that no models of reality are possible. This was the first thing that physicists thought, and it doesn’t exactly appear to be the way things are working out.

Now the interesting stuff. Locality can fail. Imagine you’re– wherever you are and I’m– wherever I am. On a sufficiently small level, things that I do here can affect things that you see there. Instantly. Even though light itself wouldn’t be able to make the journey instantaneously, somehow these little subatomic particles are making it happen, doing their thing, acting like they were right in sync with each other. Incidentally, it also wouldn’t make a difference if I was on Mars, or in another galaxy.

The second choice, if you don’t like locality failing, is contrafactual definiteness failing. This has two subparts: contrafactualness and definiteness. If contrafactualness fails, then you have no free will. Everything you do and everything that happens was “put into motion” before the universe began. It’s even stronger than this, as a matter of fact. A belief in the failure of contrafactualness would logically entail believing that the entire universe couldn’t have happened any differently that everything from the big bang to the very second you’re reading this was predictable given the complete set of rules at the beginning of the game. This doesn’t seem plausable to me, to say nothing of the limited appeal.

The third choice, and maybe the wildest, is that definiteness fails. This would mean entail a belief in the Many Words Theory. In short, it says that every possible action is occuring in some branch of the universe. In other words, there’s a universe where, instead of thinking about translating this entire post into l33t sp34k, I actually do it. Wait, there, I thought about wiggling my nose, there’s another one now. And one for each word I might have misspelled or typo made while typing this. That’s pretty mindblowing.

So, out of the four beliefs you could choose, there’s one that most physicists would rule out: the “no models” one. So if you believe in free will, you’re probably anticipating the discovery of wild connections between the quanta which comprise all of us or the discovery of an infinite number of alternate realities.

But don’t just take my word for it. Find out yourself!