The Universe Never Forgets

By Nahum Kovalski

I was watching a fascinating documentary, presented by Morgan Freeman [which is a good part of the reason it was fascinating]. The documentary had to do with the way in which we remember things, and began to speak of the human soul. Rather than be a purely religious discussion, the question was raised as to whether our brains function according to certain principles in quantum mechanics that literally allow us to be “one with the universe”.

I am not a physicist, which I regret in hindsight. What is fascinating about physicists, amongst many things, is that many of them have formal advanced degrees in philosophy. I can’t remember the source, but I heard it once said that philosophy plus measurement equals physics. The human imagination can create the most mind-boggling constructs [insert The Matrix joke here], and if you can support this construct with some math, you have a new theory of reality.

It sounds rather simple, except for the fact that the math involved is limited to the minds of relatively few people in the world. But ultimately, that’s really all it takes. You start with a concept, you back it up with math, and then you test it in some backyard device like the Large Hadron Collider. I should just forewarn you that your electricity bill will be higher than usual whenever you turn the LHC on.

My late brother, who I miss for obvious personal reasons, but also because he could explain concepts like quantum physics at a level that even I could understand, was a physicist and would undoubtedly be fascinated by the advances that have been made in the last 30 years since he passed away. The question that quantum physics raises is whether he is really gone. Before you report me to the mental health authorities, let me further explain.

There are certain concepts in physics that are studied, reported on and presented to a room full of other physicists, who sincerely clap at the end. And for this room full of astonishing minds, they really do understand what has just been described, to the same extent that I would understand how a puzzle works once it has been disassembled and reassembled in front of my eyes. My understanding of advanced physics always requires that it be translated into very basic practical examples. This actually fits with my medical training. Once I can see something, I can understand it. Medicine doesn’t require any grand thinking, that challenges the typical limits of our imaginations. We don’t have to think beyond three dimensions in order to grasp advanced concepts in medicine [if there is even such a thing as “Grand concepts” in the medical field].

I have often compared the difference between physics and medicine to the difference between the individual who imagines and then designs a fundamentally new kind of car engine, versus the one who installs the engine in the car and then provides its support throughout the lifetime of the car. Until today, medicine is still much more of an apprenticeship versus a hard science. There are definitely people in the medical profession who do hard science research in order to understand how nerve cells work and how to re-implant an organ. But most physicians effectively follow-up playbook which describes to varying degrees, the details for making a diagnosis and then treating the associated disease. There is a principle in medicine that if you allow a patient to freely talk long enough, the patient will effectively tell you what their diagnosis is.

There is something very magical in the human interaction between patient and physician that manages to describe in sufficient detail, the key factors necessary for making a diagnosis. A doctor who is a good listener can compensate for limits in knowledge by just taking copious notes and then comparing the collected information to a standard medical textbook. This actually is very reaffirming when people speak of computers that will one day replace human physicians. The computer, ultimately, only needs to listen and dissect the speech of the patient, and then categorize the terms and concepts that have been shared. In the vast majority of cases, contained within the patient’s soliloquy, will be the trigger words for matching the patient’s generalized complaints to a diagnosis.

One of the concepts in quantum mechanics is something called spooky action at a distance. The idea is that you can link two electrons or other subatomic particles to each other and then separates these two particles by great distances. The astounding thing is that the two particles will continue to act as if they are interconnected. They will share information about their state and respond accordingly to a change in the state of the other particle.

In the documentary, the idea is raised if our mental information is stored in the universe of particles, within their quantum states, ready to be used to recreate the thoughts of a lost individual. Imagine being able to do so with Einstein’s mind, or G-d forbid, the mind of someone close to you. Once the particles are recreated, a computer could transform them into a thinking, realistic version of the person lost to us. That would be one way of telling G-d, “we kept a copy, so go blow.” A robot designed to look like the deceased could possibly live out the rest of that lost person’s life. That remaining copy could go on to discover new amazing things or could just be a stay-at-home parent, giving the kids the love that they deserve.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Higgs Boson was just imaginary, as yet unproven, but nevertheless critical to the physical proof of our theories of the universe. Let your imagination fly and close your eyes and imagine a lost person who you so desperately want to see again. How long before this is possible? Better yet, when you close your eyes, how will you know that upon opening them, you are not the Quantum copy of the lost one who has passed on? Will it matter?

Thanks for listening.

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