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Visualizations without space-time or light

  1. Mar 10, 2008 #1
    Trying to 'visualize' phenomena at sub atomic sizes is imposssible because our idea of visualization relies on space time and light. Its similar to trying to put real meaning to imaginery numbers. Does 'i' exist or not. What does a photon 'look like' - has no meaning because we cannot bounce a photon off a photon and 'look' at it. Similarly, when we talk about sub atomic particles we think of a tiny silver ball or such. It is of course nonsense because a particle has a size, a color and a position in our mind. How can a ball have no position or size? Position and size are space-time dimensions which cease to have the same meaning at sub atomic sizes. Even a 'cloud' has a size and a location which in reality cannot be true because there is not the space-time to support that visualization.

    My point is that this lack of ability to 'visualize' at the suba atomic level is not simply a trivial disadvantage to us (non mathematicians), rather its a huge disadvantage in a fundamental way. Thats why we do not 'understand' quantum phenomena in a visual simple way, yet the maths copes with it just fine. I mean can you visualize an Eigen value? Answer is no, yet the Universe has no problem with them.

    What really fascinates me is what exists where there is no space-time at all. Like outside the Universe? Or am I falling into the same trap I mentioned above. Can there be a lot of 'activity' without dimension or time? If so what is it?

    What do you think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 10, 2008 #2


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    Not being able to 'visualise' quantum phenomena is par for the course. The equations are the important thing.
    I don't understand this at all. Space-time is everywhere and everywhen , surely ?
    By definition, nothing can be outside the universe.
  4. Mar 10, 2008 #3
    'Spacetime is everywhere' is odd logic, because everywhere implies a place in space time - it beggars the question.
    'Where was the big bang' is an illogical question as there was no 'where' or 'was'.

    So was a point floating around in nothingness that decided to explode forming a Universe. Well what about another point next to it?

    I am saying that as length tends to zero our human spacetime visualizations are not appropriate.
    Photons seem to arrive at various places from other places, but the journey between the two is thoroughly confusing if one tries to 'picture' it. For example, how 'long' is a fixed momentum photon that travels 100 miles? Which path did it take? Which slit did it go through (in Young's slits) etc. The math copes fine, but our imagination just fails utterly and that's what I find interesting because it means that we are not thinking in an appropriate way. Is it impossible for us because we are spacetime beings? Are there other beings that don't need spacetime? (if so what do they look like - lol).
  5. Mar 10, 2008 #4


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    Lose the word visualize and use the word conceptualize.

    Conceptualizing things is merely matter of throwing off our old, classical models of conceptualizing events and creating new ones.

    We didn't used to be able to conceive of curved space-time or of time dilation but now we can, once we see the functions as cause-and-effect relationships (I put this initial value in, I get this out - do that across a lot of values simultaneously and you can conceptualize these new physics phenom).
  6. Mar 10, 2008 #5
    Dave's point about conceptualizing things is good, but I think that your notion it's impossible to visualize things that do not have any visual existence is incorrect. Take a magnetic field, for example; that has no physical reality that would bear light reflecting off of it, but it can be visualized with a simple line drawing or even with a 3D rendering of translucent or cut-away isosurfaces.

    Or take an x-y plot of stellar mass to median frequency of radiation; that's a representation which has no relationship either to something visible or to anything with spatial extents resembling the shape or distribution you see in the plot; yet it's a visualization.

    Also, I'm not sure if what you're saying in general about quantum stuff is true anyways. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the lobes of the isosurface of an electron shell, for example, aren't purely conceptual but are related to actual x-y-z coordinates in space around the nucleus of an atom: "real" space and time extents whatever your opinion is of the reality of the quantum phenomena themselves is or what that isosurface may represent.

    I think you may be confusing something that one could imagine as tangible, with something that could be visualized.
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2008
  7. Mar 10, 2008 #6


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    Yep. Any graph of a function is, by definition, cause and effect (input x always gives a unique output y). We can easily conceive of this relationship even when it gets quite complex.
  8. Mar 10, 2008 #7


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    Oh, come on. This is not physics. What is a 'space-time' being ?
  9. Mar 11, 2008 #8
    iX certainly exists as much as any other number. It is no more special than a negative number (which is a relatively new invention) which in turn is just as real as a natural number.

    And numbers are just as real as words, in fact they *are* words, just more precise quantifications of "normal" words. You might say that a tennis ball is too heavy, or that it is like hitting a bag of flour, or you may say that it is 1kg. It is the same, just a varying degree of specificity.

    A word can have a meaning without a corresponding physical object, say -- "dragon", which is a theoretical construct -- yet the word has conceptual meaning. In the same way, numbers have meaning regardless of the actual physical reality. Both convey ideas.

    And the same goes for visual representations. Visualizing something helps you think, regardless of how correct the visualization is. It is one of our main tools for understanding the world, and avoiding it just because something cannot be seen is erroneous.

    On top of that, who says something we cannot measure with light cannot be seen? Perhaps we can reconstruct it's physical layout by measuring other properties? Certainly you can tell a ball from a square by feeling if you are put in a room without light? Or could you not put it in a shadowy corner, yet find the structure by rolling balls against it and checking their exit path? Or weigh the item and calculate its mass?

    There are many ways to infer physical characteristics from an object without looking at it, some lend themselves "easier" to visualization than others, but even weight helps. Any object with a non-zero restmass consists of matter, no? You might have to reinvent how you interpret it later, but how bad can it really be if you visualize it as a gray ball?

  10. Mar 11, 2008 #9


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    Can you describe for me how you were able to "visualize" the Principle of Least Action?

  11. Mar 11, 2008 #10
    But your argument really extends to more than that. It's not only visualization, it's all of our senses. Any information that we gather has to be processed through our senses - hence, whenever we're trying to explain a phenomenon, we have to relate it to something we can sense (this ranging from analogies to equations on a piece of paper). I'm not sure whether or not this is a disadvantage. If our limited senses do not allow us to sense the effect of say, a 'hidden' particle, then so what? If it has no effect on what we observe, then surly science does not need it.
  12. Mar 12, 2008 #11
    Some are missing the point...

    I believe many of us are 'explaining away' a fundamental brick wall in understanding.
    One 'particle' going through two 'apertures' at once -Youngs slits, for example- is not 'understandable' because we live in space-time. A tiny ball cannot go through two apertures at once, please don't say it can! So it cannot 'be' a tiny ball at all. Thats just a simple example of what we cannot visualize. Have you read some of the other quantum predictions - they are so very very bizarre. I'll dig some out if maybe.
    Yet the math has no problem with it. Don't forget the entire Universe apparently arose from a 'point' or some say 'nothing'. Where was the point? What time did it go bang? Were/are there other points 'near' it? What does 'no thing- nothing' really mean? All these questions are posed in space time where we live (where, what time, near it, even a point must have a size). But entities could exist in other dimensions, if so, how can we start to think about them? Does 'exist' for us mean a size and time? What can 'exist' that has no size at all? No size at all means no thing - nothing.

    Photons do not live in time, if I was a photon, I would set off from the big bang and arrive at the end of the Universe in no time at all. I would also believe the distance I had travelled was zero even though to us space-timers the photon was very old and had travelled for billions of years. Photons live 'below' our x,y,z world, so to speak. That is why we are hard pressed to visualize them correctly - if at all. How can we 'describe' something with no time or length?
  13. Mar 12, 2008 #12
    How can the same electrical current either flow through a serial circuit or a parallel circuit?

    In a water-filled wave tank you can directly watch a macro-sized compression wave - which we know the quantum entities we call “particles” are to some extent equivalent to - go through two apertures at once.

    Like I said, you aren't talking about whether these things can be visualized, but whether they can be imagined as tangible. If you're pointing out that quantum physics is really totally unlike the tangible world, you're correct. But so are many other things that we don't have any problem visualizing.
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2008
  14. Mar 12, 2008 #13


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    I really don't think you're giving 'many of us' much credit at all.

    You seem to be implying that we are incapable of thinking of an electron as anything other than a ... what did you call it? "A tiny ball".

    Speaking only for myself, I haven't been that ignorant since I was ... well, I never was.
  15. Mar 14, 2008 #14


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    But maybe you are trying to force something to behave in ways it isn't!

    From very far, everything looks like a "sphere". If I'm far enough from you, you look like a dot. Suddenly, as I get closer to you, I complain that you don't look like a dot, and it makes no sense now why I should give up my description of you as a dot. Do I'm insisting that you no longer makes any sense because you are not a dot!

    The quantum description makes the idea of "position", for example, to be VERY different than what we use in classical description. It isn't JUST that a particle as no definite position. It is the whole notion of what a measurement is that is being revamped. It has nothing to do with the particle. It has everything to do with us insisting that the notion of position, momentum, energy, time, etc. are still valid at that scale. You are trying to force a square object through a round hole, and just blaming the hole.

    You also need to reexamine your yardstick of what you accept. Using "common sense" doesn't cut it, because we have seen already that what we think to not make any sense is in fact that is happening. Special Relativity is a prime example. Your object to QM is simply based on YOUR matter of tastes, which has never been a valid object to anything in physics. The fact that empirical evidence more and more are confirming the QM description is one very powerful aspect that simply can't be ignored. It certainly trumps any argument based on tastes.

    I still want to know how you are able to visualize the principle of least action, so much so that you have complain against it.

  16. Mar 14, 2008 #15
    Thanks PF Mentor for valuable input.

    I appear a dot from a distance? Yes but that begs the question
    because you use the term 'distance' - space-time again. Photons
    only interact and have no appearance at all. Also, we
    speak about elementary particles - as if they are tiny balls. A neutrino,
    a quark etc etc.

    Do you rememeber when philosphers got hold
    of a piece of physics (Copenhagen for eg)
    and came up with the concept that a tree in
    a forest does not exist if you are not looking
    at it. Its referring to entangled particles that
    only 'exist' when observed I believe.

    Also, Prof Wheeler and his idea that we (the observer)
    is participating in Young's slits simply by observing,
    or what about, the Multiverse theorem to explain Young's slits
    (there is a second particle that goes through the second
    slit that is derived from a split Universe).

    OK, OK the Math works great and predicts everything correctly.
    But lets revisit visualization and at least define exactly why
    we have problems. Perhaps it needs psychologists, philosophers
    and biologist, even sociologists input because physicists seem
    to lack ability in this area. We are always fobbed off with a
    weakly stated 'we don't really know what it looks like, but
    can predict....' Lecturers/Profs often look abashed and apologetic
    about it, then quickly get on with the Math. Perhaps we don't have
    the correct vocabulary?

    What about a huge computer program - it has no size, could represent
    reality in a 3D world, could have quantum physics built in, yet its
    just a programme. Epistemology as something. see David Deutsch lecture.
    Knowledge has no size or time, yet if its used in a piece of deep space
    the size of the solar system a reasearch institute could be made. (there
    are enough atoms to build it)

    Not to mention evolution that seems to be proceeding in a direction as if
    driven by a field of some sort.
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2008
  17. Mar 14, 2008 #16


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    You missed the point!

    The point here is that in one "scale" a system can adequately "seen" to be one thing, and in another scale, it looks completely different! You complained that at the quantum scale, all the rules that you know and love from the classical world doesn't apply! Well here's a simple analogy that you can wrap your head around!

    So? Again, you are hanging on dearly to your square object and blaming the round hole. How do you know that it is your square object that is at fault?

    We physicists have been accused by many crackpots for trying to hang on to the status quo and not wanting to go "outside the box". Yet, here, it seems that we are the ones who clearly don't have a problem with abandoning the square object and realizing that the round hole isn't to be blamed.

    Not until you tell me how you are able to visualize the Principle of Least Action. You blame QM for not having things that you can visualize. So presumably, you are able to visualize things in classical physics. So show me how you visualize that principle, please. This, I believe, is the THIRD TIME I've asked you this.

    Last edited: Mar 16, 2008
  18. Mar 14, 2008 #17
    I think that rather it's because you don't understand or aren't interested in the vocabulary that's being used. There are tons of different visualizations of the things you've talked about, and there are all sorts of other non-visible non-space-and-time things that have been very successfully visualized in the field of physics.

    At this point you're simply ignoring anything presented that doesn't fit with your thesis. You also keep saying “us” and talking about problems “we” have in a clumsy attempt to impute your conclusions. If this is the kind of input you're talking about from other fields into physics it definitely would not improve anything.
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2008
  19. Mar 15, 2008 #18


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    I confess wawens, I think you're projecting your beliefs onto us (Even while you categorize us as an "us").

    I would prefer you stick to telling me what you believe you can't conceptualize. I reserve the right to be the final arbiter of what I can or can't conceptualize.

    Now, I would be open to you convincing me that I am not properly conceptualing something. But you'll have to convince me explicitly; I'm not about to accept your blanket claim that "we", as a rule, are incapable of doing so.
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2008
  20. Mar 17, 2008 #19
    Yes (in my opinion), its impossible to visually model a single photon of fixed momemtum (hence frequency) that starts off from a point and spreads into a 3D space (just ONE example among millions). Its impossible because there is no 'dimension' associated with the photon therefore there is no visual represention possible.
    It also does not in reality have a visual model. A conceptual model is possible, but that is a math model. Voila.
  21. Mar 18, 2008 #20


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    If there are no dimensions associated with a photon, how are we able to measure the speed of light?

    Zz. (still waiting for your visualization of Least Action Principle)
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