The Shifting Observer

Since the time of Galileo, most of us have believed in an objective, independently verifiable reality, to be investigated, measured and controlled through the scientific method and manipulated through science.

“Einstein struck the first blow with his special theory of relativity in 1905. Relativity destroyed the concept of the stable, objective [human] observer. The idea that two independent people could perform the same experiment and get the same result was no longer a certainty. On the contrary, Einstein showed that in many situations two observers would see things very differently, and their instruments would record differently.”

“The next wrenching came with quantum physics in the period from 1900 to 1930. Quantum theory is not a single idea, nor is it associated with a single physicist. It emerged from a series of difficult and paradoxical problems. In 1900, Max Planck concluded that radiant energy—such as light—exists in the form of discrete packets, or quanta. In 1913, Niels Bohr demonstrated that the idea of the quantum had to be applied to the structure of atoms, as well. Ernest Rutherford had proposed that the atom was like a miniature solar system; around a heavy center of protons and neutrons, lightweight electrons spun in different orbits. But Bohr said these orbits were fixed in a quantum way. George Gamow draws the analogy to an automobile gear box—you can drive in first, second, or third gear, but not anywhere in between.”

“Werner Heisenberg provided one answer with the Uncertainty Principle in 1927. At that time, physicists were exploring the atom by firing particles at atomic nuclei, and knocking off other particles. They were trying to measure the mass and direction of the ejected particles, and having trouble. Heisenberg conclusively demonstrated that it couldn’t be done—if you measured mass, you altered direction, and if you measure direction, you changed the mass.”

In physics as in all other aspects of life, the observer and the observed are inextricably linked, interdependent and interrelated.


References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.


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