A View from Nowhere

Physics is all around us, taking place within our coffee mug, within jet airplane engines, and on the roof above our head. Everywhere we go, physics goes, and everywhere we look, we see physics. Across the universe, magnified at the end of an electron microscope, and throughout time, physics connects everything there is. Amanda Gefter in her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, describes the importance of viewing physics within a totally inclusive system. Because we are walking physics experiments, we alter the physics of the world around us and have an impact on every system that we study and interact with. In fact, it is not just us but everything that interacts or has the ability to observe a phenomenon in physics that acts upon and changes the system.

 

This is important because it shapes the way we study and understand physics and reality. There is no way for us, or anyone or anything else, to stand outside the universe and look back in at the universe to make an observation independently. If you are observing the universe you are within the universe and you are part of the universe. Describing her efforts to learn and understand what this means for physics, Gefter wrote,

 

“I had already learned that both relativity and quantum mechanics were trying to tell us the same thing: we run into trouble when we try to describe physics from an impossible God’s-eye view, a view from nowhere. We have to specify a reference frame, an observer. But now I finally understood the real tension between the two theories. The whole mess could be summed up with one question: where’s the observer?”

 

General relativity tells us that everything is inside the universe, but when we look at quantum mechanics we are trying to look at incredibly tiny particles that form the building blocks of the universe. A tension arises because we appear to be able to separate ourselves from the system in which our experiments take place, but the reality is that we are making an observation of the system, which means we are interacting with the system. Even when we take the human part away from our experiments and our systems, we still leave behind something to make an observation to somehow detect what is taking place. An observer does not have to be conscious and is better thought of as a frame of reference or something that can be changed and adjusted within the system. The only way we could truly understand pure physics it seems, is to be completely outside the system to look in and observe without changing the system, but this completely violates what we know is possible about how our universe works.