Cox, Pauli, exclusion and universe


‘Circle’ by Mayank Chhaya

Having dabbled in physics, especially quantum physics, since I was in my late teens, it is unsettling that I comprehend it progressively less with every passing year.

My painting above illustrates the way I feel about quantum physics. As you can see it is predominantly dark. The red ring with dark zebra stripes represents a heightened sense of comprehension (or at any rate what I thought was comprehension) for a period of time, while the inner white ring shows fading comprehension that eventually merges into the dark center again. (Where else but here would you find a phony painter and physicist merging the two and offering a convoluted explanation?)

Two disparate experiences have triggered this post. I have just begun to read again the 1916 book ‘Relativity: The Special and the General Relativity” by Albert Einstein to see one more time if I can get a handle on something most people talk about knowledgeably without having the faintest idea about it. The other is this brief clip by particle physicist Brian Cox whose basic plot suggests that everything is connected.

In both cases, I understand every single word that is being said by Einstein and Cox and yet fail to make sense out of them at the end. It goes without saying that the failure speaks entirely to my own intellectual inadequacy rather than Einstein’s or Cox’s ability to explain concepts.

I would not assail you with Relativity but would like to say a thing or two about Cox’s bit. What is particularly striking is his assertion that when he rubs the diamond between his palms and agitates the electrons,  “every electron around every atom in the universe must be shifted as I heat the diamond up to make sure that none of them end up in the same energy level. When I heat this diamond up all the electrons across the universe instantly but imperceptibly change their energy levels.”

For those of you so inclined, Cox is illustrating the Pauli Exclusion Principle which essentially says no two identical particles, electrons for instance, can be at the same energy level. It is a different quantum state for each. (I hope I did not maul it while trying to simplify it). With that as the backdrop the point that Cox is making is that what he does with the diamond by heating it up has consequences across the universe, every electron around every atom must shift in order to accommodate the change in energy levels caused by his action.

There is something profoundly moving about the realization that everything we do, including the hammering away of my keyboard, has caused the electrons around the universe to shift a bit in order to adjust to the changing energy levels to conform to the Pauli Exclusion Principle. You get the sense from Cox that any action causes an instantaneous shift across the universe, which from my less than miniscule understanding of the subject sounds too glib. And here is why.

Sean Carroll, who is Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology, makes a detailed and and fascinating counter to Cox’s assertion in Discover here. “At face value, there’s no question that what he says here lies somewhere between misleading and wrong,” Carroll writes.

For the universal shift to be instantaneous the effect of any action has to travel much faster than the speed of light, which we know at this stage does not happen according to Einstein. (See how I completed the circle by connecting it back to Einstein? Simply brilliant.) Incidentally, that bit I figured out on my own before reading Carroll’s counter.

Apart from everything else, I am also interested in how captivated people feel when Cox speaks. If you want evidence, see the montage below of audience members and their reactions. They all look as if they are trying hard not to get overwhelmed by a revelation of nirvanic proportions, particularly the two on the either end of the strip. (I am overstating it for effect).


P.S.: Phew! All this on a Sunday morning.

P.P.S.: Every time I see Brian Cox, I think Dorian Gray (as in Oscar Wilde’s novel).

About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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