I’ll Collapse Your Wave Function, Baby

Song of the moment: My Heart, Your Hands Dommin

When I was eight years old, I read Frank Herbert’s Dune for the first time. Might I add that I found it infinitely more entertaining than Watership Down, which I read that same year. That being said, Dune is an extremely layered novel, and there’s no way (mature though I was at my tender age) I could grasp everything it had to offer.

Therefore, it became a book I reread every year. Yes, I’m a rereader. And with good reason. The books I reread, like Dune, tend to reveal something new to me every time I sit down with them.

Like this time. It was around three in the morning last night/this morning/what-have-you, and I was wending my way through the sands of Arrakis with Paul and Jessica while waiting for Squeaks to sign back onto Skype (which he never did, by the by). When what should catch my eye but the following excerpt from one of Irulan’s texts:

Consider: How much is actual prediction of the “wave form” (as Muad’Dib referred to his vision-image) and how much is the prophet shaping the future to fit the prophecy?

If you don’t understand why, at three in the bleedin’ morning, I had a moment of total nerd squee over that line, permit me to go all science on you for a second here. Like, layman’s science- I’m too tired to get too technical. In the world of quantum mechanics, there’s this little thing called the wave function, often referred to as a probability wave. Wave functions evolve and change over time, constantly and forever, unless observed by an outside source. When this happens, the wave function collapses from many probabilities to a single state.

Schrödinger’s Cat is one of the most famous scientific concepts, and it’s also the perfect illustrator of this wave form phenomena. Erwin Schrödinger created an experiment wherein a cat would be placed inside a sealed box. In the box with the cat was a small hammer, which would have a random chance of breaking open a vial of poison in the box, killing the cat. There was an equal chance that, upon opening the lid of this box, the cat would be either dead or alive:

Schrödinger stated that, until the box was opened and the cat was observed, the wave function of the cat’s state continued to evolve. So long as the box’s lid was closed, the cat was both dead and alive at the same time. *

Maybe you’re making the connection now. Herbert’s descriptions of Paul’s visions align perfectly with descriptions of wave functions in quantum mechanics. Paul’s prescient sight is simply a probability wave, with different branches and possibilities. He never knows precisely what will happen until it occurs- until the moment the wave function collapses and all other possibilities fall by the wayside.

I know he’s a science fiction writer, but seeing that connection for the first time lit up my brain in fireworks of nerd glee last night.

*Note that this thought experiment was devised by Schrödinger to show the absurdities of quantum mechanics. Which, while it does, more and more scientists are coming to accept this thought experiment as fact and not necessarily paradox- proof positive that we have to bend our way of thinking about the known universe in order to comprehend physics as it is currently evolving.

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