J. Robert Oppenheimer: Quantum Theory and Uncertainty

Milky Way above Crater Lake, Oregon

Reading the essays by J. Robert Oppenheimer in Atom and Void: Essays on Science and Community. In the essay Atom and Void in the Third Millennium I was struck by what these scientists he describes were going through as they struggled to interpret what they observed going on in quantum theory. As he says in one passage: “It did not seem reasonable, nor in fact has it ever proved possible, at a time when the very foundations of classical mechanics were being altered, to reinterpret this revolution in classical mechanics terms” (AV, p. 43).

The breakdown of classical mechanics, the quandaries of losing a vocabulary, the framework in ruins all while these scientists were daily discovering things about the universe that just didn’t make sense: wave/particle duality, states/affairs, etc.. Discovering that when one observed quantum interactions directly they did not behave as expected, but when one used probability and abstractions one observed what one expected. This counter-intuitive topsy-turvy world of quantum mechanics just didn’t seem logical at all. To know anything at all they had to link empirical data (waves) with knowledge (theory, math, rules, etc.) and then interpret this before the actual observation to align the theory and observation for the results. Everything was just the opposite of classical Newtonian mechanics they’d been taught in school. The world of cause and effect was blowing in the wind… Instead of stability, one was left with complexity and unsubstantial entities, abstractions, statistics, probabilities, guesses…

Assertions of probability and statistics rather than certitude. Ultimately these scientists came to the conclusion that reality itself, the reality we took for granted had vanished, the solid world of substance “of form’d Matter, solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable Particles…” (Newton) that from the time of Lucretius inheritor of Leucippus-Democritus’s metaphysics was just plain wrong. Reality was not solid but was much stranger and less solid or massy, in fact reality was full of gaps and cracks, more of a Void. As Oppenheimer would remark, “it is not causal; there is no complete causal determination of the future on the basis of available knowledge of the present” (AV, pp. 47-48). In fact the law of quantum mechanics “restricts” but does not “in general define the outcome of an experiment” (AV, p. 48). The Newtonian universe of cause and effect had suddenly disappeared and in its place was statistical and probabilistic outcomes, base on uncertainty (Heisenberg). No one could no for sure what was happening at this level of reality. Nothing made sense under the old classical laws. As Oppenheimer declared:

This means that every observation on a system reveals some new knowledge as to what its state is that did not exist before, and could not by analysis and mathematical computation have been obtained. It means that every intervention to make a measurement, to study what is going on in the atomic world, creates, despite all the universal order of the world, a new, a unique, not a fully predictable, situation. (AV, p. 48)

Suddenly the world was open and incomplete, no longer a totality, a whole, but rather a realm where all our previous knowledge, our math, our ability to test, describe, control would no longer be of use. We were staring into a universe of contingent events that all our vast learning and mind tools had not prepared us for and were of little use. The frame of the world had entered an abyss. We had no way of describing this new realm, no vocabulary, no mathematical instruments. All we had were basic statistics and probabilities, mere estimations and hopeful fictions.

All the basic mathematical notation, concepts, theorems, etc. were of no use: “We have almost lost the concept of equations of motion, having discovered the very terms in which they are formulated – position, velocity, acceleration, and force – are not simultaneously applicable…” (AV, p. 48). It’s as if they’d been handed a blank page, emptied of all knowledge, unable to conceive even the rudimentary math needed to describe the events transpiring in the quantum world. Luckily they had Schrödinger theory of quantum mechanics which extends the de Broglie concept of matter waves by providing a formal method of treating the dynamics of physical particles in terms of associated waves. So rather than needing to know the motion as in the older Newtonian mechanics, they could treat it dynamically as particle/wave association.

The other issue is one people misunderstand most of the time, one that Oppenheimer clarifies which is the notion that the observer must be a part of the system observed, part of the equation. What he says is this is not about the “mind of man,” (AV, p. 49) being included, but rather about the apparatus: the “division between the object of study and the means (apparatus) used to study it” (AV, p. 49). The point of this is that the quantum world has not lost its objective quality; but it “attains this by those interlockings with experiments we use to define one or another its properties and to measure it” (AV. p. 49). So that objectivity is attained by the “interlocking” of experimental device which delimits and defines the properties and measurement of the data. Think of the new neurosciences and the imaging systems they use to define and delimit properties and measurement of the various patterns into charts, graphs, images to observe the brain in real time, etc.

One can feel the excitement in his voice as he describes what these quantum scientists had uncovered. The universe was a lot more complex than anyone had ever thought possible, that new tools, vocabularies, mathematical theorems, apparatuses, etc. would need to be developed to explore this heretofore unknown realm of being. When I think about it I’m astounded how it’s taken a few generations from the time of Oppenheimer to our own current generation to develop large enough Hadron Colliders to begin the latest phase in exploration of this sub-atomic world of quantum mechanics. Of course only in 2012 did they discover a new particle, the Higgs Boson. Like many other things in science this may not be the last. The more we probe into the depths the more we realize just how far down it goes. No one knows. But one thing for sure it was men like Oppenheimer who with their excitement and wonder at the universe, their determination to forge new tools, vocabularies, mathematical theorems and enter the unknown that still drives the sciences to this day. So many disparage the sciences because of the misuse. This is stupid. The sciences are a two-edged sword that can be used for good or ill. It’s up to us to decide which.


  1. J. Robert Oppenheimer. Atom and Void: Essays on Science and Community.  Princeton University Press; UNABRIDGED VERSION edition (October 21, 1989)


4 thoughts on “J. Robert Oppenheimer: Quantum Theory and Uncertainty

  1. This is my stuff! Thank you. Just an aside, it was in 2011 that CERN officially announced the discovery of the HB I believe. They just announced this past week too that they have three years of evidence for breaking Einstein’s cosmic constant equation on the speed of light. Basically, they sent particles faster than the speed of light… Imagine the possibilities now…!

    Liked by 1 person

    • “On 4 July 2012, the discovery of a new particle with a mass between 125 and 127 GeV/c2 was announced; physicists suspected that it was the Higgs boson”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higgs_boson

      ” Einstein’s cosmic constant equation on the speed of light. Basically, they sent particles faster than the speed of light…”

      Interesting… movement through hyper-vacuums, etc. haha…

      I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that someday we’ll realize that the quantum realm – in which particles can be in two places at once will open the door to quantum travel – think of it: the ability to blink in and out from one place in the universe to another faster than you can blink your eye. It could be that in a vacuum that is less than nothing one is not bound by the macro physics we understand, and that once we understand the actual field-forces at the quantum level and harness this knowledge we could manipulate spacetime itself at that level without disturbing known physics at the macro level. Of course this is speculation and Sci Fi… 🙂


      • Quantum Mechanics has always fascinated me. The “two places at once” idea especially. It would satisfy the improbability factor of human space travel.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. There was a workshop between philosophers and physicist back in December described here ( http://portside.org/2015-12-21/fight-soul-science ) discussing the fact that the theories are not testable yet can be accepted more on aesthetic grounds as beautiful logical possibilities. This comment in the article struck me deeply: “As we approach the practical limits of our ability to probe nature’s underlying principles, the minds of theorists have wandered far beyond the tiniest observable distances and highest possible energies. Strong clues indicate that the truly fundamental constituents of the universe lie at a distance scale 10 million billion times smaller than the resolving power of the LHC. This is the domain of nature that string theory, a candidate “theory of everything,” attempts to describe. But it’s a domain that no one has the faintest idea how to access.” I found this mildly depressing. If this is true we will never know objective reality and we are stuck with a human construct inside our heads making the theories no more than the color green for a human being? But them again if we make room for something else than thinking about something we may touch on the variety of real objects themselves or they can be with us as sensible images without us knowing it because the mind has become a polished surface where nothing is happening except the appearing subtraction of an unidentifiable public intelligence. Whether one calls this a collective unconscious or a public consciousness or intelligence beyond private navel gazing is semantics. This is what Peter Russell’s interpretation of quantum physics seems to say when he suggests that consciousness is in everything ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-d4ugppcRUE ). The “two places at once” idea isn’t that a reference to the Jung/Pauli conversation on synchronicity?

    What a great variety of interests in this blog. Don’t mistake this as flattery but you and the internet are fucking awesome. Thanks.


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