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Reality Upside Down - You Change What You See

Updated on April 12, 2015

Light is a weird thing. Nothing can travel faster; it's both a wave and a particle; we can't touch it but without it, we probably wouldn't exist; and we can even use it as a source of energy. And to add to that, today I will tell you about a fascinating experiment that is quite simply mindblowing and that just might change the way you see reality for ever.

It's called the Double-Slit Experiment, and it's been conducted and repeated many times by many physicists. It's quite simple, and yet it teaches us something incredible.

What They Did

Here's how it works. You start with a simple screen, and in front of that, you put a plate with two parallel slits. Some distance away you put a laser. Now you fire the laser directly at the screen that's behind the plate. But make sure the laser only fires one photon ("light particle") at a time (be it in rapid succession).

That's it, that's the experiment. Simple right? The experiment wanted to see whether light was a particle or a wave. If a particle, we'd expect a pattern of distinct separate lines. If it's a wave, it should be a vague distillation of light.

When researchers reviewed the results they were dumbfounded. Why? Because they saw both possible outcomes. So light is both a wave -and- a particle. But that's not what really shocked them.

It wasn't?

What was so incredible was that the result depended on whether it was observed or not! If they had a detector in place, the photons behaved as a particle. Without the detector, it was a wave.

So... What? Does that mean the photon knows it's being watched?!

For a long time, that was the only explanation they could come up with. Then, in 2002, researchers conducted a really smart experiment where they made sure the information about the detector "watching" or not would need to travel longer than the particles would need to reach the screen, thereby preventing the particles from knowing whether or not they were being watched. The results? The particles behaved as if they were never being watched, so as a particle!

So... What Does That Mean?

This teaches us three important things.

  1. Matter is both a wave and a particle, depending on whether or not it's being observed.
  2. Observing something can change the outcome. So the mere fact you are looking at something can change its appearance!
  3. The universe is bat-shit insane, and we apparently have barely scratched even the surface of things we don't yet know.

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