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skeptics in magic land

To: alt.magick,sci.skeptic
From: Amanda Walker 
Subject: Re: skeptics in magic land
Date: 13 Jun 2002 11:45:05 -0400

les diaboliques  writes:
> I would have thought by now you might have at least looked up
> Heissenberg's Uncertainty Principle and made some attempt to
> comprehend what I have been talking about. It is astonishing that you
> have the gall to write the above quite evidently not having a clue
> what it is, but instead making vague generalisations about what you
> suppose is the nature of science that you therefore assume must also
> apply to HUP. You are a waste of time.

No, he actually *has* a clue, and can even spell "Heisenberg".

Heisenberg's Uncertainly Principle says nothing about subjectivity
vs. objectivity.  Nor does it say anything about human experience.
Rather, it is an observation about the inherent limits of some forms
of measurement.  That's it.  That's all Heisenberg said. Nothing about
the experimenter being inseparable from the experiment, nothing about
reality being purely subjective, or any of the other things you've
been talking about.  To quote Heisenberg himself:

        The more precisely the position determined, the less
        precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and
        vice versa.
                --Werner Heisenberg, 1927

Let's go back to Heisenberg for a moment and see what implications
*he* saw--back to the same 1927 paper where he described the
mathematics of uncertainty in measurement.  He observed that:

        In the sharp formulation of the law of causality-- "if we know
        the present exactly, we can calculate the future"--it is not
        the conclusion that is wrong but the premise.

Note that he is not making any claims about the existence (or
non-existence) of objective reality.  He is noting that there are
limits to the precision of our *knowledge" about its state, and
therefore consequent limits on our ability to predict its future state
completely.  In simpler terms, "each observation will always have a
margin of error, no matter how good our instruments get."  This was
indeedrevolutionary to classical physics thory, but it's not at all
the "nothing is predictable" implication that so many people believe.
The range of possible outcomes, and their relative probabilities, can
still be predicted precisely.

What you've been talking about is not the Uncertainty Principle
itself, but rather what you think this principle *implies.* What you
have been describing are the same old tired new age "nobody can tell
*me* what my limits are" baby boomer feel-good pseudoscience that has
been dogging the heels of quantum mechanics since the 60s.

Heisenberg is not the only one to suffer from this sort of
misinterpretation, of course.  Kuhn and "paradigm shift" and Darwin
and "evolution" are other great examples.

Amanda Walker

From: Amanda Walker 
Newsgroups: alt.magick,sci.skeptic
Subject: Re: skeptics in magic land
Date: 13 Jun 2002 16:21:14 -0400
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Nik  writes:
> I have a gauge before me, machine made and of stainless steel.  It is
> marked on one side 12 inches, and on the other 305 mm.  Until reading
> your post, I had always thought I knew the distance between the
> extreme marks at either end, and accepted them as given, but now I'm
> not so sure.

You can measure this distance as accurately as you wish.  It does,
of course, change slightly depending on the environment it's in
(temperature being the factor mostly likely to have the largest
effect under normal conditions).

> You and this Heisenberg fellow appear to think there are two kinds of
> gauges, loosely speaking, those whose measurement can be known, and
> those that can't.  There may be other categories as well, but if so,
> you haven't indicated that such is the case.

Not at all.  The distance between the marks on your gauge can be
measured as precisely as you want.  What Heisenberg discovered is
that there are many times when you can't measure *two different
characteristics at the same time* with arbitrary precision.  The
example Heisenberg used was the position and momentum of an elementary
particle: you can know where it is as precisely as you want, or what
its momentum is as precisely as you want, but not both simultaneously.

At the scale of everyday objects, this tradeoff is so small as not to
matter.  At the scale of electrons, it's noticeable, and in fact a
fair amount of modern electronic circuitry depends on it.

> I was wondering, of the two, of which type is my gauge, and how can I
> know for sure?  Is their an ultimate gauge somewhere, to which mine
> may be accurately and conclusively compared?

Chuckle.  Certainly.  All you need is an atomic clock and an
iodine stabilized Helium-Neon laser.  A meter is defined as the
length of the path traveled by light in a vacuum during a time
interval of 1/299792458th of a second.  The atomic clock will let
you measure seconds with an uncertainty of 1 in 1 hundred trillion.
Combining this time measurement with the HeNe laser (to let you
measure how far light travels in that fraction of a second) will
give you a length for the meter with an uncertainty of 1 in about two
and a half hundred billion (2.5x10^11).  Multiply this length
by .305 and compare it with the 305mm mark on your gauge, then
divide it by 3.2808 and compare it to the 12in mark on your gauge.

This is likely to more than accurate enough for everyday use.

Amanda Walker

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