Embracing uncertainty

In 1913, Neils Bohr, a Danish post-doctoral student of the physicist Ernst Rutherford, proposed a model of the atom that we continue to use today.

Most of us think of atoms as being small little balls orbiting a nucleus, much like planets. But this isn’t true – it is merely something that is easy for us to imagine. Bohr proposed that electrons in an orbit are similar to the whirling blades of a fan, in that they fill the entire region in which they move. The difference, though, is that while a fan merely gives us the appearance of doing this, the electron actually does it. Within its orbit, the electron is everywhere as well as nowhere at the same time.

Several other thought experiments (and actual ones), have now established how uncertainty is the bedrock on which atomic theory exists. Werner Heisenberg gave us the uncertainty principle, which states that it is impossible to simultaneously know the position and the speed of any object in the universe (explained elegantly in this 5 min video). This degree of uncertainty is negligible for larger objects, but significant at the atomic level. Given the uncertainty principle, Stephen Hawking once proclaimed, “We certainly cannot predict future events exactly if we cannot even measure the present state of the universe precisely!”

On the other hand, our mind perceives uncertainty as a risk and tries its best to get rid of it. We crave for explanations because their absence is stressful! Therefore, we often make predictions and include explanations for all manners of events (“Bombay Stock Exchange falls due to Chandigarh municipal by-elections results”). While insurance helps us bear the economical burdens of uncertainty, religion (fate) helps us cope psychologically. Threats that appear random and without any explanation cause us to panic and routinely overestimate them – like we do with terrorist attacks.

We live in the constant tension between the uncertainty that is fundamental to the universe and our mind’s need for causality and explanation. Religion, stories and other comforting illusions serve to alleviate our suffering – like pills and balms do. To prevent it, though, we could learn from the mystics who embrace the mischievous uncertainty of the universe with a full heart.

Inspiration: A short history of nearly everything – Bill Bryson

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