The case of my disappearing socks
I keep losing stuff. Even though I live on a surface of seven square meters I manage to misplace and lose all kinds of stuff. More than once pairs of my socks get separated, resulting in me having to wear two different socks. This leaves me wondering: did I lose these socks, or do they magically disappear by themselves? More often than not, the latter seems more likely to me.
Like a religious man clinging on to old stories to explain the inexplicable, I arm myself with science. “It’s not my fault” I tell my girlfriend, “it’s because my socks are wavy.” “… it has to do with quantum mechanics!” I bluff. This intimidating set of scientific principles can be my best friend when I’m blamed for losing stuff.
It works from inside the socks. Let’s take a closer look at my socks. Zoom in all the way, until the separate fibers that make up the sock’s fabric are exposed. Now keep on zooming, until eventually the structure of these fibers will show itself in the molecular scale. Keep on zooming still until you reach the atom-level, previously thought to be the smallest elements in our universe. Now we’re close: keep on zooming, until finally these elements break down into their subatomic parts – electrons and atomic nuclei, made up out of protons and neutrons. This is where the magic happens. This is what makes my sock disappear.
The problem lies in the behavior of the tiny particles that make up the atoms. Take electrons for example: we imagine electrons as tiny balls that fly never-ending circles around the atomic nuclei. But they’re not. Electrons are not simply miniscule balls flying around, they don’t behave like particles in a fixed trajectory. At least, sometimes they do. But at other times, they behave like a wave.
Now this wavy behavior is interesting: since a wave is never on one location at any given time, but rather on multiple locations ‘spread out through space’, it is impossible to know or measure the exact position of an electron at a specific moment in time. This means an electron has a multitude of possible locations at any moment.
So if the things in atoms behave like wavy things – wavy things with multiple possible positions, of which we can’t pinpoint the exact one – doesn’t that mean this also goes for the atoms they constitute, and for the molecules the atoms add up to, and consequently for the fibers of the fabric that make the sock? Wouldn’t it mean that if all atoms ‘wave’ their way to some other place, my sock would ride along in this atomic wave, and change its position?
So the key question is: are my socks really wavy!? Unfortunately, the answer is no. It’s not as simple as I’d like it to be: upscaling the weirdness of the microscopic world to the real world just doesn’t work. The reason a subatomic particle can show wavy behavior is not because of its scale, but because of its isolation. A single, isolated particle behaves like it does because it is isolated. Only if a subatomic particle is completely isolated, it behaves like a weird wavy thing. More surprisingly, this also implies that even to this day, science has failed to demystify the underlying mechanism of my disappearing socks. I can still bluff my way through, though. Quantum mechanics are to blame!
Read my 2nd column for the Cool Science class:
» Mobb Deep’s Vision on Evolution Theory
Read my 1st column for the Cool Science class:
» Emerging Chaos – The Rules of Vietnamese Traffic