- Quantum mechanics used to be described as a theory of limits, implying that our observations are unavoidably uncertain, that randomness rules the world, and that the theory itself is too weird to master and forces us to abandon the very idea that there is a world out there that science could describe.
- Those misconceptions are rooted in philosophical doctrines, such as logical positivism, that were popular during the period when physicists developed and honed the theory.
- In truth, quantum mechanics imposes no significant limits. The quantum world has a richness and intricacy that allows new practical technologies and kinds of knowledge.
Late in the 19th century an unknown artist depicted a traveler who reaches the horizon, where the sky meets the ground. Kneeling in a stylized terrestrial landscape, he pokes his head through the firmament to experience the unknown [see illustration on page 89]. The image, known as the Flammarion engraving, illustrates the human quest for knowledge. Two possible interpretations of the visual metaphor correspond to two sharply different conceptions of knowledge.
Either it depicts an imaginary barrier that, in reality, science can always pass through, or it shows a real barrier that we can penetrate only in our imagination. By the latter reading, the artist is saying that we are imprisoned inside a finite bubble of familiar objects and events. We may expect to understand the world of direct experience, but the infinity outside is inaccessible to exploration and to explanation. Does science continually transcend the familiar and reveal new horizons, or does it show us that our prison is inescapable—teaching us a lesson in bounded knowledge and unbounded humility?
This article was originally published with the title Beyond the Quantum Horizon.