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Science's Big Query: What Can We Know, and What Can't We?
The Wall Street Journal ^ | Friday, May 30, 2003 | SHARON BEGLEY

Posted on 05/30/2003 6:13:25 AM PDT by TroutStalker

Edited on 04/22/2004 11:49:03 PM PDT by Jim Robinson. [history]

What if stalactites could talk? If these icicle-shaped mineral deposits somehow preserved the sound waves that impinged on them as they grew, drop by drop, from the ceilings of caves, and if scientists figured out how to recover the precise characteristics of those waves, then maybe they would also be able to use stalactites like natural voice recorders and recover the conversations of ancient cave dwellers. Is it more far-fetched than recovering conversations from magnetized particles on an audio tape?


(Excerpt) Read more at online.wsj.com ...


TOPICS: Culture/Society
KEYWORDS: crevolist; godsgravesglyphs
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1 posted on 05/30/2003 6:13:25 AM PDT by TroutStalker
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To: TroutStalker
bookmarked -- very interesting...
2 posted on 05/30/2003 6:32:29 AM PDT by Tallguy
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To: TroutStalker
"Knowing someone's future health, let alone personality or intelligence, based on a genetic readout may be impossible.."


So, are they saying that the future we see in the movie GATACA would be impossible?
3 posted on 05/30/2003 7:07:35 AM PDT by Chewbacca (My life is a Dilbert cartoon.)
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To: TroutStalker
read later
4 posted on 05/30/2003 7:56:43 AM PDT by LiteKeeper
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To: TroutStalker
For later
5 posted on 05/30/2003 8:22:11 AM PDT by Prof Engineer (Space Geek {Texas...is bigger than France})
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To: TroutStalker
Egad - all we're talking about here is the entire philosophical field of epistemology, that's all...

The very first any freshman in any scientific field learns is how easily we reach the limits of human knowledge. The second thing he or she learns is how difficult it is to actually tell where it is with any precision. But it isn't really the limits of knowledge that is the issue here, it is the adequacy or inadequacy of existing mental models to incorporate new knowledge, and the necessity of modifying them to incorporate it or discard them in favor of models that do - that is the work of science.

The citation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is a case in point - there's nothing wrong with the mental models we term "position" and "momentum," but when we discover that we cannot in practice measure both simultaneously the first explanation that comes to mind is the one most often heard - that it is the act of observation that is the problem. Underlying this is the hopeful assumption that a new, non-invasive method of measurement will get us out of this difficulty.

That is a limit of technology, not a limit of the mental models of "position" and "momentum." And it is very likely not true. What is really implied here is more fundamental than that - that the actual information carried by a subatomic particle may be inadequate to satisfy the mental models described by the words "position" and "momentum" simultaneously - that the problem isn't techniques of observation, but an inherent limitation of that way of looking at things.

Professional physicists will, of course, correct my interpretation if it is in error (God bless FR!) but IMHO here is one place where epistemology and scientific observation close the loop and become one. But it is profoundly unsettling to have concepts as intuitive as "position" and "momentum" challenged. Unfortunately, shutting down one's brain won't make the problem go away. I've tried it.

6 posted on 05/30/2003 8:41:48 AM PDT by Billthedrill
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To: Ernest_at_the_Beach; sourcery
ping
7 posted on 05/30/2003 9:04:48 AM PDT by Libertarianize the GOP (Ideas have consequences)
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To: Billthedrill
....prevent us from knowing simultaneously both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle.

Perhaps my ignorance and mental limitations blind me to the obvious but the answer to this problem seems to be in the semantics. For a particle to have a position it must be fixed in space, not moving. If it is fixed it has no momentum. Therefore, momentum and position are mutually exclusive.

...whether the universe has to be the way it is because the laws of nature can exist only in their current form, or if other physics are possible.

Now this gets more into the area you are talking about, epistemology, but it still seems to me to be a problem of properly stating the conditions of a circumstance, or semantics, rather than logically or mathematically solving a problem. Sounds like wistfulness to me, not science.

8 posted on 05/30/2003 9:07:10 AM PDT by Mind-numbed Robot (Not all things that need to be done need to be done by the government.)
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To: TroutStalker
What if stalactites could talk? If these icicle-shaped mineral deposits somehow preserved the sound waves that impinged on them as they grew, drop by drop, from the ceilings of caves, and if scientists figured out how to recover the precise characteristics of those waves, then maybe they would also be able to use stalactites like natural voice recorders and recover the conversations of ancient cave dwellers. Is it more far-fetched than recovering conversations from magnetized particles on an audio tape?

How bizarre is this?

Several years ago I literally dreamed this. It was so vivid, and stayed with me so indelibly, that I cast it into the form of a sonnet:

Echo and Narcissus

I dreamt last night that scientists had found
Encoded into metal, rock, and glass,
An unexpected form of "fossil sound",
Which cooling solids captured in their mass.

Numerical reagents were applied,
Precipitating meaning from the noise,
Roman blacksmiths from their shackles cried,
The Glass Harmonica held Franklin's voice.

Three seconds long! Yet Franklin's trifling quote
So captivated man's nostalgic heart,
It prompted him, enraptured, to devote
The world's resources towards his new-found art.

And yet, for all the effort that it spurred,
Nothing more of note was ever heard.

For those of you who don't know, the Glass Harmonica was a musical instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin.

In my dream, the cries of dinosaurs were also pulled from igneous rocks, but that refused to fit the meter.

For the record, I don't think such a thing is possible, but for a long time after my dream I could not shake the notion of "fossil sound" out of my head!

9 posted on 05/30/2003 10:17:54 AM PDT by Physicist
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To: PatrickHenry
Something for your ping list.
10 posted on 05/30/2003 10:42:38 AM PDT by Physicist
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To: Physicist
Fascinating anecdote, physicist, and a very good poem.
11 posted on 05/30/2003 10:50:24 AM PDT by beckett
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To: VadeRetro; jennyp; Junior; longshadow; *crevo_list; RadioAstronomer; Scully; Piltdown_Woman; ...
PING. [This ping list is for the evolution side of evolution threads, and sometimes for other science topics. FReepmail me to be added or dropped.]
12 posted on 05/30/2003 10:50:26 AM PDT by PatrickHenry (Idiots are on "virtual ignore," and you know exactly who you are.)
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To: Sabertooth
Poetaster ping.

(Don't know whether I've laid this particular effort on you before.)
13 posted on 05/30/2003 11:04:01 AM PDT by Physicist (Poetaster, n.: One who feeds on the literary corpse of Edgar Allan Poe)
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To: TroutStalker
Science's Big Query: What Can We Know, and What Can't We?

This is the territory of philosophy, not natural science.

14 posted on 05/30/2003 11:04:57 AM PDT by Aquinasfan
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To: Physicist
I could not shake the notion of "fossil sound" out of my head!

There's an old SF book, I can't recall the title or author, about a future where technology can recover the sight and sound of past events that (so the premise goes) are naturally imbedded in molecular vibrations of all matter. The story involved crime detection, and how the main character, knowing his every movement would be watched, managed to pull off a perfect crime.

15 posted on 05/30/2003 11:06:28 AM PDT by PatrickHenry (Idiots are on "virtual ignore," and you know exactly who you are.)
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To: TroutStalker
Rumsfeld is apparently having an interdisciplinary influence.
16 posted on 05/30/2003 11:09:04 AM PDT by RightWhale (gazing at shadows)
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To: Aquinasfan
This is the territory of philosophy, not natural science.

Not always. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and black hole "no-hair" theorems come immediately to mind. Even the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics implies hard scientific limits on knowledge (i.e. the impossibility proofs of Maxwell's Daemon).

17 posted on 05/30/2003 11:20:30 AM PDT by Physicist
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To: Aquinasfan
This is the territory of philosophy, not natural science.

Why do scientists earn a PhD, Doctor of Philosophy? One would think there is some philosophy involved along the way.

18 posted on 05/30/2003 11:24:36 AM PDT by RightWhale (gazing at shadows)
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To: Physicist
What a beautiful poem!

But this line

"Roman blacksmiths from their shackles cried,"

had me stumped.

Does it mean that your "dream invention" unlocked sound from metal artifacts produced by (enslaved?) Roman blacksmiths and from Franklin's harmonica, but from nothing else ever?

Sorry to be so obtuse.
19 posted on 05/30/2003 11:24:57 AM PDT by tictoc (On FreeRepublic, discussion is a contact sport.)
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To: Mind-numbed Robot
Perhaps my ignorance and mental limitations blind me to the obvious but the answer to this problem seems to be in the semantics. For a particle to have a position it must be fixed in space, not moving. If it is fixed it has no momentum. Therefore, momentum and position are mutually exclusive.

No, extended bodies have position whether or not their momentum is nonzero. A car, travelling down the highway, has a position - it's somewhere at all times, right?

20 posted on 05/30/2003 11:28:05 AM PDT by Chemist_Geek ("Drill, R&D, and conserve" should be our watchwords! Energy independence for America!)
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To: RightWhale
There are no knowns.

There are things we know that we know.

There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we now know we don't know.

But there are also unknown unknowns,
things we do not know we don't know.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
on the war on terrorism.
21 posted on 05/30/2003 11:34:43 AM PDT by geopyg (Democracy, whiskey, sexy)
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To: RightWhale
There are no knowns.

There are things we know that we know.

There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we now know we don't know.

But there are also unknown unknowns,
things we do not know we don't know.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
on the war on terrorism.
22 posted on 05/30/2003 11:34:49 AM PDT by geopyg (Democracy, whiskey, sexy)
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To: tictoc
But this line

"Roman blacksmiths from their shackles cried,"

had me stumped.

I attach both a figurative and a literal meaning to the word "shackles". The literal meaning is that physical iron shackles dating from Roman times held the voices of the Latin-speaking blacksmiths that made them. The figurative meaning is that their voices--the ghostly echo of their own selves--were bound up (shackled, as it were) for two thousand years.

Does it mean that your "dream invention" unlocked sound from metal artifacts produced by (enslaved?) Roman blacksmiths and from Franklin's harmonica, but from nothing else ever?

As for the last line, it's not that nothing more was ever heard, but that it was never anything particularly useful or enlightening. In my dream, even Franklin's fragment of a question to a glazier turned into a farce: the chief effect was to spark a flurry of plays and TV shows about Franklin, who inevitably, and in a queerly distorted voice, would end up asking a partial question of the man he'd commissioned to make the Glass Harmonica. The economy ended up geared towards producing useless little snippets of sound from the past.

23 posted on 05/30/2003 11:51:30 AM PDT by Physicist
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To: Chemist_Geek
....it's somewhere at all times, right?

Yes, but when you introduce momentum, or movement, you can't have just one place. You need a sequence of places and therefore no ONE place. As a result, it seems to me, the concept of momentum and position simultaneously is mutually exclusive.

24 posted on 05/30/2003 11:52:21 AM PDT by Mind-numbed Robot (Not all things that need to be done need to be done by the government.)
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To: RightWhale
Hopefully they take a course in philosophy along the way. From what I've read, few scientists seem to be able to distinguish between natural science and philosophy, at least the atheist/materialist ones, Carl Sagan being a good example. He began his book, "Cosmos," with the line, "The universe is all that is or ever was or ever will be..."
25 posted on 05/30/2003 12:02:14 PM PDT by Aquinasfan
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To: Physicist
Not always. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and black hole "no-hair" theorems come immediately to mind.

OK. Do you have a law degree too?

26 posted on 05/30/2003 12:03:46 PM PDT by Aquinasfan
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To: Aquinasfan
OK. Do you have a law degree too?

No, I don't.

27 posted on 05/30/2003 12:07:21 PM PDT by Physicist ("Mmm...bait. Uh-huh-hunh...")
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To: Aquinasfan
They should. Maybe most do. My philosophy prof used to amuse himself at parties by approaching various PhDs and starting to talk about philosophy or in a philosophic way. When he quickly established that his quarry knew no more than do ordinary freshman about philosophy, he would ask if the Ph in PhD meant philosophy. Great fun!
28 posted on 05/30/2003 12:09:28 PM PDT by RightWhale (gazing at shadows)
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To: RightWhale
I thought it was widly known that science was originally considered a branch of philosophy, called "natural philosophy," to distinguish it from theology. People we now call scientists were, as recently as Darwin's time, called philosophers.
29 posted on 05/30/2003 12:15:49 PM PDT by PatrickHenry (Idiots are on "virtual ignore," and you know exactly who you are.)
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To: PatrickHenry
I have always thought of it that way. A lot of people don't, however, so when conversing with strangers we have to ask a question or two before proceeding.
30 posted on 05/30/2003 12:19:27 PM PDT by RightWhale (gazing at shadows)
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To: TroutStalker
Philosophy has proven abolutely, beyond any doubt, the fact that: "Nothing can be known, therefore nothing can be proven to be true!"

See Proof At: "http://www.halfwhit.edu.your-kids-college/For-$40,000/Year/Sucker.html"
31 posted on 05/30/2003 12:21:32 PM PDT by ido_now
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To: TroutStalker
Wait until I tell my wife!
32 posted on 05/30/2003 12:21:42 PM PDT by <1/1,000,000th%
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To: TroutStalker
bttp
33 posted on 05/30/2003 12:21:43 PM PDT by Richard Kimball
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To: Chewbacca
So, are they saying that the future we see in the movie GATACA would be impossible?

Generally speaking, yes. Having the genome of a person could be viewed roughly as having the code to a computer program. What this doesn't allow you to do is predict a future state of the program when it is actually running. It is computationally intractable to predict the personality and intelligence of some future state given only the starting state. At best the genome allows you to make probabilistic guesses as to the bulk properties of a person in the abstract, but tells you exactly dick about the characteristics of an instance at some specific point in time. A basic limitation per computational theory.

34 posted on 05/30/2003 12:23:45 PM PDT by tortoise
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To: tortoise
It is computationally intractable to predict the personality and intelligence of some future state given only the starting state.

The State doesn't rely on perfect DNA. It nurtures and monitors, and adjusts as well, and keeps doing this all the way to the end.

35 posted on 05/30/2003 12:29:40 PM PDT by RightWhale (gazing at shadows)
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To: Physicist
You need to get more sleep. ;^)
36 posted on 05/30/2003 12:38:41 PM PDT by js1138
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To: PatrickHenry
I thought it was widly known that science was originally considered a branch of philosophy, called "natural philosophy," to distinguish it from theology. People we now call scientists were, as recently as Darwin's time, called philosophers.

Correct. A science Ph.D. is a doctorate of (natural) philosophy.

37 posted on 05/30/2003 12:51:33 PM PDT by Chemist_Geek ("Drill, R&D, and conserve" should be our watchwords! Energy independence for America!)
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To: Mind-numbed Robot
Yes, but when you introduce momentum, or movement, you can't have just one place. You need a sequence of places and therefore no ONE place. As a result, it seems to me, the concept of momentum and position simultaneously is mutually exclusive.

No, it's not. You wrote, yourself, there there is a sequence of places that the body occupies. It may do so for an infinitesimally short period of time, but, it does occupy a place.

In one dimension, a body's position can be given by:
x(t) = a·t2 + v·t + x(0), where a is acceleration, v is velocity, and x(0) is the body's initial position. That position x(t) can be evaluated for any instant of time, t.

38 posted on 05/30/2003 12:57:43 PM PDT by Chemist_Geek ("Drill, R&D, and conserve" should be our watchwords! Energy independence for America!)
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To: Chemist_Geek
Regardless of the formulas, it seems self-evident that a position in space is fixed, not moving, and that once in motion it cannot be in a fixed place while moving. No matter how infinitesimal the moment of being in a position, for that moment there is no movement, ergo, no momentum. From the article:

And physicists showed that the laws of quantum mechanics prevent us from knowing simultaneously both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle.

Do you not agree with that? All I am saying is that that is a self-evident truth that one may be able to illustrate with mathematical formulas but that the formulas are not necessary. It is self-evident that you can't be both in motion and at rest at the same time.

39 posted on 05/30/2003 1:19:25 PM PDT by Mind-numbed Robot (Not all things that need to be done need to be done by the government.)
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To: Mind-numbed Robot
It is self-evident that you can't be both in motion and at rest at the same time.

Well now, that depends on the observer's frame of reference. To me, I'm at rest. To an observer on the moon, I'm in motion.

40 posted on 05/30/2003 1:24:32 PM PDT by PatrickHenry (Idiots are on "virtual ignore," and you know exactly who you are.)
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To: Mind-numbed Robot
No matter how infinitesimal the moment of being in a position, for that moment there is no movement, ergo, no momentum.

Interesting thought... Some scientists believe that time is discontinuous at the shortest scale (I believe it's called "Planck time"). So like a gigantic clockwork, everything in the universe moves a step, stops, moves a step, stops...

41 posted on 05/30/2003 1:40:29 PM PDT by tictoc (On FreeRepublic, discussion is a contact sport.)
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To: PatrickHenry
Yes, but that again is an entirely different proposition and relates to relativity when we were discussing objective observations from the same perspective. You are correct if you divorce my comment from its frame of reference and examine it literally and without context.
42 posted on 05/30/2003 1:41:26 PM PDT by Mind-numbed Robot (Not all things that need to be done need to be done by the government.)
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To: tictoc
Not having a technical background I had not heard of that theory. It is an interesting thought, I agree, yet when considered within this discussion it seems entirely reasonable.
43 posted on 05/30/2003 1:45:26 PM PDT by Mind-numbed Robot (Not all things that need to be done need to be done by the government.)
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To: Mind-numbed Robot
Here's a link for you: http://www.nature.com/nsu/020304/020304-5.html
44 posted on 05/30/2003 2:02:57 PM PDT by tictoc (On FreeRepublic, discussion is a contact sport.)
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To: ConservativeLawyer
Bump for later reading.
45 posted on 05/30/2003 2:04:48 PM PDT by ConservativeLawyer
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To: Mind-numbed Robot
Fitting moniker.
Ever heard the expression "It is better to remain silent and be thought and idiot than to speak and remove all doubt"?
46 posted on 05/30/2003 2:10:45 PM PDT by MOX
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To: Physicist
Great poem, Physicist! Kudos!

For the record, I don't think such a thing is possible, but for a long time after my dream I could not shake the notion of "fossil sound" out of my head!

For the record, I do think such a thing is possible because I see no reason sounds could not be captured into the resonance super-strings, i.e. string theory of particles as resonance.

47 posted on 05/30/2003 2:19:44 PM PDT by Alamo-Girl
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To: tictoc
Thanks for the link and the article fits right into this discussion. I was not previously aware of the derivation of the word quantum as used here:

They are named after the German physicist Max Planck who initiated quantum theory, which posited that the energies of atoms and molecules are quantized, or discretely divided.

48 posted on 05/30/2003 2:21:56 PM PDT by Mind-numbed Robot (Not all things that need to be done need to be done by the government.)
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To: MOX
Fitting moniker. Ever heard the expression "It is better to remain silent and be thought and idiot than to speak and remove all doubt"?

Where did that come from? Care to give me a hint?

By the way the original expression said "fool", not idiot.

49 posted on 05/30/2003 2:25:20 PM PDT by Mind-numbed Robot (Not all things that need to be done need to be done by the government.)
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To: Mind-numbed Robot
Yes, but when you introduce momentum, or movement, you can't have just one place. You need a sequence of places and therefore no ONE place. As a result, it seems to me, the concept of momentum and position simultaneously is mutually exclusive.

Calculus addresses the very issue you are raising. Thanks to Leibnitz and Newton, we are able to meaningfully talk about things like instantaneous velocity, momentum, and position.

Also, your earlier comment about a non-moving object not having momentum is technically incorrect. It DOES have momentum; it just happens to be zero. Heisenberg is saying that we cannot similtaneously know BOTH the position and momentum of quantum particles to an arbitrary degree of accuracy, even when the object is standing still. It is precisely this constraint that tells us that the electron in a Hydrogen atom cannot continue to shed energy after it is in it's ground state, and spiral into the nucleus. If it could, we'd know both the position of the electron (in the nucleus) and it's momentum (zero) at the same time. In effect, Heisenberg's Principle defines the lowest energy state of the electron in an atom; to go any lower would violate the principle.

50 posted on 05/30/2003 2:30:18 PM PDT by longshadow
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