Reality After Einstein

What is real, how do we know, and what does it mean? These simple sounding questions, as old as humankind, have no simple answers. The questions, however, have become only more interesting as science, and particularly physics, continues to reveal an underlying reality that is startlingly different from what most of us believe based on our everyday experiences. Our current theories of physics suggest we live in a quantum universe in which objects exist in a multitude of simultaneous locations and states, where time and space and causality may be an illusion, and where irreducible randomness is fundamental to nature. As radical as these ideas sound, the science behind them is driving the development of revolutionary new quantum technologies. Google, IBM, and other companies are investing in building quantum computers that may be able to perform tasks impossible for any ordinary (non-quantum) technology. Other researchers are developing secure communication systems based on quantum teleportation and related ideas. Recent observations of distant supernovas suggest that we are surrounded everywhere by an invisible dark energy that governs the fate of the universe. There are serious scientific papers that discuss (and have proposed experiments to test!) if we live a multiverse of infinite parallel realities. The new field quantum information science is inspiring some scientists to see the universe as a vast quantum computer: the computer and the information it processes one and the same and reality as we know it a simulation. There are even hints from physics for how something (perhaps even the universe itself?) could emerge spontaneously from nothing. How persuasive is the evidence and arguments supporting these radical new ideas about the nature of reality? This course will ask and grapple with far more questions than it answers. What do these discoveries say about age-old philosophical questions about the nature of reality, and what we can hope to learn about it? Is there any room left for free-will and causality, and how do we find meaning in our lives, if the most radical ideas about a quantum universe are true? How will these ideas, and possible technologies associated with them, impact human society? And what does it mean for the future of humanity and how we view the nature of our very existences, if science continues down a path of revealing a reality that is so fundamentally different from what we see and feel with our senses? We will explore these questions through readings, discussion, active lectures, demonstrations, and hands-on activities and experiments.