What is reality? Well, just step right this way and meet Dr. Bobbs
Strolling through the multiverse
Science that’s stranger than fiction: a talk with physicist Bradley Bobbs
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Let me ask you this, who’s your go-to man when you’re in the mood to update your knowledge of lasers and electro-optics? Since I’m only hearing crickets, let me point you in the right direction, and his name is Bradley Bobbs.
The Redondo Beach resident who works in Torrance at Intelligent Optical Systems, often gives lectures and presentations about that slippery topic called quantum physics, but here’s the thing, he makes it understandable for those of us who haven’t realized that our grasp of the physical universe is largely riding on the back of quantum theory.
Bobbs has done the homework for us, and he’s got the credentials — a B.S. in physics from Harvey Mudd College and a Ph.D. in physics from UCLA. All we have to do is sit back and pay attention (see bottom of story for upcoming events). Here’s how his lecture series began…
The physics behind “Star Wars”
Fifteen years ago, Bobbs attended a lecture given by a friend of his and hosted by the Joseph Campbell Mythological RoundTable. Campbell, respected for his contributions as thinker and teacher, is perhaps best remembered as the author of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”
Bobbs began to attend these talks at the local Joseph Campbell Foundation on a regular basis. “And then one evening,” he says, as we polish off lunch at Black Angus, the topic focused on the mythology of “Star Wars.”
“Someone asked a question about the multiverse, about multiple universes, and that launched a huge discussion: Everyone was very interested in this and talking about it although none of these people were physicists. And I started thinking, Wouldn’t they be interested in hearing the physics behind the multiverse?”
After a year of pondering how he could present such a subject, Bobbs cobbled together a lecture he calls “Philosophical Mysteries of Quantum Physics,” which he gave at the Joseph Campbell Foundation. One problem, though. The lecture was too long. But instead of being asked to cut it short, he was invited back — twice — so he could finish. Apparently his talks were a big hit, and Bobbs was invited back.
“I was very encouraged by this,” Bobbs continues. “Of course it helped that I filled the lecture with all kinds of cartoons and jokes and anecdotes to make it entertaining, because these were not people who had come to learn physics, but to get [themselves] thinking and to be somewhat entertained.
“So I looked up all the quantum mechanics jokes I could on the internet, and I interspersed them into the lecture at key points where I was talking about that subject. They were not just jokes, they were reinforcing the lesson and helping people to remember what I was teaching. Also, I’d illustrate them and have little cartoons.
“People found it very entertaining and they told me they learned a great deal, so I was very encouraged by this. Then I started getting invitations to give these lectures at other places.”
Over time, his core lecture evolved. “I kept adding to it,” Bobbs says. “People would make suggestions or ask questions, and I thought, Oh, there must be a way I can make this more clear. So the lecture’s gotten almost out of hand because it’s gotten so long. To get all the way through it, it takes like three-and-a-half hours. Which means it needs several intermissions.”
But let’s pause and ask ourselves, How did Bobbs get to this place? To answer that we’ll have to go back to his childhood.
Sliced bread and T-squares
“Where I really got started in science and technology was at the Helms Bakery,” Bobbs says, whereas I might have guessed someplace like the Griffith Park Observatory. “The building is still there on Venice Blvd; it’s not a bakery anymore, but back then that entire complex was an actual bakery. It was a big-scale production, with large quantities of baked goods. And then they had the Helms trucks that made deliveries all over the city.”
Check this box [ ] if you remember that too.
At the time he was living with his family in Brentwood, which included an older brother and younger sister.
“I was maybe in kindergarten,” Bobbs continues, “and my brother was in Cub Scouts, and they went on a field trip to the Helms Bakery — and they said (the Scouts) could bring the rest of the family. And I was so fascinated by the technology involved in transporting, wrapping, and slicing the bread; it was all automated. Everything was on conveyor belts and rollers and it had robot arms that would come out and wrap the bread.
“And I was just so entranced by this. I sat watching the machine that did the wrapping for so long. I just loved that. And I decided, That’s what I want to do. When I grow up I want to be someone who builds things like that.”
Now the ball was rolling, aided and abetted by his parents who bought him Tinkertoys and Erector sets and similar kits that encouraged him to build little structures and simple machines. “And then I got a chemistry set and a microscope and a telescope.” In short, Bobbs says, “I was hooked on science and technology.”
When Bobbs was in fourth grade his father, who was a civil engineer who designed sewers and storm drains for the City of Los Angeles, taught him the fundamentals of drafting, the old way, of course, with a T-square, triangle, and protractor. “I loved that,” Bobbs says; “and then I’d go to his office and learn how to use the adding machine. This was the kind of adding machine with gears — you’d set the gears and pull the crank and I just loved all this stuff.”
Later, when Bobbs went off to college he was thinking to pursue either physics or engineering, and physics won out: “I like physics because it’s a little more esoteric, it’s more into research. But often there’s not a big difference between the two.”
After attending Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Bobbs went to grad school at UCLA.
While still enrolled, Bobbs landed a part-time summer job at the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu (not far from Santa Monica where he was born). “This is the place where the first laser was built,” he says. “In fact, I was working with a couple of guys who had built the very first laser in history.” He was hoping they’d hire him after college, but the department he’d been in was eliminated, so Bobbs headed over to Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, where exciting research on lasers was being done.
If you’ll recall, lasers and electro-optics is what Bobbs has specialized in.
“Lasers is one example of electro-optical physics, combining electricity and optics.” When asked for a modest definition of electro-optics for the general herd, Bobbs explains that “It’s basically high-tech optics. It’s not just building telescopes and binoculars, it’s getting into digital cameras and fancy optical devices like lasers and things related to it.”
I imagine there’s a little bit more to it, but to continue…
From Rocketdyne, Bobbs went to Zontec in Van Nuys and then to Optical Physics in Calabasas. In case you’re thinking, Hey, this guy sure got shuttled around a lot, it should be noted that funding was often erratic. If a research company got a bit of cash they’d hire new talent. If the money vanished, so did the new hires.
From Optical Physics, Bobbs joined Physical Optics, the paired names good for a laugh: Optical Physics and Physical Optics are totally unrelated companies, with the latter located in Torrance. To cut this a bit short, Bobbs is currently employed with a spin-off company from Physical Optics that’s called Intelligent Optical Systems. “Again,” he says, “it’s high-tech optics, lasers, and optical sensors.”
It’s those experiences that gave Bobbs the knowledge he stuffs into his lectures. But knowledge in itself doesn’t mean one has an aptitude for sharing it, and for public speaking. And so here’s the missing piece:
“I always enjoyed teaching,” Bobbs says. At school he was a teaching assistant and later an Adjunct Professor of Physics at Moorpark College and California Lutheran University where his job required him to give presentations. There were also scientific conferences around the country where he was invited to speak to his colleagues.
“I did a lot of that,” he says, “and I really prided myself on making my talks understandable. I had been to so many talks by other people where I just got lost and bored, and I didn’t want to do that to other people. And, incidentally, my wife and I homeschooled our kids — so I’ve always enjoyed teaching.
“In all the talks that I gave, even to other scientists, I would try to make a lot of it tutorial, I’d try to start at the beginning and make sure everybody could follow what I was saying and then get to the more sophisticated stuff.”The more sophisticated stuff
“I cover a variety of topics,” Bobbs says, returning to the present, “all the things that people find interesting. So I talk about wave-particle duality, which is sort of a key concept for quantum physics. And then of course Schrödinger’s cat. Everybody’s heard of the cat by now, but I tell the whole history of how it came about, what it was trying to prove, the different views of it, and the philosophical questions it raises.”
Bobbs is referring to the closed box with the cat inside. Is it alive or dead, or even both alive and dead?
“When quantum physics was being developed,” he says, “it was making strange predictions that didn’t make sense to anyone — and yet (the theory) worked perfectly. It worked beautifully. Everybody agreed that the equations must be true, but when they tried to explain what’s happening nobody could make sense of it.”
Lots of scenarios emerged and were bandied about.
“One school of thought,” Bobbs continues, “is called the Copenhagen interpretation, [which posits] that different possibilities that are mutually exclusive are both happening, and that when we observe it (or perhaps them), it collapses to one or the other.” This is an offshoot of the well-known double slit experiment, where a beam of light is sent towards a partition (so to speak) with two exits. “We know that it goes through only one slit or the other slit,” Bobbs explains, “and yet when we do experiments it shows that it must have gone through both slits.”
And even though it may have gone through both, when a measurement is made “it becomes one possibility or the other.” Seemingly in contradiction to common sense. Which is to say that it’s the measurement or observation that determines what happens. And, yes, that turns our usual view of things upside down.
“Now, other scientists like Einstein and Schrödinger said that this was totally ridiculous. Schrödinger then came up with the idea of the cat.” In lieu of setting up a demonstration at the level of the subatomic world, “he came up with an experiment where the cat is both alive and dead at the same time — until you observe it. Then, when we open up the box to see what happened, suddenly the cat becomes either alive or dead, one or the other.”
That, apparently, is the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics at work. One might think that Schrödinger made short order of their theory — how can a cat be both alive and dead? — but the Copenhagen folks weren’t about to throw in the towel.
“They were saying,” Bobbs continues, “‘Well, yes, it is both alive and dead; where’s the problem?’ Well, we know the physics is true, it always works. But as far as what it means and what’s actually going on, there are huge disagreements — and many other interpretations.”
What you see, what you don’t
We are, of course, perceptually challenged because the human brain is wired to see things in a certain and limited way. It filters out all the “noise” which would make your head explode if the filter wasn’t there.
“We grew up in a world where we don’t see one electron, we see billions of electrons, and it’s a very different world when you look at that,” Bobbs says. “The macroscopic world is very different from being in the microscopic world where you’re the size of an electron. We interpret things according to our visual experience, which is very different from what’s going on in the quantum world.”
Furthermore, what we see isn’t necessarily what’s going on.“Right,” he replies. “So I talk a lot about the philosophical differences between our perception of reality, which is all we have, and that reality actually is. I go into that and the philosophical implications of these controversies, the different ways to try to resolve it.”
When asked if he sees similarities between the incredibly large and the amazingly small, Bobbs says no, not really. “I do talk a bit about cosmology, the big picture, space, but mostly I’m talking about what’s happening in the microscopic quantum world.”
He’s also asked if there’s a limit to how small things can get, that is, what if in the world of the atom there were atoms which contained other atoms and right down the elevator to infinity.
“There’s a limit as to how small a size even makes sense,” Bobbs replies. “There’s the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which limits how small a size has any meaning.”
What about up there, endless space and time?
“That’s looking at the big picture. You’re looking at how big is space. That’s very different from looking at how small space can be. Quantum physics really doesn’t tell us anything about that — that’s in the realm of cosmology, looking at the big picture of the entire universe, and that’s much more outside my field. My own research is related to quantum physics and not that much to cosmology.”
Bobbs is asked if there are topics in the world of quantum physics that aren’t much talked about but which he feels are of special importance. He thinks over the question for a moment and offers up one response: antimatter.
“A lot of people have heard about antimatter but they have no idea what it really is. The theory behind it is probably the most bizarre theory in all of science — so that’s another reason to talk about it because it’s so completely strange, and yet it was proven to be correct.”
Antimatter and ordinary matter are the same, except that one has a negative charge and one a positive charge. To put a moral spin on it, there’s the good twin and the evil twin, but they both eat at the same breakfast table.
Frog legs and Chico Marx
Bobbs had earlier mentioned the multiverse, a concept in which many universes exist all at once.
“There’re actually multiple meanings for the multiverse,” he says. “In quantum physics it’s called the many worlds interpretation. But yes, anything that can happen, does happen. So that every time the universe has to make a decision — is the photon going to go through this slit or the other slit — the universe splits and the photon goes through one slit in one universe and the other slit in another universe. You can expand on that and realize that every time you try to decide ‘Should I go to dinner or should I go out to the movies?’ the universe splits. In one universe you go to the movies and in the other universe you make dinner.”
And then, in that spin-off universe, more decisions lead to additional spin-offs.
Bobbs admits it’s not an easy theory to wrap one’s head around. “But I explain the physics behind it and why these ideas came up. It’s not really a series of separate lectures — one about the multiverse and one about Schrödinger’s cat and one about antimatter — it all ties together. It’s just one big lecture series which makes it difficult to give because people usually don’t want to sit through the whole thing at once. Often they do, but many people don’t — and then they miss parts of it; they’re not following the same train.
“Sometimes,” he adds, “it’s all given in one day, a sort of marathon session with a few intermissions, and sometimes it’s given in a series in different weeks or even months.”
Meanwhile, let’s not forget that Bobbs has another topic that he often talks to the public about, and that’s lasers.
“That’s much more related to the actual research I do. I started with a lecture which is basically a collection of all the great laser stories I’ve put together — lasers that I worked on or heard about, just all the most interesting ones. Some of them are funny, some of them just amazing, and I illustrate them and explain them.”
Naturally we want to hear one, and we want it to be succinct.
“What comes to mind,” Bobbs says after a few moments, “is the frog legs laser. There’s a laser design in which the laser beams are zigzagging back and forth, and someone noted that the pattern that the beams make looks like frogs’ legs; so this has been dubbed the frog legs laser. So, cute little stories like that.”
Are these lasers for medical or maybe military use?
“All kinds of uses,” Bobbs says. “I don’t talk too much about medical uses because I don’t know much about that. But I put it all together and I call it ‘Lasers I Have Loved.’ Then I thought I should also explain more about what a laser is and how it works, so I created another lecture that’s like a prequel, and it’s called ‘Why a Laser? Why-a No Light-a Bulb?’” — a reference to Chico Marx.
We were waiting for a reference to the Marx Brothers, weren’t we? And from Chico it’s an easy jump to Edgar Allan Poe.Bonus chapter
“I’ve got a costume and a wig and I dress up as Edgar Allan Poe.”
Well, well. This seems to be on a different track from electro-optics, so let’s rewind a little bit.
As a lighter complement to his serious lectures, Bobbs says, “I started reciting poetry and then in some cases I embellished it with background stories. I do a few parody songs, silly stuff, much like childhood poems from ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Mostly lighthearted or comical, whimsical stuff. I don’t write music, so I took someone else’s melody and changed the lyrics.
“Then I decided I wanted to start doing Edgar Allan Poe, which is not only serious stuff, it’s mostly dreary and depressing stuff. But I really love it.” Bobbs doesn’t just stand at the podium and read passages, he memorizes the work and acts it out. “It’s a passionate interpretation.
“I started adding introductions and parodies and writing little comical bits, if you can imagine Edgar Allan Poe doing comedy. Then I expanded this into a 45-minute show, with quite a few other people providing music and song and dance.” Presumably stopping a little short of a full-on Busby Berkeley production.
Bobbs has taken this act to such places as the Hollywood Fringe Festival and the Redondo Beach Main Library.
He mentions that he incorporates some sound effects.
Ahh, of course. The raven!
“Well, that is done live. One of my colleagues, who is also a dancer and producer and clown for the show, performs the raven.
“So I perform as if I’m Poe, and part of it is I’m just acting out his works, his poetry, and part of it is I’m adding my own little stories, parodies, and kind of making fun of him or having him do comedy. I call the show ‘Poe-Etic License.’”
One of Poe’s most famous stories is “The Black Cat,” in which a feline is accidentally walled up. Put in a box, so to speak. Even if it stops shrieking we won’t know if it’s alive or dead. So, if I’m in the audience and I ask: Mr. Poe, could you tell us about Schrödinger’s cat, that would put you into a whole different character, wouldn’t it?
But apparently not. “We don’t take questions from the audience,” Bobbs says. “That one’s all scripted.”
For that lecture, I’m afraid, we’ll have to travel to the multiverse.
Bradley Bobbs has a couple of lectures lined up, including “Why a Laser?” at noon on Oct. 31 at the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes. On Saturday, Jan. 6, he’ll present “Why a Laser?” and “Lasers I Have Loved” at the Redondo Beach Main Library. To learn more, contact Bradley Bobbs by emailing Dr.Bobbs@gmail.com. PEN