Quantum Mechanics and Digital Audio


Quantum mechanics is a branch of science that studies the nature of the particles that make up the universe. It was the first to ask the famous question, “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

One of the main assumptions of quantum mechanics is that all matter exhibits properties of both particles and waves. Light exists as particles called photons, but they travel together in waves. Sound travels through the air in waves, but the air is made up of particles. Quantum mechanics deals with subatomic particles, so we’re not talking about dust in the wind, or even water molecules. It is theorized that all these teeny tiny particles that make up the universe are discrete points, despite the fact that they move together in waves, which are continuous in nature.

Let’s change gears. In the early days of analog recording, the waves that made up the music were reproduced as smooth waveforms. If you look at a vinyl record with a microscope, you would see a wiggle inside the groove. That wiggle is a direct representation of the sound wave that comes out of your speakers. It is analogous to the wave, hence the term, analog. A tape works the same way, it creates groups of  continuous magnetic fields that vary in strength. When they pass over the tape head, the magnetic energy is transferred to the speakers.

Flash forward to the digital age. As computers grew faster, they were able to take measurements of analog sound thousands of \times per second. This is the process of analog to digital conversion. Each of these measurements is a discrete point, but when they are played back they are able to create a full sound wave that propagates through the air.

Sound familiar?

The ability of the discrete measurements to recreate a sound wave is due to the nature of our perception. The standard CD audio sample rate is 44,100 samples per second. We simply can’t perceive such small discrepancies in continuity, so our brain smooths everything over for us. This has a serious implication in relation to the grander scheme of quantum mechanics.

Even at a sample rate of 44.1 kHz, there are an infinite number of times per second the sound is not being measured, due to the fact that there are an infinite amount of points on a line (or wave). So if the particles that make up the universe are discrete points that only create the perception of a contiguous universe, what does that say about the reality we live in?

One thing’s for certain, it sure as hell isn’t what we think it is.

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