The Uncertain Approach: Lessons from Football and Quantum Physics
Quantum Mechanics. Quantum Theory. Quantum Physics. Quantum Supremacy. Quantum World. If you’re an ill-informed Hollywood script, quantum [insert an ill-planned buffet of meaningless jargon]. All of these phrases have commanded a certain sense of mysticism, uncertainty (R.I.P Heisenberg) and to certain individuals a sharp disdain towards the scientific viewpoint of our world. Whenever an individual attempts to explain the nuances of Quantum Mechanics (for the purpose of this article, the writer would interchangeably use Quantum Physics and Quantum Mechanics) to a layman, he/she is badgered with questions such as, but not limited to, “How can Schrodinger’s cat be alive and dead at the same time”, “How can I not know the position and momentum of the object at the same time?”, “Do we live in a multiverse?”, “Hey, I read this article on Buz…that proves we can time travel! Why haven’t scientists made a machine for this stuff?”
While these questions originate from a stew of curiosity, ill-informed knowledge, speculative science fiction textbooks, with occasionally one ingredient overpowering the other, the motif is the uncertainty (R.I.P Heisenberg) associated with the subject.
We have a difficult time connecting the teachings of the subject to our daily lives. This is precisely why Quantum Mechanics created so much controversy when it was still in its infancy, and part of the reason why Albert Einstein – the poster boy of the genius, sequestered, idiosyncratic physicist – continued to have strong reservations until his death. However, without providing an exposition on the intricacies of the subject, it is safe to say that Quantum Mechanics is all about probabilities. If you ask me to measure something using the rules of Quantum Physics, I can tell you with a (very) high degree of certainty that you will receive a particular value. In almost all cases the values obtained from the theory are so close to experimental data that we have no difficulty in comforting ourselves with its validity. However, it is exactly this probabilistic nature of the theory that troubled Einstein, whose reservations are encapsulated in one of his most famous quotes:
“God does not play dice with the Universe.”
While I cannot comment upon the gambling habits of a higher deity, I can attempt to relate the interpersonal experiences of our daily lives with the essence of the subject; after all, almost every decision we make has a probabilistic flavor to it. If I put an alarm on my phone to wake up at 6:00 AM, no matter how many self-satisfying pledges I make before I sleep, I cannot know for certain I would wake up at 6:00 AM, until I do. If in a multiple-choice question, I randomly select a particular option without knowing the answer, I cannot know for certain whether my answer is correct, until I do. If I hit a football from the halfway line with 5 defenders closing in on me, I cannot be certain that it would end up in the opposition goal, until it does. All of these events and countless more have a degree of chance associated with them. In the aforementioned cases, as you get better at waking up, eliminating wrong answers and hitting a football, you increase your chances of success. Similarly, as our ability to perform accurate experiments has improved, our belief in the tenets of Quantum Mechanics has increased. provando e riprovando.
While the chariot of Quantum Physics continues to lead our quest of better understanding nature, it has taught us an important lesson about our lives: we can never be perfectly certain about one aspect without compromising on another. This is a physical analogue of the Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Mechanics formulated by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg (R.I.P Heisenberg). The principle states that under the “rules of the game” you cannot simultaneously know the position as well as momentum (velocity multiplied by mass) of a particle. Extremely accurate measurement of one will lead to a high degree of uncertainty in the measurement of the other. Similar relations also exist for other physical quantities, the aforementioned case suffices to illustrate the point. Now, in order to overcome the uncertainty we can take multiple steps to ensure the outcome is as favourable (certain) as possible. One step taken in this direction by the football community was the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee). But wait. If I had to talk about football, why did I waste your time with “quantum stuff”? Well, in the spirit of this column, it turns out the uncertainty principle can at the very least provide a different perspective on how footballing institutions dealt with corybantic uncertainty in decision making during football matches. It has been a few years since the official implementation of VAR in footballing competitions, both domestic and international. The technology, now adopted by most major European leagues and tournaments hosted by FIFA, was introduced with the noble intention of assisting the on-field referee to make critical decisions during the match. If the referee required assistance to make or reconsider a particular decision like awarding a penalty or calling a player offside (a player is called offside if a goal-scoring part of his body was present beyond the defenders of the opposing team while the ball was played to him/her), he/she could fire up the in-ear microphone, have a real-time chat and consult with another referee sitting in front of a video screen somewhere down the road from the stadium. In case the decision has to be changed, the referee makes the gesture of a rectangular screen in thin air to indicate the consideration with VAR and provide the final decision. In an ideal scenario, this entire process should be completed in about 30-45 seconds. Some technology, eh?
After much outcry from managers, players and the media to improve accuracy of the decision-making during matches, The English Premier League, the top-tier of English football adopted the technology in the current 2019/20 season. However, as Britain’s political posture turned blue, the footballing temperament turned red. Now that decisions were being made with extremely high degree of accuracy, VAR had to face a lot of vitriol, especially from the media and the fans for “killing the spirit of the game”. Herein the argument being that the players and fans in the stadium were reluctant to celebrate after a goal was scored since there was a possibility that the goal scorer was offside and it was not picked up by the on-field referee. Another concern was the margins over which the decisions were being made, with special reference to offside calls. In order to gauge whether a player is offside, VAR draws a vertical projection from the furthest goal-scoring body part of the attacking player and matches if with a horizontal line drawn through the similar body part of the furthest defensive player. In case the vertical projection is beyond the horizontal one, the player is called offside.
The nature of this technology ensued calls being made wherein offsides were called due to the length of the armpits, toes and knees. Even if there was a centimeter of an extension of a goal scoring body part (arms and hands are not considered), which makes it nearly impossible for the on-field referees to spot it, the goal had to be ruled offside. Thus, the tenor of VAR’s criticism is that a high degree of accuracy in making judgments severely compromises on the raw spirit of the game. In other words, increased certainty in one aspect has a significant impact on another closely coupled aspect. Sounds familiar? I hope it does.
Just like in quantum mechanics, where we couldn’t accurately describe the position of the object without making the momentum highly uncertain, we cannot expect a technology to make accurate decisions at all times without compromising on the spirit of the game. Furthermore, the fact that with VAR the contention originates from the “position” of a player which in turn affects the “momentum” of the game provides a neat lens to understand the analogy. However, this by no means implies that we should start doubting everything in life. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said in his work On Certainty:
"If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything."
Therefore, rather than feeding performance-enhancing drugs to your innate skepticism, we should wary the effects that a high degree of certainty on factors coupled to it.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Aditya Tamar is a final year Electronics and Communications Engineering student at SRM IST, Kattankulathur, Tamil Nadu. He has had an excellent academic record throughout his schooling and has been actively involved in a number of co-curricular and extracurricular activities. Aditya aspires to be an Astrophysicist, and when he is not getting sucked into solving fundamental questions related to Black Holes (pun intended) and Galaxies, he actively takes part in Model UN Conferences and Debates. Furthermore, he is an avid football fan, with his allegiance currently being split between his favourite player and his favourite club. Aditya has always had a penchant for world politics and in his articles, you can expect cogency in analysis and research.