Particle physicists are among the smartest people in the world. They are drawn to the subject because they want to understand reality on the deepest level. What are the rules that govern the behavior and evolution of our universe? We all should be so bold!

An unstated assumption in their approach is that the way to understand the whole is to understand the parts. This is a carryover from 19th century physics, where it was enormously successful. Write down the equations that govern each tiny region of space, and integrate them together to get the big picture. (Sometimes these equations can be integrated on paper; but even when this is impossible, with modern computer techniques they can all be solved to a high degree of accuracy.)

Quantum mechanics fundamentally changes the relationship between the parts and the whole. You cannot understand the big picture by integrating equations for the small picture at each point. One way to look at this is that the equation for a single particle is manageable in 3-dimensional space; but each additional quantum particle adds 3 more dimensions. In classical mechanics, the equations for 2 particles require following 2 points in 3-dimensional space, and 3 particles means 3 points in 3-dimensional space. With 2 particles, the computer calculation takes twice as long as with one, with 3 particles, 3 times as long, etc. But for the quantum calculation, the second particle requires a billion times as much computer time, because it must be solved in 6-dimensional space. Adding a third particle multiplies the computer time by a billion again. In classical physics, the computational complexity scales linearly with the number of particles, but in quantum physics, the computational complexity scales exponentially. As Ev Dirksen once said, “A billion here, a billion there — pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” The scorecard: For tracking trajectories over time, with classical physics, a modern supercomputer can handle 700 billion interacting particles; with quantum physics, the same computer can handle 3. For more than three particles, even the simplest quantum mechanical equations can’t be solved on any computer that humans can conceive at present (except, of course, a quantum computer, not yet a reality).

Another way to describe this situation is to say that in classical physics, the calculations are separable for each particle; but in quantum mechanics the configuration of particles is an indivisible whole. You might hear that quantum physics is the best-verified theory that humans have ever devised, with calculated values verified by experiments to a few parts in a billion. Yes, that’s true, but the experiments require extraordinary measures to isolate a single atom. This is done not because isolated atoms are so interesting, but because for anything more complicated the calculation cannot be done, even with the power of a supercomputer.

The most interesting mysteries in physics are hiding in plain sight, as they affect our real world and our everyday experience. They are not the questions physicists are fond of talking about as fundamental–the structure of space on the Planck scale a billion trillion times smaller than a proton, or the Theory of Everything that will reconcile general relativity with quantum principles. The most interesting questions are about how the microscopic rules that we already know produce the world of our everyday experience, and also the anomalous phenomena that conventional science refuses to recognize, deeming them “impossible”. The judgment of “impossible” is based on the reductionist paradigm, because that is virtually all the science that we know. Even though quantum theory is shouting at us that THE WORLD IS HOLISTIC, still, we don’t know how to think holistically, and we have yet to imagine what a holistic science would look like.