Heisenbergs Principle of Uncertainty and Life

To most readers, the Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty is a mysterious term that means nothing. For those with a background in particle physics, it is an interesting equation that shows the relationship between the actual velocity of a given electron and its exact location in a given moment of time. Long story short, is you’ll know either one or the other but not both at the same time because the more accurately you know the velocity, the less you know about its location or the more you know about its exact location, the less you know about its current velocity.

Why is a principle like this significant? Surprisingly enough, there are many accountants in this world and other like minded folks who don’t realize this also applies to the real world. For example, I spent many years working on government projects and there is a constant need to find out exactly how much money is spent on the project. The accounting group was mandated by the government to show detailed records on how much money was spent on parts or labor. Consequently an elaborate system was created so there were different work order numbers for each project and each activity on those projects. All the workers needed to do was to make sure whenever they worked on a particular activity on a particular project, the correct work order number was used. Simple, right?

Nope. Then the accounting group started to think and said, what if the employee charges to a project or activity that they’re not authorized to work on. How do we prevent that? The solution was to have an approval form issued for every work order number I was authorized to charge to, signed by the program manager and this was to be prominently displayed for any auditor to come around. This is fine, right?

Nope. Then the accounting group started to think some more and said what if folks aren’t working on a project or particular activity from the beginning to the end and are only brought in as needed, how do we prevent that? The solution was to put expiration dates on the work order approval form and picked 30 days as the expiration date. So now the employee was required to not only display the approval forms but make sure none of them had expired if an auditor visited. Many program managers were put out by this because they had to personally sign all the approval forms by hand and there were some projects that had upwards of 200 – 300 people working on it.. This has to be right, right?

Nope. When accounting tried to define the task, it was broken up into several steps, which of course had their own work order numbers so to build a simple switch unit, an engineer could be looking at 7 different work order numbers with one for design, another for documentation, another for test, another to order parts, another to prepare status reports, etc. It was not uncommon to do part of a design then test it then go back to changing the design. Technically each activity should require the engineer to charge to a different work order, but many times they wouldn’t. To make matters worse, many engineers would fill out their timecards at the end of the day rather than throughout the day, causing them to guess what they did that day. So in spite of all the steps taken by the accounting group, the labor shown for the different projects were inaccurate and undermined by what they thought were safeguards to ensure accurate records.

Which brings me to my initial comment about Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty, namely there are many things in life you will find where the more you scrutinize it or gather data to ensure the most accurate number, sometimes you hit an impasse where it is not possible to get any more accurate. Another great example is finding out what your kids are doing.

Any parent knows the more you question the kid for details about what are they going to do or who they’re going to be with or where they’re going or how much it will cost, will inevitably lead to them getting ticked off and not offering anymore information or they start to lie just to get you off their back. Remember the electron with its exact velocity and location at a given time?

About this point, someone will say “How about car repairs? They give an estimate and my bill is about the same price.” Let’s think about this. If you’re in the car repair business and someone brings in their car to get an estimate, based on what they’re telling you, are you going to quote a low price or a high price? If you go with the low one and have to go higher, the customer will inevitably be very unhappy and you’ll know about it. Whereas if you go with the high price, there’s a good chance any repairs that need to be done will cost less than that. I think it’s obvious why this isn’t subject to Heisenberg’s principle of Uncertainty.

As you go through the day and encounter situations where it just isn’t possible to know the most about everything, accurately, you can recall Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty and be comforted that indeed, there is order in the Universe.