How Quantum Mysticism Slips Free of the Math

(Subtitle: How I’m still seething after reading about Quantum University and seeing a bunch of boobs calling themselves ‘quantum physicists.’)

After finishing that previous post, I realized that I still have more to say about the topic. I’ve actually read quite a bit from quantum cranks before and the topic never fails to inflame me. To see a group of people calling themselves ‘quantum physicists’ when they have exactly no background in actual quantum physics is disturbing.

The freedom of speech, a civil right we consider mightily to be a foundation of our culture, brings with it a grave penalty. People cannot be persecuted by any authority for what they say. This means that lying, in some ways, is a protected right. As far as I can tell, as a scientist with no expertise in legal doctrine, there are three forms of speech that can be litigated in court: Libel, Slander and Plagiarism. The first two are ‘defamation.’ Is harassment a kind of speech that can be litigated? As far as I know, even hate speech is protected by freedom of speech if the person using it is not actually acting on their hatred. Libel, Slander and Plagiarism are all things that you can be sued for because they actively incur damage to the victim, either by harming someone’s reputation or by stealing somebody’s property. People who parade around with diploma-mill degrees claiming to be ‘quantum physicists’ never mind that they know neither quantum nor physics nor likely any kind of deeper math, are permitted to do this as long as they are not victimizing anyone else in the process. If they tried to show up at the APS march meeting or DAMOP, they would be laughed out the door, but that doesn’t stop them from making the claim. Deepak Chopra and Lionel Milgrom and the Amit Goswami can all say basically whatever they want, twist Quantum Mechanics, slander and libel it, plagiarize and skew its theses to say whatever they want it to say without breaking their freedom of speech all because Quantum Mechanics is not a person. No court in the land will prosecute ‘harm to a concept.’ The grave penalty of the freedom of speech is that it means that no authority can be appointed to preserve Truth. Defamation of the Truth?

Quantum Mechanics is a broad area of study that spans clear from organic chemistry all the way through nuclear physics clear over to string theory. That is so many paths of study that nobody can claim to be a master of all of it. As a biophysicist, it helps that I know about it, but I can’t claim that I directly study it. Most of my work with quantum is in my spare time because I loved what I learned and don’t want to forget it. But, that also doesn’t mean that I know nothing about it. I have taken literally years of quantum. “What do you know?” a crank would say, “You’re not a quantum physicist!”

That’s true: I’m not an authority figure on quantum mechanics. I cannot level any arguments by authority. But, I am a physicist and I can argue the logic of the physics.

Quantum physics walks a precarious line to the laymen. Fact is, if you don’t know how to do the math, the only way you can know anything about quantum is by the metaphors that have been invented to analogize the subject into our common vernacular. ‘Particle-wave duality’ and ‘Uncertainty principle’ are sets of words that have been parked atop a mathematical concept in order to convey an image that roughly describes what the concept means. There is nothing in our common experience that operates the way quantum mechanics does and we struggle to find ways to convey the discovery. At this point, it is one of the most soundly confirmed scientific principles that has ever been explored. People do not miss that fact, nor do they miss the spooky sounding language that inundates the popular representations of the field. “Uncertainty Principle” sounds like physics has this place where it comes completely unhinged and where magical possibilities peak through the seams!

I don’t argue that. The spooky parts of quantum mechanics are real things. I would encourage anybody to spend time learning about them because they are flamboyantly bizarre.

The problems with quantum begin because people don’t look more carefully at the math and get stuck on the metaphors and anecdotes. The metaphor of Schrodinger’s Cat can quite easily be confused in its purpose. For anybody who doesn’t know, (and surely your numbers must be countable on one hand) the Cat metaphor is that a cat is sealed in a box with a beaker of acid connected to a radioactive sample with a Geiger counter: if the counter registers a strike from a radioactive decay event, the device tips the acid onto the cat, killing the cat. The idea here is that an event like a radioactive decay completely isolated from outside intervention (and I mean isolated _completely_ from outside intervention) will remain in a superposition of possible quantum mechanical outcomes until the box is opened to find whether the decay occurred. Since the cat’s life is intertwined with the uncertain outcome of radioactive decay, the cat is neither dead nor alive until the box is opened and the result of the experiment is determined. This thought experiment was originally postulated by Schrodinger as a way to connect a quantum event, like a radioactive decay, to a macroscopic phenomenon like the life of a cat. The science of the field still argues about the existence of so-called ‘cat states’ due to entanglement, but you have to understand the limits.

From the way that this anecdote is worded, it would appear that the physical act of a person opening a box to look inside –the conscious presence of a person performing a willful act— ties human agency to the outcome. As if the observer as a person is the deciding factor as to whether or not one quantum outcome is observed over another. Observation here is opening the eyes and thinking about the result. I think that cranks love this interpretation because it seems to hint at magical connections between the human observer and the world around them.

In reality, the original purpose of Schrodinger’s Cat was as a reductio ad absurdum to point out how we don’t understand the way fundamental physics builds up to give rise to the classical world that we see around us every day.

When Erwin Schrodinger means ‘inside a box,’ he’s talking about a situation that is absolutely and utterly isolated from the rest of the physical universe. No information in the box can leak out, heat, light or any other physical coupling, and no information from the rest of the universe can leak in. ‘Looking’ in the sense of a quantum mechanical thing is the physical act of bouncing a probe off the specimen in question. You cannot ‘see’ a thing unless information about the location or state of an object reaches your sensory apparatus. For that to happen, a physical interaction must occur between the observer and the specimen being observed. This does mean that the observer becomes entangled with the specimen in a quantum mechanical sense, but it also means that the observer can confound the state of the specimen by forming entanglement. Further, it means that entanglement may result without you knowing that it did since as much as a photon interacting with the system creates a connection between the contents of the box and everything outside… this is called decoherence, when the isolated state loses quantum mechanical coherence by becoming coupled to the surroundings. And, this comes back to my argument of scale in the post I wrote yesterday responding to what I saw in the ‘Respectful Insolence’ article since an ‘observation’ in a physical sense is not really a ‘thoughtful’ event like opening the box and peeking with your eyes, but a mere physical interaction between sensor and specimen. Such an interaction can be mediated whether a person is thinking about it or not, which completely removes consciousness as any required influence on quantum behavior. That’s why an MRI machine can work even if you don’t have a person sitting there witnessing it.

Secondarily, the idea of reducing a cat to a superposition of ‘alive’ and ‘dead’ eigenstates is massively oversimplifying. I worded the anecdote to eliminate a typical preference toward describing alive or dead as eigenstates partly because an ‘eigenstate’ is such a foreign concept from our usual realm of experience. While eigenstates are by definition the most simple, clear-cut things imaginable, ‘Alive’ and ‘Dead’ are both extremely complex statistical mechanical states of being with a surprising amount of overlap –alive and dead are not orthogonal in the manner of eigenstates. Life and Death are so complicated in the quantum mechanical sense that they are probably not calculable and you would never know if you had collapsed into any particular state in an entire spectrum that must include a rather infinite palette of maiming for our poor cat. Then, does ‘observation’ of this system still count if you can’t know how it lost coherence or if it was ever coherent to begin with? If spilling the acid is inevitable, is the cat being ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ a quantum mechanical observation, or merely a classical one? Our classical universe is quantum mechanical, after all, and quantum mechanics itself makes classical outcomes inevitable at the scale where human beings live.

The anecdote of Schrodinger’s Cat has power because it conveys behavior associated with Quantum Mechanics in such a way that an audience can understand basically what Erwin Schrodinger means without actually knowing as much math as Schrodinger needed to originate the concept. In a grain, it is the truth. Even as interpreted by people who coopt quantum legitimacy in order to prop up whatever garbage they favor, that grain of truth remains. In order to understand how far the anecdote is valid, one must look at the layer beneath the words. Within the physics, math becomes essential because it can convey scale and regularity. Words in an anecdote or metaphor contain only as much regularity as the imagination of a listener finds in them. A ‘wave equation’ can easily become ‘spirit’ or ‘entanglement’ can become ‘psychic connection.’ This is especially bad in our world because quantum mechanics has no manifestation that human beings can easily refer to in order to make certain that they understand a concept for themselves. The only way to know that such interpretations are invalid is if they are left in context of the math that produced them. Math in the hands of two different people yields a consistent result (unless you’re Lionel Milgrom) whereas a linguistic sentence interpreted by two different people can have totally different meaning. In this, a linguistic metaphor can lift a concept out of the math, but it does not pick up the entire substance conveyed by that math.

When you use Quantum metaphors bereft of math, no structure remains to control the scope of the meaning in the words. No boundary conditions hold those meanings to what they’re supposed to describe. The words may fit together however they’re being used, but the context where they occur may be completely invalid. Without the math, this is hard to know. To quote something I remember from Deepak Chopra, “In the absence of a conscious entity the moon remains a radically ambiguous and ceaselessly flowing quantum soup.” This has a cat-in-the-box spooky quantum feel to it and the meaning sort of resembles what actual quantum things do, but the context of this metaphor makes it completely dishonest, no matter the poetry or aesthetic appeal. Without the math and the context which formed the math, this metaphor doesn’t stand up. It’s just a lie. Just as homeopathy is killed by the size of Avagadro’s number, quantum mysticism is killed by the miniscule size of Planck’s constant.

It’s an inevitable result: if you leave the scale of Planck’s constant, quantum mechanics tends to become classical. That’s not a lie, it’s simply built into the way quantum-ness works, which isn’t captured by the metaphors.

As an example of this effect, here is one of the most fundamental quantum mechanical equations. This is called the DeBroglie relation:

debroglie

This simple relation lets one determine the quantum mechanical wavelength of an object given the mass and velocity of that object (the Greek letter lambda refers to wavelength in meters). If you want, you can calculate your own wavelength while you walk, which is a fun exercise. Just set ‘h’ to 6.63×10^-34, ‘m’ to your own weight in kilograms and ‘v’ to your walking speed in meters/sec and you too can find your wavelength. I bet you never believed that a person exhibits particle-wave duality! Or, maybe you did believe it, but thought I was going to be all closed-minded and disagree with you. Note, in order to actually see the wave-like behavior, the wavelength has to be roughly equal to the size scale where you observe the object. For comparison, I would urge plugging in the mass of an electron moving at your walking speed (electron mass is 9.11×10^-31 kg).

There is a quirk to this equation that needs to be explained: if you’re sitting still, where velocity approaches zero, your wavelength becomes big. The uncertainty principle is actually at the heart of this, but for an object like a person, you must always keep in mind that you are moving about at an appreciable speed (micrometers/second) no matter how macroscopically still you try to sit. No matter what, your speed will always be big enough that your wavelength will remain small. (Ask yourself how small that wavelength is and keep in mind that the size of an atom is considered to be 10^-10 meters and the size of an atomic nucleus is 10^-15 meters.)

I do understand how people manage to wedge quantum mechanics into homeopathy, or acupuncture or ayurveda. They look at the metaphors and reinterpret scope and massage what the words mean. The problem is that using such words are no longer a truth. Uncertainty Principle didn’t suddenly facilitate Reiki. I also know that practitioners of these sorts of magic will accuse me of being closed-minded and of using quantum mechanics the ‘wrong way.’ Do you know if you’re using it the ‘right way?’ In this case, there damn well is a right way! How do you know that leading ‘quantum theorists’ support whatever gobbledigook you’ve crammed into it? How do you know? Do you consider ‘leading’ to be a guy who has never actually published as a quantum physicist? If you say I can’t be ‘correct’ because I’m ‘mainstream,’ ask yourself if you would have any quantum metaphors to quote if the mainstream hadn’t ultimately invented them for you? Your only reason for touting quantum mechanics is because you think it somehow adds legitimacy to whatever you’re talking about. Are you truly sure that it does or are you only quoting platitudes you’ve heard from someone else? How in the world do you know that they’re true?

Freedom of Speech has a horrible price. There are no penalties for screwing up and being wrong except for the existential continuity of Truth itself. I’ve come to think that practically nobody in the country cares about the truth anymore, if you look at our presidential candidates. So, the internet has no error check mechanism and no real warning bell to tell you that whatever webpage you’re reading is loaded down with lies. Heck, somebody dead set on Homeopathy is going to accuse what I’ve written here as being some sort of lie. Honestly, I don’t care a whit about homeopathy; I care about people distorting a beautiful physics in order to support something that is not related to it at all. It’s about borrowing legitimacy. Since quantum can’t fight back and most people don’t know enough about it to be certain of lies, I guess people like me are the only champions to protect it. The people who lie are free to keep on lying and they sometimes believe that they are the ones curating the Truth. Are you sure you’re telling a truth? How do you know? If you are, then prove it. In this case, it had better not just be by pulling out some integrative medicine paper; you’d better actually know the physics.

Advertisements

One thought on “How Quantum Mysticism Slips Free of the Math

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s