Grade A crankery at Quantum University

It would be accurate to call me a skeptic. There’s no intention in me to use this blog to debunk the overwhelming quantity of crap floating around the internet, but sometimes, I just need to open my mouth. Such an inspiration hit me while reading Respectful Insolence. In that post, Orac is talking about a reddit thread where a woman with an entrenched antivaccine view tries to drum up support for her unyielding stance of not vaccinating her unborn child, despite the father’s desire to vaccinate. While I have done my time in microbiology and immunology courses, I am certainly not a leading expert in medicine. For a medical professional’s opinion of vaccination, you’re not about to find it here. I am unquestionably pro-vaccine, but my interest in the blog post appears about midway through. The woman is trying to bolster her bonafides by outlining her education.

I am still finishing it up but it is a bachelors in holistic health sciences from the International Quantum University of Integrative Medicine ( They are a relatively young establishment so not well known, but many of the faculty members are leading experts in quantum physics and many other areas (the school’s focus is a new perspective on medicine as based on modern quantum physics findings). It’s so fascinating whether you are interested in natural medicine or physics or both!

The word driving my interest should be clear. It’s the only word with a ‘Q’ in that entire paragraph.

You can’t just throw that word anywhere and expect it to mean what it means in its natural context. From what she has said here, I find it highly unlikely that she’s ever touched a Hamiltonian or worked a probability.

In curiosity, I went to the Quantum University website just to see what the education there entails. Is there even the vaguest possibility that the graduates learn any real quantum mechanics? I ended up centering on a blog post there titled “Quantum Physics: A New Scientific Foundation for Integrative Medicine” in some hopes that they would boil their teaching philosophy down to a bite-sized snippet. I was looking for some sign of physics provenance that might be traced to something real in their philosophy and I found the following.

A leading quantum physicist, Amit Goswami, PhD., has already laid the foundation for this in his book, The Quantum Doctor, a physicist’s guide to health and healing.

Apparently they attribute their ‘quantum physics’ to a guy named Amit Goswami. It isn’t hard to noticed that everybody on this website wears a PhD or a Doctorate behind their name and you have to wonder where these degrees came from–I don’t yet have a PhD and I am in a physics graduate program. Going for a PhD in physics was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life and it has given me real gray hair. I looked for publications by Amit Goswami on Web of Science and hoped for a list of ‘Physical Review Letters’ citations. Did I find them? Nope. But, he does have a couple citations in an Integrative Medicine journal. I’m trying to decide how this guy can be a leading quantum physicist when he has apparently never published under his name in a physics journal. Poor antivax lady, strike one for your capacity to discover the reality of anything. I am more broadly published in the primary literature than this guy and I don’t even have my PhD yet. I have no idea who Amit Goswami is beyond that, but I bet he’s making more money than me…

He is after all using quantum physics to justifying some pretty remarkable stuff:

Through the principles of quantum physics we can explain how ancient traditions of healing such as Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture, Ayurvedic Medicine, and modalities such as Homeopathy and Naturopathy, work with the body’s subtle energy systems such as ch’i, prana, and vital force energy.

The post really doesn’t say a huge amount more, but I saw absolutely no quantum mechanics. As I drifted down through the comments I eventually hit a guy making some statements that seems to be what I’m looking for.

Aiding us in our questioning, the tool of Quantum Physics provides much hope. Quantum theory holds the promise of helping us escape the ontological prison imposed by classical physics in which we objectify our observation experiences as events in a real world. In quantum theory, a single superposition state can give rise to multiple observation experiences, thereby, opening the door to confounding the classically determinate states that obtain in the world prior to and independent of our acts of observation.

Now, some of this sounds like stuff that might come out of a layman’s description of QM, but you’ve got to remember that whenever this guy says ‘observation’ he means ‘what a person sees in the world around them.’ Yes, indeed, a single state function can be a superposition of a number of eigenstates and an ‘observation’ can cause the superposition to collapse into a particular eigenstate. But, when a physicist uses the word ‘observation,’ he/she doesn’t literally mean ‘to look at with eyes.’ The world of the quantum is unfortunately divided from our world by a factor of Planck’s constant. This constant is in units of joule*seconds and has the value of 6.63×10^-34. This constant effectively puts a wall between classical reality and quantum reality so high that you can’t hope to cross it in your everyday life. Here’s why: quantization of state energies is discretized by increments of Planck’s constant, which is to say that this constant sets the energy difference between two eigenstates. That number is tiny –Homeopathy is often listed as aphysical because of a lack of comprehension of Avagadro’s number, here’s a number that’s even further out! For an object to behave in a quantum fashion, the energy of the difference between successive states in an energy spectrum must be about the same size as, or greater than, the ambient thermal energy (KbT, boltzman constant times the temperature). On the scale of human experience, the difference between two eigenstates is so tiny that you could not ever realize that there were different states, even if you witnessed a collapse. From our perspective, the discrete look continuous. This is why classical physics works at all: quantum physics reduces to classical physics when you start asking for observations on a level observable by human beings.

Consider yellow light, something we can witness in everyday life. Yellow light has a wavelength of approximately 550 nm. A back of the envelope calculation tells us that the frequency of this light is approximately 5.4×10^14 Hz. A quantum mechanical energy transition (the passage between two successive eigenstates) that produces yellow light is 3.6×10^-19 Joules. That’s the amount of energy contained in a single yellow light photon, a photon being the quantum scale package of light energy. To be quantum mechanical here, you have to be distinguishing on the scale of photons. Consider now the heat capacity of water (you are made mostly of water): it takes 4.2 joules of heat to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius in temperature. It would take 1.17×10^19 approximately yellow photons to raise one gram of water by a single degree. By physiological means alone, a human being cannot detect being hit by a single photon –can you tell the change in temperature by 1 part in 10^19th of a degree? That’s not one part per million, not one part per billion, not even one part per trillion… there are still seven zeroes to go to get to 1 in 10^19!

The back of your eye produces images from physiologic scales of yellow light interacting with cis-trans retinal in the Rhodopsin ion channels of cone cells in your retina (of which there are ~6 million). Rhodopsin is expressed en mass in these cells and they need bright light to operate, so you can figure some large number of Rhodopsin per cell, probably on the order of thousands, of which many need to fire simultaneously in order to cause the cell to transmit a signal to your brain. The color images you see are being produced by conservatively billions of interactions with light. Can you distinguish one strike? The limits of a human being work in a very obvious fashion: for something you see, perception transitions from discrete to continuous at about the frame rate of a TV, 32 frames per second, or 0.03 Hz, roughly 10^12 times slower than the frequency of yellow light and we need huge numbers of photons to build any visual images and billions and billions of photons to tell even the best we can for changes of temperature on our skin. The physiological human being is not fast enough or sensitive enough to witness ‘quantum events’ and understand them as ‘quantum.’ This is why Classical Physics is good enough to describe basically everything you encounter and observe in your day-to-day life. Ontological prison or not, we simply can’t see ‘quantum-ness’ directly.

Real physicists get around these huge gulfs of performance by conceding that a human being can’t witness a quantum thing directly. Doing experiments in quantum physics requires machines to intercede between human perception and quantum phenomena. One example is the MRI machine. To build an image by MRI, this huge machine is performing an experiment that causes the collapse of a quantum spin state ‘by observation.’ The MRI operator fires up a program in a computer that does the entire observation on the instrument whether the operator is standing there witnessing it or not. A computer is mediating the interaction. The person doing ‘the observing’ is not cognitively present for the quantum observation in question because the machine literally runs the state collapse experiment dozens to hundreds of times before spitting out a single result that the self-aware human mind begins to interact with. Everything quantum mechanical has been long since resolved when the human mind finally enters into the loop. Worse, in MRI, you basically don’t see the data about the quantum states; the computer performs a major mathematical operation in a split second to reconstruct where the signals of the quantum events are located into a tomogram that contains only the information about ‘density of signal.’ The person does not once directly interact with anything quantum… the keyboard, mouse and screen are all classically describable.

*sigh* Quantum theory is amazing. It is truly amazing. The math is neat and the results are mind bending. However, if there is no big machine between the thing being observed and the person doing the observing, what you’re talking about is probably not quantum mechanical. Empathy and emotional connection is a helpful thing in healthcare, frame of mind certainly helps to buoy distress, but none of these things is quantum mechanical in a way that human beings can directly understand, manipulate or control. Shoving the word ‘quantum’ into sympathetic magic and calling yourself a ‘quantum physicist’ insults generations of honest physicists who actually worked really hard to give us powerful medical tools like MRI, which don’t require an intimate understanding of their quantum mechanical underpinnings in order to operate. In that quote above, the speaker has stripped all the actual quantum mechanics out of the words and reduced them to a feel-good metaphor that has no more relation to quantum mechanics than a glass cuvette has to an elephant. I don’t care how well you articulate the words ‘ontological prison,’ if you can’t work a Hamiltonian or operate within the constraints of Planck’s constant, you’re not a quantum physicist and the place where you’re learning this metaphorical garbage is a diploma mill. The only ontological prison you’re interacting with is the one you set up for yourself when you started believing these comfort-food lies about quantum physics. That poor antivax woman in the reddit thread kind of deserves the bashing she received: she’s eroding the credibility of a real science.

Edit 8-10-17:

There is a disingenuous quality to my argument here which has always bothered me. I hesitate in bringing it up because I think that without really understanding the physics the argument will seem to give credence to the cranks. There is some difficulty here in defining what an observation even means in terms of quantum mechanics and what physical interaction is required for the observation to occur.

I specified “observation” in the main body of the blog to be due to interactions between the human biological sensory apparatus and light. Our organism is limited to interacting with quantum mechanical phenomena by means of light. Question comes down to what quantum thing we’re observing.

If we’re looking for quantum mechanical behavior of the material universe around us, what we’re interested in is particle/wave duality of objects with mass, like the electrons and atoms that build up into the molecules and larger continuum of matter that composes our world. We can directly observe the outcome of quantum mechanics involving our material world in the light that comes to us from pretty much any source: you take a prism made of glass or plastic (or some material which has dispersity) and hold it into a beam of broad spectrum light from basically any source and that light can be split into its constituent colors. If you examine this sort of color spectrum, you’ll notice that it contains gaps. These gaps turn out to be a direct quantum mechanical phenomenon that you can see with your own eyes, but good luck describing how these gaps got there without actually invoking what quantum mechanics really says. Notice that even here, there is a tool being used to render the quantum mechanical behavior discernible. Without the prism, you can’t see this very well. By noticing that the light from an incandescent bulb is different from sunlight which is different from fluorescent light, you are directly seeing a quantum mechanical effect, but that you are unable to decompose the observation with precision to note exactly what it is that you’re seeing. What do the differences in color mean? Fact remains that most lightbulbs can be confirmed to be turned on whether you’re looking at them or not in the non-trivial effect they have on your power bill and that consciousness is not required for them to generate light (do you have to understand why the switch on the electrical generator must be flipped in order for it to make a bulb light up? Not really: you only need to know that it does.)

A second facet of this conversation is in the light itself. Because light has no mass, particle/wave duality permits it to be very wavelike. In fact, it is so wavelike that it was not initially understood to have particle-like properties. My arguments in the main body of this blog post center around the fact that the human apparatus is almost completely incapable of distinguishing the particle-ness of photons unaided. But, you can witness the wavelike properties directly: this is the reason shadows are always fuzzy along the edge (well, spot size is finite anyway… quite a bit of the shadow fuzziness arises from the light source being a particular size and shape). This is the reason images bend through water so that swimming fish appear to be in a different spot from where they actually are when viewed through the surface of a lake. This is the reason prisms split white light into all its colors. All of that is wavelike. It does not reduce to the ocean wave picture most people have in their heads of “waves” or the tangible vibrating guitar string, but all of that is wavelike. Further, it is all completely describable by classical electromagnetism, a form of classical physics. You really don’t need quantum mechanics to describe how waves of light work. In fact, EM is computationally easier to deal with, so it’s preferred wherever necessary because the quantum is much more difficult to manage. It is really quite stunning that classical models of light behavior lend themselves very readily to quantum mechanical models and it is no accident that you need to have a fairly good understanding of EM in order to really be able to manage quantum.

One thing that quantum does for physics is that it wraps distinct behaviors into the same explanation. Wavelike behaviors seen with material objects like electrons and atoms are the same sort of wavelike behaviors seen with light because of quantum mechanics. Particle-like behaviors of light are similar to those of material objects also because of quantum mechanics. Many people become fruity talking about quantum because they don’t even know what it’s intended to describe. Ayurveda? Prana Energy? How in the hell are these things even relevant to the discussion? People fixate on the indecisive language that is intrinsic to quantum mechanics –“Uncertainty,” “Wavelike,” “indeterminacy”– and they assume that this means there’s an open gap of nonspecific meaning where garbage can be crammed. If you note the “Ontological prison” quote I included above, this is exactly what the original author is intending with his comment; “because quantum supercedes classical physics and because quantum uses wiggedy language, I can use quantum to validate whatever I feel like validating despite the fact that classical physics would seem to claim that such things are impossible.”

I could go on like this all day, but it really doesn’t illuminate the conversation.


NMR and Spin flipping

That first post I wrote, it sounds like I’m going to try to teach the world. Probably that won’t work. As I’m still looking for a place to dump my thoughts on this, I decided to moderate my ambition. This is all just a record of where I am.

One of my recent focuses has been working through problems in Chapter 3 of Sakurai. That’s the angular momentum chapter. I’ve done 18 problems there since December. They are less impressive than I remember; much easier in most cases.

A related system that I’ve come back to thinking about in the last couple days is Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Way back before I started my physics degree, I struggled desperately to learn NMR as a biochemist. I thought it an incredibly cool technique and I still think so. The one big thing that has changed since then is that I’ve learned a lot about quantum mechanics. My first great brush with NMR was with classical expressions of bulk magnetization and I’ve been trying in the last few days to reconcile my current physicist’s intuition with those ghetto understandings from my previous life.

NMR has everything to do with angular momentum and rotation. It depends entirely on nuclear spin. Spin is a pure quantum mechanical concept that never quite fits into classical frameworks which can be approximately understood as ‘spinning’ like what a child’s top does. But, it isn’t quite like that because trying to describe spin as ‘spinning’ tends break reality a little. In a way, you can regard the ‘spinning’ of a half integer spin atomic nucleus as a circulation of charge in a loop, giving you a tiny magnetic dipole that wants to turn much like a compass needle when it is immersed in a magnetic field.

So, that’s what NMR does: you supply a powerful external magnetic field and the tiny atomic compass needles tend to orient along that field.

That would be the simplest way to regard it. If you learn more about quantum, you realize that it isn’t quite like that. A half integer spin like a hydrogen nucleus exists in a superposition of two states of spin angular momentum. That’s like saying that it can only be described as having one of two orientations and that any orientation that it takes is actually some mixture of those two where if anything happens to the nucleus, you can only ever see one orientation or the other. It’s a compass needle that can only ever be found to point either with or against the magnetic field.

This would be all well and good except that you can’t just sit down and look at the needle the way you can with a magnetic compass. When these things are less than half and angstrom in size, you have basically no way of ever directly knowing which way they point at any given time under any circumstance.

How does an NMR machine find which way these atomic needles are pointing? That is basically all you do in NMR: read out atomic compass needles.

Under normal conditions, the state of a sample sitting in an NMR machine is basically a thermal bath. All the atoms that can respond to the field do and they point either along the field or against it. Under these circumstances, the orientation pointing with the field is a low energy orientation, but every so often an atom absorbs energy and flips its spin to point against the field. It can then lose that energy again and flip to point back along the field. This happens continuously in the sample and the difference between the number of spins pointing with the field and against it describes the magnetization of the sample. If you were to take this sample out of the NMR machine instantaneously, you would find that it briefly has a magnetic field of its own much like a bar magnet. This magnetization would not last very long because, without the huge magnetic field of the NMR machine, the ‘with’ and ‘against’ populations would rapidly equalize in number and the magnetization would disappear. Conversely, if the NMR magnet is more powerful, fewer atoms can get the energy to flip against that field, making the difference between the ‘with’ and ‘against’ populations numerically larger, increasing the strength of the magnetization.

Now, how does a spin flip? It turns out that this is really important because this is how an NMR machine can communicate with an atomic compass needle to find out which way it’s pointing.

The only way that information goes into or leaves this system is by interactions with light. When a photon, a single corpuscle of light, impinges upon an atom, that photon can be absorbed to give the atom its energy. For NMR, this is important because absorbing a photon as large as the difference in energy between the two spin orientations can cause the atom to flip from one orientation to the other. This occurs from the lower energy state to the higher (from point along the field to pointing against it). The atom pointing against the field can then choose to radiate another photon of the same energy in order to return to pointing along the field. The NMR machine is designed to detect these photons that radiate out when the spin flips back along the field.

If that weren’t enough, the fact is that one atom flipping its spin is one photon and detecting one photon (particularly of the very low energy associated with spin flipping) can sometimes be pretty difficult. NMR machines are therefore built to massively enrich the signal. They hit all the present atoms with a large radio frequency pulse that causes everything to flip states all at once, which literally scrambles up the magnetization. Once the machine turns off the radio frequency pulse, the population is no longer in a thermal equilibrium and it has to give up the absorbed energy in order to return to that thermal state pointing along the magnetic field. So, the NMR machine looks for the massive pulse of energy that the sample gives up as it relaxes back to a more normal state.

The resulting signal that comes out of the sample is a radio wave broadcast called a free induction decay and is sometimes likened to the ringing of struck bell. The envelope of the signal looks like a sine wave decaying away.


This signal is where NMR got its name. It describes the driving of a magnetic system by an energy input at the resonant frequency of the system… hence, nuclear magnetic resonance. You strike the bell at its resonant frequency and then it sits there and rings.

Edit 3-7-17:

I was sitting and thinking about this post and decided that I could add a small extension which helps detail some of the quantum mechanics that are going on. I said that a radio frequency burst ‘scrambles up the magnetization’ when I described the excitation that leads to the free induction decay. It is actually somewhat more sophisticated than simply ‘scrambling up.’ It turns out that the RF pulse is applied at a particular polarization with respect to the static magnetic field of the system. And, in classical terms, since the light in the RF pulse contains a magnetic field component, the direction of that field is additive with the static field to give a ‘torque’ on the magnetic dipoles of the half-integer spin atoms present in the NMR bomb. This is quantum mechanically an experiment where you have ‘prepared a state.’ If you consider the static field to be the z-axis of the system, the RF pulse essentially creates a new mixture of spins pointing along the x-axis of the system, perpendicular to the direction of the static field.

This x-axis mixture of states is prepared at a particular point in time by the RF pulse to a quantum mechanical eigenstate that is one of the two states in a temporary system not pointed along the z-axis static field. Those states are effectively a population of closed boxes, out of interaction temporarily with the rest of the universe after the RF field is turned off. When the RF pulse is turned off, the entire population of atomic spins is sitting in a prepared state with respect to the static field, in which they can only ever be found to point either with or against the z-axis. This prepared state is some coherent mixture of the z-axis ‘with’ and ‘against’ eigenstates which can evolve over time per the time dependent Schrodinger equation until they interact with the rest of the universe again, either by emitting or absorbing a photon and dropping into a z-axis eigenstate.

The free induction decay shows an exponential envelop because of the constant probability for a spin flip occurring among atoms present in the prepared state. The spin flip has a particular probability of occurring that does not vary over time during the observation, but the chances of seeing that flip occur are proportional to the number of atoms that are in the state: as the atoms flip into eigenstates of the static field, the number of atoms remaining in the prepared state decreases. As an example, if you have a certainty of seeing one spin flip every six seconds for the prepared state, a population of three atoms in that state means that you have a certainty of seeing a spin flip once every two seconds until one of the atoms has flipped, reducing the probability to once every three seconds until the next has flipped, reducing the probability for the final flip to occur once every six seconds. For a big population, you reach essentially a gaussian behavior for the event, which gives a smooth exponential decay curve for the decrease of events happening over time. This is what the exponential envelop shows: that the chances of the event occurring is decreasing simply because the numerical density of the prepared state atoms is decreasing exponentially.

The free induction decay also shows a sinusoidal envelop on top of the exponent because of the quantum mechanical evolution of the prepared state population. The wave function is a coherent mixture of the two eigenstates of the z-axis system where the antenna of the experiment has greatest probability of detecting flips from only the highest energy of those two states, since the lower energy of the two is under no pressure to flip (the higher energy being the ‘against’ state to within the phase constant). So, you see the flipping probability modulated by the period of the evolution of the closed box state, which is bobbing between the high energy ‘against’ state and the lower energy ‘with’ state… which happens to be the Larmor frequency of the static field. You can think of it this way: only the ‘against’ state can emit a photon in a spin flip… the ‘with’ state can only absorb a photon to reach the ‘against’ state, which can’t happen if no photons are being injected, even though the flip is presumably equal probability. As the wave function of the coherent state evolves in time to reach the ‘against’ eigenstate, you have a greater chance of seeing photons emitted, which is what the NMR experiment is sensitive to detect. The result is that the exponentially decreasing possibility of seeing atoms flipping to eigenstates of the static field are modulated by the sinusoidal occupancy of atoms in the constituent eigenstates of the prepared state wave function.

Kinda wicked, huh? The shape of the free induction decay literally tells you all the quantum mechanics of the system!