Midweek Cuckoo: Quantum Quackery
Quantum Mysticism is everywhere these days. It all started with Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, was made a lot worse by Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu-Li Masters and Deepak Chopra’s Quantum Healing, and has recently reached a cacophonic crescendo with What the Bleep Do We Know? But does quantum mechanics actually provide any proof of psychic healers, homeopathy or eastern mysticism?
The answer is a resounding NO. But how is it possible that all these people could be so very far off course?
Historically, all this quantum flapdoodle began with Niels Bohr’s interpretation of quantum mechanics, the famous Copenhagen Interpretation, and Erwin Schrodinger’s response to it, the even more famous Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment. Most people interpret these to mean that all reality is interconnected, including the human mind, and that the conscious observer is able to affect reality by will alone. Some take it even further and take it to mean that we actually create reality with our thoughts.
There are of course serious problems with this extrapolation. The biggest issue of all is that the Copenhagen interpretation is almost universally misquoted by non-physicists to mean that the presence or actions of a conscious observer are what is required to collapse the waveform. This is rubbish. What is specified in the interpretation is that the act of measurement collapses the waveform. The reason for this is simple and obvious – when we measure something in a laboratory, we have to interact with it. There is no way to measure something without it coming into contact with another particle. In doing so, the system is altered. There is nothing mystical about this. Perhaps the reason people don’t intuitively understand why measurement at a particle level has such an effect is because in the world we are used to, measuring something doesn’t change it. When the cop on the side of the road measures your car’s speed with a radar gun, the speed of your car is not noticeably affected by the few electromagnetic waves that bounce off it and back to the gun. But on the quantum mechanical scale, the equivalent measurement would involve smashing another car into your car, seeing where the two cars end up, and using that to calculate your car’s speed before the smash.
Secondly, the Copenhagen Interpretation is only one of the many interpretations of quantum mechanics, and was offered up 80 years ago. Quantum Quacks tend to ignore all other interpretations and advances in the thinking of quantum theory since then. This is of course a common thread in mysticism, which for some reason claims that ancient knowledge is better than any knowledge that came after it. Why they aren’t all driving around in horse-drawn carriages and dying of small pox is a mystery to me.
Thirdly, the Copenhagen Interpretation is useful only in a very specific set of circumstances, namely where a reproducible phenomenon is studied under laboratory conditions and in which the system is closed. This is something that is often done in physics – an interpretation or theory is put forward to explain phenomena in one domain, not because it is necessarily true for all domains but because it is useful in solving problems set in that specific domain. It is not generally useful in circumstances beyond those which it was designed to explain. Such a theory is referred to as ‘special’, such as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which only applies to inertial frames of reference. You can’t use that theory to explain accelerating systems, any more than you can use the Copenhagen interpretation to explain the macroscopic world.
And then we have the issue of Schrodinger’s Cat. This needs a little history: firstly, Einstein never liked quantum mechanics, mostly because he didn’t like the idea that the universe was at its basest level probabilistic (‘God does not play dice’). As such, he put forward a thought experiment, known as the EPR paradox, to show that quantum mechanics, as described by the Copenhagen Interpretation, was not a complete physical theory. Schrodinger’s Cat was part of a response that Schrodinger penned to the EPR paradox, in support of it. The whole point of Schrodinger’s Cat was to lampoon the Copenhagen interpretation. It was intentionally farcicial, and was not intended to state that the cat is actually both dead and alive at the same time, nor that by opening the box the observer somehow affected the state of the cat, but rather that both positions are nonsensical in classical terms. Of course, advances have been made in quantum mechanics since then. It’s now understood that the EPR paradox only violates classical assumptions of how the universe works, and does not violate quantum mechanics at all. Yet this has been ignored by the general populace, who continue to use a satirical representation of the Copenhagen Interpretation as if it is truth.
What it all comes down to is that human beings are not naturally equipped to ‘get’ quantum mechanics. Our brains have evolved to handle a very small range of phenomena, which occur at a small range of speeds, in a small range of distances, in a small range of durations. These, we ‘get’, because getting them makes us better hunters, better gatherers, better survivors. There is absolutely no need for the human being to evolve an intuitive understanding of what it’s like to travel at the speed of light, or what a billion years feels like, or exactly how far a nanometer is. But physics is not limited by the bounds of everyday experience, and can measure all these things. So how does the scientist cross the boundary between what he can intuitively understand, and what he knows to be true? He makes analogies, interpretations, and hand waving arguments. These are only there to help him ‘get’ it. In the end, how you interpret the mathematics does not change the results. What it does seem to change, though, is how badly the public is going to misuse your interpretation to its own ends.
Get this straight, ladies and gentlemen: the world of the quantum is different to the macroscopic classical world that we experience with brains. At the quantum level, things aren’t deterministic, they don’t behave the way we expect them to, and in that sense it is weird. But when you add all the weird quantum effects together in going from one particle to systems of billions of particles, the interference terms tend to cancel each other out, and what you get is a simple set of probabilities that are no stranger than which horse is going to win at the racetrack today, or who is going to win the lotto, or who is going to get struck by lightning. The weirdness all gets smeared out and fuzzed out and goes away at the macroscopic level, because at this level no particle is an island. At the end of the day, it is the very fact that everything is connected, that no system is a closed system, that completely invalidates the use of quantum mechanics to explain everyday phenomena. The ‘everything is connected by a quantum field’ idea actually discounts quantum mysticism instead of supporting it, because it is the very interconnectedness of things that means you can’t use quantum mechanics to explain the world we experience with our limited, fleshy, human brains.
But none of this stops quantum quacks from continuing to misunderstand quantum mechanics, and continuing to make things up as they go along. The only thing that saves them is that their audience is as willfully ignorant as they are.