In the movie Duck Soup (1933), Chico and Harpo are spies. As they confer with the ambassador of Sylvania about spying on Groucho, the prime minister of Freedonia, a secretary rushes in with an important telegram. Before she can hand it to the ambassador, Harpo grabs it from her. He looks at it, starts frowning, and then tears it up, throwing the pieces into the trash can. Chico turns to the ambassador and explains, “He gets mad because he can’t read.” That is exactly how I feel about quantum mechanics.
Seeing is believing, but there is very little of that in the world of the quantum. When I was in high school, the physics teacher evacuated a bell jar with an alarm clock in it, and we could hear the sound fade as the air was removed. I never doubted that there is no sound in a vacuum, but seeing it demonstrated had a powerful effect compared to which merely reading about waves of molecules simply lacked. Neither did I doubt that all objects fall at the same speed in a vacuum, but when I saw the feather drop like the lead weight right beside it in that same bell jar, I gasped. As for angular momentum, it was just a concept that I accepted, and regarding which I could perform calculations, but it was only when I tried to turn a gyroscope at right angles to the plane of rotation, and felt it push back against me, that this concept became truly real for me.
Some experiments I have never seen, but reading about them is a reasonable substitute. I have never seen a double-slit experiment, but I can imagine myself seeing it, and that is almost as good. A lot of experiments, however, are persuasive only if one already knows, or at least accepts, a great deal of physics. A physicist can look at a cloud-chamber photograph and say, “There goes an electron,” but to me it is just a line on a piece of paper. I am willing to take his word for it, but now there is an intermediary between me and the phenomenon. For the physicist, the photograph is evidence of the existence of electrons. For me, it is the photograph as interpreted by the physicist that constitutes evidence. It is the beginning of my estrangement. No longer is the observation enough. Somebody has to tell me what it means.
The Aspect experiment proves that the universe is non-local. At least, that’s what they tell me. I have never seen the experiment carried out, but even if I had been in the room at the time, it would not have made much difference. Where the physicists would be “observing” things like entanglement and polarization, I would be seeing a bunch of people attending to an apparatus, making calculations, and talking about Bell’s inequality. At this point, I am not merely estranged from the evidence. I am totally alienated.
Finally, there are the thought experiments, which have the drawback of not actually being carried out, but have the advantage of imagining observations that I can understand without an interpreter. The most famous thought experiment is the twin paradox of relativity theory. I can easily imagine waving my twin brother goodbye as he gets on a spaceship when we are young. Then, when I am seventy, he comes back and is not much older than when he left. That is pretty straightforward.
The most well-known thought experiment for quantum mechanics is Schrödinger’s cat, of course. But in this case, the observation is worthless, even though I would understand what I was seeing. I would see the cat being put in the box, containing an apparatus that might result in his death. Time would pass. I would look in the box and see the cat, alive or dead. So what? I am told that while the box was closed, the cat would be both alive and dead, or neither alive nor dead, depending on which law of logic you prefer to violate. In other words, I would get to see everything except the one thing that I would need to see to believe it. The theory makes claims about unobserved reality, which by its very nature cannot be observed.
Sometimes people point to technology as proof of a theory, but we have to be cautious. When James Watt was developing his steam engine in the eighteenth century, the theory of caloric probably entered into his reasoning. And if someone in the nineteenth century had doubted the luminiferous ether, he would very likely have been referred to the wireless telegraph as proof. But even so, the wireless telegraph must have been pretty impressive when it was first invented, and so I am naturally curious about any technology that is supposedly dependent on quantum mechanics, since it might just provide me with something that satisfies my desire to see things for myself. I have read about quantum tunneling and quantum computing, but to my untrained mind, it just sounds like some computers work better when they are really cold. You might just as well point to an eggbeater and tell me it works through the superposition of virtual particles.
There being no observation, real or imagined, that I find compelling, I am reduced to reading about quantum theory in books, and taking the word of physicists. Unfortunately, they talk about a lot of weird things that I find hard to believe, such as multi-verses and observer-created reality. Some of them even speculate about time travel, when they are not denying the existence of time altogether. Books I can put back on the shelf, but if the subject of quantum physics comes up in a conversation, I find myself in a box. I don’t want to agree with what is being said, but if I call any of it into question, I end up sounding like a science-denying ignoramus.
And this is where I get to the part about this theory that I deplore: the way it can turn an ordinary conversation into a New Age free-for-all. I have always noticed that there is a pent up fascination for a lot of strange stuff that people ordinarily keep to themselves. They might carry on a discussion on a variety of topics, with a modicum of sanity and common sense. But if one person so much as mentions something the least bit odd, such as mental telepathy, immediately there will burst forth a whole raft of loosely connected subjects, not just other types of ESP, like clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis, but also Tarot cards, astrology, the lost city of Atlantis, and ancient astronauts.
A good example of this sort of thing is the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), in which Steven Spielberg lumps together parapsychology, the pilots from Flight 19 who went missing in the 1940s, UFOs, Eastern religion, and a ship in the desert. He even manages to work in the parting of the Red Sea, not by connecting it logically with anything else, but simply through the association of ideas: we see The Ten Commandments (1956) on television while Richard Dreyfuss compulsively constructs a model of Devil’s Tower. The subliminal message is that it was not God, but ancient astronauts that helped the Hebrews escape. As an ominous precursor of how all this will be connected to modern physics, when the space-aliens produce the still young pilots, someone says, “It looks like Einstein was right.” In response, someone suggests that Einstein was actually one of the space-aliens. In other words, being highly intelligent would not have been sufficient for a mere human to come up with relativity theory. Einstein had to be a mystical space-alien with ESP.
As with Einstein and his theory of relativity, quantum physics also has the potential of unleashing paranormal fascination, as may be found in What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004). I thought the movie might be worth a look, since the title seemed to represent my sentiments exactly. It is part documentary, part narrative, in which the protagonist is a female photographer who is deaf. I immediately became suspicious, since such things are only put into movies for a purpose. Her being a photographer is supposed to be a criticism of people like me, who need to see in order to believe. Such people are compared to those natives who supposedly could not see the Spanish ships coming to the New World because they did not understand what ships are. As for her being deaf, the idea is that though she cannot hear, yet by understanding quantum physics, she will perceive more deeply into reality than will the ordinary person possessed of all five senses. She is also divorced and taking anti-depressants, so we are to assume that her life is a mess, especially since she seems to be irritable, frustrated, and unhappy.
But it is quantum mechanics to the rescue. Not only will her understanding of this theory help turn her life around, allowing her to get off her meds, but it will improve her basketball game as well. Not that she plays basketball, of course, but the idea is that her understanding of quantum physics will allow her to control physical reality in a way that surpasses those of us who are limited to ordinary methods. So, she needs to go back to college and major in physics, right? Wrong. Just the most superficial acquaintance with the theory will suffice for her to commune with the cosmos, conveniently provided by the running commentary of the movie itself.
I should have lived in the nineteenth century, when a man could breathe the clean air of hard science. Back then, physics took no prisoners. It declared, without apology, that we live in a materialistic, mechanistic, deterministic universe, which was deliciously meaningless, and doomed to end in a cosmic heat death. There were, of course, people who believed in the occult, theosophy, mysticism, and the like. But they believed in such things in spite of science, not because of it. They knew their place, and pretty much kept out of the way.
But now there is no living with them. Armed with what they believe to be the blessings of modern physics, they will take a conversation right through the looking glass at its first mention. And like Harpo, all I can do is sit there in silence.