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August 19, 2011

Quantum Nonsense

Alright, I am back from my summer hiatus. Sorry for the lull. I was poking around trying to figure out what I wanted to write about when it struck me. I think no field of science is used more often to justify nonsense than quantum mechanics. For me, this leads to some interesting questions.

Before I get into the science, I think I need to make a disclaimer. I am not (yet) a physicist. The information I am going to provide below is what I have gathered from the science I read, discussed with actual physicists, and heard summarized. Quantum mechanics is arguably one of the most difficult disciplines of science to understand because it is so counter-intuitive. With that said, the information I provide below is not the nitty gritty of quantum, but the more fundamental concepts. This is all that is really necessary to understand the flaws in most of the unscientific arguments that use quantum mechanics. Now on to the meat.

What is quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics at its most basic level is the study of the smallest particles and energies in the universe. A "quanta" is actually a measure of the smallest amount of energy possible for a particle to have. Quantum mechanics at its heart is a mathematical description of how the various subatomic particles behave and interact with each other. The thing that really sets quantum physics apart from classical or Newtonian physics is the uncertainty.

If you shoot one pool ball at another, you can predict with a extraordinarily high level of certainty (assuming you know the relevant facts) what will happen when they collide. You can figure out what direction the balls will go, with what speed and where they will come to rest. When you are looking at a quantum system that is not necessarily the case. Instead, in a quantum system you can give probabilistic answers of where a certain particle will be or with what speed.

What effects has quantum mechanics proven? 

The implications of quantum mechanics are one of the most interesting, and probably most misunderstood aspect of this burgeoning science. The important thing to remember is that quantum mechanics deals with the subatomic, so except for in very rare cases, these effects do not apply to the macroscopic world we operate in. With that said, here are some highlights.

It was well known long before anyone was considering quantum mechanics that if you excite a gas, by say running electricity through it, it will give off light at very specific colors or wavelengths. Astronomers use this to tell was very distant objects are composed of. What quantum mechanics gave us was an understanding to this phenomena. At the most basic level, what's happening is that as electrons in the atom lose energy they give off that energy as a photon. Because electrons can only lose energy in discrete amounts any particular atom can only give off photons that have that much energy. The amount of energy each photon has corresponds to what wavelength it has.

Entanglement is probably the most bizarre and least well understood effect of quantum mechanics. When two particles are created from a process they can be paired. What this means is that now matter how far you remove the particles from one another they will be in some ways linked. For example if you split one photon into two, one of the photons will be polarized vertically and the other horizontally. This is a really strange effect that we are still working to fully understand.

When quantum goes bad

It seems for every cool discovery made in quantum mechanics, there are ten cranks misusing it. If you google "quantum healing" you get just over a million results and "quantum jumping" has over five million. While each company puts its own spin on the theme I have found most of the misuses of this science fall into one of a few categories.

Micro VS. Macro
Quantum mechanical effects do not (except in extreme cases) apply to the macroscopic world. If this wasn't the case, billiards would be a game of chance and we there is no way we could launch a spacecraft with enough precision to get to a planet that is millions or billions of miles away. The reason for this is that all of the uncertainties that exist on the quantum level essentially cancel each other out on the macroscopic level where we live.

Information Communication
Many psychics or remote viewing claimants will invoke quantum mechanics as a way they gather information either from somewhere or somewhen else. While at first glance, quantum entanglement can seem to provide a justification for this, however the illusion quickly fades when you look at it. The problem is that entanglement cannot be used to transmit information. At most, if you have some entangled particles you can gleam some information on the state of the paired particles, nothing more and nothing less.

Quantum Unknowns
The last way that is used by all kinds of pseudoscience is just to say that some effect is due to quantum mechanics with no justification. This argument often goes "quantum mechanics proves there is still much we don't understand, therefore X". This reasoning amounts to nothing more than an argument from ignorance. Any good scientist will tell you there are things we don't understand- that's how they keep their jobs. If you want to say any phenomena exists you have to the evidence for it, not the lack of understanding somewhere else.


Quantum mechanics is really cool science. The new discoveries coming out of it are amazing. I am excited to be able to watch this field grow over my lifetime. This is weird stuff and if you feel like you don't understand it, join the club. The idea that there exists something so counter intuitive that we can't even conceptualize it, is incredible. Still, this does not mean we can use it to justify magic or pseudoscience. As weird as it may be, quantum mechanics belongs squarely in the court of science. What quantum does prove is that science is an exciting and every changing endeavor that is willing to accept even the most bizarre ideas. Just make sure you have the evidence.