Home > A-to-Z Challenge, Critical Thinking, Geek, Science > A-to-Z Challenge Day Seventeen: Quarks, and Quasars, and other Quantum Nonsense

A-to-Z Challenge Day Seventeen: Quarks, and Quasars, and other Quantum Nonsense

I think it was Deepak Chopra who first discovered that you could make any kind of outrageous claim you wanted to as long as you put the word “quantum” in front of the words “mechanics” or “science.” For instance, “According to quantum mechanics, the quantum superposition of the wave function is such that all things exist in every possible way that they can exist simultaneously until you observe it, then the wave function collapses.”

See? A pile of nonsense. I think.

So what’s the deal with quantum mechanics, anyway? It’s a complex field of study that seems like it’s mostly math and focuses on things that are infinitesimally small. And, shocker, it also happens to be probably the most rigorously evidence field of science we’ve got right now. Even more so than the other great scientific theory, evolution (tons and tons of evidence if you know where to look–why not start out and get Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection from Project Gutenberg?).

I think that reason that quantum mechanics finds itself so easily manipulated to support pseudo-scientific woo like quantum energy fields that do…um…something? I don’t know,  there’s some stuff out there about spiritual energy fields thanks to quantum this or that. I lose interest and zone out when I figure out it’s bunk. Oh, anyway, the reason I think that it’s so easily manipulated is because there are people who want to prey on the naivete and scientific illiteracy of others to make millions of dollars selling junk that doesn’t work with a pretty label.

Well, this isn’t working. I keep getting sidetracked by the some incredulity that’s seeping to the surface. Let’s talk for a bit about Erwin Schrodinger.

Now this is a guy I could play extreme chess with.

Well, there’s also a ton of other scientists who really led to the breakthroughs that spawned QM, like Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, and Werner Heisenberg.

The father of quantum mechanics.

Anyway, Schrodinger came up with a famous thought experiment called Schrodinger’s cat (this was before the days of the animal rights movement). It presents a paradox in the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics in which a cat is placed in a box with a bottle of poison and a radioactive element. If a sensor detects the decay of an atom, the bottle of poison is broken and the cat dies (poor cat!). Well, the idea is that after a while because of quantum superposition the cat exists simultaneously as both alive and dead. This occurs until the box is opened and the cat observed, at which time the superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or another, i.e., the cat is either dead, alive, or somehow napping on your laptop keyboard.

And what’s with cats, anyway? I mean, they think they’re so great and in charge. Well, quantum mechanics makes fools of us all, I guess.

I keep digressing. The purpose of talking about Schrodinger’s cat is to illustrate just how much quantum mechanics goes against our intuitions and how little “common sense” can help us understand it.

After all, how can a cat be both alive and dead? Well, that’s where the charlatans step in. It’s because of quantum energy fields and flux and all kinds of other spiritual things that connect all life and stuff. Think positively and buy my product and the quarks and quips and other kinds of subatomic particles and imaginary things that begin with the letter “q” will heal anything!  Feeling tired? Buy this quantum field harmonizer kit that jiggles the quarks in the free air around you, stimulating a reaction at the cellular level, down to the quantum level, in your brain, revitalizing you and giving you an extra pep in your step with a minimum exposure to rads.

Quit quaking and quickly quaff the quantum quencher! A miracle drink that synergizes your mind with your body, helping you to produce better healing effects.

Gah. I can’t keep up this bloody joke any longer because it starts to cross the line from satire to a mirror-image of some actual quantum nonsense.

I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade here, but none of this stuff means a damn thing. Anything that has the word “quantum” in the title or description besides extremely complex theories with equations like this one:

Yeah. Look at that. Fun stuff.

probably isn’t real science. It’s probably just pseudo-science masquerading as science.

So, in essence, what this post is really about is learning how to check your sources, and really it’s an advertisement for skepticism. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are a number of great resources to get real, knowledgeable opinions on a lot of information floating around on the web, like one of my favorites, Science-Based Medicine.

Oh, and the quasar bit was really just because I love astronomy. Thanks, NASA.

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  1. April 20, 2014 at 11:24 AM

    The trouble is us skeptics thrive on this impenetrable stuff and end up throwing the lot out of the window. This is especially tempting when scientists also speculate and the rock solid foundations seem to shake when anything goes. Add to this the fact that the world seems to be teetering on the brink of serious problems partly at least created by scientists who won’t admit any responsibility and seem to have their egg-heads in a phantasy world.

    • April 20, 2014 at 5:48 PM

      I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying. What is it that is thrown out the window, and what foundations seem to shake when “anything goes?”

      What serious problems are we talking about, and which of these “egg-heads” as you call them aren’t admitting responsibility?

      Elaboration would be appreciated.

  2. April 21, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    My aplologies Josh I’m always trying to short cut. It is partly the fault of scientists that us laymen are skeptics as nothing seems to be rock solid and there is constant speculation among experts. Was it not science that started the industrial revolution ? and that caused the dangerous situation we now have in climate change. Perhaps the worst invention ever made was the internal combustion engine.
    Egg-heads seem to want to spend vast sums on chasing nothing is this ethically sound in the modern needy world ?

    • April 21, 2014 at 8:45 PM

      “It is partly the fault of scientists that us laymen are skeptics as nothing seems to be rock solid and there is constant speculation among experts.”

      I still don’t quite see what you’re getting at here. I don’t know why skepticism amongst laypeople is anyone’s fault, or why it is problematic that things don’t seem to be rock solid. I don’t see speculation amongst experts as a bad thing–as long as they’re clear it is speculation. For instance, explanations about what preceded Planck Time are endlessly fascinating, but we cannot know what actually occurred prior to that point with our current science.

      I mean, science has become probabilistic for a lot of reasons, and I am not troubled by that. Falsifiability, induction, and the ability to incorporate new data are integral to science. It’s not “rock solid” because it’s always changing. That’s a strength, I think.

      “Was it not science that started the industrial revolution ? and that caused the dangerous situation we now have in climate change.”

      I would say that it was a convergence of several factors that started the industrial revolution. Saying it was the fault of science ignores the economic and social aspects of the revolution, and the consequences of such.

      Climate change is an interesting thing to bring up because it shows how science has the capacity to recognize problems and try to work out solutions. The problem is that there are entrenched interests that will find ways to stop that. Cosmos pointed this out last night with Clair Patterson and his fight against the chemical and oil industries and leaded gasoline.

      So it isn’t just “science” that’s to blame for any of this.

      “Perhaps the worst invention ever made was the internal combustion engine.”

      I feel that this is awfully short-sighted. Perhaps it is the fuel, and not the engine, that is to blame. Maybe it’s the people who have resources dedicated to ensuring we stick to one type of fuel, ignoring other possibilities, that could be part of the problem. Why, for instance, don’t we have more battery and electric cars if that technology is now possible?

      “Egg-heads seem to want to spend vast sums on chasing nothing is this ethically sound in the modern needy world ?”

      Which egg-heads, and what vast sums on what?

  3. April 23, 2014 at 5:48 AM

    Thanks for replying. Ultimately science is run by people who are fallible and short sighted like the rest of us. With hindsight ( I’m good at that ) we can see science attempting to clean up the mess that its advances has caused. Scientists have always had enquiring minds and given little or no thought to consequences of their inventions. Much technical advance has been used by the unscrupulous for weaponry and still blights the world. The proposed new Hadron Collider will cost billions isn’t it time we viewed the world more ethically and spent these sums on the relief of human suffering ? If only we were more short-sighted and viewed the world as it is, not as we want it to be.

    • April 23, 2014 at 9:34 PM

      “Ultimately science is run by people who are fallible and short sighted like the rest of us. With hindsight ( I’m good at that ) we can see science attempting to clean up the mess that its advances has caused.”

      See, I can agree with the first part of this. It’s why methodologies like the scientific method and logic are designed to weed out bias and error. Of course, the scientific method and logic only work as far as our collective knowledge so we might invent something that we later discover has negative impacts. It seems to me this will just be a natural part of learning about the universe.

      The second sentence gives me pause. We’re sort of painting with a broad brush when we talk about the “mess” that it has caused, in part because not all science is equal. What kind of “mess” does evolutionary biology cause? From this theory we get modern antibiotics, vaccines, and so on. Sure, there has been some issues with antibiotics with people abusing them, but they’ve been a net good for humanity. But we know through history that not all of the advances and discoveries caused damage or harm on their own–in and of themselves. Even so, the fact that certain scientific discoveries has caused harm is not an argument against science. It might be an argument for caution in science with some tweaking, and in that I would give some small measure of agreement.

      “Scientists have always had enquiring minds and given little or no thought to consequences of their inventions.”

      How can you possibly know this? Why would J. Robert Oppenheimer say the following if that were true?

      Of course scientists have! Why do you think there are people who study ethics in science? Why do you think there are committees that debate about the ethics of releasing certain information?

      “Much technical advance has been used by the unscrupulous for weaponry and still blights the world.”

      I’m sure this is a better argument against the development of horrible arms during war than it is about scientists or science.

      “The proposed new Hadron Collider will cost billions isn’t it time we viewed the world more ethically and spent these sums on the relief of human suffering ?”

      The new, larger Hadron Collider is still only a proposal. From what I’ve gleaned, the current LHC will be going out of service around 2040. The proposal will probably seek to build one in the years leading up to that, so it’s still a ways away. One of the physicists wants to have it come online in the late 2030s.

      But this completely ignores the utility of the LHC. It’s not only a collective scientific enterprise that furthers the knowledge of humanity (WE DISCOVERED THE HIGGS BOSON, MAN!) but it spurs more and better technological development. We can come to understand the universe more, and thus, ourselves. Hell, they’re even talking about medical applications from the discoveries made by the LHC. That’s one way that this helps us address human suffering.

      And let’s not forget that people were overstating the possible dangers of the LHC. It would create micro-black holes! But it didn’t. Not even close. And most reputable physicists pretty much said it wouldn’t.

      But $20 billion is a pretty paltry sum to spend in the name of science, especially when it’s a multi-national venture. I’m pretty sure we can find other places where there’s $20 billion being misappropriated or misused that could go a long way toward alleviating human suffering.

      So, I suppose my question is why do you think cutting science budgets and grants would do anything to really alleviate human suffering? I mean, we can see the long-term effects of cutting medical science research budgets in the US, with a lot of different veins of research being pushed back by decades because of the cuts. We’re talking cancer research, viral research, and so on.

      “If only we were more short-sighted and viewed the world as it is, not as we want it to be.”

      I don’t get what you mean by this. Science does view the world as it is–it seeks to understand the natural world. Modern medicine is a testament to that. The fact that you and I, complete strangers, can communicate on these funky plastic machines that transmit electrons is testament to that.

  4. April 24, 2014 at 5:31 AM

    We have to view science budgets in the same light as others and I’m sure you would agree that limited funds must go where they produce the most effect. Sometimes this seems difficult since it may cut off the richer nations to benefit the poorer ones. You are right vast sums are misappropriated by the elite and they have a firm grip on the world economy. The same elite would use the benefits of science for themselves and would enlist scientists and politicians to support them. Ethics is not just about what we do it is also about how we care. I would rather we helped the poor than discovered the Higgs Boson. I would point out that better technological development has not improved the world or altered mans inhumanity to others by one jot. What we are up against here is human nature itself and that seems to thrive on an ambitious self centred survival of the fittest. Man has a conscience that he largely ignores. We must not look upon science as a golden calf as once we looked upon religion.

    • April 24, 2014 at 10:42 PM

      “We have to view science budgets in the same light as others and I’m sure you would agree that limited funds must go where they produce the most effect.”

      Okay, I accept that we have to view science budgets in the same light as others (well, maybe not entirely, I don’t view it the same as, say, the defense budget). In the interest of being as efficient as possible with limited resources, yes, we must direct our resources where they will produce the most effect.

      But the question is how do you decide what has the largest effect? Scientific research into medicine revolutionized human health. Vaccines, antibiotics, nuclear medicines, et cetera. This had a HUGE impact on human health and suffering. We wiped out smallpox, and we almost wiped out the measles (no thanks to the anti-vaccine crowd).

      I would argue that scientific research inherently produces benefits to society that, in the long, run, does more harm than it does good.

      “Sometimes this seems difficult since it may cut off the richer nations to benefit the poorer ones.”

      I don’t get what you mean here in relation to this topic. Are we talking about transferring wealth to poorer nations?

      “You are right vast sums are misappropriated by the elite and they have a firm grip on the world economy.”

      Have you read the novel “Earth” by David Brin?

      “The same elite would use the benefits of science for themselves and would enlist scientists and politicians to support them.”

      I’m not sure that this is an argument against science or funding science. It seems, rather, an argument against corrupt capitalism and government.

      “Ethics is not just about what we do it is also about how we care.”

      Right, and you contended: “Scientists have always had enquiring minds and given little or no thought to consequences of their inventions.”

      I showed you how this was mistaken. Science has ethics and it studies the nature of scientific research and its impacts because it does care about what happens. It’s why the scientists who engineered a very virulent flu virus were hesitant to release the information about it, even if it was beneficial in finding ways to counteract possible bioterrorism or pandemics.

      “I would rather we helped the poor than discovered the Higgs Boson.”

      I sympathize with the emotional appeal of this argument, but we need not neglect the scientific study of our universe to help the poor. If we just spent our money differently, say, by not buying Christmas decorations we could put a huge dent in it. If we did other things like raise the minimum wage or really invest in our social safety nets with would help.

      It also ignores the second- and third-order effects of scientific investigations. Like I said before, there are possible medical applications to the research done to discover the Higgs. But running this kind of research creates economic activity as well. What if, for instance, these studies discover a way to make Star Trek technology like replicators for food a possibility? It’s just a thought.

      “I would point out that better technological development has not improved the world or altered mans inhumanity to others by one jot.”

      So modern medicine, vaccines, antibiotics, computers, sanitation, sewers, cities, transportation, light, heat, water purification, etc hasn’t improved the world? I mean, changing man’s inhumanity toward man is not something that a scientific invention alone is going to change–it’s going to take advancements in philosophy and technology to do that. We’ve come a long way from thinking that ill-health was caused by humoral imbalance, for instance.

      So no. You’re just flat-out wrong here and I won’t hold back on that criticism.

      “What we are up against here is human nature itself and that seems to thrive on an ambitious self centred survival of the fittest.”

      You seem to be overly pessimistic here. Human nature isn’t perfect, no, but we empathize and most of us are compassionate. But this still isn’t an argument against science funding or science.

      “Man has a conscience that he largely ignores.”

      Again, I think this is just overly pessimistic and incorrect. Why would have religions like Christianity which hold charity as high moral values?

      “We must not look upon science as a golden calf as once we looked upon religion.”

      What? This makes no sense. How is anyone doing this with science? Is science an idol, or is it a good methodology to understand our reality to improve our existence?

      I’m sorry if it seems as if I’m being overly critical here, but this last bit makes absolutely no sense.

  5. April 25, 2014 at 5:45 AM

    We have had a good discussion which I thank you for. I’m sure we partially agree, the major difference between us is your absolute trust in science and the way mankind will use it. In his book ‘Our Final Century Martin Rees states:
    ‘ Almost every aspect of scientific activity today has threatening potential.’ He gives us odds of 50: 50 of being able to complete the century without serious breakdown.

    • April 25, 2014 at 11:07 PM

      “I’m sure we partially agree, the major difference between us is your absolute trust in science and the way mankind will use it.”

      I think you mistake my exuberance and optimism for absolute trust. I don’t have absolute truth in science, nor do I have absolute trust in the way it will be used. I do, however, support education and the attainment of knowledge through the methodologies that have improved the lives of billions on the planet, from modern medicine to computers.

      Don’t confuse my advocacy for science, science funding, and science education for some kind of naive trust in science or mankind.

      I have respect for Martin Rees as a scientist. He’s done a lot of fascinating work, and his work with the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk has been rather eye-opening. I’m not blind when it comes to the potential risks of scientific study. I’ve read extensively on a number of possible risks posed by technology, especially in this century.

      I think Rees, however, is a bit too pessimistic for me. It’s possible we will face a lot of adversity because of the ways that humanity will be able to damage itself with the technology we create. But will it lead to our extinction? I’m not convinced. I find his 50:50 odds to be a bit far.

      And I think it is too pessimistic because there are ways we can get around this stuff. There are ways we can stave off some of the bad aspects of our advancing technologies. Humanity is not static, but dynamic. I’m not convinced we’ll be going extinct any time soon.

  6. April 27, 2014 at 1:20 PM

    I do not believe we will become extinct but fragmentation and a return to the dark ages is quite possible. We survived the old stone age, apparently fought off lots of humanoid rivals, so we have the will to survive above all else. It maybe that very will is the problem coupled with the danger of intelligence. The rat has survived well. Perhaps evolution is all about survival. Stephen Pinker suggests we have become less violent and quotes all sorts of statistics to prove his point. He does not believe in a clean slate; we carry a dangerous evolutionary baggage. I’m 72 so I won’t live to see too much of this century but I hope for the best outcome.
    ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast.’

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