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A BBC documentary on quantum mechanics

It starts OK but ends with almost all the pop-science delusions against quantum mechanics that you know

First, let me mention that I have embedded a YouTube video to the blog post about Coleman's lecture Quantum mechanics in your face.

Are you capable of watching the nominally 56-minute-long video at the speed 1.5 times normal as I did? ;-)

I have just watched the first of the two episodes of the 2014 BBC Four documentary The Secrets of Quantum Physics. This first episode is called "Einstein's Nightmare" (the YouTube video gives the wrong names and wrong dates, maybe to avoid the erasure). There is also a second episode, "Let There Be Life" which I haven't watched yet.

The narrator is Jim Al-Khalili, an Iraqi-born British broadcaster and biophysicist whose name has appeared on this blog in a story about Witten. And I think he does a very good job as a narrator and up to some moment in the middle of the first episode, a good job as a presenter of physics.

His picture is mostly rooted in the history. He claims that the commercial expansion of Edison's light bulb through the newly unified Germany was important for the birth of the quantum theory. Max Planck had to explain the ultraviolet catastrophe. Five years later, Albert Einstein clarified the photoelectric effect. All those explanations seem totally fine. I think that he could have been a bit more quantitative – e.g. show the Planck curve – but maybe it would repel some viewers.

The double slit experiment involving electrons shows the wave properties of all particles later. The co-existence of particle and wave properties was surprising and ignited the battle about the nature of reality. The background for the narrator's comments on the birth of quantum mechanics is jazz. I have actually used the same symbol of the mid 1920s many times, too.

Bohr's explanation that the outcome only emerges thanks to the measurement is OK. Al-Khalili uses the words "crazy" and "weird" a few times but it's probably useful to attract the viewers' attention. At least, I was still justifying these problematic adjectives at this point of the show. Albert Einstein was nicely presented as the appointed leader of the quantum mechanics haters. Al-Khalili explains the EPR argument that should have brought the victory to Einstein et al. but did something else.

Al-Khalili claims that in the 1930s, the argument was "deadlocked" which I consider a crazy description of the situation. Bohr and pals were always right as the other kinds of evidence clearly supported their theory and Einstein had no competitor theory at all; and even sociologically, most people agreed with that evaluation of the situation and it was "purely" the Copenhagen folks who kept on receiving the Nobel prizes.

Leaving the status of that dispute "undecided", Al-Khalili talks about the post-war physics, nuclear energy, semiconductors, lasers etc. He said that physicists "ignored" quantum objections and coined the phrase "shut up and calculate" (which Mermin actually did much later, but let's not be picky). The Einstein-Bohr debates were "brushed under the carpet". Holy cow. John Bell is presented as a "lonely dissenter" and then the narrator's "hero". Holy smoke. He was just another guy who was repeating the same Einstein's objections – but 30 years later and without the contributions to physics that Einstein did. At one moment, Al-Khalili reveals what might be a hidden reason for the heroic status. Bell was from a "poor working-class family".

OK, so this Bell stuff – which brought nothing new to physics – is overrepresented and overhyped in the show by orders of magnitude. A straightforward analogy of Bell's pairs: a game with cards that he always loses because 2 cards have the same (or opposite) color. The host modifies the game so that he decides about the rule ("I win for same colors" or "I win for opposite color") after the cards are shown. Clearly, if the game was done like this literally, the narrator could easily win, even in quantum mechanics.

Al-Khalili says all the wrong things about "sending superluminal signal". I was actually hoping that this crackpot garbage would be avoided in this particular documentary. Now, the host repeats that Bell's paper was undercited and all this nonsense.

Just like jazz was the background for the 1920s, there is some music genre chosen for the years when people start to be obsessed with the Bell stuff: Aquarius and the hippies. Exactly, the propagation of this anti-Copenhagen ideology is entangled with the proliferation of the decadent left-wing movements. OK, hippies at Berkeley took drugs and loved quantum mechanics mixed with Eastern religions. Suddenly, things get really bad. The drugged hippies at Berkeley imagined Bohr as a proponent of superluminal signalling – he never was one – who supported their ideas about telepathy etc. – poor Bohr.

OK, the key hippie was supposed to be John Clauser. He did the first experimental test of Bell's setup, before Alain Aspect improved it. Another analogy with cards, while he is pretending he is in the real Clauser-Aspect lab. At least, at the end, we hear that Bohr was provably right and Einstein was wrong. But by that moment, Bohr's view was repeatedly misrepresented as a view where the information is sent superluminally or leaking through space although it's not and Bohr has never believed such a thing.

All of this Al-Khalili story about the hippies who loved Bohr is just plain bullšit. For example, John Clauser wasn't a hippie who wanted Bohr to be right. He was a guy who felt almost sure he would get a Nobel prize (see these memories by Henry Stapp) for having experimentally proven that Bohr was wrong!

Lots of hippie confusion is claimed at the end, anyway. Nature violates common sense – sorry but it doesn't – and we can't know what's going on. Einstein's confused quotes are used as a summary of this debate which is weird given the fact that Al-Khalili just admitted that Einstein had been conclusively proven wrong by experiments that took place after Einstein's death. So why is it the losers who keep on writing the history?

Needless to say, after having said that Einstein's view has been conclusively disproven, Al-Khalili says that he believes in Einstein's view, anyway. Hilarious. Sorry, Mr Al-Khalili, but you just violate the basic rules of logic in the most obvious way. You should really reduce the consumption of drugs.

Before I watched the full episode, and even in 1/2 of it or so, I wanted to believe that it would be a documentary on quantum mechanics that avoids the complete idiocy and pseudoscience. Sadly, my optimism was misplaced. This is another excellent representative of the anti-quantum flapdoodle that is being spread by almost all conceivable outlets of the mass culture.

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