Monday, September 01, 2014

It's always harmful to attach negative adjectives to quantum mechanics

A German blogger has attended a global summit (his or her title involved "weirdness of quantum mechanics") dedicated to the question whether it's right for science writers to present quantum mechanics as spooky, strange, and weird. Imagine how much fuel would be saved if the participants could have stayed home and responded with the right answer which is
There is really no room for long yet intelligent debates and diatribes. Quantum mechanics was surprising to the physicists and is still surprising to the beginners who are learning it today. But as Giotis mentioned in the first comment under the German blog post, it is not really surprising that a deep enough theory is surprising because humans and their ancestors have been trained by experience where effective, superficial, and conceptually misleading laws are enough to understand what is going on.

Quantum mechanics tells us how to decide which question about Nature is physically meaningful, how to translate it to a mathematical problem, and how to interpret its solution as the answer to the meaningful question. There doesn't exist a single statement predicted by quantum mechanics that would be refuted by observations; and there doesn't exist a single observation that could be seen to be underivable from quantum mechanics. Along with the inconsistency (or empirically incorrectness) of alternatives and deformations of quantum mechanics, it follows that quantum mechanics is a correct and complete theory of Nature (or a framework to formulate theories, whatever is your convention for the words framework, theory, and model).

The adjectives such as "spooky", "strange", and "weird" placed in front of the phrase "quantum mechanics" have become so omnipresent that people no longer have the courage to question this practice. Yet, it is deeply flawed and harmful.

Many people have said the right thing about the counterintuitiveness of quantum mechanics. For example, this monologue by Richard Feynman says everything that deserves to be said about the general topic.

You may see that Feynman uses some "extraordinary" adjectives for quantum mechanics, too. While the German participant et al. have been discussing adjectives such as
spooky, strange, and weird,
Feynman at 0:40-0:50 uses different adjectives, namely
so fantastic, so wonderfully different, so marvelously different [plus Feynmanesque emotional gestures].
You know, all these six adjectives have pretty much the same cause – the difference between the fundamental logical structure of quantum mechanics on one side and the mostly classical intuition of the human beings and other animals on the other side.

But can you see a difference between the six adjectives? You should. The first three adjectives sound rather negative, the last three sound unambiguously positive. Which of the flavors is right? Obviously, Feynman's flavor is right while the anti-quantum crackpots' flavor is wrong.

It boils down to the scientific method. In science, we look at the potential disharmony as follows. There is a disagreement about the way how Nature (and especially the microscopic phenomena) works. The disagreement is one between two fundamentally different theoretical frameworks, a disagreement of the type
low-brow biological instincts of mammals and the stupid, retarded, or excessively stubborn people


the laws of quantum mechanics.
The scientific method tells us that we should derive the predictions of both competing hypotheses. What do they imply? When you do so, and the technical aspects of that are actually agreed with by everyone who has some training, you will find out what Nature's answer is. Surprisingly for some, quantum mechanics is 100% right and its alternatives presented by the idiots are 100% wrong. The precise line of argumentation may be subtle, technical, or difficult, but the overall answer to the main question is not.

Confusion and the sense of weirdness and spookiness are integrable parts of the research by a genuine enough physics thinker. However, whenever the research actually achieves something, these sentiments are confined to the spacetime regions with a smaller \(t\) – "before the realization" – while the regions with a higher \(t\) – "the post-discovery life" – is dominated by the understanding.

It's really the understanding and the recognition that the theory really does work (and that Nature works as the theory says) that is more characteristic for science. The initial confusion is always there but confusion is also an inseparable part of other, much less scientific human enterprises such as religions.

Let me phrase a similar idea about the role of confusion and the excitement about confusion and understanding a little bit differently.

A child may be intensely impressed by some phenomenon or its existing explanation that looks "weird". Her classmates often don't care but she (mostly he) does. By her enhanced interest in surprising patterns in Nature, she displays her interest in science – and perhaps the potential to study it. But the potential isn't everything.

If she ever gets any good in physics, she becomes able to demystify the surprising observations, to reorganize them in her brain so that they make complete sense at the end. She is sure about the answers, she can even answer questions that were never answered (or asked) before, and she even knows why she is sure. This new relationship of hers to the surprising patterns in Nature is inevitable if she makes any progress of turning herself into a scientist. This comment is really true by definition. She may still be religiously confused by other big mysteries but the point is that she must have solved and get reconciled with at least some of those in the past, otherwise she is not following the scientific path towards the understanding of Nature.

So if someone cares whether quantum mechanics is spooky, he may display his interest in the question. But if he isn't able to figure out that physics has revealed the correct general theory of these phenomena even though he is 30 years old and the theory was found 90 years ago, well, then it probably means that the person hasn't reached the contemporary physics research and the probability is increasing that he never will.

What's wrong with similar pictures trying to suggest that the wave function of Schrödinger's cat – and any general enough superposition of state vectors – is "weird" is that the illustration indicates that the cat described by the superposition has both values of the "aliveness" (or another observable) at the same moment in the sense that you could in principle see both simultaneously. Quantum mechanics doesn't claim anything of the sort. Quantum mechanics unambiguously implies that if the cat is alive (in the physical or scientific sense, i.e. observed to be alive), then it is not dead, and vice versa. The wave function for the position of the cat (containing both "alive" and "dead" terms) isn't a classical wave or a "shape of the cat". It is a complex-quantum-generalized probability distribution. But the different options that are assigned probabilities (orthogonal states in the Hilbert space) are still mutually exclusive.

The adjective "spooky" was first used by Albert Einstein. He cared whether physical theories and concepts look natural or contrived – because this man cared about physics at the deep level – but when he concluded that quantum mechanics was "spooky" or "incomplete" or otherwise defective or likely to be replaced, he was just wrong. Einstein has contributed a lot to physics and even to the quantum theory. But his answers about the biggest conceptual questions about quantum mechanics such as "quantum mechanics Yes/No" were simply and indisputably incorrect.

Some people still seem to increase their self-confidence by comparing themselves to Einstein – he found quantum mechanics spooky, after all. But they are missing that
  1. Einstein is celebrated for other reasons, namely successes, not because of his delusions on quantum mechanics
  2. Einstein generated most of his criticisms of quantum mechanics approximately 80 years ago.
You know, the difference between "thinking in 1934 that something is fundamentally wrong about quantum mechanics" and "thinking in 2014 that something is fundamentally wrong about quantum mechanics" is 80 years. It's exactly the same difference as the difference between "doubting evolution in 1859 when Darwin published his book" and "doing the same in 1939". The people who do so 80 or 90 years after the final form of the theory is presented are simply lost. They have no clue. The case of quantum mechanics is no different than the case of evolution or any other established theory of science.

The only difference, a sociological one, is that the irrational anti-science attitude is much more widespread among popular writers in physics than it is in biology – perhaps because quantum mechanics (and, perhaps, physics in general) demands that one fixes his thinking about the world much more radically than what is enough to understand the theories in modern biology. The brain surgery needed to replace the animal instincts by the correct scientific theory – quantum mechanics – simply has to penetrate much deeper inside the brain when we talk about modern physics than when we talk about biology. At the end, the fundamental postulates and rules of quantum mechanics aren't really hard or complex. They are just "very new" – one needs to be deep, honest, and bold enough to understand that science demands one to change his mind even about some "fundamental questions of reality". Too many people simply fail to be sufficiently deep, honest, and bold.

All this practice of attaching overtly or covertly negative adjectives to quantum mechanics should stop – people who do not stop that should be recognized as anti-scientific cranks in the very same sense as the people defending geocentrism or other falsified hypotheses in the history of science. As I said, children's care about "weirdness in Nature" is a symptom of their interests and potential, not their actual ability to learn physics. But even when it comes to the interests and potential, saying that quantum mechanics is "weird" doesn't really increase the interest. Who doesn't care about these things won't care, anyway.

At most, the atmosphere in which quantum mechanics is considered "strange, weird, and spooky" energizes those who don't really want to learn and discover how Nature works. This atmosphere encourages them (e.g. the kids who have hated the mathematics classes pretty much from the beginning) to speak – and the present world is really drowning in the ocean of urine from these anti-scientific morons. These frequent would-be deep proclamations about the weirdness of quantum mechanics shouldn't be interpreted as signs of the public's interest in science – they are pretty much symptoms of just the opposite, the public's desire to find excuses why they shouldn't be learning science. Instead of encouraging those for whom primitive animal instincts are more important than the scientific evidence, science writers should encourage the self-criticism of everyone – to make people sure that if they disagree with Nature how it works, it is their defect, not Nature's or science's defect.

But in the present world where populism and asslicking of the stupidest people's asses is the norm, it is probably too much to ask.


  1. Is it ok to ask what QM suggests physical reality is really like? Is one of your reasons why these are bad questions, because it opens the door to non-science or people that want to change science back into philosophy? I do find QM very strange but fascinating as well and it makes me interested in science.

  2. Dear Lucy, it's OK to ask but it's too bad not to listen to the answers.

    What quantum mechanics says about the way how observations may be predicted and explained is how Nature *really* works. If you are insisting that it is not "real" enough for you and it should be, then you are just a stubborn victim of an unscientific prejudice - in the very same sense as people who believe that the Earth "really" has to be flat or who believe any other unscientific misconception.

    If by "what physical reality really is like" you mean any kind of a classical or similar description, then the answer of quantum mechanics is that nothing like that exists or may exist, and if you are not capable of hearing or understanding the answer, then you are hopelessly incompatible with modern science. Is it really difficult or ambiguous what I am saying? I don't think so!

    I don't know whether one should speculate too much whether the people who are wrong about these things want to revert science back to philosophy or something else. What's more important is that they are completely wrong about a fundamental question.

  3. Still, my favourite Feynman quote is from his 1964 Messenger lectures (written down in the book "The Character of Physical Law").

    "On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody
    understands quantum mechanics. So do not take the lecture too
    seriously, feeling that you really have to understand in terms
    of some model what I am going to describe, but just relax and
    enjoy it. I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If
    you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you
    will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying
    to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, "But how can it
    be like that?" because you will get 'down the drain', into
    a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how
    it can be like that."

    Somehow, that makes me feel less inadequate :) But you're right, he does use the words "delightful" and "entrancing".

  4. Thanks, Eclecticus, quite a typical story. I wonder how old the person is if he considers scientific insights from 1925 or even 1935 to be new.

  5. Surely young, certainly with no Physics background, and follower of pop science sites full of "...the experts says..." and "...there is a consensus..."... you know the typology ;-)

  6. Please provide a link to your blog? Is it "Science is Beauty"?

  7. Electricity is the enemy ... at least that is what the ecoterrorists send as a simple message: just as in the case of nuclear power, it is all the same, the ban of research reactors that produce medically used isotopes is the same as messy long term storage without retrieval option or good science. The ecofuzzies make everyone believe that electricity is just 30% efficient in production, although it is significantly better today. They favor local energy production and fossil fuels, although volume/surface tradeoffs, better maintenance and very efficient transport/control clearly favor central electricity production over a fossil fuel based "BHKW" (otherwise known as a slow running diesel engine).

    Even more stunning is, that it is perfectly ok to heat entire soccer fields outdoors at minus temperatures and other such applications, while the best vacuum cleaners are soon soon dropping under 1kW. It should also be known, that electric outdoors heating of the soccer field improves plant growth so the lawn has to only be changed once every two years, while on water heated lawns it is exchanged 3 times/year. Why? It is all about control and the water based heating takes more primary energy, costs more, and wastes more resources because it is much slower to control as a system. But nevertheless water based heating is the favored solution by the ecofuzzies.

    Science is checked at the door in Brussels, all they do is a game of musical chairs for their lobbies, just as in the case of the light bulbs. Europe is destined to devolve into a renaissance Disneyland in the best case.

  8. Oh, yes, sorry... it's linked on my Disqus profile, and this was the "gripe":

  9. Also missing
    3. Back in the day they published sharp arguments like the EPR paradox or the Bell inequalities. Has any criticism actually clarified issues since then?

  10. To me it seems very spooky, stranges, and weird that some many people highly enjoy being sourballs, who are completely immune against any scientific and mathematical proofs that long established parts of physics work and absolutely nothing is wrong with them ...

    The cool description of stubborn sourballs as being immune against any mathematical or scientific proofs was coined by Arnold Neumaier, LOL :-D !

  11. Came for the Kaggle updates, stayed for the very interesting article on QM.

    A daily newspaper opened her front-page with a story on the decline of the global bee population. They made two mistakes, one grave one and one subtler one: They attributed a quote to Einstein that he never made, and was invented by the beekeepers to produce an interesting hook for the media. The subtle mistake: they presented Einstein as an authority on biology.

    To this day theists and atheists try to find quotes by Einstein to draw intelligent authority to their side of the debate. "God does not play dice with the universe" can be explained in favor of both positions. But can we even trust a patent clerk on these matters?

    I too felt, and to a degree, still feel, confused and lost about QM. Trying to apply high school physics to it, does make it rather spooky. When I let that go and used a more psychological perspective, things became more manageable.

    Einstein's "spooky action at a distance" and Schrödinger's "verdammte quantenspringerei" (Damned quantum jumping) is one of the first things you hear in popular science articles on QM. It takes bravery, not arrogance, to step beyond that and try to tackle what these great men struggled with all these years ago.

    Thank you for your article! Very readable, also for those afraid of spooky QM.

    What are your thoughts on the Copenhagen interpretation? Is it good to start from?

  12. This really is a question of attitude toward change. Suppose a person visits a strange land where everything differs from that person’s past experience. Imagine land in which language, customs, food, and everything else is completely foreign and makes no sense at all, at least at first.
    One reaction is to close one’s receptors and reject outright every experience and immediately try to return to the comfort of one’s prior life. A second possibility is to marvel at the difference and plunge into an entirely new life. This path is filled with wonders and the discovery of beauty, just as Feynman says.
    A closed mind is a terrible thing.

  13. Or, as Dan Quayle famously said to the United Negro College Fund rally:
    "What a waste it is to lose one's mind or not to have a mind is being very wasteful." ;)

    Yes, Feynman was thrilled with the beauty of new ways of viewing things and thinking. The main attribute is curiosity. So few of our species seem to be curious about anything except other humans and their antics.

  14. Somewhat off topic but related to quantum mechanics, what do you think of the physics behind this experiment, It is supposed to detect an effect of quantum gravity. You're an expert in such things, maybe you can explain. The experiment is designed by the some of the leaders of the LIGO project so I'm sure that it's quite good. The proposed physics...?

  15. So, according to Anon, Russophilia is now a new mental illness, that must be found on the DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Well, I've checked, it's not there, Anon ! How come ? There is of course another explanation, and it is that you are yourself suffering of a fully recognised disorder called : paranoia-schizophrenia.

    Check yourself:

  16. Dear Paul, see

  17. Dear Shannon, crazy.

    Just to be sure, I wouldn't count myself as a Russophile. I primarily find it utterly ludicrous for someone to think that the Ukrainians are a superior nation relatively to the Russians. In the long run, they are pretty much exactly the same ensemble of people, and in recent decades, when it comes to the working of their societies and economies etc., Ukraine is doing worse than Russia.

    So I find it a must that societies where both Ukrainians and Russians live, they must be treated as equal. They must have the same influence on the political decisions, and so on.

  18. ....

    Is anyone can be really so deeply deluded?
    1 - You called a Russian provoction.. a Polish provocation?
    2 - You say that evident terrorists like Motorola have right to co-exists? No, they haven't. Terrorist don't have any right to co-exist because they don't have even the right to exist. People like you should rot in jail for supporting terrorism.
    3 - What goes around, comes around - a scientist believing in karma? Have you already check your horoscope for this month?
    4 - Poles systematically harm other nations?? Oh, yes... I forgot that we are responsible for Holocaust and Soviets killed our men and women only because we were fascists cooperating with Hitler, in opposition to your brave nation, that lost unmeasurable amount of blood fighting Nazis and Soviets.
    5 - You can justify bombarding Polish cities, and killing Polish women and children because some Russkies were to dumb to be in accordance with the permission they had got, or were too dumb to get different kind of permission?

    You should be institutionalized, right away. I wish you that with all my heart, because wackos like you should be kept away from the society. I hope that the major part of the meals you will have, will be received by a feeding tube, which is the default way of feeding people in straitjackets.

    I couldn't wish such things to normal persons, I make exception only for bolshevik crackpots like you. In fact, it was people like you who invented repressive psychiatry, so you shouldn't complain. What goes around, comes around, isn't it so?

  19. Let me know if you need a vacuum from the US, I am flying back to Prague on 23rd.

  20. 1) All manufactured goods must be colored with carbon black to end Kiimate Chaos.
    2) Only poly(lactide-co-butyride) sustainable copolymer is allowed for construction.
    3) All molding facilities must be battery-powered.
    4) No device's power consumption may exceed the national weighted average for electrical devices.
    5) All workers ("roboti") must receive a minimum wage of $(USD)20/hr, €15.23/hr, increasing 10%/year.
    6) Only protected minorities may be hired.
    7) Device purchase is mandatory to make prices affordable.
    8) All purchases must be pre-paid for later delivery.
    9) The Carbon Tax on Everything will be levied 15% on total price the first year, increasing 2%/year thereafter to Save Our Children.
    10) Government managers of a specified pay grade and higher are exempt from (1) - (9) inclusive. They will be admitted to special purchase stores.

  21. Heuristic intuition for the uncertainty principle comes fairly easily via the standard discussions of attempting “observations” of atomic sized particles. From there, the barest grasp of calculus reveals that the time derivative of an atomic particle’s position will fail to exist, and hence the notion of a well-defined path for such particles becomes meaningless. The consequence that any theory for atomic particles must abandon any notion resting on precise paths may be surprising but it is in no way “weird”. Rather, it is pretty obvious that such a theory will be very different from classical intuition, as everybody says. What is very weird is thinking that investigations at length scales six or more orders of magnitude smaller than our everyday experience wouldn’t entail a very abstract, recondite methodology.

  22. LOL, thanks but I bought an 1800 watt one in November.

  23. Whether the chicken comprehends it or not, we live in a quantum physics universe. Religions require us to believe that we live in a deterministic universe. Deterministic universes are simpler to understand but less realistic models of the universe than those based on probabilities instead of absolutes. We see good people of all religions, including none, "tapping into the light" we can perceive with "a higher intuition" to do brave and noble deeds. I don't think atheists are saying this is bunk. I think they are saying that the religious beliefs don't have much to do with the positive effects of an embrace of the light without obsessing on some points of the spectrum.

  24. As somebody who thinks about the fundamental status of quantum mechanics for a long time and with the benefit of some insides from Lubos I would sum up the situation like this. Quantum mechanics does not tell you how probabilities turn into outcomes. In fact because of its strictly continuous nature it tells you that the only consistent place where probabilities turn into outcomed is at the level of the observer. Now you may think that quantum mechanics is incomplete or may get stuck into mysterious questions about consciousness. The way quantum mechanics avoids this is simply by having probability and observers as fundamental concepts. And as anybody knows theories never answer explicit questions about their fundamental concepts and instead just make use of them. In fact you may say that the concept of probability already requires the concept of an observer so that it is enough to simply say that in quantum mechanics probabilities are fundamental. You may find all of this strange and I surely still do. But the point is that since the times of EPR and perhaps John Bell nobody has ever managed to take his wonder and turn into a sharp physics question which there was the slightest doubt about among physicists that quantum mechanics will give you the right answer.

  25. I know little about any of them, but I would think that religions must allow for free will. Without it, one can't be a good or a bad person, determinism would predetermine if you are good or bad, removing all personal responsibility for one's actions.

  26. I would bet that for Anon Israelophilia is the opposite of a "horrible and devastating mental illness" :-)

  27. Best education blog award two years running, *and* a fan of Josh’s climate alarm spoofing cartoons? That's pleasant to find. So you've been hated on. Good for you. I ditched the academic career path when I realized hype and applied research was getting the big money over basic curiosity and creativity driven synthetic chemistry. Now I make jewelry using my old benchtop fabrication skills, and sense of invention just for the fun of it.

    -=NikFromNYC=-, Ph.D. in chemistry (Columbia/Harvard)

  28. Uncle AI. Certainly the politicians must also exempt themselves.

  29. Thanks for correcting my grammar. Perhaps that is your strong suit. You should stick to it, since it seems to be the only subject in which you have some competence.

  30. Yep, thanks NikFromNYC... It's very funny, I have had several bitter controversies, whenever I show my skeptical side or go out a millimeter of political correctness I lose a few tens of thousands of followers... students are the most vulnerable people to the socialist slogans, and although "Science is Beauty" no specifically addresses these issues from time to time I like to give some clues ... I lose many readers but many others thank me, you can not please everyone ;D

  31. All you have to remember is that branching is the point where the hidden variables manifest themselves as the pilot wave and you'll get QM.

  32. You forgot a piece of that.

    ranching is the point where the hidden variables manifest themselves as the pilot wave and you'll get QM

  33. Cynthia, Christian fundamentalists are only a folkloric part of this religion (ie evolutionism vs creationism). They don't represent the same threat as jews sionists and djihadists. Regarding "living an outright lie... the truth being the enemy", some "lies" as you say, are more of a child- like colourful drawing of life on Earth. It is innocuous.

  34. How can you say Russia is doing nothing to escalate the situation when Putin is bragging that he can take Kiev in two weeks: I agree with anon, that you are struggling in a state of immense cognitive dissonance, or that you are a Pan-Slavist who believes that Russia can and should rule its neighbors by force. Do us all a favor; stick to quantum physics and stay out of global politics.

  35. I thought the US version of Siri did answer to Jesus, and there is an iphone version of a Godphone----Lloyd Blankfein has one as God's banker.

  36. First of all, it was taken out of context and if Barroso agrees, the full conversation will be released by tomorrow:

    Second, even if it were exactly what is being said, it surely doesn't represent any escalation of the situation. Quite on the contrary, it would be further evidence that Putin is behaving far more moderately and peacefully than what his position would allow him.

    He was informing Barroso about such things. Many people similar to Barroso live outside the real world so they actually don't know or understand that the Russian army would quickly take Kiev if it were instructed to do so (it is powerful enough and such an operation would surely enjoy an overwhelming support among the Russian public). Because it hasn't, it shows that Putin is working hard to de-escalate, not escalate, the situation.

    However, of course that both sensible politicians and commenters who don't try to live in the vacuum should realize the basic laws of physics, in this case the power of the Russian army relatively to the Ukrainian army, and Putin was probably just reminding Barroso of some laws of physics.

    Pan-Slavist? I am pan-Slavist to the extent to which I am a Slav. I am not really ashamed of it in any way. It's just a small part of my identity but it is comparably important to my being European. If you want to create conditions in which I should be ashamed of my being a Slav, then indeed, I would prefer a Slavic army to physically neutralize you.

    Russia should rule neighbors by force? Well, many of the neighbors are really historical parts of the Russian empire, for many centuries, and I do think that they still play a similar role in the defense of the Russian mainland.

    The comment "don't talk about politics" is beyond the officially stated red line on this blog so I instantly placed you on the blacklist.

  37. You certainly are a unitedstatian right ? I was in ugly NewYork last month and my stay has made me a primary anti US in every way possible. Even nice people are assholes over there! They believe any crap you tell them! Your post reinforces this sentiment of mine.

  38. I am using 1400 watt vacuum cleaner and it works perfect on every types of floor.

  39. I had no idea that there were that many different vacuum cleaners in circulation. We have been looking to have ours replaced for our home. It would be so much easier to clean up once we get it.

  40. In US blogs, common american compare Russian Army with these 3,000 years ago, "fitted with bows and arrows". It is a shame to see so much undereducated crowd, enslaved by propaganda: Work, eat, drinf, fuck but overall Shut UP.

  41. there is nothing more useless, than trying to convince an idiot. Save your time) Everybody knows what they are doing in Ukraine and why.

  42. I suppose all vacuum brands should try making energy-efficient machines, else try some new features to make the consumption worth the value.