Stop Using Quantum Mechanics as Evidence for Magic

Quantum mechanics is a beautiful and still-controversial idea. It is rightly popular. What's not right is the way people use it to justify any reality-bending idea in their novels, their TV shows, or their personal philosophies. "Quantum" does not mean anything you want.

"Captain? I'm afraid we're getting quantum disruptions in the quantum energy field. Should I ready the quantum torpedoes and relay a quantum message to the quantum base?"

I'm not a savvy dissector of movies. All the physics mistakes in Gravity flew right past me, but when you see something done a certain amount of times, it works even the most unresponsive of nerves. The word "quantum" is regularly dropped into science fiction in a way that basically amounts to the storyteller thinking, "I bet this is the way smart people in the future talk." It might be the way smart people talk, but as we see in the next section, it's also the way people talk when they're being really stupid. What's more, it won't be the way the educated people of the future talk about anything.

Science can move forward in sweeping generalities, or it can move forward by becoming more and more specific. Either way, you probably shouldn't use "quantum" to describe future science. If you've got a universe where starships can move at above light speed, or people can teleport, or the brain can be uploaded into a computer, the term "quantum" may be as antiquated as the term "natural philosophy."

Stop Using Quantum Mechanics as Evidence for Magic

If the term "quantum" is still around, it won't be applicable in any specific situation. Let's put it this way, there are five different major types of light scattering - Rayleigh Scattering, Mie Scattering, Tyndall Scattering, Brillouin Scattering, and Raman Scattering. If you're an expert and working with scattered light in any meaningful way, saying, "light is being scattered," isn't specific enough to get anything done. You have to know what kind of scattering you're dealing with. Having characters in a space craft worry about a "quantum energy field" near them makes about as much sense as having characters in a war say that the enemy is shooting "matter" at them. They'll need to use specifics to make any progress.

A fun note: the types of light scattering are all named after scientists. Instead of saying "a quantum energy field," have your characters run into "a Bass-Van-der-Woodsen field," because in your universe the team of Bass and Van der Woodsen made the discovery, and an educated expert would name the field instead of just saying "it's quantum."

It Doesn't Mean That We Are Psychic

Okay, here's the big one. Quantum mechanics shows that the world works in unintuitive ways, and, yes, experiments done in quantum mechanics provide results that can be interpreted in ways that lead us to odd conclusions. What quantum mechanics doesn't do is provide evidence for whatever whack-a-doodle theory any crackpot has at the moment. These theories come in several different flavors.

First there's quantum entanglement. I have to admit, I have a soft spot for quantum entanglement. Entanglement involves two particles having opposite spins. As long as the spins aren't measured, they're undetermined. This doesn't mean that we don't know the spins. This means that they are literally undetermined until someone measures them. When a person measures the spin on one particle the other particle, immediately has the opposite spin. This has led people to suppose that faster-than-light signaling devices may be possible. They're not.

If, in your work of fiction, you want to invent a great scientist who discovered how to change that, that's perfectly fair. What's not fair is using quantum mechanics to say that psychic phenomena is possible because entanglement proves "we're all connected." When we check the spin on a spinning particle, we'd still have to make a light-speed phone call to see if the information we got from the particle was the result of someone's deliberate actions, or if it was just random movement. When getting these kinds of "messages," even the physicists would need to fact check their information to see if it really was a message or if it was just randomly generated information. Even if entire brains worked the way entangled particles work, those particles do not work the way psychics claim they do!

You Can't Shape the Universe with Your Mind

Stop Using Quantum Mechanics as Evidence for Magic

In quantum physics, we have the idea of a particle existing in a cloud of probability that collapses to a point particle when observed. That is fantastically weird. Many philosophical ideas have been based on that knowledge, including the ideas of good old Schrödinger and his wonder cat. We all remember this one. A cat is put in a box with a vial of poison that will be released into the air if a single particle decays. Over a certain period of time, there is a fifty percent chance that it will decay, but we cannot think that there is a fifty percent chance that the cat is dead. Because, according to one interpretation of this phenomenon, the particle is in both states simultaneously until we observe it, we must think of the cat as both alive and dead until we check the box.

This gets brought up in self-help seminars during which we are told that our will, and our observation, can shape the universe. Our observation "makes" the world, so why can't we make the world the way we want it? Well, to begin with, the simultaneous superposition of states is only one of three different major interpretations of probability waves and point particles - and Schrödinger himself was making fun of it when he wrote his famous example.

Another quantum physics idea is the "Many Worlds Theory," which is also invoked in these types of pseudoscience seminars. The particle isn't in two different states. It is in one state, in each of two different universes. Since you can only occupy one universe at one time, you only see one of the states when you check on the particle. To be clear, this is one of the major interpretations of quantum behavior, and a legitimate theory. The problem is, this explanation is used by people who harp on the limitless potential of infinite universes.

First of all, we have one universe that's functionally infinite. Isn't that enough? Secondly, if people could keep radioactive particles from being emitted with the collective power of their minds, I can think of at least three historical events that would have gone down differently. But more importantly, in even the most liberal interpretation of the Schrödinger's cat experiment, the events are not being influenced one way or another by a person, they are merely being observed by a person. There's no provision in quantum mechanics that gives the cat a better chance of survival if the person opening the box really, really, really wants it to stay alive. Again, even if the human brain were necessary to collapse probability functions, probability functions don't work that way.

The final way to interpret the Schrödinger's cat experiment is to assume that we simply don't have enough information about particles to fully understand them. One day, when we know more, we'll know whether the cat will be alive or dead before we open the box. Another theory that, some claim, merely needs more brain power to be explicable, is the Heisenberg Uncertainty theorem, which asserts that there is a limit to our ability to know a particle's position and momentum at any one point in time. When we know enough, some people argue, we will be able to determine a photon's position and momentum with as much certainty as we'd like. The people who claim that some day we will know about cats and particle momentum are legitimate scientists, but they are the wide-eyed dreamers of science. Right now, most physicists think that these uncertainties are built into the fabric of reality. No one will ever know these things.

Knowing Things Are Uncertain Does Not Mean That Nothing Is Certain

Stop Using Quantum Mechanics as Evidence for Magic

Which brings us to the "what do scientists know, anyway," contingent. These are the groups who say things like, "there are things we were not meant to know," or "there are things mere humans cannot understand," or, famously, What the Bleep Do We Know!? I'll answer that last question. A lot. We know a lot. And the fact that we don't know certain, specific things doesn't mean that no mere scientists could ever prove or disprove your pet theory.

What gets to me about this is even if there is a limit to what we can know about the universe, the only reason we know there's a limit is that scientists discovered and tested it. Researchers and scholars interpreted data, and thought up experiments, worked out theories, tested those theories in a comprehensive way, and presented their conclusions. If scientists present a tested, organized idea that changes humanity's conception of the universe, and opens our eyes to phenomena we have never before dreamed of, and your reaction is, "this just proves that scientists don't really know anything," then you need to go and stand in the corner. Forever.

Sucking Legitimacy Out of Real Science

You know what's great? Thinking. Thinking about science is wonderful, but so is thinking about philosophy, thinking about ethics, thinking about language, thinking about myth and archetype, thinking about story and verse, and thinking about almost anything else. The ability to enjoy our minds, and the minds of others, is one of humanity's greatest gifts. It doesn't need to be excused by adding the word "quantum."

Stop Using Quantum Mechanics as Evidence for Magic

You want to think up a religion? People have almost certainly come up worse stuff than you're going to come up with. Go ahead. Granted, your audience might be smaller than it once was, but you don't have to justify the endeavor by linking it with quantum mechanics. You have a way that you think people should behave? Again, people have probably done worse than you will at inventing a system of ethics. Sit down, and think it through, and throw it out there. You don't have to link it to pseudoscience to make it legitimate. Ethics and morality are already important subjects to expand on, or to study. Adding, "because photons said so," takes away legitimacy instead of adding it.

This is also what I hate about shoving "quantum" stuff into where it doesn't belong. When you have to compare your art, your mythology, or your sociology with quantum mechanics, you're tacitly admitting that not one of them was worth thinking about in the first place. You're essentially saying, "Yeah, this is stupid crap, but it might be associated with Important Science Things, so now it's worth paying attention to." Studying, explaining, framing, creating, or even just playing around with different subjects is a worthy intellectual endeavor all on its own. Let it stand on its own.