Don’t Abuse Quantum Mechanics!

by damnedhippie

“For the love of . . . not God! Don’t abuse quantum mechanics!” I yelled across the quad at the guy with the non-specific european accent who had to get to class. Friday was the first Ask an Atheist day of the semester. His particular question: rather than believing that there is some big man in charge, do you think there may be some sort of force or realm or dimension . . .

You mean, the force vitale, I asked.

He had no idea what I was talking about.

We asked him what he believed, and he said that he didn’t believe in a big, personal guy in charge. His beliefs were more philosophical, he said. More. . . quantum.

Sigh . . .

Quantum mechanics is a very precise science. It is an elegant theory that accounts for and predicts a substantial number of precisely measured observations. To be done properly, it requires numeracy and understanding several experiments conducted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Philosophy is a bit of a different animal. It deals almost entirely in the hypothetical realm, with thinking about thought. As such, it can be reasonably done from an armchair with little prior knowledge. Of course, professionals with years of learning and thinking will generally do it better, but a lay person could dip a toe in the art and manage well.

Mixing the two together, however, is almost without exception an unmitigated disaster. Here is why:  quantum theory famously says some pretty counterintuitive things, so counterintuitive that they appear to contradict logic. This, of course, intrigues people, including me. Without understanding how physicists came to these weird conclusions, many people will use them as postulates to try to make sense of other things they do not understand, such as consciousness. Worse, some will hobble-horse their misunderstanding of quantum physics to the conclusion that the impossible happens.

This, of course, irritates people who do know something about quantum mechanics, including me.

The basis of my specialty, biochemistry, is chemistry. The basis of chemistry is breaking and forming bonds between atoms. The basis of bonds between atoms is the sharing of electrons. The theory by which we understand electron orbitals is quantum mechanics. In order to graduate with my BS degree, I had to take Introduction to Quantum Mechanics.

This is the textbook I had to read:

This is a random page from that textbook:

I’m no idiot, and I squeaked through with a B. It was probably the most difficult and also the most fascinating course I’ve ever taken. I get a bit indignant when this particular piece of beloved science gets mangled into magical bullshit.

In order to apply quantum theory to do anything useful, such as predict the structure of molecules or quantify the energy in a system, one needs to understand and manipulate integrals, series of summation, imaginary numbers, factorials, operators, eigen functions and eigen values, and statistics. However, very little of that is necessary to appreciate what quantum theory is, how it came to be understood, and why Deepak Chopra doesn’t know his stuff.

No use whining about how people don’t understand without doing something about it. Stay tuned to this blog, and I will give you a layman’s tour of what I learned. You won’t be able to bend reality with your mind, but having reality bend your mind instead is much more exciting anyways.

Next up, the Ultraviolet Catastrophe.