The Religion Of The Quantum


After reading Manjit Kumar’s QUANTUM: Einstein, Bohr, And The Great Debate About The Nature Of Reality, I am left with these two thoughts about Quantum Physics:

1)  “Quantum Mechanics” is true, and is an amazing achievement of human ingenuity

2)  “Quantum Theory” is FALSE, and is an amazing achievement of human ingenuity

Personally, from here on out, when I speak of quantum ideas that are not directly practicable and verifiable, I will treat them, not as science, but as part of the “Quantum Religion.”

On the other hand— I have a high regard for Quantum Mechanics.  Its hands-on applications in businesses and laboratories are indisputable.  Its successful predictions concerning atomic behavior are used every day, all over the world.  Its reliance on statistical mathematics means that it can predict ranges of results with uncanny precision– not so good when dealing with the behavior of individual particles, but then again, in the “real” world, we rarely have need to know whether a specific electron turns left or right at the next intersection

Physics since the dawn of the Quantum Era has been all about the math (well that, and smashing things up).  Some wit even said once that physics has become too difficult for physicists— meaning that it was time for the mathematicians to step in and do the heavy lifting.  Math is, after all, as Galileo said, the language of Nature.

However, one must keep in mind that math never explains anything.  It only describes.  This distinction is of immense importance when differentiating Quantum Mechanics from Quantum Religion.  One perfectly describes; the other incomprehensibly “explains.”

When you look at the history of Quantum Mechanics, you’ll discover the reason it so perfectly fits the data and experiences of the real world:  the experimental facts came first, and then Quantum Mechanics adapted itself to fit the facts.  Basically, the history of Quantum Mechanics is the history of a series of patches covering the Emperor’s New Clothes; in fact, the patches are the clothes.

Some examples of how Quantum Mechanics and the Religion Of The Quantum have adapted over the decades…

The Compton Effect showed that when X-rays were fired at atoms, the frequencies of the X-rays were reduced.  Quantum Physicists quickly patched over the conundrum by positing that the X-rays were giving away some of their energy to the atom.  This sounds like a reasonable inference to me, and further experiments supported it.  Nevertheless, I bring it up as one of the first times Quantum Mechanics grew or changed itself to fit new facts.

Rutherford and Marsden discovered that Alpha Particles emitted from atoms were 1) positively charged and  2) that when shot as “Alpha Rays” at other atoms—they sometimes bounced off!  (Said Rutherford: “It was almost as incredible as if you had fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.”).  So Rutherford came up with the an improved Quantum Atom to fit the new facts—one in which the positive Alpha Particles (later called Protons) were in the middle, surrounded by negatively charged particles (the already discovered Electrons) which would repel positively charged protons.

When the Photo-Electric Effect showed up and confused scientists, Quantum Mechanics immediately stormed into the breach.  The Photo-Electric Effect has a few manifestations, but the classic example is this:  when one of two metal plates is struck with ultraviolet light, a current can be induced between the two plates.  Quantum Physicists said this was another case of the atom sucking energy out of radiation.  This new energy source (the ultraviolet light) gave some of the electrons in the atoms of the irradiated plate enough energy to cross the gap to the other plate, producing a current of electron-icity, I mean, electricity.  When discovered that the more intense the radiation, the more electrons jumped across the gap between plates, it was explained that stronger X-rays would have more “quanta” (packets) of energy, and this would allow more electrons to free themselves.  Physicists also used the results to connect wave frequency to energy, with higher frequencies containing more energy.  Again, Quantum Physics is adapting to fit the facts.  And again, just for the record, I think this all very reasonable so far.  SO… FAR…

So by now, Quantum Physics was very much attached to the ideas of:  1) atoms and 2) light/energy existing as particles called “quanta.”  But when the Two-Slit Experiment showed that light could interfere with itself like two waves colliding– the quantum patch was not long in coming:  light, said the theorists, is both a particle and a wave. In retrospect, this is probably where the Religion Of The Quantum began.

As Zeeman and other experimenters became better and better at reading the spectral lines emitted by atoms, they kept discovering new spectral lines.  The young turks of Quantum Physics, being too impatient to sit on their ideas, jumped in with explanations immediately after every discovery of some new spectral manifestation.  This led to what may be the longest, fastest, most desperate run of ad hoc solutions in the history of Physics.  Every time some new spectral lines appeared, Quantum Physicists would have to invent new electron energy levels to explain them, becoming more and more creative with each new invention.  This led eventually to all the different electron descriptions of today:  radius, orbital shape, orbital orientation, and most infamously, Electron Spin.  And I’m sure there’s more… or will be.

A competing interpretation to Quantum Physics arrived with Schrodinger’s Wave Mechanics (posted about HERE).  Schrodinger offered what appeared to be a better physical picture of what was going on inside an atom than Heisenberg and Bohr and the other Quantum Physicists.  To compete, Quantumites had to defend their own physical theory.  This led to a deeper explanation of their proposed “quantum leap,” and to the birth of the Uncertainty Principle— which ultimately included the proposition that, actually, there is no particle until we find it.

Einstein once devised a brilliant way to disprove the crazier aspects of the Uncertainty Principle.  He came up with a way to surmise the position and momentum of Particle B after it has come in contact with Particle A.  True believers had to come up with one of their most creative patches yet to close up this hole in their Quantum Religion.  Ingeniously, they devised “Quantum Entanglement”—which claims that once two particles come in contact with each other, if you measure one, you instantly change the other— even if they’re a billion miles apart!  They were forced to do this or else the Uncertainty Principle would have been demolished.  Their own dogma claimed that it was impossible to know both position and momentum of a particle.

Later, when particles were found to cross barriers which they had no business crossing because they didn’t have enough energy, Quantum theorists patched up this rip with the idea of “Quantum Tunneling.”  If a particle does not have enough energy to surmount the energy barrier– it will go under (whatever that means).

And I won’t even get into the numerous particles and “virtual particles” Quantumites pretend exist, like so many angels dancing on a pinhead.  Each particle is basically a math patch that—if it didn’t exist—would destroy the otherwise successful equations of the Quantumites.

That is the key thing to remember here:  Quantum Physics is all about the math.  And the math works—don’t get me wrong.  It’s a beautiful thing.  But any supposed physical explanation is just so much mythology.  When you need an explanation for a phenomenon you don’t understand, a Quark will do as well as a God Of Thunder.

And I must say, I keep some pretty good company in my Quantum skepticism.  Even Einstein didn’t buy the physical interpretations of the math:  “Almost all the other fellows do not look from fact to the theory, but from the theory to the facts,” he wrote Schrodinger. “They cannot extricate themselves from a once accepted conceptual net, but only flop about in it in a grotesque way.”  Einstein said that what I’ calling the Quantum Religion is an “epistemology-soaked orgy” that “ought to come to an end.”


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