Monday, December 29, 2014

#364 / Romanticizing Physics

Ira Rothstein, Professor of Physics at Carnegie Mellon University, writes in The Wall Street Journal that we need to be cautious about "romanticizing physics." Since I have probably been guilty of that myself, I commend the article to you. I think Dr. Rothstein is essentially correct. He is particularly concerned that we not go too far in our attempts to extrapolate the phenomenon of "quantum entanglement" to our everyday world. 

Still, metaphors do have meaning. The truths of quantum physics are not, perhaps, directly translatable into the world of our daily activities, but our "entanglements" with each other, and with all things, has long been noted, even before the quantum nature of the universe was described: 

No man is an island, 
Entire of itself. 
Each is a piece of the continent, 
A part of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less. 
As well as if a promontory were. 
As well as if a manor of thine own 
Or of thine friend's were. 
Each man's death diminishes me, 
For I am involved in mankind. 
Therefore, send not to know 
For whom the bell tolls, 
It tolls for thee.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this intellectually honest post!

    Yes, metaphors have meaning. That's why we should take the time to choose good metaphors. Also, we shouldn't be over-confident in reasoning from metaphor alone.

    As it happens, truths of quantum physics sometimes *do* translatable into the world of our daily activities! For example, the rainbow colors in soap bubbles are directly explained by quantum electrodynamics [1]. As are the properties of semiconductors which allow you to read this text a direct consequences of quantum mechanics [2, 3]. As are the colors of the sun and the stars [5], street lamps [5], plants [6], and campfires [7]. You can do the famous double slit experiment at home [8] and see interference patterns in action as part of your daily activities. Quantum mechanics also helps explains the greenhouse effect [9] which I think you'll agree impacts world of our daily activities.

    Quantum mechanics is the foundation upon which all of chemistry, and thereby all of biology rests. It already explains plenty of real-life magic in the natural world around us. It doesn't need to also give us "magic" powers. Nor does it explain everything. Quantum mechanics isn't part of a good explanation of love, politics, or consciousness.



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