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Episode 64: Quantum Nonsense

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Recap: This episode is a mostly informational one about quantum mechanics -- what are its primary concepts and some popular thought experiments. In the middle of the episode, I bring in some clips demonstrating misuse of these terms and concepts, and then the episode ends with answering the question of whether classical mechanics is dead now that we have quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Answer to Puzzler from Episode 63: Jan wrote that he thinks it's a "reverse argument from authority," since no authority has discounted it, therefore the guy's correct. Richard K. agreed, saying it was a "mirror image of ... the argument from authority." Both Chew and Paul wrote in that it's a different logical fallacy, Affirming the Consequent. As Chew put it, the format is: "If I am right, no one will tell me I am wrong. No one has told me I am wrong, therefore I am right." Paul pointed out that effectively the reversed argument from authority plus a non sequitur made the Affirming the Consequent fallacy. I'd also add that the end of the quote, the part about if the numbers are correct then the strangeness of the moon is correct -- that's a non sequitur.

Puzzler: If I'm writing a recipe that calls for 1 part butter, 4+ε parts peanut butter, and 8-ε parts powdered sugar, and 4 parts semi-sweet chocolate, what am I making?

Q&A: There was no Q&A for this episode.

Additional Materials:


  • I mentioned in a quick glib that Dean Radin was the guy doing telephone telepathy experiments. That was incorrect, Dean Radin is the guy behind the "Global Consciousness Project." It's Rupert Sheldrake who's behind the telephone telepathy stuff, and though HE doesn't directly attribute it to quantum mechanics, he thinks it's part of some so-called "morphogenic field," which makes about as much sense as Richard Hoagland's "hyperdimensional physics," other people DO attribute it to quantum mechanics.


Claim: There is no specific claim to describe for this episode. Quantum mechanics - simply the term itself and many of its major principles - are fundamentally abused daily, if not hourly, if not minute-ly by new-agers, pseudoscientists, and just in general by people saying some radical advancement in a field is a "quantum leap." One generally need only say the name "Depak Chopra" and many instantly know what I'm talking about.

The purpose of this episode is to give an overview of quantum mechanics itself and then five of its primary principles -- well, four really, since one is a technicality. The hope is that with these explanations, you will be able to hone your own B.S. Detectors™ against quantum nonsense when you hear it. I'm then going to go through a few examples perpetrated by Andy Basiago; more on him when I get there. And then I'll wrap up with an interesting question of whether, because of quantum mechanics and relativity, Newtonian mechanics, AKA Classical mechanics, is dead.

Overview of Quantum Mechanics

Without going through math and a lot of explanation that's not the focus of this episode, quantum mechanics is basically the physics of the very small. We’re talking about what happens on atomic scales, what happens with electrons (sub-atomic particles), the particles that make up protons and neutrons called quarks, and also the properties of light. We are NOT talking about time, space-time, nor any object on the macroscopic scale, where “macroscopic” means in this context objects that are about the size of a cell or larger (collections of millions of atoms).

Quantum mechanics is weird. In fact, it almost fits the very definition of “weird” since many of the observations at atomic scales defies our concept of how objects “should” act. I think this is why a lot of purveyors of modern pseudoscience rely on an appeal to quantum mechanics to describe how their ideas work: Since most people don’t understand quantum mechanics beyond the “things get weird” part, people are more willing to accept a “quantum mechanics says this can happen” claim and just trust it.

But, you can't use quantum mechanics to argue that psychic powers work. Nor that time travel is possible. Nor even that information (which also has a very specific definition) can be transmitted instantaneously.

Background: Definition of "Quantum"

In physics, the term "quantum" does not mean “magic” nor “[fill in the blank with something].” It has a very specific definition: A discrete quantity, usually of energy. In fact, the whole field of quantum mechanics is based around the idea that energy cannot come in a pure spectrum of intervals, but it can only happen in discrete – albeit very small – packets. A good analogy is the beginning of the classic musical piece, "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin: [Clip from Rhapsody in Blue]

After the trill, the clarinet plays a glissando, what sounds like a continuous note that varies over nearly two octaves of pitch. If you were to analyze a good recording of a good clarinetist, you would be hard-pressed to find discrete, individual notes: It would seem like a continuous range. That's how energy was thought of before quantum mechanics. What forms the foundational idea of quantum mechanics is that if you go small enough - if our recording was good enough and the analysis software was good enough - you would see that the appearance of a continuous range was really made up of individual, discrete steps. Each step is an individual "quantum," or you could say that the note, at a very small scale, was "quantized."

Another way to think about this is what my second semester of quantum mechanics professor said in college: Grades in his class were quantized. We either got an A or an F, nothing in between, there was no range.

This was a very novel idea 100 years ago and it still surprises many people. But, that’s what “quantum” means, no more, and no less.

Putting the word "quantum" in front of another word does not make that other word suddenly mean something different. In fact, as it is normally applied these days, it makes the other word meaningless.

Background: Quantum Leap

One such example is the term "quantum leap." I swear that every time I hear or see some commercial that says their product represents a "quantum leap" in technology, I throw up a little bit in my mouth. After rinsing and brushing thrice, I explain my absence to my companions.

The term "quantum leap" describes something very specific: When an electron jumps from one energy state to another, without passing through any energy state between. Classically, this is represented simply as moving from one energy or electron shell to another. In doing so, it either releases or absorbs energy, depending on if it's moving to a lower or higher energy state.

That's it. It's a very, very, VERY tiny movement within the structure of an atom. Energy states are quantized, so it moves from one energy state to another without being able to pass through anything between them. Incidentally, that means that the television show "Quantum Leap," starring the actor that killed Star Trek, was somewhat correct in its use of the term, since the main character jumped from one point in time and space to another without passing through any of the intermediate time and space.

As you may be figuring out by this point, quantum mechanics has a very specific set of rules and governing equations that have been verified to be correct to within measurement capabilities. (Hence it is also a “theory” in the scientific sense.) And, because quantum mechanics does not make sense to many people in our every-day world, and the math is hard, physicists have come up with some analogies that are used to describe some of the consequences of the field.

Background: Schrödinger's Cat and the Observer Effect

An example is that one of the consequences of quantum mechanics is a particle‘s state will not be known until it is observed. I remind you that in this field, “particle” and “observed” have very specific definitions and cannot be extrapolated to, for example, “person calling the telephone” and “picking up the phone” (yes, people do make that extrapolation). In fact, the consequences of this had three different interpretations in the early days of the field, where the Copenhägen interpretation was that the particle actually exists in all states until it is observed. This turns out to be the actual way it works (experimentally determined a few decades ago), but in the early days there were two competing ideas, one being that it exists in a particular state, we just don’t know what it is until it is measured. This is where the famous Einstein quote comes from: “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” As far as we can tell, Einstein was wrong in this case.

This gets to the principle known often as "the observer effect" (of physics, not psychology nor parapsychology). The basic concept is that you can't measure something without affecting it.

In our every-day world, NOT in a quantum mechanical sense, I experienced this last Wednesday when pumping up my bike tires. When putting the pump nozzle onto the air intake thingy -- sorry, this is not one of my areas of technical knowledge -- some air was let out. My bike pump also has a pressure gauge, and so the act of trying to use that gauge to take a reading on the pressure of air in the tire changed the amount of air actually there.

The reason that this is NOT a great analogy for quantum mechanics is that you KNOW what the result will be in this instance: The pressure, when you measure it, will go down because of air escaping.

The observer effect has a very specific meaning in quantum mechanics. When you get small enough - and we're talking on the scale of atoms and smaller - you don't describe objects as having specific properties. The term "object" itself doesn't even really apply.

You have what's called a "wave function" which describes the state of the system as a set of several possible states. You don't know what actual state it may have. When you do the measurement, you do what's called "collapse the wave function," meaning that all those different possibilities are now rejected except for the one that you measured. So the act of observing the system means that you've changed it from having all those different possible values to being the one you measured.

Another way to think of this is the idea of Schrödinger’s cat is used, where Schrödinger is effectively the founder of quantum mechanics: A cat is placed in a sealed box from which no information can escape. A piece of radioactive material is placed in there before it’s sealed, where the release of the poison is a purely random process, governed by quantum mechanics.

After the box is sealed, an outsider cannot know whether the cat is alive or dead because they do not know if the poison has killed the cat. Therefore, for mathematical purposes, the cat is described as both alive and dead, something we call a "superposition" of states. It is ONLY after the box is opened and you make the observation that you know which is the case.

This again gets into different interpretations of quantum mechanics -- is it that the system has ALL the states until you measured it, or just that you didn't know what it was until you measured it? From experiments it seems as though the former is the case, which again gets to this idea that quantum mechanics is "weird."

The observer effect does not mean that you have to have human consciousness to make something real, though. New Agers constantly use this, so I'll talk a bit more about it later.

Background: Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

For the fifth piece of background before we get to the juicy Coast to Coast AM clips, I need to talk about another concept with a very specific definition – and a mathematical one at that: Δx·Δp ≥ ħ/2. What this means in words is that the change in position times the change in momentum must be greater than or equal to half of h-bar, where h-bar is h/(2·π), where h is Planck’s constant (a very small number).

Unless you’re a physicist or have really studied the field, you are probably thinking some combination of, “huh?” and/or “what the heck does that mean?” In plain English, this is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which is NOT the same as the observer effect. In even plainer English, the consequence of this is that when we measure a particle’s position or momentum, the more precise we measure one value, the less precise we can know the other.

This is not because of our measuring equipment, rather it seems to be a general rule of the universe, that the particle’s other quantity really, literally, becomes less defined and knowable.

Andy Basiago

It seems apropos when talking about something being not defined and knowable to get into my first "guest" for this episode, Andy Basiago. He's a lawyer and someone who is either an incredibly good story teller or someone who needs to be put in a padded room, though he's fairly high-functioning. I'm not going through this necessarily as an ad hominem, rather to give you context of this person and perhaps to add a bit of humor.

Basiago first came onto my radar back in 2009 when, a year earlier, he went public, demanding that National Geographic publish his study where he blew up images from Mars rovers to about 5000% size and claimed to have found life within the pixelation artifacts.

I later followed up when he went on Coast to Coast AM, back in November 2010 ... well, this is how RationalWiki puts it: "After friends and family apparently failed to seek a diagnosis for Basiago, he suddenly remembered in 2010 that he had been a child participant in a top secret DARPA program experimenting with time travel and teleportation in the early 1970s. These technologies were invented of course by that old conspiracy theorist dead horse, Nikola Tesla." It's from this show that four clips will be taken and talked about momentarily. He also claims he went to Mars and met a boy named Barry Soetoro who told him he would be president of the United States. And Andy says he's running and will win in 2016.

The reason that I am going to use quotes from Basiago for this episode on quantum nonsense is that he's a good example of a pseudoscientist who uses the terms in a would-be physics context, as opposed to using a bunch of stuff from, say, Depak Chopra.

These first two clips are an example of using the term "quantum:" [Clips from Coast to Coast AM, November 11, 2010, Hour 3, starting at 12:40 and 15:04]

Basiago: “In fact, I spent four ‘phantom summers’ in New Mexico … . There was an extensive cover-up of our summers in New Mexico, uh, in this sort of quantum displacement sort of way.”

Basiago: “I was involved in actual wormholing where I was moving through the quantum tunnel.”

These are two examples that are very common in the new-age world: Stick the word "quantum" in something and it makes it sound sciencey! After all, sounding sciencey is good enough for Jessie Ventura, though that was episode 57.

Unfortunately for these folks, this is not true. Sticking the word "quantum" in front of "displacement" makes it fairly meaningless. If anything, it would be the same as a "quantum leap," a very tiny movement, and not something that has anything to do with an extensive coverup. In the other quote, sticking the word "quantum" in front of the word "tunnel" also does not make it any more meaningful. If you had to link it to something sciencey, then it would again have to do with movements inside of atoms, where electrons could tunnel their way from one state to another. Doesn't have to do with wormholes that he could walk through.

[Clip from Coast to Coast AM, November 11, 2010, Hour 3, starting at 33:12]

Basiago: “So the very act of sending the same child or different child to the same ‘event’ was – I guess as a result of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – changing that event a little bit.”

Now that you know what the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is – you can't know both the position and momentum of a particle to arbitrarily high precision – you can see that the idea of time travel paradoxes has nothing to do with it. This is an appeal to a scientific term and equation that has zero bearing on the claim, showing (a) his lack of understanding of quantum mechanics, and (b) fairly good evidence (if you didn’t have it already) that his claims are made up.

[Clip from Coast to Coast AM, November 11, 2010, Hour 3, starting at 36:40]

Basiago: “Actually, what happens is when you go back and visit yourself in the past, you’re somebody from the future visiting your alpha-timeline, then if you interfere with your past at that moment, um, basically Schrödinger’s cat takes over and a new timeline branches off that’s affected by your visit, but then you return to the future that you left.”

This is very much like the previous example where Basiago made a conjecture from his story and then inserted a thought exercise from quantum mechanics to try to make it sound more believable, when in actuality the insertion shows again he has no idea what he’s talking about. Schrödinger's Cat "taking over" to make something into a branching timeline is meaningless and a non sequitur.

With Quantum Mechanics, Is Newtonian Mechanics Irrelevant?

Moving away from Basiago and to a different radio program, the following is a clip from Whitley Strieber's "Dreamland" show, another show that was started by Art Bell, and for this particular episode from August 4, 2011, it was hosted by his wife, Anne: [Clip from Dreamland, August 4, 2011, starting 1:37]

Mrs. Streiber: “I know a tiny bit about quantum physics. I have a layman’s understanding of it which we’re all going to have to have eventually because the type of science most of us were taught in school – Newtonian – is not relevant anymore, it’s not the way the world works. And, my understanding is that there had to be an observer at the Big Bang for the Big Bang to have occurred, because, uh, nothing happens unless it is observed, so therefore that is a PROOF for God. Is that kinda crazy, what do you think?”

To address the first part, I heard a talk given by the “Bad Astronomer,” Phil Plait, back in mid-2011, entitled something along the lines of, “The Final Epsilon.” Epsilon is a Greek letter. In physics and math, ε is used to mean “a very little bit.” For example, I wrote a recipe that calls for 1 part butter, 4+ε parts peanut butter, 8-ε parts powdered sugar, and 4 parts semi-sweet chocolate. In other words, it needs a little bit more than 4 parts peanut butter, and a little less than 8 parts powdered sugar. And people always look at me a little funny when I hand them that recipe.

Dr. Plait’s thesis was effectively, in skepticism, what is our “final ε?” In science, we can never prove anything 100%. We can never disprove something 100%. Similarly, in modern scientific skepticism, we can never disprove someone’s claim 100%. Despite every debunked alleged psychic, we can never prove 100% that psychic powers are not possible.

The discussion during Dr. Plait’s talk was, though, at what point do we say for all practical purposes we have disproved something? After debunking dozens upon dozens of astrologers and their claims and their methods, even though scientifically I can’t say astrology is 100% Taurus (see what I did there?), I could say it’s 99.9999% bull. And if I’m so close, just 0.0001% away from absolute Truth, am I willing – for all practical purposes – to say that that is my ε and I have effectively proven it to be false?

Now you might be thinking, “Gee, that’s fascinating and I love me some good calculus, but what does this have to do with whether Newton is okay or if I have to learn quantum mechanics?” I’m glad you asked.

Another point that Phil mentioned in his talk is that the concept of the “final ε” is just as applicable to how we view the world through physics. Newton’s Law of Gravity works in our every-day world. It very accurately describes what will happen if I drop a screaming baby who won’t stop screaming in the middle of the night in the apartment above me off of a tall building. It very accurately describes the motion of the moon around Earth and through our sky. We use Newton’s laws to figure these things out and how a rocket will fly.

But Newton’s Law of Gravity is wrong to some extent. Einstein’s Relativity corrects that very small error – an error that is only measurable with incredibly accurate instruments and/or when around very massive objects. But that is not our everyday world.

In gravity, Einstein was Newton’s ε. And likely, in the future, someone else will be Einstein’s ε. That’s the nature of science. It progresses as we learn more and more about the universe around us and of which we are a part.

That brings me back to that quote, which is by Anne Strieber, which by now you have hopefully figured out why I took issue with it. Yes, Quantum Mechanics provides a more accurate model of the world. And, if you wanted to and had supercomputers many orders of magnitude more powerful than today’s best, you could describe a common every-day object as an ensemble of wave equations and superposed states.

But, if you do that, you will find that beyond all meaningful measurements, classical physics comes up with the same answer. A ball will still bounce down stairs the same way under classical mechanics and quantum mechanics. Yes, quantum mechanics is necessary to describe some things in physics, such as the energy spectrum produced by stars, or the photoelectric effect. But it is not used to figure out how to drive a car from home to work, nor why a volcano erupts.

Addressing the second part gets back to the Observer Effect that I touched on earlier in this episode. The answer is that she's not crazy, but she's misinformed. Well, she may be crazy, I don't know, but in this case, it's just misinformed, but it's what many new-agers tend to think: Human consciousness, or a god consciousness, is required to make anything happen because of the observer effect. That's not true.

While I described the observer effect using an example of a person measuring a quantum mechanical system using a probe of some sort, the very act of one system interacting with another can act as a measurement. After all, you have to know the properties of something to know how you will be affected by it when you interact with it. Since there was more than one effective "object" moments after the Big Bang, they were all interacting with each other, and hence perfectly satisfy this concept.

Provide Your Comments:

Comments to date: 2. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:

Steve Gibb   Maplewood, NJ

7:11pm on Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 

Excellent podcast. I've been looking for something like this to counter a particular friend who waxes on about Chopra and his quantum nonsense.
And I would say Peanut Butter Balls!!

Steve   UK

3:38am on Saturday, February 9th, 2013 

Recipe: Nutella? Although I've never tasted it.

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