Quantum Physics


Is Quantum Intuition Possible?

Quantum physics defies our physical intuition about how the world is supposed to work. In the quantum world, objects resist such classical banalities as “position” and “speed,” particles are waves and waves are particles, and the act of observing seems to change the system being observed

But what if we could develop a “quantum intuition” that would make this all seem as natural as an apple falling from a tree?

baby reading book twO
Credit: Eliza Sankar Gorton. Baby and book by Evil Sivan/Flickr, Calabi-Yau manifold by Lunch/Wikipedia, adapted under a Creative Commons license.

Physical intuition starts developing early, long before we ever encounter Newton’s laws on a blackboard. “Babies have a few skeletal principles that are built in to the brain and help them reason about and predict how objects should act and interact in the world,” says Kristy vanMarle, an infant cognition researcher at the University of Missouri. They understand, for instance, that objects can’t pass through each other, a notion that’s at odds with a quantum effect called tunneling, which allows objects to slip through barriers that, in the classic world, would be impenetrable. Presented with demonstrations in which objects appear to materialize inside closed boxes and pass through solid walls, babies consistently stare longer at these “magic” shows than they do at demos in which boxes act like boxes. Psychologists Susan Hespos (now at Northwestern University) and Renee Baillargeon (University of Illinois) found that this physical intuition kicks in as early as two and a half months, and vanMarle and her colleagues think that it is probably present from birth.

Babies also intuitively grasp that objects exist even when you’re not looking at them, a concept called “object permanence” that goes against the classic Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which an object can’t be said to have any definite properties until the moment at which it is observed. Since Jean Piaget first pegged object permanence as a milestone in infant development, psychology researchers have found evidence that ever-younger babies have some sense of it; affirming object permanence seems to be the main theme of peek-a-boo. (To someone who has truly taken quantum physics to heart, perhaps peek-a-boo never gets old.)

These innate notions, plus “elaborations” born from watching and interacting with the world, add up to a sort of “naïve physics” that we all grasp without any formal physics training, says vanMarle.

But what about building quantum intuition after that early mental groundwork has already been laid? Most students don’t begin studying quantum physics until college, when they already have both an intuitive and a formal, or mathematical, toolkit for classical physics.

Some college educators maintain that students should just stick to the math and forget trying to establish a “gut feeling” for quantum mechanics; I’ve argued the same about similarly difficult concepts in cosmology. No less an authority than Max Born, who received the 1954 Nobel Prize for his contributions to the foundation of quantum mechanics, felt that our minds just weren’t up to the task of “intuiting” quantum physics. As he wrote in “Atomic Physics,” first published in English in 1935, “The ultimate origin of the difficulty lies in the fact (or philosophical principle) that we are compelled to use the words of common language when we wish to describe a phenomenon, not by logical or mathematical analysis, but by a picture appealing to the imagination. Common language has grown by everyday experience and can never surpass these limits.”

Lord Kelvin took a similar tack, points out Daniel Styer, a professor of physics at Oberlin College and the author of “The Strange World of Quantum Mechanics“. In his “Baltimore lectures,” a series of talks delivered in 1884 at Johns Hopkins University, Kelvin said, “It seems to me that the test of ‘Do we or not understand a particular subject in physics?’ is, ‘Can we make a mechanical model of it?’” By that yardstick, says Styer, all efforts to understand quantum mechanics are doomed to fail. “The experimental tests of Bell’s inequality prove that no mechanical model, regardless of how intricate or fanciful or baroque, will ever be able to reproduce all the results of quantum mechanics.”

But Kelvin wasn’t talking about quantum mechanics; he was struggling to grasp the theory of electromagnetism. Quantum mechanics doesn’t have a monopoly on mind-blowing, after all; physicists have been upending intuition for thousands of years. “When I teach freshman physics, the thing that’s hard is not that the students are ignorant. It’s that they already know the answer—and it’s wrong,” says Steve Girvin, a physicist at Yale University. Newton’s first law claims (roughly) that objects in motion tend to stay in motion, but tell that to the guy trying to push a moving box full of books across the floor. Our “naïve physics” is actually closest to Aristotle’s 2,300-year-old theories, in which heavy objects fall faster than light ones and objects in motion ease to a stop unless you keep pushing them. Quantum mechanics may seem weird, but to Aristotle, Newton’s laws would have been just as head-spinning.

To get from Aristotle to Newton, you have to be able to imagine a world without friction. Luckily, that isn’t so hard; if you’ve ever played air hockey or laced up ice skates, you can vouch for Newton’s first law.

But what is the quantum equivalent of an air hockey table–an everyday object that provides us hands-on access to quantum physics? If there is one, I haven’t thought of it. Computer simulations may provide the next best thing, and physics educators like Kansas State University’s Dean Zollman are actively developing and testing new software that puts students into a (virtual) quantum world where they can actively manipulate the parameters of quantum systems and see how their tweaks play out. “It’s certainly easier to be a student of quantum mechanics now that it was when I went through school,” says Zollman. “We had drawings in books, but visualizing things, even twenty-five years ago, was not the way most people went about teaching. And still images are still images—they don’t give you the same feeling, the same kind of understanding, that we really can do these days.”

Perhaps all of this should give us fresh respect for the scientists who discovered and codified the rules of quantum physics. “It was just incredibly difficult for classical physicists to make the leap from that worldview, which was confirmed by the things they saw in the everyday world around them, to understanding the strange implications of quantum mechanics,” says Girvin. “Every student today—90-100 years later—still has to make that same leap.” Each individual who aims to learn modern physics must personally recapitulate thousands of years of discovery.

And at the end of that road? “Practicing, professional people who have been doing this for decades still have arguments about what the results of the experiments will be,” says Girvin. There are no “native speakers” of quantum mechanics. “What is to be done about this?” asks Styer. “There are only two choices. We can either give up on understanding, or we can develop a new and more appropriate meaning for ‘understanding.’ I advocate the second choice.”

“Our minds evolved to find food and to avoid being eaten,” says Styer. “The fact that our minds ‘overevolved’ and allow us also to find beauty in sunsets and mountains, waterfalls and people; allow us to laugh and to love and to learn; allow us to explore unknown continents, and outer space, and (most bizarre of all) the atomic world, is a gift that we neither deserve nor (in many cases) appreciate. That we can make any progress at all in understanding quantum mechanics is surprising. We must not berate ourselves because our progress is imperfect. Instead, we must continue poking around, in joy and in wonder and sometimes in pain, exploring and building intuition concerning this strange and beautiful atomic world.”

Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or email.

Kate Becker

    Kate Becker is the editor of The Nature of Reality, where it is her mission to blow your mind with physics. Kate studied physics at Oberlin College and astronomy at Cornell University, and spent seven years as senior researcher for NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

    • androphiles

      I’ve never been able to grasp quantum physics as anything more than another faith system the proponents of which can’t produce practical examples. At least from this article I feel a little less stupid for all that.

      • Nick
      • JSebastian

        You shouldn’t equivocate physics and religion. Quantum physics doesn’t rely on faith, but on mathematics. The interactions and behaviors predicted by QED and QT have been experimentally confirmed which is something no religion can claim to have achieved.

        • androphiles

          I think you mean don’t equate them. To equivocate is to use confusing language in order to deceive.

          I don’t equate physics with religion. I said my lack of understanding of physics makes it as impenetrable to me as I find religion. I get that for those who do understand it there are proofs.

          • JSebastian

            That was not very clear from your post, because of your phrasing. If you had merely said that you’d never been able to grasp quantum physics, then the meaning you claim you intended would have been more clear. But you said that you viewed it as being the same as a faith system, which was the basis of my objection to it.

            But you’re correct, I should have advised not to equate the two. 🙂

            • androphiles

              No, in fact I didn’t say I viewed it (quantum physics) as “being the same as” a faith system. I said I couldn’t grasp it “as anything more than” that. I very carefully refrained from characterizing it at all, speaking instead of my own perception, or lack thereof.

        • Hominid

          “Equivocate”? Did you mean ‘equate’?

          BTW, math requires enormous faith which is, as often, as silly as religious faith.

          • Bob

            Math is a tool, a language, not a doctrine that requires belief or faith.

            • Hominid

              You couldnt be more wrong. Math assumes (depends totally on faith) that one knows the nature of the unit – which, of course, one never does.

    • Taylor Golmon

      The answer is probably staring us right in the face.

      • Hominid

        ‘It’ is always “staring us right in the face” – we live in ‘it.’ But, can we see it?

    • George Raina
    • Jarrod

      I’m not sure if this helps build an intuition, but fluid dynamics can provide a macro-sized model of quantum effects:


    • I really enjoyed this article. It makes a great case against neophobia in favor of neophilia

    • noone

      quantum intuition is possible only when you “do not have a point of view”.when you stop making comments , this means no past and no future , you become the cognition (awereness) itself and know things from inside out.what i am talking about is not for understanding.if you think that you understood it you understood it wrong.if you think it is nonsense , you are wrong two times 🙂 because at first you thought that you understood it , and then you thought what you understood was nonsense 🙂

      • yarharfiddlyfee

        There is nothing to report and noone to report it.

    • JamesM

      I’ll never think any religion is crazy after reading this article. Do they real believe this?

      • QuantumIsRight

        No, we don’t “believe” it, we KNOW it. Quantum Mechanics is the hardiest and has more evidence than pretty much any other theory, 100+ years of experiments and observations have proved it

        • JamesM

          You know that when you look at something, then the thing you look at changes.
          You know that non-sense about this guys cat, and the pigeons, and pigeon holes.
          Man you are way out their.

          • Hominid

            Science is the attempt to reconcile the coincidence between the mind – which is limited – and that which exists outside the mind. That’s hard to do when all you have to work with is a limited mind.

          • QuantumIsRight

            Yes! Read a damn book!

    • Erica

      Nice article. This is exactly the motivation for the game Meqanic, which seeks to build your quantum intuition as you progress. You should try it out: http://appstore.com/meqanic

    • Anonymous

      I agree, we must retain our capacity for wonder. There are some scientists who feel we should stop trying to visualize these concepts and be satisfied that the math is consistent with experimental results. But many of us yearn for something more. With every shred of knowledge gained about the fundamental workings of the universe we become ecstatic at the prospect of learning just a little bit more of not just how we are here, but why.

      In tackling this visualization problem, maybe we should begin by exploring Einstein’s unease with particle behavior st the quantum level. Certainly these concepts are more mainstream now and the scientific positivism prefacing Einstein’s discoveries has given way to a more qualified positivism. But, that being said, do the inherent uncertainties presumably built into nature bother us like they did Einstein? Certainly we don’t experience bizarre quantum behavior at the macro level, but does it bother us that at its most fundamental level nature isn’t fixed?

      For me, no, the contrary would be the more disheartening. So with this emotional bias gone we should feel more free to accept whatever oddities the quantum world shows us e.g., that there may not be a purely objective, non-relativistic reality; that maybe everything in some sense lives everywhere else, at the same time; and, in s fundamental way, we are free.

    • Justine-Louise Manning

      I disagree that our minds are “overevolved.” Current neuroscience is revealing how amazingly plastic our brains are. Our brains evolved to be adaptive, to adjust to suit the demands we place on them. I believe that if we demand quantum mechanical intuition, which is really just a way of describing fast non-conscious experience-based reasoning, frequently and insistently enough, our brains will do their best to meet that need. The earlier that demand appears to a developing brain and the more consistent the requirement is, the more efficiently the brain will adapt to the need. If there’s one thing that brain research should have taught us all many times over is never say “can’t” when you’re talking about the human brain.

      • Hominid

        You desperately need a course or two in evolutionary biology and brain science.

        • Justine-Louise Manning

          You desperately need to learn a method of discourse a little more elevated than the snide comment.

          • Hominid

            The standard response of the stupid girl.

            • Justine-Louise Manning

              Nope, that’s still not it. See, rational argument involves offering reasons that support your position. Unless, of course, communication is not your goal and spreading venom is.

    • Sandra Marie Katelnikoff

      I am not one thing, I am something, a, a little bit of everything you know. You do not have to understand me to have an understanding I exist. You do not have to sense me in any way but I am there beginning at a smaller than understandabe level as a form of the level before, it is with copulation that i grow. Eventually I will find a corresponding fit with something. My daughter said, ” this is this and that is that and when they meet eachother something else happens.” We do not know all the this and that and sometimes in our own reality we only know the result not the before. What? We did not just come from here we came from out there and everywhere. If you believe in God, you have to believe when we were given knowledge we were given the knowledge of how all things came to be at our own level of understanding. Those who do not believe in God are of the same substance and have a different understanding of how this is this and that is that works. Reguardless I am something and a little bit of everything, most of which is not at the forefrount of my understanding. Please help figure me out.

      • Hominid

        Is there supposed to be a lesson this gibberish?

        • Sandra Marie Katelnikoff

          No, but maybe who knows. You figure it out. Simple minds always resort to using words they feel might lesson the affect of someone else’s spirit, especially judgemental simple minds. Ha ha I think someone great said there is a lesson in everything.

      • PJ London

        “it is with copulation that i grow”, Do you mean that you get bigger, as in pregnant, or are you saying that you only gain understanding of a subject by “Bonking”?
        Hey I am not criticising, just wish my high school teachers had the same viewpoint. I would never have missed a day or even a lesson.

    • Michael Pence

      “teach your children well.
      Their father’s universe, did slowly go by.
      And feed them with your dreams.
      Before the breast, does slowly go by.”

    • Wayne Linder

      thank god the aliens came, messed with our hunter/gatherer minds, and gave us the ‘extra’ abilities….

      • Mr. Timm

        Then London got destroyed by a huge, glowing locust.

    • Freddy Kruger

      Noone in a way i agree with you. to freeze frame that point of view would be to disconnect it from the whole, but don’t human beings do this when they begin the most fundamental grappling of thoughts, ideas, or questions. Don’t we all kind of think a lot the same along similar lines (Maslow ‘s hierarchy of need). aren’t our DNA 99.99% the same. the little bit of difference makes up who we individually are. would a quantum intuition allow each of us to approximate each other ‘s thought processes in a less invasive way that we might have a better respect the right of privacy, but know the boundaries of safety where we could actual help another human being before we describe them with hurtful language and do more harm than good. Is the idea of a quantum intuition to move in a betterment direction. to improve the quality that defines us as human? Maybe i am completely wrong. What use would the information be if you had no past or no future. i don’t know anyone that lives in that type of reality although Einstein state that past,present,future was happening all at the same time!