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Who's Afraid of Quantum Mechanics?

ByKate BeckerThe Nature of RealityThe Nature of Reality

Is quantum mechanics less spooky than advertised?

That’s the question being mulled in the blogosphere after last month’s three-day writers’ workshop on quantum mechanics. [Disclosure: The workshop received support from the Foundational Questions Institute, which also supports this blog.] As Tushna Commissariat asks at the

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Do science writers overemphasize and ultimately misconstrue the weirder, “spooky” aspects of quantum theory, or are they right to focus on these facets because they are the very things that interest people?

“The problem, of course, is that weirdness sells, and it’s hard to find the right balance between mentioning enough of the exotic aspects to draw people in without being gratuitously confusing,” writes physicist and author Chad Orzel, blogging at Uncertain Principles .

What’s the harm in emphasizing quantum “spookiness”? It could unintentionally undermine good science. Quantum mechanics may be weird, but it’s theoretically and experimentally rigorous. It isn’t mysticism or pseudoscience. By picking our adjectives from the Halloween bin, we may unintentionally cause readers to lump quantum theory with ghost stories and quasi-spiritual snake oil like the “Law of Attraction.”

But quantum weirdness isn’t just snappy branding. The rules of the quantum world are defiantly at odds with our everyday expectations, and even extensive experience with the equations of quantum theory can only go so far toward establishing a “ gut feeling ” about how things go in the quantum world.

Quantum mechanics isn’t the only strange creature in the zoo, of course. As physicist Sabine Hossenfelder points out at her blog BackReaction :

We could just discard it as headline making, a way to generate interest, but that doesn’t really explain why quantum mechanics is described as weirder or stranger as other new and often surprising effects. How is time-dilation in a gravitational field less strange than entanglement?

Time dilation—the relativistic effect that causes time to pass more slowly when you’re in a strong gravitational field or traveling close to the speed of light—is pretty weird, and I’m not sure I agree with the assertion that writers don’t emphasize the bizarreness of this and other relativistic oddities. Yet it must mean something that even Einstein, the guy who came up with relativity, was unnerved by quantum mechanics.

Because of that discomfort, Einstein rejected of some fundamentals of the quantum worldview. But for others, quantum “spookiness” is a welcome thrill. Hossenfelder quotes Anna North’s recent Op-Talk piece in the New York Times:

“Many of us may crave that tug, the thrill of something as-yet-unexplained… We may want to get to the bottom of it, but in another way, we may not — as long as we haven’t quite figured everything out, we can keep the wonder alive.”

North is talking about science fiction, but her point applies to science, too. Breakthrough discoveries often open more questions than they answer. That’s one of the great pleasures of science: it doesn’t snuff out wonder, it kindles it. Is that “spooky”? If spooky means supernatural, then no. But if it expresses something that lies beyond the edge of our understanding, then I’d say yes.

In using the language of spookiness and mystery to describe quantum mechanics, do we do science a disservice, or are we embracing the thrill of the as-yet-undiscovered? What do you think: Is quantum mechanics spooky?

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