I learned a lot this week, such is the nature of my work. During my workshops, I listen to short presentations from people on topics of their choice – and that choice can range from keeping a hedgehog as a pet to the role of network slicing in artificial intelligence and just about anything in between. On occasion, the presentations give me pause for thought. One on Young’s double-slit experiment sent me on a track this week that uncovered the concept of quantum woo, i.e., the justification of irrational beliefs by an obfuscatory reference to quantum physics. While I may have been accused of being irrational when I was younger and more prone to flights of fancy, my name has never, to my knowledge, been mentioned in the same breath as quantum physics. I simply don’t have a science brain. But I do have a strange relationship with the whole conscience thing. And I was intrigued.
Make yourself a coffee and come back and watch this.
Quantum woo or my reality?
I experienced something similar on the tram one morning (perhaps this is putting the woo into quantum woo). It was full. I was only going three stops. I was having difficulty stamping my ticket in the machine. About to give up, take a free trip, and hope the controllers didn’t come aboard, I saw someone looking at me. They were plugged in. Head-phoned. Staring. They could well have been staring vacantly, not seeing anything, but my brain told me that they were looking at what I was doing, observing me. So I changed my behaviour. Instead of giving up on the ticket, I persevered. I eventually wiggled it into validation just as the tram pulled into my stop. I could easily have gotten away with not paying, but the very fact that I thought someone was observing my bad made me be good. mmmm…the power of observation. Is this why a watched pot never boils?
Anyway, I was intrigued. This sort of thing fascinates me. I’m quite partial to the inexplicable, the mystery. So I went in search of more.
The trouble with having a wealth of information at my fingertips, courtesy of Mr Google, is that just when I think I have a handle on something, some other article pops up and disputes it. But such is the nature of quantum woo. And such is the case with the double-slit experiment. Last year, in 2018, scientist Rob Lea, commenting on a piece he read in PC Magazine had had enough of quantum woo – he wrote to set the record straight. I can’t get my head around his argument but I think he’s saying that this whole idea of conscious observation changing the result is a tad ludicrous. Thoroughly intrigued at this stage, I scrolled down through the comments and saw that a few people had mentioned the Delayed Choice experiment. I had to know more.
So what does the delayed-choice experiment say about my ticket thing? That when I saw the chap looking at me, when I opened my eyes, I went back to my original intent and validated my ticket? Mind-boggling stuff, all of it. These are scientists. Scientists, I tell myself. And I wonder why science has trouble believing in God?
I get the whole quantum woo thing though: a little knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing. But yet again, I’m left wondering at the certainty of people with intractable opinions on, say, world politics. Can anyone ever know enough to be right? To be certain?