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A Quantum Misunderstanding

Back in 2014, self-help guru Deepak Chopra made claims on social media along the lines that science could not explain the Big Bang or what happened before it.  He was quickly corrected by many people who disagreed.  One of them was Professor Brian Cox.  There was a short brouhaha over the whole thing and it now seems Deepak might owe Brian a million dollars.  You can read about the whole thing here.  So, without the constraints of 140 characters, Cosmic Genome host Robin Ince sat down with Brian to get to the bottom of it all.  And since Deepak seemed to ‘enjoy’ our puppets so much, they thought they’d pop back to help. 

All the problems with interpretations of quantum mechanics come down to how you interpret that description.

Robin - Right, Brian, what I can’t understand is there seems to be a lot of debate among quantum scientists, because you have one way of looking at things but the quantum scientist Deepak Chopra seems to be very different to your take.  Why is it that two scientists, you and Deepak Chopra, don’t agree with each other?

Brian - Do you want me to give a sensible answer?

Robin – Well, you could do, though not necessarily, not necessarily.  No, no, no, well, what is it, OK, quantum consciousness, that’s what he’s on about, isn’t it? It’s this…what is it that you find…what is difficult with Deepak’s ideas, philosophically or scientifically?

Brian - See, the thing about quantum theory is that it’s our basis for the understanding of the physical world, almost all of it.  Apart from gravity,  which is usually described by Einstein’s theory of relativity, everything else is quantum and it’s a very precise, specific theory.  It tells you how particles move around and interact with each other, basically, that’s what it does.  There are problems…well, problems is probably not the right word, there are…so, you can calculate things with the theory and the calculations work so that allows you to do things like build transistors, understand how chemical bonds work and all sorts of things and make predictions on the possibility of finding the Higgs boson at the LHC because the Standard Model of Particle Physics uses quantum theory, so it definitely works, it makes predictions and they’re testable and verifiable.

But it has features that can be misunderstood very easily.  So, for example, it has…

[A loud noise as something smashes through the vertical blinds.]

…it has the description of an electron.  Let’s say we put an electron in this room - it’s quite a big room - and the description…

Robin - And what is wonderful is, as you said that, it was if the electron was wildly moving around this room.

Brian - It’s a spirit.

Robin - All the venetian blinds moved as if the anger of Deepak had come upon them.

Brian - Yeah, that’s what I thought it was!  The anger of Deepak.  It’s a good film that.  Charlton Heston’s brilliant in it.

Robin - [Charlton Heston voice] I’d love to see Charlton Heston as Deepak Chopra.  The Ten Commandments of Deepak Chopra.

Brian - The Guru.  The Diamond-Encrusted Guru.  So, if you put an electron…

Robin - Deepak Chopra: Lust for Glory.

Brian – So…you put an electron in this room then the description of it, it’s a thing called the wave function.  It’s basically a probability distribution but a bit more complicated so, essentially what it is, so, so…you put it here and you don’t have a theory that says there’s a particle here, [singing] and a particle there

Robin - Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Brian - So there’s a distribution of probabilities that will tell you how likely it is to find the electron in a particular place.

Robin - Right.

Brian - So, all the problems with interpretations of quantum mechanics come down to how you interpret that description.  And the problem is it allows for…it sounds like…it’s not totally understood, right, this is how science works, so the interpretations of the theory are debatable.  Many physicists now think that there’s something called a many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, all the way back to Everett, which is becoming more fashionable, which suggests that actually this ensemble of probabilities, or possibilities if you like, is real and so we also exist in that state.  And it’s often misrepresented as saying, ‘Well, every time I look at something does that mean there’s a copy of me looking at that and a copy of me’ and it’s not really that, it’s just that we live in this wave function and so it’s tricky to understand.  

There may be an interesting role…some physicists will say that we understand how we experience the world, we don’t really understand how to map this theory onto our experience of this theory, but that’s a door through which drivel can seep.

Robin - So it’s this idea that, well, what first got you in…because I’ve heard people say, ‘Well if you’re ill you can make a quantum leap from being ill to be well’…

Brian - No.  No.

Robin - Which kind of seems more like the TV series Quantum Leap.

Brian - No!

Robin - That’s what I mean, there’s…

Brian - I mean, you can talk about…people also use Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to say, ‘Well everything’s uncertain’.

Robin - Yeah, science says everything’s uncertain.

Brian - It’s not uncertain.  The uncertainty principle is emergent from the laws, the basic rules, that tell you particles hop around, what the probability is they’ll hop around and how they’ll interact with each another, and it emerges from that.  And the uncertainty principle actually emerges in a similar way, or…there’s a similar statement you can make in classical physics with a tuning fork.  If you get a tuning fork and go ‘boink’ and then you catch it really quickly then you can’t tell precisely what the note is and, actually, if you only let it ring for a tiny fraction of a second you’ve no chance of telling what the note is and that’s analogous to something called the energy time uncertainty principle which means that if you, if you…it’s often represented as saying that if you have a particle then it can borrow some energy from the vacuum for a certain amount of time and the more energy it borrows the less time it can borrow it for and that’s a similar actual effect.  It’s a wave effect, basically.

So, there’s all sorts of misunderstandings because of the…I mean, some of it goes back to the initial theory when it was written down in the twenties; it’s a difficult theory and it’s a counterintuitive theory, it has probability seemingly at the heart of it, it goes to the heart of…

Robin - So where do you and Deepak split in your…you know, at what point with your shared understanding of quantum mechanics, where do you find that you and Deepak no longer agree?

Brian - Um, if I’m being serious, because I think it’s a serious problem, actually, the problem is that the kind of…well, you might say that astrology and homeopathy and all these things, they’re kind of harmless aren’t they?  Well, they’re not really when they feed into…when they become anti-science, what you’re talking about, so when you start saying, ‘Oh, well, OK then, everything’s a bit relative, and everything’s a bit uncertain, so I don’t really need to vaccinate my child do I’, so I think there’s a serious point to be made.  I think it’s…I get annoyed when people misuse, either accidentally or just, you know, it may be accidentally, but they just really misrepresent the science, perhaps because they don’t understand it.  I don’t know, there might not be any malice there but still I think it’s worth challenging.

Robin - But what’s it…so, you had a little bit of a kind of back and forth on social media.  What was the starting point of that?  If you just give us the story of…

Brian – Well, that’s a simple thing.  So I saw a tweet that said science will never be able to describe what happened before the big bang.  Now, there’s a semantic point to clear up here, well, what do you mean by the big bang? If you mean the classical big bang, which I would say is the point at which this universe…you collapse it down, collapse it down and at some point 13.8 billion years ago when it was very dense and very hot and then it expanded and cooled and out of that the particles like protons and neutrons sort of crystallised, if you like, and the quarks bound together and you get all this…where if you take that as the big bang then there’s a period that we’re beginning to at least address theoretically before that, which is a period called inflation.  Now we can define the big bang as being the origin of everything before that time, and there are people looking at that as well…

Robin - How did you fit all this into a one tweet reply to Deepak Chopra?

Brian – Well, I just said there are theories that address what happened before the big bang, see inflationary cosmology, which depending on your semantic definition of what the big bang is can be regarded as a theory of what happened before the big bang, and the point is it’s contentless to say science…you can’t say science will never address what happened before the big bang!  There are the beginnings, at least there are theories that speak the language of what may have happened or could bring a universe into existence, certainly this, or an infinite of universes, then you can talk about the creation mechanism of these little pocket universes like ours, that some people call them.  Imagine lots of big bangs happening all the time.  In theories called eternal inflation there are big bangs happening, an infinite number of big bangs happening now, and new universes being created.  So in that sense…

Robin - This is where we nearly had fisticuffs yesterday where we had an experimental cosmologist and a theoretical physicist, and the two of them, that was, whoa!  It was like a Doris Day and Rock Hudson movie in the first reel.

Brian - Yeah. So, as always on Twitter, the subtlety tends to be lost. On Twitter.  But I think there’s a serious point here, which is that the thing I object to is when people make strong statements such as ‘science cannot explain what happened before the big bang’.  That’s a contentless thing to say.  If we are to ever understand what happened before the big bang, if we’re ever able to form a theory of everything that perhaps even suggests how the framework of the laws of physics came into existence - who knows, right - then it will be through science.  That is the way that you will find it out.

And that’s what I object to.  And I say the reason why, the sensible reason why I object to that, is because I think that anti-science is a problem.  And it’s certainly a problem when you come to discuss things like climate change or vaccination policy or health policy or the investment in research and development, all those things; the problem is that if you foster the idea that there’s something beyond and this is just one way of looking at the universe, there are many others, there aren’t really.  There’s only one way of understanding reality.

Robin - Anyway, we’ve got to stop now because your quantum healer’s come.  All you’ve got to do, now I’ve told you, you’ve got to crawl into a box and remain unobserved and it should get rid of your flu.

Brian [holding up a plush robot toy] - Here he is.

Robin - Yeah.  He’s good isn’t he?

Brian  - Yep.  Hello.