The Quantum Moment: How Plank, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty
What a handful! Short title and a mouthful of a subtitle. It was actually the last word of the subtitle that caught my eye, the word ‘uncertainty’. One of the things I’m researching while writing the Paying Melpomene’s Price is the nature of the unexpected or unexpectation (that’s actually a word, spell check be damned!). Well, ‘uncertainty’ is close enough. Maybe the book will have some hidden insight that leads to a eureka moment…
That The Quantum Moment came out in 2014 was another selling feature: so many of the physics titles I’ve been reading are from the 80s. Various John Gribbin titles, Davies’ Cosmic Blueprint and others. What have the physicists discovered in the last 30 years? Maybe all those old books are outdated? By the way, though I said ‘selling feature’, like so many of the books I read, this is a loan from the might Greater Victoria Public Library, or GVPL to the initiates. Usually I’ll borrow secondary sources. Primary sources (which writers like to have around) I’ll usually buy used at Russell Books. They’re the go to used book place in Victoria. They might actually be one of the largest used places in BC, if not Canada: their main outlet on Fort street occupies two units on three floors. Then they have a satellite store a short walk away on View street. They’re not quite The Strand with their 18 miles of books, but hey, that’s in New York City (a fascinating adventure if you get the chance, take a NYC cab to get there for the full hair raising experience).
But for all the success of Russell Books (its good for readers and kudos to them), sometimes I wonder: it’s gotta be hard on the other local used book places. I mean, if you have books to sell or trade, you’d probably take them to Russell because it’s a one stop shop. If everyone’s selling their books to Russell Books, it’d be hard for other used places to stay open. I hear the owner of Renaissance Books is retiring. And Dark Horse Books on, what was it, Johnson street, is no longer there. But I digress…
The chair reminds me of Glenn Gould’s old piano seat. The picture frame has the peculiar quality of being transparent and removing the person (who’s holding it up) from the image. There’s a set of tire marks in parallel. Do you get it? I don’t. The thing about the quantum moment was that it taught us that the observer is part of the system: by observing we change things. The magic frame seems to take the human out of the picture. The boldness of the image is catchy, but confusing.
Since this is a hardcover, the back blurb to The Quantum Moment is actually on the inside of the dust jacket:
The discovery of the quantum-the idea, born in the early 1900s in a remote corner of physics, that energy comes in finite packets instead of infinitely divisible quantities-planted a rich set of metaphors in the popular imagination.
Quantum imagery and language now bombard us like an endless stream of photons. Phrases such as multiverses, quantum leaps, alternate universes, reinvented continually in cartoons and movies, coffee mugs and T-shirts, and fiction and philosophy, reinterpreted by each new generation of artists and writers.
Is a ‘quantum leap’ big of small? How uncertain is the uncertainty principle? Is this barrage of quantum vocabulary pretentious and wacky, or a fundamental shift in the way we think?
All of the above, say Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scarf Goldhaber in this pathbreaking book. The authors-one a philosopher, the other a physicist-draw on their training and six years of co-teaching to dramatize the quantum’s rocky path from scientific theory to public understanding. Together, they and their students explored missteps and mistranslations, jokes and gibberish, of public discussion about the quantum. Their book explores the quantum’s manifestations in everything from art and sculpture to the prose of John Updike and David Foster Wallace. The authors reveal the quantum’s implications for knowledge, metaphor, intellectual exchange, and the contemporary world. Understanding and appreciating quantum language and imagery, and recognizing its misuse, is part of what it means to be an educated person today.
The result is a celebration of language at the interface of physics and culture, perfect for anyone drawn to the infinite variety of ideas.
I feel like the blurb should have included something about the ‘Newtonian moment’. To define the ‘Quantum Moment’ the authors spend a lot of time contrasting it to the mechanistic Newtonian world where models can be still used to demonstrate ideas.
The best part are the cartoons that occur periodically through the book:
Part of the book is devoted towards clarifying the misuse of the ideas of quantum physics in popular culture. Here’s another jawbreaker from Dilbert, one of my favourites (I used to work in an office):
Although it’s a misuse, it’s because it’s wrong that it’s funny. Diligent readers will recall that nothing gets me going like the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Here’s a good one:
One of the focal points of the book is defining the quantum moment against the Newtonian moment. This cartoon captures the differences between the two worldviews:
So, has a lot changed in the last 30 years? My impression is that historians of physics will see the period from 1900-1930 as being more revolutionary than the period between, say, 1980-2010. Between 1900-1930 you had Einstein, Bohr, Poincare, Planck, Heisenberg, and Pauli at their primes. Who do we have today? Hawking the only one I can name off the top of my head. To be sure, today there is CERN and things like ‘hunting for the God particle’ (which they might just have found), but to me things sure seemed more exciting in the first decades of the 20th century. So, it appears as though most of the physics books in the upstairs bookshelves are still up to date. Well, relatively up to date.
Despite this, the last two chapters, Saving Physics and The Now Moment taught me something new. Quite a few of these quantum physics books written for lay readers emphasize the weirdness of it all. Take The Dancing Wu Li Masters with the psychedelic image of multiple legs with pantyhose all revolving around a central axis as the cover:
This book, lent to me by Mr. Durance, my indefatigable grade 7 teacher, equated quantum physics with psychedelia and eastern mysticism.
But is quantum physics that weird? In a way it says that, well, the observer is part of the observation. It’s like the hunter and the wolf: who’s the hunter and who’s the prey? In the final chapters, Crease and Goldhaber argue that there are things weird with Newtonian objectivity as well. Perhaps it’s because we’re so used to it that we don’t notice:
Quantum mechanics undermines a notion of objectivity based on nineteenth-century, Newtonian science-but only that notion. At the same tie that quantum mechanics was emerging in the twentieth century, so was a notion of objectivity that was suitable for describing quantum objects. The term ‘objectivity’ refers to an ideal of knowledge that is frequently characterized as a ‘view from nowhere’, one that an observer might somehow achieve when standing completely apart and disconnected from what was being observed. (emphasis added)
Quantum mechanics, for instance, has helped rid philosophy of the spectre of a Laplacean ideal of knowledge, and ‘intelligence sufficiently vast’ that it could see and describe things as if from no particular time and place, and rid philosophy as well of the vision of a unified science, of a too-narrow conception of phenomena, and of an impossible objectivity.
The Newtonian worldview posits that the scientist can stand and observe things from a godlike perspective outside time and space while the Quantum worldview posits that the observer is also part of the observation. Weird things happen during the observation (such as breaking down wave-particle duality), but in a way, the quantum view is a more human way to look at things. I like this thought.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and it’s been a pleasure to be Doing Melpomene’s Work.