Stop Abusing Quantum Physics

Quantum this, quantum that. Everybody loves a quantum, right? Because probability versus certainty so anything can happen, and nothing can be observed without the observer changing it, and it’s just so profound, you know? All that relativism and possibility!

Except it’s not a metaphor. Quantum physics isn’t some marvelous set of life principles you can scale up to living room size. It’s science stuff, which means that all that probability and uncertainty is actually really, really precise and strict.

(Same reason we don’t have giant spiders: they don’t scale up. They breathe using body surface, and surface area increases at a lower rate than volume. You’re welcome.)

Follow the bouncing ball

Let’s start with the whole thing about how observing something inevitably changes it. People looooove to make this one into a metaphor about how we all see things differently, how no two views are the same, blah blah blah.

But it’s actually a pretty straightforward concept: the way you observe something in quantum physics is to bounce something else off of it. And when you do that, you change the direction and velocity of the first thing. It’s like trying to figure out how big and fast a baseball is, and what direction it’s going, by throwing a basketball at it in mid-flight and seeing where the basketball goes. There’s nothing really profound about saying that hitting a moving baseball with a moving basketball changes the trajectory of both. There is similarly nothing really profound about saying that bouncing an electron off a photon changes the trajectory of both. (Being able to do it and measure it is pretty darn cool though.)

Scientist doing quantum measurements.

That’s really all we’re talking about here. Nothing mystical. Nothing about how we feel inside. Just that bouncing one thing against another thing affects both things. In the real world we know, this is how we look at stuff: photons bounce off the stuff, causing changes (which are small and hard to notice but can have visible effects over time like fading a work of art), and then we get hit in the eyeballs with the photons. For a thing to be observed, it has to interact with other things. Physically. And physical interactions cause change. This isn’t a metaphor for how Democrats and Republicans really need to come together and talk it out.

Probability not

And the probability stuff? The notion that everything is always fluctuating anyway, coming in and out of existence, so anything is possible? Well, theoretically. But the probability of a bunch of particles conspiring to turn your Ford Focus into a Tesla is so vanishingly small that, while not impossible, it might as well be. Quantum physics won’t get you washboard abs or pay off your student debt. It could, but it won’t.


And if you think that somehow you’re going to magic quantum mechanics into doing your bidding by using your superhot thought waves, go back to the first part of this post. If your thought beams were a real thing (they’re not), you’d be flinging basket balls at baseballs. You would be changing things in the physical world. You know, the way people at a Tesla factory do. No magic in that!

But of course none of that is happening anyway. Deepak Chopra is lying to you.

So please, stop using quantum mechanics as a metaphor for relativism or probability. It’s stupid and inaccurate and it makes the particles mad.

Originally published at Josh Philip Ross.