Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Schrödinger's Cat Litter

"Quantum mechanics means that affirmations change the reality of the universe."
Really, there are people who believe in that nonsense. I don't know whether affirmations work as a psychological tool (ex: to deal with depression or addiction), though I've been told that they might have a placebo effect. But I do know that quantum mechanics has nothing to do with this New Age nonsense.

The most misunderstood example: Schrödinger's cat

A common thread of the nonsense uses Schrödinger's cat example and goes something like this:
"There's a cat in a box and it might be alive or dead due to a machine that depends on a radioactive decay. Because of quantum mechanics, the cat is really alive and dead at the same time; it's the observer looking at the cat that makes the cat become dead or alive. The observer creates the reality."
No, really, this is a pretty good summary of how the argument goes in most discussions. It's also complete nonsense. The real Schrödinger's cat example is quite the opposite (note the highlighted parts):

(Source: translation of Schrödinger's "Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik," or "The current situation in quantum mechanics.")

As the excerpt shows, Schrödinger himself described applying quantum uncertainty to macroscopic objects as "ridiculous." In fact, in the original paper, Schrödinger calls it burlesque:

In other words, this New Age nonsense takes Schrödinger's example of misuse of a quantum concept and uses it as the foundation for some complete nonsense, doing precisely the opposite of the point of that example.

Sometimes "nonsense" isn't strong enough a descriptor, and references to bovine effluvium would be more appropriate. In honor of the hypothetical cat, I'll refer to this as Schrödinger's cat litter.

Say his name: Heisenberg (physics, not crystal meth)

Schrödinger isn't the only victim of these cat litter purveyors: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle also gets distorted into nonsense like:
"You can't observe the position and the momentum of an object at the same time. If you're observing momentum, you're in the flow. If you're observing position, you're no longer in the flow."
As I've mentioned before, when over-analyzing a Heisenberg joke, the uncertainty created by Heisenberg's inequality ($\Delta p \times \Delta x \ge h$) for macroscopic objects is many orders of magnitude smaller than the instruments available to measure it. TL;DR:
Police officer: "Sir, do you realize you were going 67.58 MPH?
Werner Heisenberg: "Oh great. Now I'm lost." 
Heisenberg's uncertainty re: his position is of the order of $10^{-38}$ meters, or about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times smaller than an inch.
And yet, these New Age cat litter purveyors use the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to talk about human actions and decisions, as if it was applicable to that domain.

What are the "defenders of science" doing while this goes on?

Ignorance, masquerading as erudition, sold to rubes who believe they're enlightened. Hey, I'm sure many of the rubes "love science" (as long as they don't have to learn any).

Meanwhile, "science popularizers" spend their time arguing politics. Because that's what science is now, apparently...