quantum physics

November 13, 2007

This week I decided to finally read Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s a bit embarrassing I haven’t read it yet, since the subject matter bridges my fields of study so perfectly.

Not that I have more than a surface understanding of quantum physics, but I’m fascinated all the same. I edited an officemates thesis one year and I have to admit that at one point I’m pretty sure my brain had a fire drill. All of my thoughts marched outside and lined up on the curb and refused to come back inside until the bell rang.

Over at the [tag]WiredScience[/tag] blog Correlations, [tag]Clifford Johnson[/tag] ponders the flaws in our thinking about [tag]quantum mechanics[/tag]. Both the way it’s been taught in the U.S. and the place these concepts hold in the popular imagination.

Even for science majors at college, it is very common for the parts of physics that deal with quantum mechanics to be taught in a rush at the end of a semester long freshman course as a bit of “modern physics”. This persists to some extent beyond freshman years as well. The whole supposed weirdness of it all is over-emphasized and over-blown in class and also in popular presentations (I always argue with my friend the excellent science writer KC Cole about this – I want people to stop prefacing quantum issues with the word “weird”, while she says “but it is weird”, and I reply “not necessarily”… and so it goes) and so it ends up being perceived as strange, not of this world, and/or totally misused and misapplied (for example by charlatan “new age” film makers and so forth).

The problem is that we all fall into the same trap when teaching about this material. It is always taught as though it were in contrast or in opposition to classical (Newtonian) physics. Way too much time is spent worrying about philosophical implications of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle for example. That and other aspects of the physics would not seem so weird if we had not spent all that time prejudicing the listener with misleading concepts, focusing on entirely irrelevant concepts (given the context) that make them think of electrons and atoms as little billiard balls and so forth. Then we end up with a set of “quantum rules” that seem weird only because we should not have been thinking in terms of billiard balls in the first place. You can see part of the problem in the very name of the Uncertainty Principle. This is just the English translation of something that would have been better translated as the Indeterminacy Principle, referring not to being uncertain about the value of a quantity (the position or momentum of some billiard ball like object), but the fundamental fact that the quantity simply has no meaning in some situations – It cannot be determined. Hence “Indeterminacy”. The billiard ball images we insist on using out of context makes us ask the wrong – meaningless – questions, to which the answers then seem weird. (In several other languages, the Indeterminacy Principle is the common usage.)

I know that’s a pretty big pull-quote, but I think it’s worth reading and really thinking about and I know not everyone reads the referenced materials they see in blog posts. (Which is a shame because manipulating meaning by eliminating context is so very easy to do, on purpose to serve and agenda or inadvertantly due to haste or carelessness).

Science education is already verging on shambles in this country. Biology and chemistry education at all levels is a battlefield, research dollars in higher education are so tight it’s a wonder scientists don’t kill one another over them. Giving students an incomplete education in physics only compounds these problems. If I’m not careful this will digress into a tirade about the sorry state of math education with a small detour to address so-called Intelligent Design, so I’m just going to let Johnson’s own conclusionary words speak for themselves:

Something is definitely wrong with the way we teach basic science if the key concepts that underlie so many of the things that affect our lives are considered to be not part of the everyday. I’m not saying that everyone should know all the details, of course, but this stuff is 100 years old and is the foundation of some of our most important industries and the entire modern information age. People should know where all those goodies come from.

As educators, writers, program makers, and journalists, we need to do better.

It was a longer piece, you should go read it. And check out the rest of the Correlations blog while you’re wandering around. Good stuff happening over there.

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November 13, 2007 @ 12:05 pm

I never took physics in high school (a story in itself), but became fascinated later in life and sorry I hadn’t. So yes, I’m another weirdo who will read physics books for fun — but for me mostly those combined with the outer space element. The Trek geek in me rules. Just sayin’.

November 13, 2007 @ 12:09 pm

I just love the fact that you wear your 1960s spacefleet go-go dress while you read about physics. :-)

November 13, 2007 @ 3:22 pm

That’s “Starfleet,” not “Spacefleet”

November 13, 2007 @ 3:23 pm

Yes, dear.