The Rise of the Quantum Hippies

... and why I blame Niels Bohr.

A satirical hyperbolic polemic

Recently there was a bit of a tempest in a teapot in the LinkedIn quantum physics group because it is very much over-run by members who I dub "Quantum Hippies".  I.e. the kind of people who think they’ve read a quantum mechanics book after putting down Capra’s the Tao of Physics – you have probably encountered the type.

So this begs the question: Where did they spring from?

It certainly didn’t start with Capra, he was just a catalyst.

I blame this guy:

Niels Bohr stands accused.

If it wasn’t for him, and his side-kick Heisenberg, Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation would have never become the kind of dogma that it did.  We are still suffering the consequences.

Science is a competitive sport, even more so in the olden days when the myth of the lone genius reigned supreme.  Most of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics lacked many things but not ego. Much has been written about the struggle between Bohr and Einstein. The latter of course never stood a chance as he has been far removed from the development of the new theory. It didn’t help that he was old at the time and easily painted as a relic. Other challengers to the Copenhagen Interpretation were dealt with in various ways.

  • It was helpful that David Bohm could be vilified as a communist and nobody listened to de Broglie anyway.
  • Schrödinger mocked the new dogma with his famous cat in a box thought experiment but did not have it in him to put up a real fight.
  • Max Planck fell into the same geezer category as Einstein, but was even easier to dismiss due to his far less prominent name recognition.
  • Karl Popper was “just a philosopher”.
  • Others like Landé weren’t much of a challenge, falling into the “Landé who?” category.

Hence the Copenhagen Interpretation reigned supreme, and much energy was now devoted to keep its dirty little secret tucked away, in the closet, under the stairs with the key thrown away.

Maybe some of the energy directed at defending it against the other interpretations was in part motivated by the thought that it’ll be easier to keep this problematic aspect of the new theory under wraps. For whatever reason, Bohr and Heisenberg gave birth to a new physics omertà, the “shut-up and calculate” doctrine.  This would have far reaching consequences - way beyond the realm of physics.

The raison d'être of the hippie revolution was to challenge authority (that arguably was asking for it).

What a delightful gift Bohr had prepared for a counter-culture movement that was already high on half-understood Asian influenced mysticism and other more regulated substances. And so the Copenhagen Interpretation’s dirty little secret was dragged out of the closet and subsequently prostituted.  I am of course referring to the fact that the wave-collapse originally invented by Heisenberg requires an observer or observing mind. This was subsequently bastardized into the idea that “the conscious mind creates reality”. Just as Einstein’s Special and General Relativity entered popular culture as the spectacularly wrong premise that "everything is relative”,  cart blanche for magical thinking was brought to you courtesy of some of the greatest minds of the 20th century.  A more spectacular blow‑back is hard to imagine.

This was super-charged by Bell’s theorem that confirmed quantum mechanics’ essential non-locality.  This in turn was translated as the mystical certainty that “everything is instantaneously connected all the time”.  And so to this day you get spectacularly wrong pop science articles like this one. It completely ignores that these days entangled qbits (the essential ingredient in the thought experiment on which this article hinges) are very well understood as a quantum information resource, and that they cannot facilitate an instantaneous connection between distant events.  The term “instantaneous” has no absolute meaning when Special Relativity is taken into account. This is especially egregious when contemplating that this was published in the American Association of Physics Teacher’s journal.

Although it’s a well-established fact that the public American education system has hit rock bottom in the developed world I still would have expected better.

The Flower Power movement has been generally associated with the left political spectrum but it is in the nature of such powerful memes to eventually permeate the entire mainstream thinking.  Hence American journalists prescribe to a “he said she said” school of journalistic “objectivity”, after all everything’s relative, and so political operatives of all color feel fully justified in subscribing to a “Triumph of the Will” line of thinking.

When Ron Suskind interviewed inside staff from the Bush Jr. administration and questioned them as to how they thought they could just remake Iraq with the limited resources committed, the staffer famously answered: “… when we act, we create our own reality”.

Yes, I blame Niels Bohr for that too.

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17 Responses to The Rise of the Quantum Hippies

  1. My complements on your writing style! Your use of words have a tour de force engaging the senses into provocative adjuction. Even though we stand on oposing ends of the scale with regards to our views, I have learned a great deal. I hold high esteem for you and the intellect you display. I must argue one item on this post…not all “Quantum Hippies” have been influenced by “other more regulated substances”. It is possible we answer to a separate set of memes :-)

    • Very much appreciated coming from such an accomplished writer! I must admit I haven’t read material of yours before, but going through it, I can see why you have a Huffpost blog. I especially liked your Over the Hills and Far Away… piece.

      Your comment arrived as I was cradling my baby daughter, sniffing her hair, putting me miles away from the mood of my polemic and much more in line with your contemplative style of writing.

      When I cranked this out yesterday I was trying to channel the raw energy of a Lewis Black rant. I guess that kind of worked.

  2. rrtucci says:

    Excellent and very funny writing Henning.
    It points to one of the reasons why I think we need to build quantum computers. To bring quantum mechanics to the mobs of aging hippies, and to little Johnny and little Dieter in Bavaria.

    http://qbnets.wordpress.com/2009/12/18/why-quantum-computers-little-dieter-needs-to-do-quantum-mechanics/

  3. Raoul Ohio says:

    Good points, although I doubt of many hippies embraced “Shut up and calculate”, because it requires calculating.

    I confess to having hitchhiked to SF to join the hippies in the 60’s myself, but I recovered pretty quickly. A couple years later I worked some example in a QM book (I think it was a two electron atom, perhaps by translating into elliptic coordinates, or something else clever) and the author stated something like “Congratulations! You now know half of the exact solutions ever found”. The second half were harder.

  4. Although I don’t have a copyright on the term I think I can decree that you are not a Quantum Hippie as you freely admitted to some reasonably hard math :-)

    Arguably the crux with finding QM solutions makes for at least half of the allure of the quest for universal quantum computation.

  5. udanax19 says:

    “a counter-culture movement that was already high on half-understood Asian influenced mysticism”

    you, my dear friend, are hilarious and an eloquent genius. i am going to use this quote likely for the rest of my life to describe my annoyance with many, many people.

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  9. Simon Phoenix says:

    Excellent article Henning.

    I feel you’re being a little too harsh on Niels though. How else, one wonders, were they to make sense of it all? Your other blog post (something being decidely of the elderly fish variety in the state of Denmark) highlights the bickering over interpretation that still persists today amongst physicists.

    But let’s not forget Hugh either. Not only do we have quantum hippies here – but they pop up like that bad smell in Denmark in all of those branched universes too!

  10. Henning Dekant says:

    Simon, Bohr surely could have handled the abuse, after all he was not only a big boy but a giant :-)

    At ant rate, I wonder how he’d feel today about all the pop-sci bastardizations that the role of the observer in the Copenhagen interpretation spawned.

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  12. Hilarious but neat!

    On a more serious note, check out the following paper; it certainly makes for a more interesting article from among a whole lot of them:

    J. M. Marin (2009) “‘Mysticism in quantum mechanics: the forgotten controversy,” Eur. J. Phys. 30 807 doi:10.1088/0143-0807/30/4/014. It’s behind the paywall, but the text is available for reading (though not for downloading) at academia.edu, here.

    Also see Marin’s interview by Lisa Zyga at Phys.org, here.

    –Ajit
    [E&OE]

  13. Tom Ray says:

    Henning,

    I’m glad I surfed over here from Scott’s site. Really good article, and cautionary on the hazards of confusing science with philosophy. Thanks.

    Tom

    • Henning Dekant says:

      Thanks Tom, wished I could make every article flow like the Quantum Hippie one :-)

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