Recently, I joined Byrne and Wade on Scigasm Podcast to talk about misconceptions of quantum physics. Apparently, people are wrong about quantum physics on the internet! Now, since the vast majority of people don’t listen to Scigasm Podcast [burn emoji], I thought I’d expand a bit on dispelling some of the mysticism surrounding the quantum.
Would it be fair to say quantum physics is a new field in the applied sciences, though it has been around for a while in the theoretical world?
No. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There are two ways to answer this question.
The super pedantic way: all is quantum. And so all technology is based on quantum physics. Electricity is the flow of electrons. Electrons are fundamental quantum particles. However, you could rightfully say that knowledge of quantum physics was not necessary to develop the technology.
In reality, though, all the technology around us today would not exist without understanding quantum physics. Obvious examples are lasers, MRI and atomic clocks. Then there are technologies such as GPS, for example, that rely on the precision timing afforded by atomic clocks. Probably most importantly is the develop of the modern transistor, which required the understanding of semiconductors. Transistors exist, and are necessary, for the probably of electronic devices surrounding you right now.
However, all of that is based on an understanding of bulk quantum properties — lots of quantum systems behaving the same way. You could say this is quantum technology 1.0.
Today, we are developing quantum technology 2.0. This is built on the ability to control individual quantum systems and get them to interact with each other. Different properties emerge with this capability.
Does the human brain operate using properties of the quantum world?
There are two things this could mean. One is legit and other is not. There is a real field of study called quantum biology. This is basically material physics, where the material is biological. People want to know if we need more than classical physics to explain, say, energy transfer in ever more microscopic biochemical interactions.
The other thing is called quantum consciousness, or something equally grandiose. Now, some well-known physicists have written about this. I’ll note that this is usually long after tenure. These are mostly metaphysical musings, at best.
In either case, and this is true for anything scientific, it all depends on what you mean by properties of the quantum world. Of course, everything is quantum — we are all made of fundamental particles. So one has to be clear what is meant by the “true” quantum effects.
Then… there are the crackpots. There the flawed logic is as follows: consciousness is mysterious, quantum is mysterious, therefore consciousness is quantum. This is like saying: dogs have four legs, this chair has four legs, therefore this chair is a dog. It’s a logical fallacy.
Quantum healing is the idea that quantum phenomena are responsible for our health. Can we blame quantum mechanics for cancer? Or can we heal cancer with the power of thought alone?
Sure, you can blame physics for cancer. The universe wants to kill us after all. I mean, on the whole, it is pretty inhospitable to life. We are fighting it back. I guess scientists are like jujitsu masters — we use the universe against itself for our benefit.
But, there is a sense in which diseases are cured by thought. It is the collective thoughts and intentional actions of scientists which cure disease. The thoughts of an individual alone are useless without a community.
Is it true that subatomic particles such as electrons can be in multiple places at once?
If you think of the particles has tiny billiard balls, then no, almost by definition. A thing, that is defined by its singular location, cannot be two places at once. That’s like asking if you can make a square circle. The question doesn’t even make sense.
Metaphors and analogies always have their limitations. It is useful to think this way about particles sometimes. For example, think of a laser. You likely are not going too far astray if you think of the light in a laser as a huge number of little balls flying straight at the speed of light. I mean that is how we draw it for students. But a physicist could quickly drum up a situation under which that picture would lead to wrong conclusions even microscopically.
Does quantum mechanics only apply to the subatomic?
Not quite. If you believe that quantum mechanics applies to fundamental particles and that fundamental particles make up you and me, then quantum mechanics also applies to you and me.
This is mostly true, but building a description of each of my particles and the way they interact using the rules of quantum mechanics would be impossible. Besides, Newtonian mechanics works perfectly fine for large objects and is much simpler. So we don’t use quantum mechanics to describe large objects.
Not yet, anyway. The idea of quantum engineering is to carefully design and build a large arrangement of atoms that behaves in fundamentally new ways. There is nothing in the rules of quantum mechanics that forbids it, just like there was nothing in the rules of Newtonian mechanics that forbade going to the moon. It’s just a hard problem that will take a lot of hard work.
Do quantum computers really assess every possible outcome at once?
No. If it could, it would be able to solve every possible problem instantaneously. In fact, we have found only a few classes of problems that we think a quantum computer could speed up. These are problems that have a mathematical structure that looks similar to quantum mechanics. So, we exploit that similarity to come up with easier solutions. There is nothing magical going on.
Can we use entanglement to send information at speeds faster than the speed of light?
No. Using entanglement to send information faster than light is like a perpetual motion machine. Each proposal looks detailed and intricate. But some non-physical thing is always hidden under the rug.
Could I use tachyons to become The Flash? And if so, where do I get tachyons?
This is described in my books. Go buy them.
Originally published at csferrie.com on March 11, 2018.