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See Inside September 2010

A Year of Living Dangerously: Reflections on Hot-Button Science

Writing about science and society invites reactions, good and bad, from the middle to the fringe

Last September I wrote my first column for Scientific American, and this September marks my last one. In writing on science issues relevant to our culture and society, there is an inevitable tension between sticking just to science issues and commenting on potentially hot-button social issues. I have tried during the past 12 months to strike some balance, but without fail those issues that stir the greatest outrage also stir the greatest interest.

Nothing seems to stir more discussion than pieces about science and religion, an observation that reminds me of the comment that Henry Kissinger reputedly made about academic disputes: they are so vicious because the stakes are so small. After all, science will continue irrespective of religious opinions, and I expect organized religion will continue to be a part of the cultural landscape, too, largely unaffected by the ongoing march of human knowledge, as it has been for centuries.

Probably my greatest surprise came from the column on my favorite elementary particles, neutrinos. Several notes of thanks came from scientists who have devoted their lives to studying neutrinos’ properties; perhaps they feel underappreciated, even by their colleagues, for studying such ephemeral objects.

Among topics I didn’t get a chance to write about, one stands out, so I will take advantage of this last opportunity to elicit hate mail (and to shamelessly plug my new book about the late physicist Richard Feynman, which is relevant because of its title, Quantum Man).

No area of physics stimulates more nonsense in the public arena than quantum mechanics—and with good reason. No one intuitively understands quantum mechanics because all of our experience involves a world of classical phenomena where, for example, a baseball thrown from pitcher to catcher seems to take just one path, the one described by Newton’s laws of motion. Yet at a microscopic level, the universe behaves quite differently. Electrons traveling from one place to another do not take any single path but instead, as Feynman first demonstrated, take every possible path at the same time.

Moreover, although the underlying laws of quantum mechanics are completely deterministic—I need to repeat this, they are completely deterministic—the results of measurements can only be described probabilistically. This inherent uncertainty, enshrined most in the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle, implies that various combinations of physical quantities can never be measured with absolute accuracy at the same time. Associated with that fact, but in no way equivalent to it, is the dilemma that when we measure a quantum system, we often change it in the process, so that the observer may not always be separated from that which is observed.

When science becomes this strange, it inevitably generates possibilities for confusion, and with confusion comes the opportunity for profit. I hereby wish to bestow my Worst Abusers of Quantum Mechanics for Fun and Profit (but Mostly Profit) award on the following:

Deepak Chopra: I have read numerous pieces by him on why quantum mechanics provides rationales for everything from the existence of God to the possibility of changing the past. Nothing I have ever read, however, suggests he has enough understanding of quantum mechanics to pass an undergraduate course I might teach on the subject.

The Secret: This best-selling book, which spawned a self-help industry, seems to be built in part on the claim that quantum physics implies a “law of attraction” that suggests good thoughts will make good things happen. It doesn’t.

Transcendental meditation: TMers argue that they can fly by achieving a “lower quantum-mechanical ground state” and that the more people who practice TM, the less violent the world will become. This last idea at least is in accord with quantum mechanics, to the extent that if everyone on the planet did nothing but meditate there wouldn’t be time for violence (or acts of kindness, either).

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