Shermer Spanks Chopra

Michael Shermer has has an excellent essay responding to Deepak Chopra’s “quantum flapdoodle.”

Chopra’s use and abuse of quantum physics is what the Caltech quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann calls “quantum flapdoodle,” which consists of stringing together a series of terms and phrases from quantum physics and asserting that they explain something in our daily experience. But the world of subatomic particles has no correspondence with the world of Newtonian mechanics. They are two different physical systems at two different scales, and they are described by two different types of mathematics.

Chopra’s theology notwithstanding, the hydrogen atoms in the sun are not sitting around in a cloud of possibilities waiting for a cosmic mind to signal them to fuse together to form helium atoms and thereby to throw off heat and light for our planet. The ordinary laws of physics are sufficient for these purposes. If large enough, a cloud of hydrogen gas collapsing under the force of gravity reaches a critical point of pressure. Hydrogen atoms then fuse together into helium atoms and give off heat and light — and they would do so even if there were not a single mind in the entire cosmos to observe it.

Great stuff! Be sure also to have a look at Shermer’s comparison of traditional theology to quantum mysticism.

Comments

  1. #1 Juice
    August 2, 2010

    Shermer is trying to make it sound as though quantum effects have no bearing on the macroscopic world. This is obviously false.

  2. #2 Juice
    August 2, 2010

    Whoa. But, of course, Chopra is totally FOS.

  3. #3 eric
    August 2, 2010

    Good article, with one quibble; scientists have been able to observe fairly large objects like C60 (buckeyballs) exhibiting QM behavior rather than classical behavior. See for instance, Nairz, Arndt, and Zeilinger: “Quantum interference experiments with large molecules.” Am. J. Phys. 71(4), 2003.

    Its an interesting area of research, figuring out just where and under what conditions classical effects begin to dominate over quantum ones. I’d put money on Chopra’s woo version being not only wrong, but less interesting than whatever nature actually reveals.

  4. #4 Tyler DiPietro
    August 2, 2010

    I typically ignore quantum woo. 99.9% of the people espousing it can’t solve basic undergrad problems like finding the energy eigenstates of a hydrogen atom, let alone pontificate on the cosmic implications of the entirety of quantum theory.

    It’s like those who pontificate on economics. When someone wants to preach to me about the superiority of Austrian business cycle theory over Keynesian models, I hand them a basic comparative statics problem and say “solve it and I’ll talk to you.”

  5. #5 Valhar2000
    August 3, 2010

    Actually, Juice, it sounds to me like Shermer is emphasizing that macroscopic objects behave like macroscopic objects, and that attempting to apply though patterns appropriate to quantum physics to them will result in nonsense (most of the time).

    In other words, while it is true that particles exist in a superposition of states, and they are both waves and particles at the same time, and they can tunnel through matter and become entangled with other particles, the macroscopic objects that those particles aggregate to create do not have any of those properties, and anyone who insists that they must because their constituent parts do is plain wrong.

  6. #6 Hamilton Jacobi
    August 3, 2010

    For an even more thorough spanking, see Max Tegmark’s article “Importance of quantum decoherence in brain processes” in Phys. Rev. E 61, 4194–4206 (2000):

    http://link.aps.org/doi/10.1103/PhysRevE.61.4194

  7. #7 James Sweet
    August 3, 2010

    “quantum flapdoodle,” which consists of stringing together a series of terms and phrases from quantum physics and asserting that they explain something in our daily experience

    My mechanic told me the reason the brakes on our van are squeaking is because I have the virtual particles that transmit the electromagnetic force from the pads to the discs are supposed to have a spin value of exactly 1, but they’ve been miscalibrated so most of them have a spin of about 1.1. As a result, the zero point energy around the brake pads is “leaking” — the spontaneously generated particle/anti-particle pairs can’t properly annihilate because of the photon spin mis-calibration, so it creates excess energy in the form of sound waves.

    Either that or it just needs some brake grease or glue or something.

  8. #8 James Sweet
    August 3, 2010

    Good article, with one quibble; scientists have been able to observe fairly large objects like C60 (buckeyballs) exhibiting QM behavior rather than classical behavior

    Fascinating shit (I just heard about that experiment a few months ago and I found it highly disturbing). However, I don’t think it even comes close to contradicting Shermer’s point. A C60 buckeyball still does not count as “macroscopic”.

    The kinds of experiments that would justify some of Chorpah’s ravings would be if you could take a screen with two narrow slits cut in it, throw cats at it one at a time, and the position the cats land in on the other side showed classical wave interference patterns.

    But you say, “That would be inhumane!” Well, it’s better than what that crazy old Schroedinger guy did with his cat! How he ever got that past an IRB, I’ll never understand. What is it with IRBs that they are willing to allow all sorts of animal abuse as long the researchers put the word “gedankenexperiment” in the proposal? Sheesh.

  9. #9 James Sweet
    August 3, 2010

    Which makes me wonder why none of these quantum woo people have published a self-help book on the premise that, according to the double-slit experiment, if you feel like some external force is interfering with your plans, it’s just as likely that you are interfering with yourself.

  10. #10 Gingerbaker
    August 3, 2010

    Nice article, but published in a disgusting on-line outreach vehicle for the Templeton Foundation, whose founder was instrumental in getting Prop 8 passed in California, among other sins.

    Michael Shermer – do you really need the handsome fees paid by “Big Questions Online”?

  11. #11 eric
    August 3, 2010

    However, I don’t think it even comes close to contradicting Shermer’s point. A C60 buckeyball still does not count as “macroscopic”.

    I agree with you – Shermer’s still right. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. As I said before, I think whatever nature reveals about the quantum/classical divide is going to (a) prove the woo wrong, and (b) be a lot more interesting than the woo.

  12. #12 Steve Esser
    August 3, 2010

    I’d add here, if I may, that there is now evidence of quantum coherence being exploited for photosynthesis – a long way from “woo” but I think interesting.

  13. #13 david
    August 3, 2010

    For a person to know that Chopra is pulling a fast one, playing loose, does not require any knowledge of quantum physics. Clerics have used his same tactic for millenia, “You don’t understand this, so I am explaining it to you with these mysterious terms.” Greetings Thoth.

    “And then I saw the morning sky
    Hi ho the tale was all a lie,
    The world it was the old world yet,
    I was I, my things were wet.” —Housman again.

    Why does Chopra persist? He must be very wealthy from his books, with his chakras in fine shape backed by a large bank account.

  14. #14 Norm
    August 5, 2010

    I love this little bit of hand waving by Chopra:

    When the mind gives a signal, one of these possibilities coalesces from the cloud and becomes a thought in the brain, just as an energy wave collapses into an electron.

    The crux of his explanation rests on “when the mind gives a signal”. Which is done how exactly? Oh right, he has no clue.

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