Stop Abusing Quantum Physics

Quantum this, quantum that. Everybody loves a quantum, right? Because probability versus certainty so anything can happen, and nothing can be observed without the observer changing it, and it’s just so profound, you know? All that relativism and possibility!

Except it’s not a metaphor. Quantum physics isn’t some marvelous set of life principles you can scale up to living room size. It’s science stuff, which means that all that probability and uncertainty is actually really, really precise and strict.

(Same reason we don’t have giant spiders: they don’t scale up. They breathe using body surface, and surface area increases at a lower rate than volume. You’re welcome.)

Follow the bouncing ball

Let’s start with the whole thing about how observing something inevitably changes it. People looooove to make this one into a metaphor about how we all see things differently, how no two views are the same, blah blah blah.

But it’s actually a pretty straightforward concept: the way you observe something in quantum physics is to bounce something else off of it. And when you do that, you change the direction and velocity of the first thing. It’s like trying to figure out how big and fast a baseball is, and what direction it’s going, by throwing a basketball at it in mid-flight and seeing where the basketball goes. There’s nothing really profound about saying that hitting a moving baseball with a moving basketball changes the trajectory of both. There is similarly nothing really profound about saying that bouncing an electron off a photon changes the trajectory of both. (Being able to do it and measure it is pretty darn cool though.)

Scientist doing quantum measurements.

That’s really all we’re talking about here. Nothing mystical. Nothing about how we feel inside. Just that bouncing one thing against another thing affects both things. In the real world we know, this is how we look at stuff: photons bounce off the stuff, causing changes (which are small and hard to notice but can have visible effects over time like fading a work of art), and then we get hit in the eyeballs with the photons. For a thing to be observed, it has to interact with other things. Physically. And physical interactions cause change. This isn’t a metaphor for how Democrats and Republicans really need to come together and talk it out.

Probability not

And the probability stuff? The notion that everything is always fluctuating anyway, coming in and out of existence, so anything is possible? Well, theoretically. But the probability of a bunch of particles conspiring to turn your Ford Focus into a Tesla is so vanishingly small that, while not impossible, it might as well be. Quantum physics won’t get you washboard abs or pay off your student debt. It could, but it won’t.


And if you think that somehow you’re going to magic quantum mechanics into doing your bidding by using your superhot thought waves, go back to the first part of this post. If your thought beams were a real thing (they’re not), you’d be flinging basket balls at baseballs. You would be changing things in the physical world. You know, the way people at a Tesla factory do. No magic in that!

But of course none of that is happening anyway. Deepak Chopra is lying to you.

So please, stop using quantum mechanics as a metaphor for relativism or probability. It’s stupid and inaccurate and it makes the particles mad.

[sex in space?]

Probably none so far, says Slate’s Explainer. Which seems like sort of a shame, really. Yet another reason to encourage more private-sector space exploration. (“May I explore your private sectors, Comrade Cosmonaut?”)

[sex and violence]

There has long been a debate over whether pornography encourages rape by normalizing misogyny and arousing passions, or discourages rape by providing an alternative outlet for lustful urges. Unfortunately, this debate has generally been religious rather than clinical: instead of basing their positions on data, partisans have created moral edifices around their underlying sense of what should be true.

According to an article in Slate, there is now meaningful evidence that access to Internet pornography reduces the incidence of rape. There is also evidence that violent movies reduce violent crime. Really. Check out the article and make up your own mind.

[is pot good for memory?]

In Dan Savage’s sex-advice column this week, wedged in there with all the raunchy stuff, is this remarkable quote:

Google “marijuana” … and wedged in there with the stories about this week’s numerous, ineffectual pot busts — so many pot busts, so little trouble buying pot — you’ll find this: A study conducted by the reputable Scripps Research Institute in California found that marijuana’s active ingredient — tetrahydrocannabinol or THC — is more effective at preventing Alzheimer’s disease than any of the legal drugs on the market today.

Sure enough, here’s the Scripps press release. How ironic would it be if marijuana turned out to be good for your memory?

Disregarding the larger debate over legalizing recreational possession and use of marijuana (Nevada and Colorado will be voting this November on whether to do just that), the Scripps study strikes me as yet more evidence that the federal government’s opposition to even medical use and study of marijuana is faith-based — and not necessarily in good faith, either. It’s just one more way our government is replacing science and factual evidence with fantasies and baseless fear.

[naturally queer]

In India, I was fascinated by the wild monkeys that live among humans. They are remarkably like us: visual rather than scent-oriented, omnivorous, given to games and amusements. And one of the most startling things I saw was homosexuality. I watched as a monkey attempted to mount its companion and assumed the latter was a female, but a moment later the situation was reversed. Clearly these males were attempting to mount each other.

One of the more common arguments against homosexuality is that it is unnatural. Clearly, the argument goes, our genetalia are designed for male-female procreation, so why sanction the supposedly deviant practice of homosexual genital stimulation? But it has always seemed obvious to me that human genitalia, and our fascination with our own, go well beyond any procreative imperative.

A tremendous amount of human energy is devoted to socialization. Our ability to cooperate in ever larger and more abstract groups has been a spectacular success evolutionarily, and socialization has been posited as the primary purpose of language. (The older, utilitarian hypothesis is that language developed as a tool for coordinating action on big game hunts, but it has been pointed out that among modern humans, something like 95 percent of conversation is social and only about 5 percent is directly utilitarian in a “pass the salt” sort of way. The more recent hypothesis is that language is useful because it allows you to “groom” more than one person at a time.)

Our sexual drives are also intensely social, far more oriented towards pairing up with appealing partners and satisfying our own desires than towards making babies. Is there any biological reason why sexual socialization shouldn’t follow the same patterns as conversational socialization in terms of gender distribution? Whatever the specific details might be, it seems clear that homosexual erotic desire is common enough in humans that to label it “unnatural” is to distort the very concept of what we mean by nature.

What brings all this up is a BBC report on a natural history exhibition in Norway entitled “Against Nature? An Exhibition on Animal Homosexuality,” which documents homosexuality and even long-term homosexual pairing among species as diverse as penguins and bonobos. The latter, in fact, are probably the closest relatives we have in the animal kingdom, and they appear to be wholly bisexual.

Of course, I’ve often thought that the whole debate over whether homosexuality is natural or not is beside the point. Lots of urges are clearly natural — desires to smash the heads of people who anger us, desires to have sex with attractive strangers, desires to defacate when we’re in inappropriate settings — yet we proscribe them. Much of the point of civilization, in fact, is to teach people how to repress their natural urges. (On this topic, Freud was absolutely correct.)

So the question of whether homosexuality should be socially acceptable shouldn’t hinge on whether it’s “natural.” A gay gene wouldn’t give homosexuality any social legitimacy, any more than a genetic predisposition to pedophilia would make such acts acceptable. What should give homosexuality social legitimacy is our liberal tradition of support for individual freedom. Homosexual acts are consensual and do not impinge on anyone’s liberties. As such, there is simply no legitimate reason to ban such behavior. Indeed, genuine support for liberty requires that we protect the rights of all adults to engage in consensual homosexuality as they see fit, just as it requires that we protect other rights.

(This doesn’t resolve the question of whether gay marriage should be legalized. I personally believe that the state should get out of the marriage business entirely — that’s really for individuals and their religious institutions — and simply allow domestic unions among any two persons, including close relatives, with shared property, shared child custody and all the other attendant rights. I recognize, however, that this is totally unrealistic. As such, I believe that gay people should have the same rights as straight people to choose their legally recognized life partners, and we should call it by the same name when they do.)