The curious collection of a slightly mad scientist
I recently gave a lecture, screened on the BBC, about quantum theory, in which I pointed out that “everything is connected to everything else”. This is literally true if quantum theory as currently understood is not augmented by new physics. This means that the subatomic constituents of your body are constantly shifting, albeit absolutely imperceptibly, in response to events happening an arbitrarily large distance away; for the sake of argument, let’s say on the other side of the Universe.
This statement received some criticism in scientific circles. Not because it’s wrong, because it isn’t; without this behavior, we wouldn’t be able to explain the bonds that hold molecules together. The problem is that it sounds like woo woo, and quantum theory attracts woo-woo merde-merchants like the pronouncements of New Age mystics attract flies – metaphorically speaking.
For the record, the reason that everything being connected to everything else does not allow us to be, (selects randomly from a pit of drivel), at one with the Universal consciousness, is that the subtle interconnectedness in quantum theory cannot be used to transmit information. Quantum theory, in other words, describes a counterintuitive world, but not a mystical one.
Despite this, the informed critics gave me pause for thought, because there is certainly a widespread misunderstanding of quantum theory in popular culture. Just type “quantum healing” into Google and the energies of your body mind will soon be vibrating in harmony with the standing waves in a giant Olympic-sized vat of cosmic bull. Given that none of the purveyors of this cataclysmic tosh can possibly have the faintest idea how to use quantum theory to calculate the energy levels in a hydrogen atom, the origin of the misunderstanding – if not purely financial – may be in pronouncements like the one I made in my lecture.
For some scientists, the unfortunate distortion and misappropriation of scientific ideas that often accompanies their integration into popular culture is an unacceptable price to pay. I share their irritation, but my strongly held view is that science is too important not to be part of popular culture. Our civilization was built on the foundations of reason and rational thinking embodied in the scientific method, and our future depends on the widespread acceptance of science as THE ONLY WAY WE HAVE to meet many, if not all, of the great challenges we face. Is the climate warming and, if so, what is the cause? Is it safe to vaccinate children against disease? These are scientific questions, in that they can be answered by the analysis of data, and therefore the answers are independent of the opinion, faith or political persuasion of the individual. If you would like to see the scale of the problem faced by those who wish to champion science and reason above rhetoric and knee-jerk prejudice, have a glance at the comments that are no doubt proliferating below this article because I mentioned climate change and vaccination.
The key words in the above paragraph are “widespread acceptance”. In democratic societies, progress is made through persuasion, and science has a most persuasive story to tell. Quantum theory tells us that the universe we experience emerges from a bewildering, counterintuitive maelstrom of interactions between an infinity of recalcitrant sub-atomic particles. To understand something as simple as a rainbow, we have to allow each single particle of light to explore the entire universe on its journey through the rain. This is magical, and there is plenty more in the library of science. We have landed on a world where the faint sun glints off methane lakes, seen stars the size of cities spin hundreds of times a second, and taken photographs of light from the beginning of time that has journeyed for over thirteen billion years to reach us. This is true wonder, with the power to deliver a dizzying feeling, the craving for which might be seen as the very definition of what it means to be human.
Recognizing the innate human desire to be dazzled is the key to understanding why some people are drawn to pseudo-scientific drivel; it delivers wonder, albeit chimeric. But herein lies a clue as to where the cure for irrationality lies, because reality is strange and beautiful enough to satisfy the most veracious imagination. In order to build a more scientific society, therefore, I argue that scientists must not be afraid to speak of their discoveries in language that fires the imagination and satiates the innate human need for wonder, because wonder is a doorway to a deeper appreciation and understanding of science. This is the language of popular culture, which is by definition the dominant source of information for the majority in society. If we can persuade enough people that science is as wonderful as it is useful, then we will be far better equipped as a civilization to face the great challenges of the 21st century.
Brian Cox is the co-author, with Jeff Forshaw, of the new book The Quantum Universe (And Why Anything That Can Happen, Does), published by Da Capo Press.