Spurious science

I decided to explore randomness and some of the principles of quantum mechanics,
through poetry, using the medium of sheep.
Valerie Laws, writer (Source: BBC News, 4 December 2002)

It’s all too easy to mock contemporary art, especially when ruminating mammals
are involved. But it is not for me to comment on the artistic merits of Valerie
Laws’s extremely original project. Laws sprayed one word on the back of each
member of a flock of sheep, using a total of seventeen syllables, the same number
as in a traditional Japanese haiku. The idea is that the sheep would constantly
rearrange themselves, each time creating a new poem, which would exist for just
as long as the sheep remained still.

Laws said, "I like the idea of using living sheep to create a living poem,
and creating new work as they move around," and I am sure there are many
who share her delight in lamb-ic pentameter.

But what has this got to do with quantum mechanics? The BBC in its report seemed
to think it had a great deal to do with it, saying her poems "utilise the
deepest workings of the universe." They are missing the obvious point that
quantum theory only explains the workings of the very smallest parts of the
universe, at the sub-atomic level. The idea that a sheep can "utilise"
quantum principles while meandering around a field is about as muddle-headed
as you can get.

But let’s not shoot the messenger. The BBC was merely reporting what the poet
believed. "Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics which a lot of people
find hard to understand, as it seems to go against common sense," she said.
"Randomness and uncertainty is at the centre of how the universe is put
together, and is quite difficult for us as humans who rely on order. So I decided
to explore randomness and some of the principles of quantum mechanics, through
poetry, using the medium of sheep."

It is indeed true that people find quantum mechanics very hard to understand
and Laws is one of them. The main problem here seems to be that Laws has latched
onto to a few buzz-words associated with quantum theory – randomness and uncertainty
– and thinks they capture what is particular about it. In fact, randomness is
not a distinctive feature of quantum mechanics at all. Randomness, at least
at some level of description, is a phenomenon that appears in other areas of
the physical sciences. Chaos theory, for example, is not a part of quantum mechanics
at all.

Indeed, it is hard to see any relevance of quantum mechanics to the sheep.
The uncertainty of quantum mechanics concerns the speed and position of electrons
and the impossibility of measuring both simultaneously. There is, however, no
problem in ascertaining the speed and position of the sheep. The poems they
form may be random, but this has no particular connection with the principles
of quantum mechanics. It can be explained wholly within the terms of classical

Unfortunately, this kind of spurious adoption of quantum theory to make something
sound more impressive is reaching epidemic proportions. There is, for instance,
a lot of talk about "quantum consciousness", explaining consciousness
by the use of quantum theory. There is some serious research here and Roger
Penrose, for example, has argued that he believes the solution to the problem
of consciousness will come from quantum theory. But the vast majority of the
"literature" on this is just a combination of speculation and dubious
analogy. So, for example, Danah Zohar in The Quantum Self, speculates
that the quantum wave/particle duality corresponds to the duality between the
physical and the mental. The reasoning seems to be that particles are a bit
concrete and so like the physical, and waves are more fluffy and thus more like
the mental. This analogy added to a liberal dose of speculation leads to her
explaining consciousness as the fusing of the two in quantum states of the brain,
even though almost all physicists think that the kind of quantum state Zohar
thinks explains consciousness – the Bose-Einstein condensate – could not exist
in something as warm and wet as the brain.

The problem is that quantum mechanics is difficult and hard to understand,
so people seem to think that anything else difficult and hard to understand
should somehow be seen as a quantum phenomenon. But this adds up to no explanation
at all. As Susan Blackmore, the noted psychologist, said in a report on a conference
at which these theories were offered as explanations for consciousness, "…they
didn’t explain it. They quantummed it."

So, please, artists and writers, feel free to explore randomness and uncertainty,
but do not pretend you are invoking quantum theory unless you are really sure
that you are. As for those who would seek to explain the mysteries of the universe
using quantum theory, remember that substituting one mystery for another is
not an explanation at all. And remember that if even leading physicists find
quantum mechanics hard to get to grips with, what chance do you stand? And one
final plea to everyone: do not think that rooting your work in quantum theory
makes it better if, in the next breath, you condemn society for being too in
thrall of science and scientists. You can’t have it both ways – and please don’t
appeal to the paradoxes of quantum theory to say you can.

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