October 22, 2014

You’ve heard of quantum leaps, right? How about the Heisenberg principle, the observation principle, or Schrodinger’s cat?
 
All these popular phrases stem from quantum mechanics, the study of the motion of tiny subatomic particles. But how did terms from a convoluted area of scientific inquiry make their way into the pop lexicon?
 
When quantum theory was discovered in the early 1900s, it caused an enormous stir in the scientific community, says Robert Crease, co-author of The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty and a philosophy professor at Stony Brook University.

While Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr were arguing about the quantum’s implications for science, journalists and ad men were beginning to apply the word to innovations involving movement and transition, from typewriters to cruise ships to dishwashing detergent.

The concept of a quantum leap even became the namesake of an early 1990s TV show featuring a time-traveling physicist.
 

 
“The word ‘quantum’ can be used very glibly,” Crease admits.
 
However, Crease says, quantum mechanics has also provided us with the language to describe the chaos and complexity of our own reality.
 
“When scientists look at the subatomic world frame-by-frame, what they find is discontinuous and strange," Crease says. In the same way, "our world doesn’t always feel smooth and continuous and law-governed," he says.
 
In the 1960s, author John Updike used the observation theory from quantum mechanics to parse the conspiracy theories surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination:

We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangenesses—gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for absolute truth.

 

The closer you examine something, Updike says, the less it makes sense. That's quantum mechanics.

Robert Crease, quantum moment, physics, Sci and Tech

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