Small Minded

You Can't Put Quantum Mechanics on Your Corn Flakes

By: - Sep 23, 2014



It is harder to understand ourselves than it is to know quantum mechanics. We humans are quirkier than particles. If particles saw us, they would find it inconceivable that we exist, or that we and they we were housed in the same universe. That is, if particles had a concept of the universe, or curiosity.

Particles do not declare war, fall in love, and out of love. They do not marry and regret it. They do not divorce, and fill with remorse. When they do attract, they do not feel helpless. They are ill equipped for nostalgia. They have no Frank Sinatra, no Andrew Sisters, no Beatles, Elvis, Michael Jackson, or North Adams. Particles act, if the word can apply at all, subject to laws they haven’t drawn up, nor can they annul those laws, or think about them, or the strange position they find themselves in and write sad poems. They have no Magna Carta, or Declaration of Independence. Quantum particles do not gather with friends for cocktails and to gossip. Nor do they choose their friends, or love their enemies.

Nature is fascinating, men and women are meaningful. We have agency. What we do has consequences. What we don’t do we live with. We regret, and we enthuse.

Now we are admonished by my associate, David Zaig, Can One Idiot Learn from Another,  to be in awe of QM. It will make us better. How? Consider lilies of the field. It will promote a world view. Be kind to your children. Get a gold fish. For entanglement, read Euripides, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and O’Neal.

Or consider that deft flyer, a miracle of enthusiasm and skill, the mosquito. It sticks me to feed. It worries me. Is not he more interesting and purposeful an individual than the quantum particle? Is he not more admirable a phenomenon of efficiency, guile, and skill? Or consider the volcano that erupts in the night, loosing lava agleam with color and force onto the Italian village tottering below. Cameras are on us. Is this visual not more striking, more fraught than a particle? (Leave Monet out, who had his troubles, but tried!)

But we use the word beauty strangely when we speak of nature. Nature has no moral or ethical intent, disposition, or obligation. It expends no anguish maintaining a design. Nature’s designs vanish, or appear. They lack meaning.

We are prisoners of time and free to complain. We are at the mercy of an instant. Particles that permit the iPhone administer the H bomb. In an instant, a wrinkle in the nature of things can shift and annihilate us, and the the cosmos. Be grateful for life. That in a nut shell is aesthetics.

In Europe, in the late 18th century, people discovered nature. There was a sensibility shift. No longer the Age of Reason, it became fashionable to leave cities for the pleasures of gazing at the country. Lakes, dales, moors, forests, mountains, clouds, were endowed with virtuous appeal. They were good for you. It was only a short time before that Dr. Johnson had famously said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life!”

Now we are asked by my scitech colleague to be nature gazers for improvement. But the last time around wasn’t followed by a better world. Not by a long shot. I don’t just mean Napoleonic wars.

We look far to satisfy our discontent, and look strangely. It is we humans who are the proper object of wonder, and perhaps dismay, endowed as we are with beauty, banality, and yes, spooky action.

The proper study of mankind is man. Add womankind. Alexander Pope did not know the right word.

A colleague says think small. I say, think big.