If you watched Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania, then you’ll be familiar with probably one of the purest examples of slapping the word quantum on anything as a shorthand explanation for how it works. How does Ant-Man get small? Quantum stuff, of course! If you make yourself small enough, what do you find? The quantum realm, naturally!
Quantumania mentions pretty much every concept in Chris Ferrie’s new book, Quantum Bullsh*t: How to Ruin Your Life with Advice from Quantum Physics. In the MCU, it might be entertaining. In real life, it could be dangerous.
While Ferrie is mostly known for writing children’s science books, Quantum Bullsh*t sets out to educate adults. And as a professor of quantum physics at Australia’s University of Technology Sydney, he has some serious credentials to back things up. Much of Quantum Bullsh*t is a roughly chronological explanation of quantum physics and which ideas in the field are most commonly misused. The writing style is very conversational and informal, with prolific use of bad words. The shtick can get tiresome, but it’s largely fun keeps the reader engaged.
The first two chapters of Quantum Bullsh*t focus on energy (“quantum f*cking energy”) and matter waves (“f*cking matter waves”). Ferrie’s argument revolves around the fact that energy (in the form of photons) is discrete, and that the wave-like properties of macroscopic objects are essentially impossible for us to truly understand. Those things never seem to come up in New Age discussions about healing energies and crystals.
In chapter 3, “We have no f*cking clue what is going on”, the focus is Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle. Interestingly, Quantum Bullsh*t spends time distinguishing between different kinds of knowledge, to clarify what exactly we do know. Ferrie’s demystification of the underlying reasons for the uncertainty principle are some of the most cogent and clear you’re likely to come across.
“The f*cking zombie cat”, chapter 4, explores misuses of the Schrödinger’s cat metaphor which, according to Ferrie, usually come down to the imprecision of our language. It’s here he begins to delve into his worldview in a section titled, “If you hate something, set it free,” where he writes, “I’m not even that mad about Goop. What really annoys me is how and how much people react to it. The worst culprits come from the ‘skeptics’ community.”
Of course Ferrie’s talking about Gwyneth Paltrow’s company that makes a lot of vague, scientific-sounding claims that sometimes represent the exact kind of misuses Quantum Bullsh*t is targeting. Ferrie’s point seems to be that it’s not always worth debunking or analyzing misuses of scientific terms, despite the fact that in the very same chapter he does a review of popular New Age books that have the word “quantum” in their titles, and finds that most of them don’t even contain the word superposition, let alone treat it with any kind of accuracy.
Chapter 5, “Faster than f*cking light”, refers to quantum entanglement. This chapter is particularly interesting, because Ferrie is able to make a good case that although Einstein referred to entanglement as “spooky” actions, this is taking a single statement in a personal letter out of context from Einstein’s deep and extensive work on quantum physics. He also describes an interesting example of quantum bullsh*t on Dragon’s Den (a Canadian TV show similar to Shark Tank), when a chiropractor duped the judges into believing he had an “entangled” paperclip.
Finally we get to the meat of things: quantum physics interpretations in Chapter 6, “Infinitely many godd*mn worlds,” a subject that has long been of great debate in physics. There are a number of different legitimate scientific interpretations of quantum physics. Quantum Bullsh*t‘s main argument against the more convoluted interpretations is straightforward — “shut up and calculate” because “it works, bitches!” There are a number of subtly different interpretations of quantum physics that fall under that simple quote, each of which Ferrie does a good job of briefly explaining.
The main things Ferrie rejects fall under the Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI). He brings up quantum suicide and quantum immortality as a way to highlight the rare but sometimes deadly consequences of taking these types of interpretations too far, and does a good job explaining how ideas like these are inchoate at best, and likely fundamentally flawed. Ferrie even goes so far as to compare those who think the multiverse is real to flat-Earthers.
Making a fascinating historical connection with mechanical clocks, Quantum Bullsh*t points out that after their invention they became metaphors for the human body, the human mind, and the whole universe. In chapter 7, “Quantum f*cking technomagic”, Ferrie shows we’re doing the same thing today with quantum computers, with just as little evidence. This chapter covers a bunch of modern technology that relies on the extreme precision and the accuracy of quantum physics, and briefly discusses baloney like laser eyes, 5G conspiracies, fraudulent tech startups, and teleportation.
In chapter 8, “Where the hell do I go from here?” Quantum Bullsh*t brings it all back around. Ferrie defines bullsh*t as “deceptive nontruth. It’s not necessarily a lie, because a lie implies the liar knows the truth.” Importantly, he also distinguishes bullsh*t from horsesh*t. Because quantum physics itself says so little about the nature of reality, bullsh*tters can use it to justify just about anything, without caring whether it’s true or not. They can point to genuine disagreements among philosophers and physicists which aren’t directly related to how the bullsh*tter is using the jargon. Ferrie’s opinion on this is as straightforward as his interpretation of quantum physics: just ignore the bullsh*tters.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture.
AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.
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