Thoughts Concerning Quantum Physics

By Philip A. Deutchman
Reader Contributor

In the Oct. 26 issue of the Reader, there was a column by Suzen Fiskin about the Science of Quantum Happiness.

The article discusses “experiments” done by a Dr. Masaru Emoto, where he claimed that by thinking happy thoughts on a sample of water, and then super-cooling the sample, the water crystals would be well-formed, whereas bad thoughts would produce badly-formed crystals. However, the veracity of this claim has been seriously questioned.

There are a number of scientific problems with these experiments, such as: super-cooling experiments are very tricky to carry out, and the controls he needed to apply were quite insufficient; in terms of the lack of transparency, he did not reveal much about his exact procedures in what he published; furthermore, his publications were not in a regular, scientific, peer-reviewed journal; and lastly,—the death-knell for any scientific experiment—because his experimental protocols were so lacking, his results were essentially unrepeatable. In summary, the experiments did not prove that thoughts can control the crystal shapes.

Let me say that my comments here are not a personal criticism of Ms. Fiskin, but are a critique of the idea that quantum physics plays a role in conscious thought.

The physicist, philosopher and author, Victor J. Stenger, has spent years studying, analyzing and writing about such matters. In his book, “The Unconscious Quantum,” he concludes that consciousness is not necessary for quantum interactions. In a more recent book of his that deals with the incompatibilities of science and religion, he also states that there is no evidence that quantum mechanics requires the action of human consciousness, or plays a role in mental processes.

Stenger points out that the parts of the brain where consciousness resides are large compared to the microscopic scales of quantum mechanics, which means that quantum effects are too small in size to play a role in the brain. He also mentions that quantum calculations were carried out that describe the motion of the brain’s neurotransmitters, which show that any quantum effects are lost in a tiny period of time in the brain, far too short for quantum physics to again play a role.

The end result is that in the brain environment, quantum physics reduces to classical Newtonian physics. Therefore, quantum phenomena are not required in the functioning of thought and consciousness. Hence Stegner’s title, “The Unconscious Quantum.”

This reduction of quantum to classical theory is a great feature of quantum physics. Even though it is an underlying theory of physics, superseding classical physics, under certain conditions, quantum mechanics does connect and reduce to classical mechanics.

This idea was first introduced by the great pioneer of quantum theory, Niels Bohr, which he called The Correspondence Principle. In other words, there is a correspondence between the quantum world and our familiar, classical, macroscopic world. And, for physics students taking their first course in quantum mechanics, they learn how to take mathematical averages of the laws of quantum physics that lead to the laws of classical physics.

This is a wonderful example of a deeper theory actually containing a previous theory, under the appropriate conditions.

In this way, classical physics is still retained, serving as a good approximation to quantum physics when quantal effects are extremely small in comparison to the surrounding environment.

In terms of my background, I have been a physics teacher at the University of Idaho for 34 years, and spent much of my life learning about, doing calculations in, and teaching quantum theory. I find the theory to be challenging and very subtle. Physicists themselves had much difficulty in the development of the theory’s interpretations, and it is too easy to misinterpret quantum physics. Even the great mathematician and theoretical physicist, Jon von Neumann thought that human consciousness played a role in the quantum-measurement process.

Of course, in those early days, the pioneers were unaware of today’s discoveries in the new area of Decoherence. This contemporary field of study tackles the more difficult problem of taking the physical environment into account, in order to see how it affects a given quantum system, such as an array of atoms. There is now plenty of evidence supporting these new calculations, which show that the environment itself is sufficient to reduce a quantum system to one that is classical, and that human consciousness is not a quantum process.

As mentioned above, the interpretations of quantum theory are very subtle, and sometimes interpretations that go beyond the assumptions of the theory can be erroneously made. Even today, you can find physicists debating amongst themselves about various interpretations. So it is not a simple matter.

However, if one wants to use quantum mechanics for these consciousness claims, I suggest that one should go through the process of including those attributes into the mathematical formalism of quantum theory, and show that the calculated results agree with well-controlled, well-defined, repeatable experiments. Should physicists be the only ones held to this exacting standard for finding the truth? I think not.

Now, I do applaud anyone who tries to promote human happiness or find empirical techniques that lead to a greater sense of well-being. I just don’t think, from the evidence thus far, that quantum mechanics plays the role that some would like it to.

Finally, in a different sense, quantum mechanics has made me very happy! I was so fortunate for the opportunity to be involved with it for a long time. It takes serious study to learn the mathematics, and especially, to understand its interpretations.

Sometimes the process can be frustrating, but this fascinating theory of the microscopic world, where one learns about atoms, nuclei, photons, electrons, neutrons, protons down to quarks and gluons, along with their properties and interactions, has given me great joy.

After all, it was quantum physics that drew me into physics in the first place; and, I find it incredible that this theory of the quantum world has been one of the most successful theories we humans have been able to create.

Philip Deutchman taught Physics at the University of Idaho in Moscow for 34 years. He is retired and lives with his wife in Sandpoint.

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