A Quantum Misunderstanding

 

Quantum mechanics is undoubtedly mind bogglingly confusing. I think it’s safe to say that no one without a degree in physics understands quantum mechanics, and even then some people still can’t get their heads around it.

 

The media have noticed. For years they’ve been using the public’s misunderstandings of complicated issues to make money. Before I tell you how they do this, a little background knowledge is required.

 

The most famous experiment ever performed by quantum physicists is known as the double slit experiment. The experiment is designed to find out whether matter behaves like waves or particles.

 

The experiment looks like this:

Double Slit Experiment with Photons

If matter acts like particles, then there should emerge two vertical stripes. If not, then an interference pattern should become evident.

The interference pattern created by overlapping waves

I’m sure we’ve all learned at school that electrons are tiny particles that orbit the nucleus of an atom. So when we subject them to this experiment we should see two vertical stripes, right? But we don’t! We see an interference pattern, just as though they were waves!

Physicists were perplexed when they initially found this result, and decided to try and measure what was happening. So they put observation devices at each slit, and tried to measure exactly what the electrons were doing. In doing so, however, they changed the results of the experiment: the electrons now behaved like the particles we learned about in high school!

This has led to some confusion. The media heard about it and had a field day. They started throwing claims around like “It’s us observing things that makes them behave like particles! Our consciousness has power” and other pseudoscientific nonsense.

Thankfully, some researchers from Germany heard these claims and said “Right! Let’s settle this!” (-not an actual quote from the physicists.) They designed and ran some experiments that would either confirm or bust this myth conclusively.

Their basic idea was to construct the double slit experiment with some measuring devices in it. This time, however, the devices only performed the physical interactions with the electrons that are required to measure them, without letting anyone know the results. They weren’t connected to a hard drive, a computer monitor, or any other device that could possibly let a conscious observer know the results.

They found that the exact same thing happens whether or not a human can know the results, thus showing that a conscious observer plays no part in quantum physics.

I don’t really have a problem with people misunderstanding physics. It’s really complicated! But when media organisations and pseudoscientists are making millions off this idea, preying upon people’s longing to feel more connected to the universe, more in control of their own lives, then something’s not right. People around the world are simply looking for an explanation to the chaos around them, and are being fed garbage. This must stop. I urge anyone who reads this to look more into it, and share the knowledge they find with anyone trying to make a few bucks off people’s insecurities!

About Samuel Needham

Sam is an undergraduate student at ANU. He is majoring in maths, physics and philosophy. He has a keen interest in science communication through blogging, and he aims to encourage people to question everyday phenomena around them. Any feedback, positive or negative, is greatly appreciated and can be directed to u5016100@anu.edu.au
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