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Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner teach physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz and in their outstanding new book, Quantum Enigma, have yanked a skeleton out of the closet of modern science -- one that has been hidden there for decades -- and they proceed to rattle it loudly enough that it could be hard to put back. The problem they expose is that while quantum mechanics has been a fabulously, perhaps even uniquely, successful scientific theory and is the basis of an estimated one third of our current economy, taken to its logical conclusions it undermines the Rationalist dream that the Universe can be explained exclusively in terms of physical matter and natural laws. Indeed, quantum theory ultimately even refutes the notion that science can prove Descartes right and Hume wrong and demonstrate rationally that reality exists. Instead, rigorous application of the theory requires that a conscious being observe the world in order to bring about its existence. As they say:
Try summarizing the implications of quantum theory, and what you get sounds mystical.

Let's try a rough summary anyway. To account for the demonstrated facts, quantum theory tells us that an observation of one object can instantaneously influence the behavior of another greatly distant object--even if no physical force connects the two. Einstein rejected such influences as "spooky interactions," but they have now been demonstrated to exist. Quantum theory also tells us that observing an object to be someplace causes it to be there. For example, according to quantum theory, an object can be in two, or many, places at once--even far distant places. Its existence at the particular place it happens to be found becomes an actuality only upon its (conscious) observation.

This seems to deny the existence of a physically real world independent of our observation of it. You can see why Einstein was troubled.

Erwin Schrodinger, a founder of modern quantum theory, told his now famous cat story to illustrate that since the quantum theory applies to the large as well as the small, the theory is saying something absurd. Schrodinger's cat, according to quantum theory, could be simultaneously dead and alive--until your observation causes it to be either dead or alive. Moreover, finding the cat dead would create a history of it developing rigor mortis; finding it alive would create a history of its developing hunger--backward in time.

Anyone who takes the implications of quantum theory seriously would presumably agree that you can't accept it with equanimity. Niels Bohr, the theory's principal interpreter, tells us: "Anyone not shocked by quantum mechanics has not understood it."
Bohr, of course, is quite wrong there. In a country, like America, where 95% of people believe in God, an exceptionally small number of folks would be shocked by the fact that at the end of science we've arrived at the fact that reality depends on an observer (and/or Observer). However, for the scientifically-minded the shock is understandable. And, as the authors point out, that shock is so great that over the years physicists and others have tried to hide the fact, to the point where merely to study this aspect of the theory was a threat to an aspiring student or teacher's career. Happily, these gentlemen approach the topic late enough in their careers that they need not be fearful. We readers are, in turn, the beneficiaries of their willingness to discuss the awkward truth openly.

The authors not only tackle a topic that their peers would as soon keep quiet, but they do so in a manner that is eminently accessible to the layman. I admit to skipping some of the bits where the science got too thick for me, but, in my defense, they invite us to do so on occasion. Moreover, at the close of such stretches they reduce the discussion down to the most basic and clearly stated points, as here:
In quantum theory there is no atom in addition to the wavefunction of the atom. This is so crucial that we say it again in other words: The atom's wavefunction and the atom are the same thing; "the wavefuntion of the atom" is a synonym for "the atom." Accordingly, before a look collapses a widely spread-out wavefunction to the particular place where the atom is found, the atom did not exist there prior to the look. The look brought about the atom's existence at that particular place--for everyone.
Even I could follow that and am only too happy to, whereas for folks like the "Brights" -- Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and company -- such a lucid statement must be appalling. There are a couple great quotes in the book from physicists who wish to keep the closet locked and barred. A colleague of the authors, objecting to the course they teach on the subject told them:
Though what you're saying is correct, presenting the material to non-scientists is the intellectual equivalent of allowing children to play with loaded guns.
And the renowned Stephen Hawking has made his hostility to those who point out the problems in his field even more clear, saying that when someone brings up Schrodinger's cat he wants to "reach for my gun." This eagerness to kill their opponents or at least see them dead is a hardly surprising given the painful irony that, as the authors say:
[P]hysics, the most empirical science, is based on consciousness.
and, even more fundamentally:
[Quantum theory] tells us that physics' encounter with consciousness, demonstrated for the small, applies to everything. And that "everything" can include the entire universe. Copernicus dethroned humanity from the cosmic center. Does quantum theory suggest that, in some mysterious sense, we are a cosmic center?
The answer is, obviously, "Yes." Following along with the authors as they explain how science looped back around on itself and re-enthroned Man while disposing of Copernicus is more fun than a bag of Schrodinger's cats. This is a must read.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Fred Kuttner Links:
    -BOOK SITE: Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner (Oxford University Press)
    -Bruce Rosenblum, Professor of Physics (UC, Santa Cruz)
    -Fred Kuttner, Lecturer (UC, Santa Cruz)
    -ESSAY: Social Responsibility and the Teaching of Quantum Mechanics (Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, April 2006, FORUM ON PHYSICS & SOCIETY of The American Physical Society)
    -ESSAY: Commentary on "The Observer in the Quantum Experiment" Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner (Ross Rhodes)
    -PROFILE: Physics encounters consciousness in a new book, Quantum Enigma (Tim Stephens, 7/19/06, University of California - Santa Cruz )

Book-related and General Links:
-Thirty years of ‘against measurement’ (Jim Baggott, December 2020, Physics World)