Quantum magic

One unfortunate consequence of being a physicist is that occasionally someone inclined toward New Age spirituality will tell me “how nice, I’m very interested in quantum physics, as a matter of fact.” Even worse possibilities lie in wait if I happen to mention that I teach quantum mechanics, because invariably, the reason for this deep interest turns out to be that this person has read something newagey and laced with quantum mysticism. Quantum physics, they think, validates magic, gives the universe some mystical connectedness, or allows for psychic powers or something.

So then I have to try to hint that no such thing is true, without at the same time offending their spiritual convictions. After all, New Agers tend to go by deep intuitive convictions, and if I sound like I’m being overly left-brained or something, many will stop listening immediately. I can’t steer anyone away from mystical and paranormal beliefs, but I still have the vain hope that I can discourage them from abusing physics when making their case.

I had a particularly bad encounter of this sort last week. I tried an indirect approach, telling them a few things about physics, explaining why quantum mechanics demands a high level of math, and touching on some counterintuitive facets of the quantum world such as the fundamental randomness involved. I was trying, naively, to shake the notion that whatever psychological metaphor they found appealing in some New Age quantum mysticism, that this had anything to do with actual physics. I have a feeling I failed miserably. At some point in the conversation, I had to remark that reality perhaps didn’t give a damn about how we felt about things, and that an anthropomorphic imagination was more of a hindrance in understanding how physics works. The response I received was something like “oh, wow!” As if it was such a strange and novel notion that the universe didn’t care about our feelings. I hope the grinding of my teeth wasn’t too audible.

Honestly, I don’t know what to do with the New Age subculture. It’s sort of like theistic fundamentalism in the depth of its anti-intellectualism and sheer craziness of its beliefs from a modern scientific standpoint. But New Agers make me tear out my hair in quite different ways. The New Age is so transparently a byproduct of a culture full of spoiled brats that I have even more difficulty mustering up sympathy for its adherents.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17047791198702983998 bpabbott

    Being polite in such situations can be counter-productive.

    I don’t condone being rude, but just blunt and forthright.

    If the subject was simply the balancing of a checkbook, those ignorant of how to do so would at least realize it.

    The ignorance of such new-agers is commonly so profound that they aren’t even capable of realizing (much less admitting) their ignorance.

    If they have any chance of achieving a proper understanding of physics and/or understanding that they’ve been lied to it is up to those with the knowledge and understanding to encourage them to do so.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    “I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics” – Richard Feynman.

    Is it any wonder, therefore, that those who profess a belief in or a practice of magic do not understand what they are dealing with?

    Undoubtedly they wish to explain the exotic, esoteric and occult world of magic in what they see as the best way possible – by invoking the equally exotic, esoteric and occult world of Quantum Mechanics. After all hasn’t QM been used as ‘proof’ for lots of other things too?

    I can certainly appreciate the sheer strangeness of the Quantum world but I make no assertion that I actually *understand* it. Maths was never really my ‘thing’ so I’ll just have to live with the half-truths of the science popularisers…. [grin].

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06066254009526676861 necee

    New Agers buy more candles than Catholics.