I hate quantum physics.

My colleague and friend Steve Mould – who is a professional physics communicator and thinks our understanding of quantum processes is one of humanity’s greatest achievements – astutely observed that I hate it because I don’t understand it.

This is absolutely true. Quantum physics defies the conceptual limits of the human brain and our capacity to understand our universe. It hurts my head. The science that sets my soul on fire is biological: genetics, cellular biology, anatomy, and the like. Though staggeringly complex, the machinations of the cell are not conceptually challenging to comprehend: if you can understand Lego, you can basically grasp how DNA works. We can even make pretty animations like this rad one by PBS to illustrate the process of DNA transcription, though it boggles the mind to hold all the thousands of molecular players in our mental frame at once.

But quantum physics is an all together different beast. It defies comprehension, and messes with all our cognitive norms. It makes me dizzy. I’m sorry – what was that? Light is both a particle and a wave? That does not make sense. Jerk.

Steve tried to explain Schroedinger’s Cat, one of the most famous ideas in quantum mechanics, to a psychiatrist at one of our Guerilla Science events. “What, that stupid dead cat in a box thing?” I asked. Upon reflection, I’m very fond of this definition.

Despite all my prejudices and fears however, I could not help but find myself utterly charmed last night at a London Design Festival event by The Quantum Parallelograph, a piece of art described by its designer Patrick Stevenson-Keating as “an exploratory public engagement project examining the scientific and philosophical ideas surrounding the theory of quantum physics and multiple universes”. Keating is a designer, but (like the best designers) has based his work on the research of scientists – Professor David Deutsch of Oxford University, and before him, Professor Hugh Everett.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Stevenson-Keating.

The idea: use the machine for a quick glimpse at what another you is doing, right this moment, in a parallel universe.

The process: type your name into the attached computer (not pictured), and tell it how you are feeling right now. Then use the Search Intensity Field dial on the Parallelograph to determine how far from our current reality you would like to peer – would you like to see a world in which your life is very similar to the one you live now, or very different?

Photo courtesy of Patrick Stevenson-Keating.

When a photon of light from a laser is shone through a pair of slits, research apparently suggests that it can travel through both openings – and thus perform some kind of quantum malarky, interacting with its parallel photonic self in another universe, forging a connection between worlds. The result: a fleeting glimpse at what another you is up to, printed out on a friendly piece of pink receipt paper (complete with classic courier font).

Photo courtesy of Patrick Stevenson-Keating.

My own self, somewhere in another universe, as predicted by the Parallelograph when set to Search Intensity Level 5:

The parallel lives of: Zoe Cormier

Authorised by: PSK

Date in current universe: 21/09/2011

Connection opened at: Wed 21:00:18

Disconnected at: Wed 21:00:18 +0.00021sec

Observe your life in Universe No: 22860

Disciplinary action is being taken against Zoe Cormier 
after accidentally destroying Pluto. Although an easy 
mistake to make, a fine is the most likely outcome.

That’s a relief then – wouldn’t want to be incarcerated for blowing up what is, after all, not even a planet.

What would I be doing then in a universe similar to this one? I set the Intensity Level to 1:

Zoe Cormier is a middle management employee at Suds 
and Co. soap company. Zoe Cormier enjoys their work, 
especially the free samples of their new products.

I couldn’t even make reading aloud through the whole word “management” without laughing, by the by. The banality of this prediction is somehow sublime.

Many of us, like me, find quantum mechanics intimidating not because we find it conceptually challenging, but because it poses “the uneasy question of our own uniqueness”, thinks PSK.

“How far from your current reality do you risk going? When you use the quantum  parallelograph to glimpse your many worlds, you may not always like what you see.” True say. When my friend, a solar panel installation engineer, found that in another universe he has been locked up for theft, we all agreed: that’s not surprising. Our reaction in itself may have been illuminating.

This comes to another reason I’m not fond of quantum mechanics: the implications are terrifying. An infinite number of possible universes? Egad. I’m finding one universe hard enough to contemplate, let alone several (and don’t get me started on how much I hate the concept of infinity – it scares the bejesus out of me). PSK has thoughts on this too:

“Curiosity can be a dangerously obsessive trait – do not get lost in the multiverse.”

The Quantum Parallelograph from Patrick Stevenson-Keating on Vimeo.

Advertisements