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Proposed new terminology

Dating quantum physics refers to situations where you are in a relationship and want to know something about your partner’s future plans, anticipated level of commitment, etc., but you can’t ask because you’re afraid that doing so would disrupt the balance of the relationship. In other words, you can’t measure the situation without changing it — like in quantum physics.

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February 9, 2009 - Posted by | the science of dating

43 Comments

  1. Quantum physics is actually not like that. Whereas relationships generally are. Even marriages, truth be told.

    Comment by Dominic | February 9, 2009

  2. So they’ve disproven the Uncertainty Principle?

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 9, 2009

  3. Okay, on further reflection, I should’ve specified that I meant the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. And since the point of this post is to seed the language with a new phrase, using the most widely-accepted and, more to the point, popularly disseminated version of quantum physics seems prudent.

    (I’m not going to attempt to defend my last comment in detail.)

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 9, 2009

  4. Dominic, I am unclear what you are referring to. I just finished a course from a professor who studies quantum gravity, and that seems to be pretty close to the interpretation he provided! When you measure something you with end up with a superposition of wave functions, thus disturbing the measurement. Maybe I am being dense here!

    Comment by Colin McEnroe | February 9, 2009

  5. BTW, is there a reason then when I am signed in to my wordpress account that it doesn’t link my name to my blog when I leave a comment here? I am after a traffic-tracking narcissist…

    Comment by Colin McEnroe | February 9, 2009

  6. It does for me, Colin.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 9, 2009

  7. Maybe there is some problem in my user settings – I am new to this thing.

    Comment by Colin McEnroe | February 9, 2009

  8. You don’t see the link to your own blog when you leave a comment while logged in to WordPress. You do, however, see the blogs of other people who commented while they were logged in to WordPress. There’s room for some dumb joke here about the things about us that only others can see clearly, but I’m not going to make that joke.

    Comment by transportinburma | February 9, 2009

  9. Schroedinger’s cat. You won’t know the answer until you open the box. All answers about relationships exist in duality until probed

    Comment by Richard McElroy | February 9, 2009

  10. Back in the day, Heather Havrilesky writing as Polly Esther had a very good run of these.

    (Riffing on #9 — either “box” or “cat” points towards a more refined and more crude version of the austere original.)

    I wish Suck.com still existed. I also wish Might Magazine still existed.

    Comment by Wrongshore | February 9, 2009

  11. My favorite is “hindslight.”

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 9, 2009

  12. It isn’t the case that there’s a situation in state S1, then you measure it, then it’s in state S2 because you measured it. Down with magical anthropocentrism!

    “Of course the introduction of the observer must not be misunderstood to imply that some kind of subjective features are to be brought into the description of nature. The observer has, rather, only the function of registering decisions, i.e., processes in space and time, and it does not matter whether the observer is an apparatus or a human being; but the registration, i.e., the transition from the “possible” to the “actual,” is absolutely necessary here and cannot be omitted from the interpretation of quantum theory.” – Heisenberg

    Comment by Dominic | February 10, 2009

  13. How is that anthropocentrism? I know you London dark philosophy types hate humanity and all, but human beings are part of the physical world. It seems rather obvious that we are part of the objective reality of things and that our participating in them has nothing to do with “subjective features” being brought into the description of nature.

    Comment by Anthony Paul Smith | February 10, 2009

  14. Asking is nothing like measuring. And measuring is what you want. Better forget about asking.

    This is more like economics than physics. Industrial espionage. Look for the clues, recruit spies, stalk. And keep your own cards close to the chest.

    Yeah, and keep us posted, of course.

    Comment by abb1 | February 10, 2009

  15. Ah, damn it. What bad word did I use to get caught by the spam filter?

    Comment by abb1 | February 10, 2009

  16. “Waveform collapse” is something that happens to the state of knowledge of an observer, as a result of a measurement which modifies that state such that the observer “registers” something new about the observed system. The uncertainty principle concerns the ways in which a measurement can and cannot modify the (classical) state of an observer’s knowledge of a non-classical system.

    Comment by Dominic | February 10, 2009

  17. For instance, no measurement of a non-classical system can modify the state of knowledge of an observer such that it includes knowledge of the definite (classically specifiable) position and velocity of a particle at the same time.

    Comment by Dominic | February 10, 2009

  18. I understand what you mean now. So, the problem you have with Adam’s use her is that he’s ascribing a causal relationship between the observation and the change in the state of the relationship? And in Quantum Physics there is no causal relationship between the observation and the change in a state?

    Comment by Anthony Paul Smith | February 10, 2009

  19. The measurement (change of state of the observer’s knowledge) might be the outcome of a process that also effected a change in the state of the observed system. But the observer does not cause the change by observing.

    Comment by Dominic | February 10, 2009

  20. See also (scroll down to comments).

    Comment by Dominic | February 10, 2009

  21. So humans have ways of measuring that don’t involve interacting with the system measured? That seems much more anthropocentric.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 10, 2009

  22. Does a light sensor detecting the sunrise interact with the sunrise, or is it just acted-upon?

    Comment by Dominic | February 10, 2009

  23. The more appropriate analogy might be if the sun was trying to measure the sensor.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 10, 2009

  24. Could I get some acknowledgment that I’m actually reflecting the commonly-held interpretation of quantum mechanics and you’re pushing a minority view? That doesn’t mean I’m right about the physics in the objective sense, but it would mean that — again — coining the phrase was justified.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 10, 2009

  25. Why is interaction/acted-upon an opposition? Couldn’t one simply say that the light sensor interacts with the sun in a way that it is largely acted-upon, meaning that its part in the interaction is relatively weak in comparison? I don’t see how that would be anathema to science.

    Comment by Anthony Paul Smith | February 10, 2009

  26. Yeah, clearly the sensor’s contribution is negligible compared to the sun, but that wouldn’t be the case when we’re measuring things at the quantum level.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 10, 2009

  27. Observation is not passive if you’re an anthropologist, and the people you’re studying are all behaving the way they behave when there’s an anthropologist around. But that’s because the people are observing the anthropologist…

    Comment by Dominic | February 10, 2009

  28. OK, let’s have a sensor detecting particles emitted by the decay of a smidgeon radioactive substance – like the one in the box with Schrodinger’s cat. Are you really claiming that the sensor is doing something to the substance?

    Comment by Dominic | February 10, 2009

  29. I believe the crux of the problem is that the state of the observer’s knowledge is a classical state, but the state of the observed system is non-classical; registration by the observing system of some feature of the observed system entails a transition from “possible” to “actual” (to use Heisenberg’s terminology, which is not without its problems). There is disgreement over where and how that transition occurs. But it’s completely inappropriate to speak of an observer causing the transition to occur by observing – this is a sort of folk-physical misreading of something that really just doesn’t fit into folk-physical categories.

    Comment by Dominic | February 10, 2009

  30. Again, that’s not on the quantum level. Boxes with cats are still pretty big.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 10, 2009

  31. And I’m not picturing a passive “observing,” if such a thing is even possible. Just observing the partner’s behavior and trying to reason out their intentions without directly asking them doesn’t change the situation (unless it changes your subsequent behavior, which presumably it wouldn’t if you’re just idly curious). Asking is the way to measure the situation. My understanding is that on the macro scale, you can say that things “average out” so that passive observation, etc., makes sense to talk about, but that doesn’t work on the quantum level.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 10, 2009

  32. I wonder if it helps to replace “observation” with “registration”. We tend to think of observation in rather haptic terms – craning one’s neck to look at something – whereas registration perhaps better captures the sense of a state transition caused by some event the enregistering system happens to be receptive to.

    Comment by Dominic | February 10, 2009

  33. The other thing is that “registration” in this context doesn’t occur solely “on the quantum level” – the entire problematic arises because a classically-stateful system registers some feature of a non-classically-stateful system, thereby getting its actuality embarrassingly entangled with the observed system’s potentiality.

    Comment by Dominic | February 10, 2009

  34. Adam, you are indeed implementing a widely used interpretation of QM that you correctly identified as the Copenhagen interpretation. I just popped open my David Griffiths QM text (which is more or less a test for orthodoxy in undergraduate physics courses) and found a reference great article for you to read:

    “is the moon there when nobody looks?”
    David Mermin
    http://qnote.blogbus.com/files/12242593020.pdf

    The money quote in the article is by Pascual Jordan:

    “Observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it… We compel [the electron]
    to assume a definite position…. We ourselves produce the results of measurements.”

    Comment by Colin | February 12, 2009

  35. Oh, I also resolved my blog-linking issue just by entering my URL into my user-profile, and now I see it all the time.

    Comment by Colin | February 12, 2009

  36. “We compel the electron to assume a definite position”.

    The system including us and the electron enters a state in which it can be predicated of the electron that it has a definite position, and of us that we know what it is. I don’t understand why such magical-thinking language has to be used to describe this event.

    Comment by Dominic | February 12, 2009

  37. I’m just trying to give Adam the acknowledgment he requested in post 24 that what he said is pretty much in line with the orthodox view of QM. Jordan worked and published right alongside Heisenberg when this stuff was being formulated. I’m definitely not saying that there isn’t disagreement among physicists.

    I don’t think that this is particularly magical language, especially after taking QM when the basic experience includes solving problems that take hours and multiple sheets of paper to evaluate outlandish integrals. Of course I stopped finding physics sexy long before QM. Do you do research in physics?

    Comment by Colin | February 12, 2009

  38. No. What I object to is people, physicists included, using QM – outlandish integrals and all the rest – as a licence for whimsy. Physical reality is counter-intuitively weird, great. The less it’s like folk physics the better, as far as I’m concerned. But people then try to explain it using folk-physical language, and the results are invariably horrible. If that’s the best they can do, then “shut up and calculate” is really the best advice.

    I don’t believe that anything in the calculations forces anyone to describe a measurement as an action rather than an event, for example; and if you describe it as an event then the necessity of describing measurement as causing (or “compelling”) waveform collapse just vanishes. Registration of the definite position of a particle never occurs apart from an event in which the particle takes a definite position. Why introduce causation running back from the measurement towards the “collapse”?

    Comment by Dominic | February 12, 2009

  39. Interestingly enough, the line “shut up and calculate” is commonly attributed to David Mermin (though it is disputed whether he or Feynman said it first), the author of the article I posted above. I would definitely agree in thinking that the popular physics books are largely a waste of time. The “folk physics” as you call it (I really like that term) is totally ridiculous – as if by reading a 300 page apology by Brian Greene some wanker has an opinion about string theory. Big deal! I bet he doesn’t know anything about tensor calculus, but DUDE, eleven dimensions, far out! Hardly anyone does string theory, and as far as I can tell hardly anyone doing real science gives a shit about it either.

    I actually totally agree with you that the results of this apologia are horrible or at best very annoying. It borders on a sort of obnoxious new-age spirituality for some. I promise anyone that gets sucked up by that stuff that there is absolutely nothing spiritual about matching boundary conditions and solving wave functions. This sort of fancy talk about some deep property of existence and how magical it is does nothing for me or anyone in physics that I have met.

    So anyway, the point I was making is that yes, this is a popular interpretation of quantum mechanics, even if it is mostly secondary and more like little mind games physicists like to play. And I do get very tired of hearing professors observing human subjects and talking about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle as if THAT is the reason why people don’t behave normally while being watched. Right, sigma_x*sigma_p >= h_bar/2 means humans don’t behave quite right while being watched. Sorry for ranting, its too late for me to be awake.

    Comment by Colin | February 12, 2009

  40. Dominic here seems dangerously close to attacking people like Lacan and Zizek, a-la Sokal.

    But why view it as “folk physics” when in fact it’s often more like poetic metaphors based on layman’s impression of popular science – granted, the understanding that’s often incorrect and almost always incomplete, but what’s the harm here?

    Comment by abb1 | February 13, 2009

  41. abb1 keeps getting flagged as spam, and my best guess is that it’s because of the hotmail address — abb1, could you fill in a different e-mail? Fake ones like “no@no.com” don’t seem to run into problems.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 13, 2009

  42. Yeah, but this is the email in my wordpress profile. How will they contact me when they decide to give me the ‘blogger of the century’ award?

    I’ll think of something.

    Comment by abb1 | February 13, 2009

  43. Zizek’s account of QM in the Schelling book is not too annoying, actually…

    Comment by Dominic | February 15, 2009


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