A Cornucopia of Absurdities – the Mystification of Science


The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you can accept Nature as She is – absurd.  -Richard Feynman

Anyone who wants to learn even a little bit of modern (post 1900) science does not have it easy. They are confronted by whole series of absurdities – mind-boggling facts and paradoxes (some questionable), all supposedly backed up by theory, experiment, and authoritative opinion. Many people just give up, convinced that science is not for them. In my opinion, most of the absurdities are bogus, and in future posts I’ll dispel them, if there’s enough interest.

Recently (July 2017) there have been reports that Chinese Scientists “teleported” an object from earth to space (the “object” turns out to be a photon!). The British Independent explained that it uses the “bizarre [absurd] effects of quantum entanglement” rather than “physically hurling” the object over long distances.

Trouble is, this is not how entanglement is supposed to work. There is a general consensus that entanglement cannot be used to transmit information. Yet the Independent says that using entanglement it “transfers the information about the photon to another point in space”. (The Independent goes on to make claims that this could be used to build a “quantum internet” that would work with “seemingly impossible speed”. Do they mean faster than light?)

Maybe the Independent got it wrong (science reporting is often garbled and sensationalized). So I looked up the abstract of the academic paper. Very unsettling. Among other things, it says

However, quantum teleportation allows faithful transfer of unknown quantum states from one object to another over long distance, without physical travelling of the object itself.

It, too, mentions the “quantum internet”. Am I missing something? Is there a memo I didn’t get? I’m going to look into this …

Instantaneous teleportation is far from the only absurdity we’re asked to digest. There’s quite a menu of the mysterious and mind boggling.

Take the Big Bang theory. It says that the entire universe was created by the explosion of an infinitesimally small,  extremely dense (duh!) particle. It sounds more like a creation myth than a scientific theory. But backed by theory (check), experiment (check), authoritative opinion (double check).

Nevertheless, there are problems. What happened before the Big Bang? Where did this embryonic universe come from? From nowhere and nothing, apparently.

Some physicist (apparently not Feynman) said that they prefer questions that can’t be  answered (QTCBAs)  to answers that can’t be questioned (ATCBQs). I’m no fan of either, and the  Big Bang theory has them both. The theory itself is an ATCBQ, and “What ignited the Big Bang?” is a QTCBA.

Then there’s Dark Matter and Dark Energy. They’re undetectable (so far) yet must exist in huge quantities to make the Big Bang work or even explain the motion of galaxies.

QTCBAs are especially common in Quantum Mechanics (QM). For example, sometimes waves behave like particles and particles behave like waves (this is indisputable). But some scientists and science popularizers go one step further and claim that in these situations waves are at one and the same time also particles, and vice versa.  How can this be? How can something be both a wave and a particle? It’s a mystery, deal with it, don’t ask questions!

Or take the whole subject of superposition of states. Suppose we have an electron and we know it’s spinning up or down, but don’t know which. According to the standard interpretation of QM, the electron is in neither state, it’s in both, and ‘chooses’ one at random when its spin is measured. How can it be in both states? It just is.

Schrödinger’s cat paradox really brings this home. The cat is in a metal box with a vial of poison triggered by the decay of an atom. Is it, like the atom, in two states at the same time? Both dead and alive? How can it be both dead and alive at the same time? QTCBA.

How do you test for  superposition? If we open the box, that counts as an observation, and a choice is made between dead and alive. It’s like trying to see whether the fridge light really goes off when you shut the door. (Actually, there is one way to test superposition, which leads to the absurdities of entanglement.)

For that matter, isn’t the cat an observer? What is an observation? Don’t ask …

Relativity is another minefield of QTCBAs (I don’t  doubt relativity, the numerical predictions, like those of QM, are indisputably correct and amazingly accurate). But there are questions … like the twin paradox. One twin stays on earth, the other goes on a high speed trip to a nearby star and back. When the travelling twin returns, she’s younger than her earthbound sister.

The effect is indisputable. The question is, why? What caused the traveller to age slower?

I once asked a physicist colleague why, and his answer was “time dilation”. In other words, no answer. It reminds me of a friend who went to a neurologist and asked why his hands shook. The neurologist said, in so many words, “you have what we neurologists call ‘tremor'”.

I’m not the only one to have noticed a religious theme in these absurdities. Creation myths, unanswerable questions, unquestionable answers, believing impossibilities, and a reverence for mystery. The fantastically popular Dancing Wu Li Masters makes the spiritual/mystical theme explicit.

To which I would add another religious element, namely revelations or visions. The literature (even academic literature) is full of fantastic theories that are pure speculation: time travel, the paranormal, multiple universes … . The June 2017 issue of the once sober Scientific American shows a bizarre bubbly foam with each bubble a separate universe. The accompanying article is written by a respectable academic.ebh

Even more bizarre is the cover of the November 2016 issue (reproduced). The creepy looking bug eyed sea creature is actually two black holes  joined by a wormhole.

The accompanying article has it all. Black holes, entanglement, wormholes, quantum phenomena, relativity, curved spacetime. To his credit, the author admits in the last paragraph that this is all “wild speculation”. I wish speculators were always so honest!

I could go on, and will, but there’s no point if I don’t provide some answers as well. I’m afraid I can’t answer all science’s QTCBAs; but I can answer some of them. Some mysteries can be cleared up by elementary scholarship and simple logic, mysteries including wave/particle duality and the twin paradox.

I’m convinced that once the absurdities are explained or dismissed, ordinary people with ordinary brains will be able to understand modern science.


About Bill Wadge

I am a Professor in Computer Science at UVic.
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One Response to A Cornucopia of Absurdities – the Mystification of Science

  1. Cor Kamstra says:

    It is inevitable that Schrödinger’s cat survives the ordeal. It has seven lives and can think outside the box (ATCBQ).

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