I have just finished reading Adam Becker’s engaging book about quantum physics called What is Real? It presents the entire century-long history of quantum physics and the people (mostly men) who brought it into being. (What Is Real?—The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker, Basic Books, 2018) Quantum physics, in case you don’t know, posits a quantum world, different from the everyday world we live in. In this world things don’t obey the basic principles that govern our everyday life. As an example, when two particles have become entangled (by striking each other), they are linked together no matter how far apart they are. What happens to one will instantly be reflected in the other, no matter if they are light years apart. This has been proven experimentally, but no one knows how that information is communicated at speeds faster than the speed of light, which is supposed to be the absolute speed limit for the stuff of our universe.
It sounds like science fiction fantasy, but physicists have been using the mathematics of quantum physics to create everything from the atomic bomb to my latest iPad (which I’m typing on right now). So if it were just science fiction how could it work so well? The truth is, no one knows. When it comes to quantum physics, the majority of physicists are perfectly willing to abandon the quest for “the truth” and instead are happy to “shut up and calculate,” in the words of physicist David Mermin.
The godfather of quantum physics, Niels Bohr, talked about a division between the world of big objects, where classical Newtonian physics rules, and small objects, where quantum physics reigns. But Bohr was maddeningly unclear about the location of the boundary between the worlds. In fact, no experiment has been able to delineate this boundry. In short, there is a paradox at the heart of physics that no one has been able to resolve.
The best that has been offered is the so-called “Copenhagen interpretation,” which states that physical systems generally do not have definite properties prior to being measured, and quantum mechanics can only predict the probabilities that measurements will produce certain results. The act of measurement affects the system, causing the set of probabilities to reduce to only one of the possible values immediately after the measurement. This feature is known as wave-function collapse. This is dangerously close to proclaiming that the ordinary world we live in simply doesn’t exist unless someone measures it. And who does the measuring? Does it require a PhD in physics to qualify, or can a newborn baby measure it? For that matter, can a mouse measure it and bring the ordinary world into existence? One paradox after another.
Coming back into my everyday world from that introduction to the La La land of quantum physics, I saw for the first time something so obvious that I don’t know how it had escaped me. Donald Trump is a quantum president. He is full of paradoxes, lies, misdirection, and moral bankruptcy. Nobody knows where Trump stands until he is observed—and then he might change completely a moment later when someone else is the observer. And yet he is the darling of the religious right, who seem to take no notice of his character so long as he delivers what they want: a more conservative supreme court and the dismantling of all restraint on the rule of the big corporations. He may be morally bankrupt, but he works for them. They say “anything goes as long as you deliver for us.” Shut up and calculate!