“Why yes, Pat; Angels exist!” exclaimed a lady with glee on the Irish weekend TV chatshow The Late Late Show some years ago, triggering a sense of internal rage within me. “It’s just quantum physics!” I quickly pulled out my phone and texted in to the show – as I saw there was a ticker of live text messages and comments on the screen – to try to counter the point, but, alas, it was not read out or shown on the ticker.
Faith. One of the two things you should try to avoid discussing when on the pints with your mates (the other being politics). But we’ve all done the whole science vs religion debate at some stage, whether it was with some friends over a few scoops, or with ourselves on a quiet stroll.
There is actually so much misuse of scientific lexicology out there that I have no idea where to even begin. So, I’ll start with this general post, and maybe branch out in future posts to talk about other points as I come across them.
The religion thing is a blog post for another time: at the moment, I intend to address the region where science is blended with the supernatural, in an attempt to make people believe that these supernatural beliefs are real, simply by using scientific – largely physics-based – words. How many times have you heard the word energy being used in sentences similar to: “positive thinking energy” or “chakra energy” or “balancing your internal energies”?
There are lots of people out there, from faith healers to new age gurus to homeopathy practitioners, and everything in between, who attempt to link physics and science with their nonsensical beliefs. They do this because – to a large extent – the general public may not understand the actual meaning of the words, and so simply take them for granted because they sound scientific. This was shown when I caught a glimpse of The Late Late Show several years ago, where a guest on the show attributed the existence of angels to quantum physics. Nobody in the audience voiced a counter-opinion, and I suggest that this was because a majority of that audience didn’t know what quantum physics is, and therefore didn’t know that this well-established physical theory has absolutely nothing to do with angels.
I want to start with addressing the idea of ‘energy’. Energy is an inherent property in a physical system that cannot be directly observed, but can be deduced by its ability to do work.
Energy is measured in joules or calories, so high-energy foods (like sugar) have a greater ability to give the person who eats it more strength/stamina/whatever, whereas a low-energy food (lettuce) won’t be any use if you plan on running a marathon.
However, the word ‘energy’ – in this sense – is regularly misused.
There are several alternative medicines, for example, that are part of an idea called “energy medicine” or “energy healing”. One of these is reiki, whereby “energy” is supposedly transferred from the practitioner, through their hands, to the person being treated.
So where is the word being misused? I know that many words can have two different meanings, depending on their context; I’m certainly not going to squabble over that. The problem is that the word ‘energy’ becomes misused when people try to draw the two contexts together. The “energy” in reiki, religions, chakras, angels, etc. is not the same as the energy contained in electricity, heat, light, engines, stars, food, and so on.
I suggest that those who try to equate the two ‘energies’ are not only misrepresenting the word for their own ends (in many – if not most – cases unintentionally and in good faith, I would say), but are also undermining the hard work done by scientists as well as undermining their own beliefs.
Ladies and gents, I present to you the abuse of both science and faith: quantum mysticism.
The Scientific Method
I do not want to come across as condescending when I say that a lot of people don’t know what quantum physics is. Physicists can sometimes come across as stubborn or arrogant when they talk about science, but please take it from me; they are simply talking about science as they see and understand it. My background is in physics and astronomy, so if someone poses to me alternative view on, say, gravity or the colours of stars, I will simply ask questions about their theory in an attempt to see how well it stands up to other understandings of such theories. This is not belittling that person’s thoughts or ideas, it is simple engaging in the scientific method. If that person has a rational counterpoint to my response of their idea, then I will take it on board as potentially being a reasonable idea. It’s as simple as that. That is the scientific method. If scientists do not engage in that process then they are not scientists.
But that’s the problem.
Scientists test ideas and theories out efficiently enough that, when they ask questions of a non-scientist about his or her idea or belief, the non-scientist might assume that they are being attacked and/or ridiculed. The result is the opinion that scientists do not have an open mind, when in reality, that is all scientists have. It follows that scientists and their work become so undermined by those with faith in a belief or method, that those faithful can and will – in many cases – misuse said scientist to backup their belief.
Let’s take Einstein, for example, and his oft misunderstood quote.
“God Does Not Play Dice”
Some time ago I visited my local pub to chill out with a beer and and a quiet read of a good book (the late Iain M Banks’s ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’; a highly recommended novel). Not too far away from me were two ladies having a chat. I usually enjoy the background murmur of conversations and noise as it helps me focus on reading. But in this case one of the two ladies started to mention physics stuff, and I could not help but be distracted from my book.
I did not listen in to their conversation (nor could I: they were too far away) but over a few minutes I did hear regular mentions of quantum, Einstein, yoga, energy, physics, chakras, fields, Buddhists, God. Uh-oh.
It was too distracting. I could not concentrate on my book and had to stop reading for a short while. When a physicist overhears things about energy and quantum physics and so on they are generally happy that they’re in the midst of a fellow scientist, but when those words are purposely mixed in with things like reiki, chakras, and religion, it’s really disappointing and annoying: there is something of an unspoken (or real, if you’re a member of the Institute of Physics, like me) oath to consciously promote real scientific endeavours and to always give non-scientists a way to understand what’s going on in the science community. People who go against that idea and try to use science in an attempt to validate new age nonsense simply undermine the hard work of generations, and hundreds (if not thousands) of years, of real science.
One of the ladies in the pub that evening was – I think – writing a book, and she was telling her companion about her studies. At one stage she said “Even Einstein believed in God!” in order to prove her point that her studies were worthy of the attention of scientists.
This is, of course, a logical fallacy known as an ‘appeal to authority’. Just because a well-known scientist said something does not make it true. Indeed, even Einstein’s famous General Theory of Relativity isn’t quite “correct”: it is an excellent approximation of gravitation, which we can use to great success on the size scales of planets, stars, and even galaxies. But a better theory of gravitation does exist, rooted much deeper in fundamental physics than we currently know.
A scientist can believe in whatever supernatural being they want, but their belief does not change the science and the facts. Einstein could have, hypothetically, said that every roll of thunder in a storm is the direct result of Thor striking his hammer; but that belief cannot be considered true or worthy of attention simply on the basis that Einstein was a scientist.
That’s beside the point: Einstein did not believe in God.
Albert Einstein said once that “God does not play Dice”, and almost immediately that was taken by many as proof that a scientist believed in God and therefore God is possibly real.
After this, Einstein was forced to write a public letter explaining his belief. He did not mean God in a religious sense; it was simply a word to refer to the general workings of the Universe. Indeed, when he said that “God does not play dice”, he was directly referring to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, through which there is no certain outcome from a set of inputs: a roll of a die will always give a certain number, but the Universe’s laws of physics can give strange and unusual answers.
In simpler terms, I often say “oh my God”. I am a scientist. Does me mentioning God make it real? Thought not.
As I said, the appeal to Einstein’s authority is a fallacy, and a bad way to try to justify or validate unscientific claims. Einstein did not believe in God, and even if he did it makes no difference to the reality of physical laws.
That Uncertainty Principle
“OMG YEAH BUT UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE LOL THAT MEANS WE HAVE SUPER ENERGIES YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND!!!!1one”
Well, no it doesn’t. And this is where we start getting into the nitty-gritty of quantum mysticism.
Quantum physics is very much a beautiful thing. Yes, it’s strange when it’s considered from a macroscopic, “real-world” viewpoint, but it makes perfect sense when dealing with microscopic molecules, atoms, and other particles. It even makes sense when you apply the principles of quantum mechanics to macroscopic objects such as your laptop or your cup of tea: it works, but it just takes a lot of unnecessary mathematics, where with things that size, classical physics works just as well.
So what is quantum physics? Well, it’s simply the science of things that are very, very small.
Have you ever seen the inside of a TV, or a remote control, or anything with electronic circuitry? If not, here’s what it looks like:
All those straight, lighter green lines are wires made of a metal (usually copper) upon which electrons flow. This flow of electrons is called current, and is what makes up our electricity. The flow of electrons powers our laptops, charges our phones, lights our rooms, and so on. But an electron is a quantum particle, and here is where the magic lies.
The above image shows a circuit approximately 10cm (4″) across. Imagine you could fit a thousand of those circuits into something half a centimetre across. Everything gets squashed down into a tiny, tiny space. Imagine a hundred thousand circuits into an even smaller space. Seems a bit unbelievable, right?
It’s not unbelievable. Utterly tiny circuits are squashed into microchips. There are a number of microchips in the image above, in which thousands of full electronic circuits are placed. They are the larger black objects to the lower right and upper left, and another to the upper middle of the circuit.
When you squash down circuitry so much, and make the wires microscopically small, quantum mechanics comes into play. An electron isn’t necessarily on a track at that scale, it’s just probably there. If you were to place two tracks too close together, the electron can be in two tracks at once. The result is that there could be one electronic signal on two parts of the computer microchip, meaning that your laptop would stop working. So, those black microchips have to be made big enough, with their wires and paths far enough apart, to work normally.
This is a result of quantum physics: stuff we take for granted on a larger scale gets muddled up a bit on a much smaller scale. Things get blended. Things get blurry. Like the electron in the example above, some things can kind of be in two places at once. But only on small scales. Even so, all the atoms in your body can be in two (or more!) places at once, but the laws of physics say that they are probably in the place that they’re in now. Technically speaking, if all the trillions upon trillions of atoms in your body were suddenly not where they were probably supposed to be, you may find yourself in some completely different part of the Universe.
But that probably won’t happen. The Uncertainty Principle is based on probabilities that only really have any effect on tiny, microscopic scales. Quantum physics works extremely well, and is a science we understand. Quantum physics not only allows us to build computer chips; it allows us to communicate over radio and TV, it makes solar panels work, it makes computer monitors work, it makes the machines that make computer monitors, it even stops our Universe being so hot that we could never survive!
Simply, quantum physics is an everyday and well-understood science. Those who try to attribute it to supernatural beliefs are misusing and abusing science and the work scientists undertake.
So when someone comes up with a phrase like “Reiki works because of quantum physics”, it is similar to saying “the Tooth Fairy is real because of gravity”: the two aspects of their statement are unrelated, their statement is completely meaningless, and it has no grounding in the reality of quantum physics. Indeed, it has no meaning in any sense of reality. That person may as well be making the statement: “my pots and pans are Tuesday because of a vague sense of dizziness newspaper.”
Surely, if someone believes their pretend science so much they should not have to resort to the intentional misuse and abuse of real science to try to validate their ideas. I’m not a man of faith, and I don’t think that science and religion can learn much from each other. Still, I’d like to think that those who believe (or want to believe) their faith-based ideas would have enough conviction not to resort to inventing pseudoscience and misinterpreting quotes to try to give their idea credence.
It might seem odd that I expect people who base their opinions on faith to use only said faith to justify their theories. Preferably, I’d like for those people to actually understand the science they attempt to use and then substantiate their ideas with it, rather than make statements like “well, science is only, like, your opinion; you’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to mine.” Science is not an opinion; it’s the understanding of how stuff works on the basis of thousands of years of study, until we make those understandings better with a new idea (which will also be based on solid research undertaken over decades, if not hundreds of years).
Pulling ideas out of thin air and attributing misinterpreted reality to them does not make an alternative theory valid. If you come up with a theory, you must understand the meanings of the words you use, and the work our best-known scientists have done. Your theory will be thoroughly tested using the scientific method, so if you do not understand what you’re talking about, I feel you are doing yourself and your faith a disservice in undermining your own ideas. People who have an understanding of science will not be convinced by your idea just because you misquote Einstein and misrepresent the word ‘energy’; indeed, doing these things will do more harm to your idea than good.