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Quantum Mechanics for dummies, and why I am stupider than I thought.

Science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.’

Richard Dawkins

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,‘ said American physicist Richard Feynman in 1965. Mancunian TV-friendly, mop-haired, keyboard fingering, science teacher Professor Brian Cox tries to explain it anyway to an audience full of familiar entertainment faces, in a one-off BBC presentationA Night With The Stars from the lecture hall of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Rather than the eponymous cat, the example object in the box is a rough diamond – a million pounds’ worth of uncut precious rock – or rather its tightly packed carbon atoms. Through this example, Professor Cox seeks to enlighten the assembled celebrities and viewers of the perplexing world of Quantum Mechanics. I can’t speak for the celebrities, but I came away feeling like I knew less than when I started watching.

You see, that’s the problem with quantum mechanics: It’s harder to wrap your head around than it would be to wrap an iron bar around a strand of hair. I’ve always found it intimidating, as it involves a degree of mathematics, lateral thinking and imagination in harmony that goes beyond my learning. Don’t mistake me; I’m no idiot – although after trying to crack quantum mechanics I have a hard time believing it – but the sciences were never my strong point, being of a more creative type. As an adult, I’ve tried to fill in the holes in my learning the best I can, and Professor Cox is an accessible enough presenter, but the subject is harder to approach than the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen on a dance floor surrounded by dozens of guys better looking and more charming than you.

I’ve read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking three times. I say that not as a boast, as the the second and third times were trying to get it to sink in. Biology and the science of evolution by natural selection fascinate me. Tell me a fact about dinosaurs and I’ll lap it up. But Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene still sits on my shelf mocking me, and even after this show quantum mechanics continues to elude me.

Basically, for those who are unfamiliar with the workings of quantum mechanics – which is most people – it describes the behaviour of the very, very small, and how it can be used to predict the behaviour of the very, very large – stars and other such stellar objects. It says that sub-atomic particles travel in waves; that everything is related to everything else; and that it acts completely counter-intuitively to anything prior science predicted. Einstein himself said of it: ‘Marvellous, what ideas the young people have these days. But I don’t believe a word of it.’

The annual Royal Institute Christmas lectures are a popular form of scientific entertainment, in a similar vein to A Night With The Stars. They’re intended for children and young people, although enjoyed by adults too. Thus far, to the best of my knowledge, there has not been a lecture on quantum mechanics. I’m not sure that the subject can be boiled down to a degree where it is suitable for consumption by children. Or maybe I’m looking at it the wrong way and it’s complex enough for children to take in their stride. All I know is if you stop paying attention for a second it’s like you’ve turned two pages of a book over at once.

When I was a child, television’s go-to mad scientist was Johnny Ball, presenter of such programmes as Johnny Ball Reveals All. I’m not as familiar with current children’s television, but I’m guessing there’s no equivalent of this or How2, and that they are biased largely towards entertainment rather than education. If there were, perhaps I could build up to A Night With The Stars eventually, but for now I’m left still scratching my head.

About stuartjamesbox

I'm a 30-something graphic designer, employed by a large newspaper and magazine publisher, but a writer at heart - only one who struggles to find the time or motivation to sit at the keyboard and bash keys in a pleasing order. I'm a progressive, liberal, atheist. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, but some people are just plain wrong. I love books, films and music, and if you only like one kind of anything you don't like them at all and seriously need to broaden your horizons. I can cook, bake, and play guitar to various degrees. I have an unhealthy obsession with fonts; vintage clothing, especially tweed; cats of any variety, except pointy, skinny ones and ones with flat faces. Follow me on Twitter @ Stuartjamesbox


5 thoughts on “Quantum Mechanics for dummies, and why I am stupider than I thought.

  1. Great article Happy Holidays to you 🙂

    Posted by jakesprinter | December 24, 2011, 9:19 am
  2. I understand what you mean about the quantum mechanics lecture by Brian Cox. It most certainly was no walk in the park. But for me the opposite happened. I found that I understood so much more about quantum mechanics concepts than I thought, just can’t sense of the mathematics associated with it.

    Posted by Gilraen | December 24, 2011, 11:36 am
  3. In A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking says (Final Chapetr 11) that maybe there are waves omly. I have read this thrilling wonder story ar least 20 times and I can tell you that his supposition is right. Also his his supposition that the universe is finite and unbounded, with no beginning and no true which means that thaichard Dawking is right. Science is interesting.

    Posted by martenvandijk | December 24, 2011, 2:15 pm
  4. There were a couple of guys on the train this morning who started talking about Brian Cox’s “A night with the Stars”. My ears pricked up with interest but sadly their conversation was shortlived. Curtailed due to the disinterest of one of them, a strange osmosis of opinion and a certain kind of friendship.
    Although I suspect the one with less mass had been impressed with this beginners guide to quantum physics, his enthusiasm quickly hardened into the protective shell of sarcasm,

    “Yeah I started watching it but gave up – I was like ………seriously what has any of that got to do with me.”

    They then went on to discuss CSI: Miami.

    I have had mixed feelings about Brian Cox for a while now following programmes like “The wonders of the universe” where his wistful eyes, leather jacket and general AWE about everything was a little disconcerting.

    And that hair? You could virtually smell the Pro-Vitamin B5.

    We weren’t use to it and let’s be honest it distracted from the content. Scientists don’t use the language of poetry and make every terrestrial shot look like a Bon Jovi video do they? – have you not seen Tomorrow’s World? So I was intrigued how he would fare without the CGI window dressing, that constant whizzing across the galactic pool table.


    Freed from the aesthetic shackles of “science for the masses sans budget” and armed only with a blackboard, some chalk and a skipping rope, he was effortlessly the best communicator of complex ideas I’ve seen for an age. The learning curve was steep but he was our friendly Mancunian Sherpa leading us up and up. Never exhausted with our lack of knowledge he held our hand and helped us towards the summit, towards the view. The ideas he spent time conveying were not his, but who better to brush dandruff from the shoulders of Giants. Make them appealing, accessible. For many, the nebulae making up the “celebrity” audience would’ve first drawn the eye, but it was the gravity of the lecturer’s personality that kept you in your seat.

    One of the many fascinating ideas was that atoms are mainly empty, that the component parts that form an atom are huge distances apart relative to their size. Like Mariah Carey’s breasts.

    Will I be using the principles in my day today – probably not, but if I grasped anything then it’s the level of respect due to a handful of scientists who have offered mankind an explanation for why things are. Something beyond even the awesome scope of CSI: Miami.

    Posted by conmy | February 27, 2012, 4:41 pm

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