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Physicist: Movie makes no #$*%!ing sense

Jeremy Bernstein

In the late 1970s a book appeared that was called “The Tao of Physics.” It was written by the theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra, whose intent was to show parallels between some of the ideas of elementary particle physics and Eastern mysticism.When I heard about it, I decided I would never read it. But I changed my mind. In the first place, it was a hot topic of conversation in some of the circles I then frequented. In the second place, I was then writing a biannual column for The American Scholar, and I thought that if this book was as bad as I imagined, then it would be grist for the column. It was, and it was.I wrote a column that I called “A Cosmic Flow” and pointed out that not only were Capra’s parallels absurd, but they were based on ideas in elementary particle physics that had gone out of fashion years earlier.It is too bad that at that time my friend and late colleague John Bell – who is responsible through no fault of his own for a new wave of nonsense being written about quantum mechanics – had not yet met the Dalai Lama. A few years later the Dalai Lama visited CERN, the elementary particle physics laboratory outside Geneva where Bell worked. Bell was selected to be one of the physicists he talked to. Bell told me that the Dalai Lama could see no connection between what he understood of the quantum theory and Tibetan Buddhism. He was interested in the fact that so much of the atom appears to be empty space and wondered why it didn’t collapse – something that you need quantum mechanics to explain.

By the way, after my column was printed Capra wrote a rejoinder in which he said that my problem was a feeling of sexual inadequacy. I have often wondered which of my ex-girlfriends he talked to.I had forgotten most of this until people began asking me about a new film called “What the #$*! Do We Know?”From the way the film sounded, the Great Wheel had turned and Capra had been reincarnated in a new guise. Once again I swore that I would not be taken in, and once again I was. People kept asking me about the film so in the end I had to see it.

It is a difficult film to describe, in part because it does not make much sense. There is a story of sorts. A young woman named Amanda appears to be undergoing a particularly tedious form of emotional crisis. She is played by Marlee Matlin, the deaf actress who was such a marvel in “Children of A Lesser God.” She seems to have put on a good deal of weight – something that she rants about while dressed in her underwear. She also pops some sort of pills during the course of the film but does not have the simple good manners to share them with the audience.In the film she is a photographer assigned to photograph a Polish wedding. The people at the wedding look as if they had stepped out of a Diane Arbus collection of freaks. There are also scenes where she attempts to play basketball with a young black boy who looks as if he had accidentally wandered in from another movie or another life.While this is going on, the narrative is interrupted by pronouncements of individuals who are not identified until the end. I recognized a few. I think I may have had them in class.One that I certainly did not have in class was J.Z. Knight, whose present body is being channeled through Ramtha or perhaps it is vice versa. Ramtha is a Brunhildesh looking blond who at one point discusses male erections as an illustration of a mind-body experience – perhaps her own. There is much discussion of quantum mechanics changing reality, and that you had better get with the program. Most of the discussion is so confused that, as the late Wolfgang Pauli used to say, it isn’t even wrong. To deal with it would be like shooting bullets through fog.

But there is one thing I can get my teeth into. This is the claim that in quantum mechanics electrons and other objects can be in several places at once. This shows such a total lack of understanding that it is worth spending some time over.One of John Bell’s best essays is called “Bertlmann’s Socks and the Nature of Reality.” Reinhold Bertlmann is an Austrian theoretical physicist who used to spend time visiting CERN. Bell noted that Bertlmann’s socks never matched. Indeed, when I saw him at the memorial meeting we had for Bell he was wearing one red and one green sock. For the sake of the following discussion I will assume that Bertlmann only had red and green socks and that they never matched. Thus, if you saw only one of Bertlmann’s socks – say green – you could be 100 percent certain that the other was red. If someone had told you that, prior to your observation of Bertlmann’s green sock, the other sock had no color, that in fact it was your observation that had brought the second sock’s redness into evidence, you would object that whoever was telling you that must surely be mistaken.But in quantum mechanics we have to be careful that we don’t attribute properties to objects in the absence of observation. I insist that this has nothing to do with subjectivity. The observations can be perfectly robotic. I will try to make this clear with an example. In a sense it is the example.The example is that of the two slits. We have an obstruction that blocks particles like electrons unless one or both of two slits are open. In this experiment we will open and close slits. Let us close one. The electrons will stream through the other. If we have a detector on the other side, the electrons that arrive at it will build up a pattern. This pattern differs from a simple classical particle pattern because real electrons have both particle and wave characteristics. From the pattern we can conclude that the electrons have gone through a particular open slit.

If we close the slit and open the other, then a pattern will emerge that reflects that.What happens if we keep both slits open? A new pattern emerges that one can interpret by saying it is as if the waves from the two slits are interfering. But here is the novelty. We can let the beam be so attenuated that electrons arrive at the detector in widely separated time intervals. Nonetheless, they will arrive with most probability at the places where the interference pattern was realized.Now we must be careful. We can try to say the electrons have gone through both slits at once, so that they are in two places at the same time. But to this I respond, “How the #$*! do you know?” If you want to see which slit the electron really goes through, then you have to close one of the slits and the interference pattern disappears. To avoid nonsense, you must specify the process of measurement.Electrons are not in two places at the same time ever. While I was watching “What the #$*! Do We Know,” I often wished I was in some parallel reality watching the Marx Brothers.


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