SciComm Corner – Translating numbers into words: Can science communication keep up with increasingly abstract research in quantum physics?
Article written by A Pincham
The theory of quantum mechanics is one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time – it’s the best description that we have for matter, energy and how those two things relate to each other at a fundamental level. But quantum mechanics is also incredibly complex, and poses an enormous challenge to our imaginations, describing situations which seem contradictory and impossible.
The quantum picture of the universe is one where extremely strange things take place: particles simultaneously occupy multiple locations, interact with one another other from opposite ends of the universe, and spontaneously tunnel through solid matter. When this logic gets scaled up to the macroscale, famously, cats in unopened boxes are both alive and dead.
This strangeness, from a science communication perspective is both useful and problematic. People are most curious about what they don’t understand, and this intrigue can be utilised by scientific writers to draw in readership and generate interest in science. However, when quantum mechanics is described by those who don’t appreciate where exactly the weirdness comes from, it is easy for writing to be misleading or downright wrong about what quantum mechanics is and how it can be applied and discussed.
The root of the issue
There are two main reasons why effective communication about quantum theory is so difficult to achieve.
Firstly, things at the quantum level abide by a completely different set of rules than what we experience in our everyday lives. This radical difference, paired with famous quotes like that of quantum pioneer Richard Feynman (‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics’), is often wrongly interpreted as evidence that the theory itself is hopelessly confusing and imprecise. But this is one of the biggest misconceptions about quantum theory. The quantum rule book, despite being foreign is ‘well defined, crisp, clear, undeniable’, according to Dr Juha Saatsi, lecturer in the philosophy of physics.
Science communicators, since they are not necessarily quantum experts, often fall into the trap of interpreting quantum findings according to human logic. When they find paradoxes, they wrongly present quantum mechanics as messy and mysterious. There is perhaps also a vested interest in doing so, since popular science readers might be deterred by long stretches of context-setting text and are more likely to be interested in reading bizarre and shocking experimental outcomes, suggests Dr David Jennings, quantum information theorist: ‘dramatic things like a sci-fi movie’.
The second problem is harder to overcome – the quantum mechanical rule book is written entirely and exclusively in maths. This is true in a more fundamental sense for quantum mechanics than for other scientific theories, which generally contain two key components – a mathematical abstraction and a physical interpretation, meaning that each element in an equation can be neatly paired with something material that we can imagine (a mass or a force).
Quantum mechanics not only lacks an accepted physical interpretation, but there are also many who think that looking for one is misguided. The Schrodinger equation (which describes how quantum situations evolve over time) works by associating a system with a mathematical abstraction (a wavefunction), and there is no scientific consensus on whether a wavefunction can be thought of as existing in the real world, never mind what it might look like.
In a quantum experiment you can control what you put in and measure what you get out, but you can’t watch what is happening at a sub-atomic level. Therefore, experiments cannot provide information about how things develop between those two moments. Is in this liminal space between input and measurement, that the paradoxes lie. Only when unobserved (and therefore exclusively described by mathematics) do particles behave so strangely, overlapping with each other in ways that we cannot comprehend. As Dr Rob Purdy, quantum field theory researcher, explains: ‘You have to trust the maths because things just don’t work the way that they do at the macroscopic level’.
Since most people aren’t fluent in the language of advanced mathematics that quantum mechanics is written in, science communication must translate from maths into words. But these days, only academics are likely to be capable of completely understanding the mathematical rules that make up quantum theory. And while many have personal interpretations of the concepts behind the maths, few are brave enough to communicate them to the public. Because the theory doesn’t provide a description, doing so goes beyond quantum mechanics itself and into the treacherous and into potentially misleading quantum storytelling.
This leaves science communication in an extremely difficult position. Some firmly believe that a translation into words is not possible, but since quantum physics describes the universe that everybody lives in, its message is not one that only a small scientific community of people fluent in maths are interested in hearing. The question therefore becomes – to what extent can science communication keep up with quantum research, and who is responsible for trying?
The good news is that each of the three experts believe that genuinely good science communication of quantum physics is possible, provided that the communicators understand the limitations to and enormity of the task that they are setting out to achieve.
The behaviour of things on a tiny scale is just different – it just doesn’t match our experience, and humans might not have the capacity to understand it in physical terms. From an evolutionary perspective, logic and language are both tools that humans developed to navigate the world around them. ‘We are these funny bipeds that are used to classical physics and so its jarring to our nature to think in quantum terms,’ says Dr Jennings. Therefore, it is unsurprising that they struggle to cope when applied to the radically different quantum scale.
Since the actual behaviour of particles cannot be explained except through mathematics, communicators should ‘avoid the vain desire to explain it through an analogy with something familiar’. Instead, they should talk in terms of experimental inputs and outcomes, so that an intuition of quantum concepts can be built up over time.
One obvious solution would be for researchers to collaborate more closely with science journalists, since they have understanding of the complexity of the issues involved.
Since science communicators necessarily seek readership, and researchers funding and acclaim, the temptation to play into the shock factor of quantum findings is understandable from both. And if a shocking but not entirely accurate description of quantum phenomena inspires increased engagement in science, then it perhaps isn’t the end of the world.
‘Nobody’s going to be inspired to study a particular subject if their first introduction to it is a load of maths they don’t understand. A non-technical initial understanding can easily inspire someone to go and learn the necessary technical skills to study it more rigorously and later contribute to the field,’ admits Dr Purdy.
But the successes and limitations of quantum theory are equally fascinating and worthy of being conveyed accurately. Without dedicating some time to what quantum theory is (mathematics), it is impossible to keep up with new research and to convey what it really telling us both about the universe and about ourselves.
With thanks to Dr Rob Purdy, Dr David Jennings, and Dr Juha Saatsi.
Reference: Philosophy of Physics: Quantum Theory – Book by Tim Maudlin as Part of: Princeton Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy (9 books)
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