Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Quantum Physics Of Harry Potter

I will admit that I cringed when I read the title, and it didn't go away after I read the news article.

A postdoc at University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing and a magician will try to "illustrate" some of the principles of quantum mechanics by invoking similarities between it and the world of Harry Potter. Then, supposedly, the magicians will use magic to "... explain the sometimes hard-to-fathom quantum world... "

So why Harry Potter?

“When I really think about what’s going on in the quantum world, to me it just seems like magic. Some of the stuff we’re doing is crazy,” Shalm said.

“I’m a fan of Harry Potter, and I thought ‘we’re actually doing some very similar things in the lab.’ It seemed like the perfect vehicle to explain some of the things we’re doing in quantum mechanics.”

Oy vey!

First of all, I'm all for trying to convey to the public not only important concepts in physics, such as quantum physics, but also informing the public on what we do in our work. There's no argument there, and in fact, I highly support it. More of it should be done. Period!

However, is it really a good idea to interweave something that is hard-core since, with very stringent test and verification, with "magic" and the supernatural, pseudoscience world of wizardry? Just because there are some similarities doesn't make them compatible and agreeable with each other. It might give the impression that quantum mechanics is nothing but "magic" and hocus pocus.

I've criticized many sources before when they bastardized quantum mechanics and used the similarities between it and some mystical beliefs as the justification for the validity of that mystical beliefs. In quantum mechanics case, there are plenty of ways to engage the public to want to learn a bit about it. The subject matter itself is already interesting enough that it doesn't need to piggyback onto something like Harry Potter movies. And then to pair it off with some magic show?

I wrote earlier on why I think that quantum mechanics is so difficult to comprehend, especially to the general public. Because of the lack of connection with everyday world, many aspect of quantum mechanics will appear as if it came out of thin air, like magic! In reality, it is the mathematical formalism that grounds us, but this is something that the public cannot comprehend or has the skill to use. So paring quantum mechanics with magic can only reinforce the fallacy that it IS truly magic, and things can be invented, appear and disappear weely neely without any need for rules and physics constraints/descriptions. This is not the message that I want to convey to the audience.

This presentation will take place on July 14 and 15, presumably in Waterloo, Canada. If anyone attends this, I would appreciate if you could post a comment on what you think of it.



kshalm said...

Comment Part 1:

Dear ZZ,

I am the physicist who is running this show, and I completely understand why you would have cringed when reading the article in the record. The way quantum mechanics has been abused by quacks and mystics should leave anyone cautious (just look at Deepak Chopra or "What the Bleep"). As physicists I feel we have done a poor job over the years of communicating what quantum mechanics really is. As you point out, explaining quantum mechanics is a hard problem. It is also one that most physicist ignore. The resulting vacuum is what allows others to distort and pervert quantum mechanics for their own ends and poisons the discussion.

This talk is an earnest attempt to convey to the general public some of the deeper ideas in quantum mechanics. As a physicist, I think I have one of the greatest jobs in the world, getting to study in depth the world around me. I am constantly filled with wonder at the way nature works. This is the excitement that I wish to convey in the show. I think J.K. Rowling has done a wonderful job constructing an imaginative world. As incredible as J.K. Rowling's world is, I think the natural world around us is even more surprising, inspiring, and intriguing. This is the theme of the show. The natural world far surpasses in wonder any world one will find in a fantasy novel of science fiction book.

Comment continued below:

kshalm said...

Comment Part 2

Is using Harry Potter gimmicky? Perhaps, but the show is aimed at kids 8+. It is hard enough teaching quantum mechanics to smart undergrads and high school students, let alone children. Harry Potter is something that is topical that they can relate to. As you know, the language of quantum mechanics is mathematics. Many of our problems communicating quantum mechanics come when we try and put into words the mathematics we deal with. One needs to look no further than the quantum interpretational holy wars to see that this is a problem no matter how much training one has. A similar problem arises in the translation of poetry; translate a poem to a new language and it loses much of its meaning. Some have even defined poetry as that which is untranslatable. Does this mean we should stop trying to translate foreign poetry? No. But the problem will always be there.

I love Bohr's saying that truth and clarity are complementary. Sometimes we try to be to precise and truthful when communicating to the public, leaving a confused and distorted message. Sometimes we are clear but convey very little truth. This is something I have wrestled with for a long time (and continue to do so). For each audience, how far does one go along the complementarity scale. One of my goals is to one day find a way to explain the spirit and essence behind something like Bell's inequalities to an 8 year old in a way they will comprehend it. The exact details may be lost, but central idea will be conveyed. I do not know how to do this, and I have yet to see anything close to satisfactory yet. Something "simpler" is entanglement. There are many interesting things one can talk about on this subject, but for me the heart of it is the unexpected strong correlations that entangled particles can exhibit. The problem is that correlations can be a rather esoteric thing for people to grasp. Again, I have seen many attempts to explain these correlations, but have not been satisfied (most 8 year olds will just be left confused when you try to walk them through the logic of Bertlmann's socks). This is where the magician comes in. We have developed a card trick that captures the essence of these surprising correlations, correlations that one would intuitively expect to be impossible (with classical thinking). Of course in quantum mechanics the correlations are stronger, and there is an obvious hidden variable that can describe the card trick, but the important point has been conveyed that entangled particles share stronger correlations than what we would ordinarily (classically) expect to be possible.

This is why I have enjoyed working with a magician so much. There are principles that can be illustrated much clearer and grasped easier if the illusions are constructed right. Is this the best way to do things? Almost certainly not. Physics outreach is hard. There isn't a good user manual on how to go about it. Most things we do are trial and error. But I think it is important that we try and not be afraid to experiment with new ways to communicate to people. I know that you must feel physics outreach is important on some level, after all, you are one of the few physicist out there with a blog. I appreciate this (and have enjoyed many of your other posts).

The show is being filmed and will be available online on my blog,, sometime in the next few weeks. I welcome any constructive feedback you might have.


ZapperZ said...

Thank you for your comments, and for presenting your side of the story. I look forward to seeing the video when it is available.


Logan Wright said...

Having just seen the show, and having entered with something of a superposition of ZZ's well-placed worried skepticism and Krister's excitement, I can make a few observations. First, I don't think one can really underestimate how hard it is to convey these ideas to an eager, educated non-physicist, nevermind someone less eager, less educated or just plain confused. There were (many) moments in the show where I wondered if Krister's use of a particular word, even something as unassuming as "oscillation", would make his point lost. This is certainly where the demonstrations earned their stay. I think you (ZZ) will find little that offends your physics sensibilities in the show, but I think the matter really reduces to how the audience members interpreted the demos and discussion. From this perspective, very few components of the show stumbled over subtleties and there were surprisingly few ambiguities. The choice of magic tricks was generally very good and there was more than enough comic relief to draw in the few "prisoners" who appeared to have been dragged to the show. Dan Trommater performed adeptly, but routinely displayed patience far, far below all but the youngest children in attendance. For the relevance and execution of his part I have nothing but praise, but his conduct otherwise was embarrassing. Fortunately, I am sure this went over the collective heads of the primary audience, who seemed awed and enthused in precisely the way I had hoped.

kshalm said...

Dear ZZ,

The talk is now online: