Chapter 1 – 2nd Edition

Einstein Called it “Spooky”: And I Wish I Had Known

The full impact of my evening with Albert Einstein came much later. My missed opportunity to talk with Einstein about what was so much on his mind, what he called the “quantum problem,” is an increasing regret. Had I been more aware of the quantum mysteries, I might, even then, have speculated, and been bold enough to voice some of the speculations I can now conjure. (I would not then have had the experimental confirmations of the “spooky actions” Einstein had shown that the theory predicted. I might have even asked his reaction to their possible existence, then barely conceivable.)

But I only knew how to calculate with quantum theory. I only knew how to use it for practical purposes.

I can’t help feeling a bit of (unjustified) anger, at least a feeling of being cheated by my professors for not encouraging us to think some about the meaning of the quantum theory we studied. Of course we were free to explore that material on our own. But most of us were not completely confident students, and we had what was to be on the exams to worry about.

Would some awareness of the mysteries (say some reference to the EPR controversy) have actually detracted us from learning how to use the theory? I think not. For me, at least, knowing of the profound mysteries underlying quantum mechanics would have motivated my interest in the mathematical formalism. (Never intrigued by back-of-the-chapter homework problems, I could have used that motivation.)

Actually, decades later I’m at least partially guilty of the same thing I fault my professors for. In teaching quantum mechanics, I spend probably 95% of the time on how to use the stuff. I do, at least, give one lecture on the quantum mysteries, “the quantum measurement problem,” and offer some references. (Had Quantum Enigma been available then, I would have suggested it.) However, since I feel obligated to cover the standard material, and there’s a lot of difficult stuff, and that’s what’s on the exams, students can’t spend much time thinking of the deeper meaning of what they study. Pity.

The conceptual physics course from which Quantum Enigma evolved is called “The Quantum Enigma.” Our book is much lighter than the course, and the book emphasizes the last few lectures of the course. But even in the first lecture we mention the ultimate focus on the quantum mysteries. We tell it as a bit of motivation, emphasizing that understanding (or even believing) is not required at this point. Many students (probably most) have been exposed to something about quantum mechanics. Unfortunately, often to pseudo-science. We remark on that, sensitive to avoid a put-down.

Physics’ encounter with consciousness at times embarrasses physicists. We certainly share a measure of that embarrassment. It’s partly the connection with something so undefined and “unphysical.” Even more because in many peoples’ minds it’s associated with what we would consider pseudo-science.

But that’s not a reason to avoid the subject; it’s a reason to address it. We try to make this point in a letter published in Physics Today. Here’s a link to it.

Increasingly, contemporary experts in the foundations of quantum mechanics are explicit about the issue of consciousness arising when viewing the measurement problem. We close our first chapter with a quote (on the need to discuss consciousness) by Frank Wilczek. In later chapters we quote others willing to go well beyond where we do in Quantum Enigma. (Having a Nobel Prize probably emboldens one.)