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Thread: A Social Responsibility in Teaching Physics

  1. #1 A Social Responsibility in Teaching Physics 
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    Aug 2006
    A Social Responsibility in Teaching Physics
    By Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner

    Authors of Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness

    Physicists properly join today's arguments involving the teaching of Darwinian evolution. There is, however, a social issue even closer to the responsibility of physicists: quantum physics is increasingly invoked to promote pseudoscience.

    Such pseudoscience promotions often start correctly stating some intriguing implications of quantum mechanics, move on to legitimate hyperbole, and then go off into complete hype. Take a recent "international hit" movie as our case in point. It's strangely titled: "What tHe #$*! Do wE (k)now!?" (It's sometimes called "What the Bleep?") Time magazine describes it as "an odd hybrid of science documentary and spiritual revelation featuring a Greek chorus of Ph.D.s and mystics talking about quantum physics." Early on, the movie illustrates the uncertainty principle with a bouncing basketball being in several places at once. There's nothing wrong with that. It's recognized as pedagogical exaggeration. But the movie gradually blends to quantum "insights" leading a woman to toss away her anti-depressant medication, to the quantum channeling of the 35,000 year-old Atlantis god, Ramtha, and on to even greater nonsense.

    A layperson cannot tell where the quantum physics ends and the quantum nonsense begins. And many are susceptible to being misguided. According to polls, well over half of Americans (and English) have significant belief in the reality of supernatural phenomena. Robert Park in his book, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, puts the problem well. "Many people . . . seek a certainty that science cannot offer. For these people the unchanging dictates of ancient religious beliefs, or the absolute assurances of zealots, have a more powerful appeal. Paradoxically, however, their yearning for certainty is often mixed with a respect for science. They long to be told that modern science validates the teachings of some ancient scripture or New Age guru. The purveyors of pseudoscience have been quick to exploit their ambivalence." We should not underestimate how persuasively the imprimatur of physics can be used to buttress mystical notions. We physicists bear some responsibility for the way our discipline is invoked.

    The human implications of quantum mechanics that fuel popular discussion arise in the "measurement problem" and "entanglement." That's at least how we refer to these topics in a physics class, where we rarely go much beyond their mathematical formulation. These same issues are also legitimately discussed more broadly in terms of the nature of reality, universal connectedness, and consciousness. But we don't distract physics students with excursions into issues that extend embarrassingly beyond the boundaries we define for our discipline. Science historian Jed Buchwald notes: "Physicists . . . have long had a special loathing for admitting questions with the slightest emotional content into their professional work." Accordingly, unlike the biology student able to defend evolution against Intelligent Design, a physics student may be unable to convincingly confront unjustified extrapolations of quantum mechanics.

    It's not the student's fault. For the most part, in our teaching of quantum mechanics, we tacitly deny the mystery physics has encountered. We hardly mention Bohr's grappling with physics' encounter with the observer and von Neumann's demonstration that the encounter is, in principle, inevitable. We largely avoid the still-unresolved issues raised by Einstein, Schrödinger, Wigner, Bohm, and Bell . Outside the physics classroom, physicists increasingly address these issues and often go beyond the purely "physical." Consciousness, for example, comes up explicitly in almost every one of today's proliferating interpretations of quantum mechanics, if only to show why physics itself need not deal with it. The many worlds interpretation, for example, is also referred to as the "many minds" interpretation, and a major treatment of decoherence concludes that an ultimate understanding would involve a model of consciousness.

    The Copenhagen interpretation is, of course, all we need to describe the world, for all practical purposes. And for a physics class, practical purposes are generally all that matter. But a physics student confronting someone inclined to take the implications of quantum mechanics to unjustified places will find Copenhagen 's for-all-practical-purposes treatment an ineffective argument.

    Our physics discipline is unable to present a reasonable-seeming picture of what's going on in the physical world, one that goes beyond merely practical purposes. But a lecture or two can succinctly expose the mystery physics has encountered, admit the limits of our understanding, and identify as speculation whatever goes beyond those limits. It would enable students to effectively confront the quantum nonsense. Such a presentation is possible even in a "physics for poets" class, where it may even be most crucial. Physics' encounter with the observer and consciousness can be embarrassing, but that's not a good reason for avoiding it. The analogy with sex education comes to mind.

    Copyright © 2006 Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner

    Bruce Rosenblum is Professor of Physics and former Chairperson of the Physics Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has also consulted extensively for government and industry on technical and policy issues. His research has moved from molecular physics to condensed matter physics and, after a foray into biophysics, has focused on fundamental issues in quantum mechanics.

    After a career in industry that included two technology startups, and following a second career in academic administration, Fred Kuttner now devotes most of his time to teaching physics at the University of California , Santa Cruz. His research interests have centered on the low-temperature properties of solids and the thermal properties of magnets. For the last several years, Kuttner has worked on the foundations of quantum mechanics and the implications of the quantum theory.

    They are the authors of Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, Published by Oxford University Press; August 2006; $29.95US; 0-19-517559-X.

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