Coleman on Quantum Flapdoodle

If you mentioned quantum physics at a cocktail party ten years ago, no one would invite you back. More recently a woman approached me and said, “Isn’t quantum physics just what Eastern mystics have been saying for the last two thousand years?” I had to summon every ounce of dignity and told her, “No!”

Sidney Coleman, theoretical physicist (1937–2007)

3 thoughts on “Coleman on Quantum Flapdoodle”

  1. Do you know when that quotation is from? I remember reading _Tao of Physics_ back in the 80s. When was the era that talking quantum theory got you kicked out of parties?

    I’d say that quantum woo has been around as long as quantum mechanics. Indeed, even the founders of QM (Bohr, Pauli, etc.) liked to tie QM in with psychology (sometimes Eastern thought too, I believe) and various forms of wooishness.

  2. John Farrell dates that quotation to 1989.

    The people who founded QM were White Males (now Dead) with, often, wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. This makes hunting down the origins of quantum woo difficult, because you have to disentangle the outright mysticism from the metaphor-speak of well-read people.

    I rather doubt that Oppenheimer was endorsing the Hindutva notion that all modern physics is contained in the Vedic scriptures when he quoted, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

    And, of course, the fuzzy-headedness of the founders is ultimately irrelevant. Today, any grad student could school the Heisenberg of 1927, in facts if not in creativity. Quantum field theory? Renormalization groups? Gauge invariance? Lie algebras? Inflationary cosmology? Etc.

  3. Thanks for the year; it fits with my impression (based on an extremely limited and biased sample) that there was a surge of quantum woo in the 80s, and now we’re in the middle of another upsurge. (I’ve sometimes thought that much of culture is on a twenty-year cycle.)

    I also doubt that Oppenheimer was a pusher of woo. But Bohr was fond of suggesting that love and mercy are complementary concepts, and that a biological description might be complementary to a physical one (and he did mean these in the same sense as position and momentum are complementary).

    I likewise agree that the fuzzy-headedness of particular physicists isn’t relevant to the physics. But I think it does tell us something about the founders, about woo, and about the historical interplay between woo and physics.

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