Irony, Thy Name is Quantum

I wonder how many instances of the phrase “quantum leap” Scott Bakula is personally responsible for? There is, as many others have observed before me, a hefty dose of irony in calling a major transition a “quantum leap” or “quantum jump,” as the original leaps to gain the name were the transitions of electrons between energy levels. We’re talking about an electron’s “orbit” changing its diameter from one zillionth of a centimeter to four zillionths of a centimeter. But science never stands in the way of evocative, quasi-scientific jargon!

It’s old irony, but it’s still worth a chuckle, as when India’s prime minister declares, “We need a quantum jump in science education and research.” Start at the top, my friend, start at the top. OK, points for effort:

“We are planning to fund 30 new Central Universities, five new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, eight new Indian Institutes of Technology, and 20 new Indian Institutes of Information Technology,” Singh said. In the next five years, he added, India will also be launching 1,600 polytechnics, 10,000 vocational schools and 50,000 skill-development centres. One million schoolchildren will receive science innovation scholarships of 5,000 rupees (US$130) each over the next five years, and 10,000 scholarships of 100,000 rupees per year will go to those enrolling on science degree courses.

Meanwhile, in the United States, we’re too busy screwing over our children to provide for their education.

11 thoughts on “Irony, Thy Name is Quantum”

  1. In fairness, I understand the term “quantum leap” to refer to the discontinuity of the manoeuvre rather than being a reference to distance. I’m sure that the vast majority of the people who use it don’t get that, but I’m nonetheless willing to give the original coiner the benefit of the doubt.

  2. Eamon, the prefix for “one-zillionth” is ζ. As in, 0.01ζm for one zillionth of a centimeter, or one hundredth of a zillimeter. Of course, atomic physicists find this to be such a natural unit that they define and use it as the ×™, read “jot”.

  3. Um, by whom? That’s not the meaning within physics (an electron being excited from an n = 1 state to an n = 2 orbital is not a “phase transition,” and water boiling and dry ice sublimating are never called “quantum leaps,” for good reason). Could non-physicists abuse both phrases and assume they have the same meaning? Probably, but what of it?

  4. “Um, by whom?” Ignorant people.

    The key concept is the discontinuity of transition. The phrase is used figuratively, not literally, and as it’s not in a formal context objecting that its literal meaning is nonsense is pointless. If you are willing to accept imprecise, everyday language as what it is meant to say, not what is actually said, you have no reason to complain.

  5. @Caledonian: Okay, as you sorta hint, we get by doing imprecise things all the time: when we say “dressed to the nines” or “hoist by his own petard” we may or may not know what the literal basis of the expression was or even whether it ever had one. And perhaps it doesn’t say horrible things about the education and intelligence of India’s education minister that he showed his ignorance of the literal meaning of “quantum leap” and said this imprecise thing.

    But Blake was mostly saying it’s kind of ironic and amusing how literal quantum leaps stack up against figurative ones. His goal wasn’t really to rip into this guy and accusing him of unforgivable ignorance of QM; in fact, he went on to say that at least India’s education policy seems to be trying to move in the right direction. So you have fairly little basis for complaining about his complaining.

    And I have fairly little basis for complaining about your complaint. I mean, we should both be off somewhere doing something useful, or at least fun.

  6. What the algorithm said.

    It’s entirely fair to remark upon occasions when scientific terms enter a broader usage. For one thing, such terms are often used not just to impart a modern, “Space/Information Age” feel, but to fool the reader into believing the writer is actually a scientific expert; witness all the New Age invocations of “energy” and so forth. Beyond that, it has the same utility as any other investigation in etymology, such as the shift in the meaning of “naughty” over the years.

  7. “It’s entirely fair to remark upon occasions when scientific terms enter a broader usage.”

    The term was used that way in common parlance probably long before you were born – at least fifty years ago. This is hardly the occasion of its entrance into the public lexicon.

Comments are closed.