How quantum physicists 'review' the 'Bleep' movie

"What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school.... It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see my physics students don't understand it.... That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does."

- Richard Feynman

If quantum physics baffled the late Dr. Feynman, one of its most brilliant explorers, then no one should feel embarrassed for failing to understand the subject.

Particles embracing all possible states until they are forced by an experiment to assume one state, one particle being in two adjacent places simultaneously, the inability to precisely measure a particle's position and momentum at the same time - these are just a few of the weird manifestations of quantum physics.

The film "What the Bleep Do We Know?!" does a reasonable job of presenting some of these quandaries, researchers say. But they add that the film shows quantum mysteries selectively to shore up metaphysical points. Those points suggest that quantum-derived "possibilities" affect the wider world, that human thought is the ultimate arbiter of physical reality, and that by manipulating thought properly, people can achieve harmony and even shape the structure of matter.

"They take advantage of things we don't know very well or can't test very well, then use it in an unfair way," notes André de Gouvêa, a particle physicist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

The researchers' bottom line: Quantum physics is about matter at its most fundamental levels and matter's interactions; it's not about spirituality.

"Contrary to ordinary beliefs, quantum physics is very predictive," Dr. de Gouvêa continues. "The theory can't predict with precision what will happen, but it knows everything that can happen and it will tell you the probability of all these things happening."

Thus, if a scientist repeats an experiment with subatomic particles often enough, the results will closely match the probabilities quantum theory predicts. This is one reason physicists studying a subatomic particle create large numbers of them in particle accelerators. As the sample size grows, so does the scientist's confidence in the statistical inferences drawn from the large sample.

Also, the movie suggests that the quantum idea of matter embracing all its possible states at once applies to the larger world of people and rocks. But above a tiny size range, quantum properties collapse, and particles start to behave in the way described by classical physics - more like bowling balls than fuzzy clouds of "wave functions."

"The movie is saying that somehow we can all get together and, with our collective thought processes, we can influence the outcome" of physical events - be they life experiences or scientific experiments, notes Bruce Schumm, a particle physicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "But that's two leaps beyond what scientists believe to be true."

First, such claims rely on "hidden variables" susceptible to influence, he says. But quantum mechanics rules out the possibility of hidden variables. Moreover, the movie proposes no plausible physical mechanism by which thoughts influence matter.

To accomplish that, you would have to invoke "new physics," Dr. Schumm says, in which the explanation can be verified or falsified through experiment. Otherwise, the process falls "outside the realm of physical statements and has entered the realm of spiritual belief."

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