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Foibles and Fallacies

Reality Check

Milton Rothman

Skeptical Briefs Volume 4.4, December 1994

Recently I pulled myself kicking and screaming into the nineties by purchasing a modem and subscribing to the Prodigy information service. My first action, after learning to get around the system, was to tap into the bulletin board (BB) section. These BBs actually consist of notes written by all kinds of people who ask questions, make pronouncements, and enter into discussions. You can talk to people all over the country, and there are hundreds of topics to choose from. Naturally, I chose physics. Within the physics bulletin board there are scores of subjects. Anybody can start a discussion on a subject of interest, and the number of responses to a given question can range from zero to dozens.

It quickly became apparent that most of the BB denizens were students of various kinds. Many were high-school or middle- school students asking for hints about science projects or seeking answers to their homework problems. A few appeared to be graduate students interested in discussing quantum theory, relativity, or esoteric philosophical topics, such free will vs. determinism.

What surprised me (although it should not have) was the number of individuals interested in expounding on their own grandiose theories of the universe. The grandiosity of the theories appeared to be inversely proportional to the amount of knowledge possessed. Many were determined to show how Einstein was wrong; others were bent on demonstrating the falsity of quantum theory. Since relativity and quantum theory violate common sense, they must be wrong and all the scientists in the world are mistaken.

A number of correspondents were interested in time travel of various sorts. The tachyon was seriously bandied about as a way of accomplishing faster-than-light travel. When I objected that tachyons don’t really exist, I was informed that "Star Trek” uses them regularly. Silly me, I've been out of touch.

It soon became evident that many of these students can’t tell the difference between real science and the kind of science used in science fiction. They think that faster-than-light travel and time travel are serious possibilities. When I started to become alarmed over this confusion in the world of education, I reminded myself of my own ignorance when, at the age of 12, I entered high school. At that time my mind had been totally besotted by science fiction, and my favorite writer was one whose first novel involved a space ship that could accelerate at a rate of one light year per second per second [sic], but nobody was hurt by the g-forces because the floor of the cabin was mounted on springs! (The author of this epic was a chemist, not a physicist.) Later in my career I became more sophisticated and derived much satisfaction by pointing out scientific errors in the stories, attaining a great reputation as a tedious bore.

I do hope that the denizens of the computer bulletin board will in time learn to separate fact from fantasy. If not, they will undoubtedly end up as subjects of this column.

Just this morning, for example, there arrived an E-mail message requesting some or all information known about antimatter. The writer wanted to incorporate this knowledge into his theory about time travel. I responded, saying

  1. it would take several textbooks to transmit all known information about antimatter, and
  2. I didn’t quite see what antimatter had to do with time travel.

I must confess that I get rather testy when people ask me for information that they can get from any good book or encyclopedia. (Right within Prodigy they have an encyclopedia that can answer many of their questions. I don’t mind giving references (especially to my own books) and don’t mind clarifying fuzzy ideas that the correspondents may have acquired, but I do not care to spend the hours it would take to give detailed answers to some of the questions. I have tastier fish to fry.

What is most disturbing is the impression I get that many of the students on the Prodigy BB have never acquired the habit of looking things up in a book (gasp!) when they have questions. Within the computer culture it is more common to log on and ask somebody out there. Of course, not everybody has the wall of books that stands behind my desk, and it is an inconvenience to go to the library, even if there is one within a reasonable distance. But anybody interested in physics should have one good basic textbook (which would answer most of the questions), and access to an encyclopedia is right at the fingertips of Prodigy subscribers.

One of the perpetual philosophical discussions that swirls around the physics bulletin board has to do with a famous old chestnut: “Nothing exists until it is observed.” This statement is supposed to be true because in quantum theory the observation of a particle is accomplished by an interaction between the particle and the observer, and further, the state of the particle depends on the nature of that interaction. But why the very existence of the particle depends on the observation was never clear to me.

The quotation above about existence was subscribed to by many famous scientists (Bohr, Heisenberg, et al.) so that a whole school of thought has grown up believing it to be true. But a little detailed logic shows that certain paradoxical results spring from that statement, making it very hard for me to believe. For example, suppose you are observing the moon. Of course you don’t directly observe the moon; what you actually observe are photons coming from the moon and entering your eye. Each photon is detected when it reaches the retina of your eye. That is where it disappears and an electrical impulse is started that travels down the optic nerve to the brain. In the brain, the impulse is processed, and there you become aware of the moon. If you say that the photon from the moon did not exist until you became aware of it, then that means your retina detected something that did not exist until a few milliseconds later. Or, saying the same thing differently, the existence of the photon depends on events happening in the future.

Well all right, you say. You really mean that the photon does not exist until it is detected in the retina. If so, then where did that photon come from? It came from the sun, and was reflected by the moon. Do you mean the sun did not emit that photon until it was detected by your retina? You see that if you go step by step and trace the course of events in detail, the idealistic statement that “Nothing exists until it is observed” simply becomes nonsense.

The giants who invented quantum theory in the early part of the century learned their philosophy in the nineteenth century and knew nothing about modern neuroscience. Note: Nothing I have said about this philosophical controversy invalidates the success of quantum theory. We are merely arguing about an interpretation. The flap proves once more the truth of Conservation of Ideas: Once an idea is created, it never disappears, no matter how often it is disproved.

Milton Rothman

Milton Rothman is a physicist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.