Quantum Theory and Quack Theory

Earlier this year, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. J.A. Wheeler startled his audience by asking the AAAS to reconsider its decision (made ten years ago at the insistence of Margaret Mead) to dignify parapsychology by giving its researchers an affiliate status in the association. Here is the background to Wheeler’s explosive remarks.

John Archibald Wheeler, director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at the University of Texas, is one of the world’s top theoretical physicists. In 1939 he and Niels Bohr published a paper on “The Mechanism of Nuclear Fission” that laid the groundwork for atomic and hydrogen bombs. Wheeler later played major roles in their development. He named the black hole. In 1968 he received the Enrico Fermi award for “pioneering contributions” to nuclear science. When Richard Feynman accepted a Nobel Prize for his “spacetime view” of quantum mechanics (QM), he revealed that he had gotten his basic idea from a phone conversation with Wheeler when he was a graduate student of Wheeler’s at Princeton.

No one knows more about modern physics than Wheeler, and few physicists have proposed more challenging speculative ideas. In recent years he has been increasingly concerned with the curious world of QM and its many paradoxes which suggest that, on the microlevel, reality seems more like magic than like nature on the macrolevel. No one wants to revive a solipsism that says a tree doesn’t exist unless a person (or a cow?) is looking at it, but a tree is made of particles such as electrons, and when a physicist looks at an electron something extremely mystifying happens. The act of observation alters the particle’s state.

In QM a particle is a vague, ghostly, formless thing that cannot even be said to have certain properties until measuring it causes a “collapse of its wave packet.” (“Wave packet” refers to the total set of waves, defined in an abstract multidimensional space, that constitutes all that is known about a particle.) At that moment nature makes a purely random, uncaused decision to give the property (say the electron’s position or its momentum) a definite value predicted by the probabilities specified in the particle’s wave function. As Wheeler is fond of saying, we no longer can think of a universe sitting “out there” as if separated from us by a thick plate of glass. To measure a particle we must shatter the glass and alter what we measure. The physicist is no mere observer. He is an active participator. “In some strange way,” Wheeler has said, “the universe is a participatory universe.”

This is not a new suggestion because Niels Bohr constantly emphasized the need to redefine reality on the micro-level, always hastening to add that on the macrolevel of the laboratory classical physics still holds. It is easy to understand, however, how QM would appeal to physicists who are into Eastern religions and/or parapsychology. Consider a spoon. Because …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

Letters

The Superluminal September 27, 1979