Friday, May 22, 2015

Do teach your children quantum mechanics

On the one hand, some views and ideas fall under the aegis of child protection. The concept of God, for example, is so gapingly profound that it is perilous to children. In almost all cases a child’s notion of God becomes a strain which later must be stressfully rejected, obediently acquiesced, or strenuously relearned. I think it possible that many of the religious problems of today could have been avoided if the idea of God had been left to be taught later in life.

On the other hand, some seemingly indecipherable concepts should be taught to children soon after the quixotic age of reason. Most important of these, I believe, is quantum theory. 

Quantum mechanics is the most evidentially “true” description of our world. It is the only belief for which there is not one single refuting experiment. No other scientific theory can claim that. It is so fundamental that it covers everything we call reality. Simply put, it is our best description of how reality behaves, and it's nothing like one would expect. Yet, shockingly its most basic facts are unknown by the vast majority, and unlike Fishtown or Belmont, that ignorance is indiscriminate among the rich, poor, educated or uneducated. 

It is unconscionable that middle schoolers, high schoolers and, even, college graduates typically know nothing about the discoveries learned a hundred years ago which completely changed our knowledge of reality. Please don't bother to post a Feynman quote about how no one understands quantum mechanics. I prefer Kurt Vonnegut: “…any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.” Indeed, some basic tenets of quantum mechanics and the experiments that revealed them are quite simple and are easily understood. If children learned these, they would have a lifetime of experiencing life filtered through that knowledge, rather than a lifetime filtered through our intuitive Newtonian physics. Certainly, such a lifetime would lend itself to developing a better understanding of the reality of quantum physics.

Today, unschooled, we find the “purchased praise of petty things" in quantum pet carequantum herbal products, and quantum time travel. With something so closely tied to explaining reality, I’m tottering on some conspiracy theory of why almost a hundred years later, children (and adults) have been taught nothing.

In ten minutes any child could learn the double slit experiment, complementary properties and entanglement, and the uncertainty principle, and begin thinking about their meaning. How can we not  be better off if we know how nature actually works rather than being fooled by our ancient intuitive perceptions?

Brian Greene, like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, are smart guys who love to ham it up. The fundamentals of this Nova episode, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Quantum Leap are excellent. Unfortunately, however, what could have been dramatically revealed in 15 minutes is over-hyped for the supposed ADD viewer. Filter out all the extraneous noisy nonsense and it covers the topic properly. (Note Alain Aspect whose experiment was my choice for "The Most Important Event of the 20th Century").


james said...

Love Brian Greene and Fabric of the Cosmos. If you’re looking for a scientist able to explain complex subjects to a child—or to a mathematically illiterate 32 year old man who satisfied his undergraduate math requirement with a course called “Magic of Numbers”—Greene’s your guy.

I agree Jim, the (extremely dumbed-down) lessons I’ve learned from physics are awe-inspiring and almost other-worldly. They’re enough to influence nearly everything you think about.

But in a world where a majority of Americans don’t understand fractions and half believe in creationism, I think the implications of quantum mechanics will remain obscure to everyone but those on the far right of the IQ bell curve.

Maybe you should go into teaching, Jim!

James R said...

I hope your last line was delivered with a particle of irony.

In fact, the main reason I wrote this is because Renée has been visiting before she goes to ESL training, and on her last visit, for some strange reason, I told her I could teach her the basics of quantum theory in about 10 minutes. This was before I found the Nova video. Consequently, the reason I liked Greene's presentation so well is because he almost exactly followed my approach with Renée. I started with spectral lines of heated elements, then to marbles (rather than bowling balls) with a little more detail with the double slit experiment, and on to entanglement and the uncertainty principle. Without any props or special effects, I think Renée understood it well. I'll let her contradict me. Anyway, Greene's approach was the same one I took, so I felt it worthy of the blog :).

And I totally disagree with your IQ observation. As you (and Murray) know from poker, intelligence comes in many forms.

By the way there is an article by Thomas Nagel, philosopher (Harvard PhD) and atheist, called "Public Education and Intelligent Design" in which he criticizes those scientists who claim that ID is to be ridiculed as "not science". He believes it should be debated as "bad science". "The assumption that divine intervention in the natural order is not a serious possibility" is not a scientific view but a religious view. Here is the article.

Anyway, as you might imagine, he was roundly criticized by his colleagues for stating such a view.

james said...

Well if anyone can teach it, you can. Can't wait to read the article.