Word: Quantum

The word ‘quantum’ appears commonly in two kinds of writing. The first is in physics, where the word simply means a very small amount of energy, or a small change in energy, such as when a molecule absorbs light and changes to a different form.

The second use occurs in all kinds of writings on ‘complementary’, ‘alternative’, ‘holistic’ or ‘integrated’ medicine (CAM), where it means nothing at all. In fact, if in a CAM poster, leaflet, website or consultation the word ‘quantum’ appears, you can be 100% certain it is bullshit. You can also be certain that either the writer does not know what she or he is talking about, or that you are being targetted to pay good money for something of little or no value. In this article, I shall attempt to explain why.

Quantum theory is the most important theory in physics. It was developed through the 20th century to bring understanding to a lot of confusing phenomena, and it has been very successful. it has been well tested in countless numbers of experiments, and it has been used to develop a vast range of technology that we enjoy in our lives today.

Sometimes, the theory is referred to as ‘quantum mechanics’, which describes quite well what the theory is about. ‘Newtonian mechanics’ is the theory that describes how large objects like balls and motor cars move in the world that we see around us, and how they interact by exchanging energy with each other. ‘Quantum mechanics’ is the corresponding theory applied to very small objects such as atoms and molecules. What was surprising to physicists in the early 20th century is that these very small objects (an atom is about .00000002 centimetres in diameter) do not behave like small versions of the objects and waves that we can see, but obey different laws. Nevertheless, those laws can be described using mathematics, just as you can do the maths for colliding and falling bodies in the big world.

So why is the word ‘quantum’ so popular with CAM merchants? I think there may be several reasons.

Firstly, ‘quantum’ sounds modern and cutting edge. (Actually, the basic theory was worked out in the 1920s.)

More importantly, ‘quantum’ sounds mysterious. This is very useful if you are trying to give a feeling of mystery as well as cutting-edge research to a load of mumbo-jumbo. Because it takes skill that must be learned in order to understand quantum theory well (especially the mathematics), it is easy to suggest falsely that no-one really understands anything about it. Also, because the laws of motion for quantum particles are different from those of our familiar objects, it suggests (again falsely) knowledge beyond our understanding.

Unfortunately, some physicists who ought to know better have contributed to this by publishing ‘popular’ works of vague speculation about life, consciousness, the universe and everything that they would not dare submit to a serious scientific journal. But these ramblings are vastly outweighed by huge numbers of scientific papers over the last century applying quantum theory to understanding real problems, in fields as diverse as basic physics, chemical structure, electronics and biochemistry.

The third and most important reason, I think, why the word is used so much in woo-woo is that ‘quantum’ sounds vague. Again, because it is not obvious that the theory can be applied in very precise ways, woo-woo practitioners use the word to suggest that physicists are talking vaguely, and therefore that it is legitimate to engage in woolly talk and meaningless verbiage. This is enhanced by taking technical terms from quantum theory that the writers do not understand and using the concepts wrongly, for example, ‘uncertainty’ or ‘indeterminacy’, and ‘entanglement’.

It is true that the quantum theory tells us that it is impossible to know some information about the motions of very small particles and that often we have to settle for statistical information at this level. However, the information obtained using quantum-theoretical effects is often highly precise. Here are a few things that have been developed from quantum theory:

Atomic clocks accurate to one thousand millionth of a second per day
– Accurately determining the structures of molecules and crystals, including the structure of the genetic material DNA which led to our modern knowledge of genetics
– Scanning the tissues of the body using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
– The electronic materials used in your computer and all the other electronics in your home and work

The list is potentially endless.

If someone tries to sell you a CAM treatment or diagnosis method supposedly based on ‘quantum effects’, ask them to show you precisely how it works. Try to get them to give you references to the basic theory. There are many people (including myself) who visit the blogs that discuss quackery and pseudoscience, and I am sure they will try to help get these sources validated by experts. (In most cases these sources will simply not exist.)

In contrast, for a legitimate technique like MRI there is no end of explanation available to show how the use of the technique depends on the real quantum effect involved. See, for example, Wikipedia.

If you have the interest and stamina to take this a bit further, I’d like to mention a couple of other uses of quantum mumbo-jumbo that you will find in CAM websites and publications. Both are used by homeopaths and their hangers-on.

One is ‘quantum entanglement’. This is a quantum phenomenon that occurs when two particles have interacted, and it is possible at a later time, when the particles are separated, for the state of one particle still to influence the state of the other. Using this idea, weird explanations have been put forward for supposed CAM treatments, involving the practitioner, the patient and the remedy.

But remember, quantum effects apply to very small entities. There is a principle in quantum theory called the ‘correspondence principle’, that says that when you scale up to the big world, quantum effects become the same as the laws that we observe in our world. So, when these claims are made, ask the one making them to show the research that purports to extrapolate this strange behaviour from the quantum world to the big one. I am sure you won’t get it.

The other quantum bamboozlement is called ‘memory of water’. Homeopathy was invented around 200 years ago before the modern atomic theory was established. The supposed principle of homeopathic remedies is incompatible with the most elementary ideas of chemistry, so, to try to get round this, homeopaths have invented this ‘memory’ idea. There was even a whole issue of a homeopathic journal devoted to the ‘memory of water’, but the actual discussion of the ‘memory’ was a bit thin, since there is not the slightest evidence for this ‘memory’, either experimental or theoretical.

However, if the ‘memory of water’ does exist, then it must be a quantum-mechanical effect. So again, there must be plenty of theoretical research to explain it. Right? Wrong.

There is a genuine structural effect in water, called the ‘hydrogen bond’. It is weak, but it is well understood through quantum theory. It also plays a vital and fascinating role in the processes of life. There is a beautiful video here (click on the image labelled ‘F1-F0ATPase’) of one of the vital chemical reactions in the cell, the one that converts a molecule called ADP into another molecule called ATP. The video shows the small but crucial step where the ADP molecule is held in place with hydrogen bonds. (To me, learning about this sort of thing brings home the richness of science compared with the dire intellectual poverty of CAM.)

So, I hope you can see how much information quantum theory has given us about a real phenomenon that sustains us all, in every cell. And if a CAM practitioner gives you guff about ‘quantum’ effects, ask them: Where’s your theory? Where’s your evidence?

To sum up: Quantum theory gives us precise and well-tested explanations of the physical universe, and enables us to build useful and accurate technology. ‘CAM’ practitioners borrow the word ‘quantum’, with its suggestion of cutting-edge science, and use it to mystify and waffle.