Archive for February 22nd, 2012

Brian Cox is Full of **it

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Every electron around every atom in the universe must be shifted as I heat the diamond up to make sure that none of them end up in the same energy level. When I heat this diamond up all the electrons across the universe instantly but imperceptibly change their energy levels.

You kind of expect the “rock stars” of physics to not spout crap like this, so it’s disappointing when they do. But this isn’t a case of him mis-speaking: he doubles down on this notion in a WSJ article.

I recently gave a lecture, screened on the BBC, about quantum theory, in which I pointed out that “everything is connected to everything else”. This is literally true if quantum theory as currently understood is not augmented by new physics. This means that the subatomic constituents of your body are constantly shifting, albeit absolutely imperceptibly, in response to events happening an arbitrarily large distance away; for the sake of argument, let’s say on the other side of the Universe.

This statement received some criticism in scientific circles. Not because it’s wrong, because it isn’t; without this behavior, we wouldn’t be able to explain the bonds that hold molecules together. The problem is that it sounds like woo woo, and quantum theory attracts woo-woo merde-merchants like the pronouncements of New Age mystics attract flies – metaphorically speaking.

Well, no. The issue isn’t the Pauli Exlusion Principle itself — that’s sound science. It’s what he’s done with it. The first, obvious problem is that relativity tells us that the communication can’t be instantaneous. The second is that the Pauli Exclusion Principle doesn’t work this way. It applies to a single system in which you have all these identical electrons, and they can’t be in the same exact state. This is because of their QM behavior if you were to exchange them — something has to be different about the two electrons. In a crystal, the energies are slightly different as a result, and you get a band of energies. But this does not extend beyond the system, be it crystal or even individual atoms — the electrons belong to different systems, which are not co-located. Exchanging electrons meaning exchanging systems as well. That’s what’s different.

Here’s a simple argument why this can’t be true: we can tell time with atomic clocks. A Cs atomic clock, for example, has electrons in one of two possible ground states, separated by an energy which corresponds to a frequency of 9 192 631 770 Hz. If the energy levels are different, as Brian contends, because of all the other electrons in other Cs atoms in the universe, we wouldn’t have this sharp energy difference and shouldn’t be able to get the part-in-10^15 kinds of accuracy (and even better levels of precision) from atomic clocks. That we can do this is a pretty strong indication that he’s wrong.

Maybe QM is so misunderstood because some prominent physicists are pitching it as mysticism instead of science. Coincidentally, I just got an offer for a copy of his new book to review. I wonder if I should accept.

Added: I should be clear that I’m good with pretty much everything else mentioned in the article. It’s the mysticism-connectedness angle, and the physics explanation, that is bogus, I don’t expect that from Brian Cox.

Added 2/25: Making my case in a little more detail

A Modest Proposal

Eternal Copyright: a modest proposal

[T]o make it entirely fair, Eternal Copyright should be retroactively applied so that current generations may benefit from their ancestors’ works rather than allowing strangers to rip your inheritance off. Indeed, by what right do Disney and the BBC get to adapt Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, and Sherlock without paying the descendants of Lewis Carroll, the Brothers Grimm, and Arthur Conan Doyle?
Of course, there will be some odd effects. For example, the entire Jewish race will do rather well from their eternal copyright in much of the Bible, and Shakespeare’s next of kin will receive quite the windfall from the royalties in the thousands of performances and adaptations of his plays – money well earned, I think we can all agree.