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Beyond the quantum woo-niverse: getting to grips with the fundamentals of quantum mechanics

26 Apr 2023
Quantum woo
Woo-niversal truths Chris Ferrie attempts to take the quantum mysticism out of quantum mechanics. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/Space Wind)

You can no doubt guess that Chris Ferrie’s Quantum Bullsh*t: How to Ruin Your Life with Advice from Quantum Physics is not a formal, dispassionate academic treatise on the cultural and societal ramifications of quantum physics. And if you’ve already wrinkled your nose at that title, be warned – inside the covers it gets a heck of a lot more sweary. Ferrie’s expletive-laden writing style is not for the faint-hearted, in this universe or any other.

Is the swearing largely gratuitous? F**k, yes. But it is very funny at the same time, and is entirely in line with the informal, colloquial, stream-of-consciousness style of the book. There might be some who feel that there is a “causal obscenity” to the swearing, but they will probably have different views on many of life’s fundamentals – quantum physics included. But I digress, as does Ferrie, regularly and engagingly, throughout his book. (Funnily enough, he too has something to say on the definition of obscenity in chapter 8.)

Down-to-earth explanations of fundamental quantum mechanics, and the pitch-perfect lampooning of the pseudoscience underpinning quantum woo, are at the heart of this book

With chapter titles like “Quantum F**king Energy, We Have No F**king Clue What Is Going On, Faster Than F**king Light, and Infinitely Many Goddamn Worlds”, one can get a good idea of the tenor of his writing. Those profanity-fuelled titles, however, belie the incisive, down-to-earth explanations of fundamental quantum mechanics, and the pitch-perfect lampooning of the pseudoscience underpinning quantum woo, that are at the heart of this book.

As an associate professor at the Centre for Quantum Software and Information at the University of Technology in Sydney, the author certainly has the background and expertise needed to understand quantum mechanical phenomena at a deep level. It takes an accomplished writer of Ferrie’s calibre, however, to put across the essence of topics such as entanglement, superposition and quantum computing without entirely bamboozling a non-physicist.

Ferrie has experience when it comes to entertainingly explaining science to non-scientists. He’s also the author of the “Baby University” series of books, an inspired approach to enthusing toddlers – and, by stealth, their parents – about everything from astrophysics to organic chemistry. I certainly don’t need to explain to the Physics World readership that it takes a prodigiously talented author to bring organic chemistry to life for any audience, let alone the terrible twos. The Baby University collection is hard to miss on bookshop shelves, with Quantum Physics For Babies nestling among more traditional fare like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Gruffalo. Breathe easy, by the way – Ferrie forgoes the swearing for these books.

As the foreword of Quantum Bullsh*t (aptly titled “What the f**k is this book?” ) puts it,Quantum healing, quantum mysticism, quantum love, quantum crystals, quantum consciousness, quantum meditation, quantum energy…none of this has anything to do with quantum physics. But now we are at an impasse, for it seems one requires detailed knowledge of the subject to see why this is all crap. Until now.” Ferrie’s goal is to ensure that his audience comes to understand enough quantum physics to “shield yourself from bullshit.” While I applaud his ambition, there’s undoubtedly a big element of preaching to the converted here.

Physicists are certainly not blameless when it comes to the rise of quantum woo

I suspect that the audience for this book is likely to include many of the already more-sceptically-minded (including you, dear reader). It is hugely entertaining and wonderfully cathartic, to grab a metaphorical bag of popcorn and cheer from the side-lines as each quantum of woo is taken down. Given this potential audience, I was pleased that it’s not only the bullshitters that Ferrie targets. Physicists are certainly not blameless when it comes to the rise of quantum woo. Ferrie rightly reserves some of his condemnation for those over-excited scientists who vigorously promote the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics and the existence of the multiverse in sultry, deep voiceson the basis of zero empirical evidence for either.

But if we really want to engage with those who embrace quantum healing, quantum crystals and quantum nonsense in all its myriad forms, do we really need to tell them they’re dumb, gullible and ripe for exploitation by hucksters? That if they’d only listen to, and be educated by, we ever-so-clever scientists, they’d see the error of their ways and realize just how much they’d been scammed?

The quantum woo universe, and it’s a big one out there (for one, Deepak Chopra, woo-meister extraordinaire, has 3.1 million Twitter followers), is just a microcosm of the much broader 21st century misinformation system. And just as educating flat-Earthers about spherical symmetry and central forces; or referring anti-vaxxers to the substantial body of literature that addresses their MMR-causes-autism claims; very often does nothing to counter their beliefs, no end of careful explanation of the physics of quantum entanglement is going to disabuse true believers that we can influence the universe with our mind.  Indeed, we may well further entrench their views.

I’m being picky, however. I loved Quantum Bullsh*t, read almost all of it in one sitting, and recommend it to all Physics World readers who aren’t squeamish about the f-word. There’s also just a tinge of jealousy on my part – I only wish I’d pitched this book to a publisher. I’d have had so much fun writing it, and I’m confident that I could have given Ferrie a good run for his money in the swearing stakes. But then, quantum mechanics tells us there’s a universe out there where exactly that happened, right?

  • 2023 Sourcebooks 224pp £13.99pb
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