Foreword Reviews

Reviewer Rebecca Foster Thinks Big with Philip Ball, Author of Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew about Quantum Physics is Different

Philip Ball, Author of Beyond Weird

Think about some of history’s really, really big accomplishments over the past couple centuries—the miraculous inventions and life-changing discoveries that saved countless lives and changed our understanding of the universe. Do you realize what they all have in common? The hard work and creativity of scientists. And while it’s true that engineers have created some amazing structures, and certain politicians and writers affected society for the better, it is the work of Newton, Einstein, and hundreds of thousands of other scientists who pulled humanity out of the primitive ways of our pre-industrial ancestors.

So, like giddy kids on Christmas morning, we ask: what’s next? What amazing new discovery in medicine, chemistry, physics, technology will help us deal with climate change, cancer, dementia, or perhaps even transform the way we exist as electricity and the internet did?

Beyond Weird cover
Your guess is as good as mine, but it’s nowhere near as good as Philip Ball’s—he’s the author of Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew about Quantum Physics is Different. For this week’s Face Off interview, we asked scientifically astute reviewer Rebecca Foster to pitch some seriously big questions at Ball to help us better understand scientists, how they work, how big their brains are, and what the hell quantum mechanics is all about anyway.

In her glowing review in our September/October issue of Foreword Reviews, Foster acknowledges that wave–particle duality, superposition, the uncertainty principle, the many-worlds interpretation, and other aspects of quantum theory are immensely difficult to understand for most of us, but credits Ball with the comforting notion that “to discover what such concepts really mean requires an open mind and a fertile imagination.”

So, there’s hope for those of us with average brains. Enjoy the interview.

Many of the key concepts in physics have been explained through metaphors and stories. Is there something about quantum mechanics in particular that lends itself to analogical thinking?

I am not sure I’d put it that way. I agree with others who argue that pretty much all scientific understanding depends on metaphor and analogy—we probably can’t avoid it if we want to make intuitive, cognitively accessible descriptions of the physical world. I’d say that the situation we face with quantum mechanics is then quite the reverse: this is a theory that is peculiarly refractory to attempts to develop metaphors and stories. In the interpretation advocated by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and their co-workers and loosely termed the Copenhagen interpretation, stories are precisely what we cannot and should not tell about the microscopic phenomena underlying what we actually see and measure in quantum experiments. They said that the theory does not permit us to tell any story about, say, “what path the particle took on the way to the detector.”

The problem is, this prescription is too austere—and in fact the Copenhagen crowd sometimes ignored it themselves. We can’t help but ask “what’s really going on here to cause these results?” But Bohr and colleagues are right, I think, to argue that the theory itself doesn’t permit us to say anything for sure about that, which is why there are still arguments about what quantum mechanics means, almost a century after it was devised. In Beyond Weird I argue that some of the stories and metaphors that are habitually used to “explain” quantum mechanics—quantum particles are in “two places at once,” or they are both waves and particles, say—are at best over-simplifications, often misleading, and sometimes plain wrong. So I’m arguing that if we are going to tell stories, we need better ones. And from the perspective of our everyday intuition, they probably won’t ever quite “make sense.”

It can seem like physicists are a ‘different breed’—whether geniuses, neurodivergent, or touched by madness. Is there any truth to the notion that Einstein, Feynman, et al. were wired differently to the rest of us?

Simply, no. We know about Einstein and Feynman because they were among those at the extreme end of a continuum that seems to have, in their cases, given them an extraordinary intuition for physics combined with creativity and an ability to work through an idea. But it is indeed a continuum. Actually, Einstein was probably no better at math than many physicists—he famously made errors in his calculations—but he had a remarkable ability to think in new ways and see to the core of a problem. There certainly have been physicists (as we’d now call them) who seem to have had autistic traits—Newton, Henry Cavendish, and Paul Dirac come to mind. And there is a little evidence that people with autistic traits may be somewhat more highly represented in science than in the general population. I suspect that there are fewer barriers to such people in that profession than in many others. But the idea that physicists in general are a “breed apart” is a myth, and I think that it is a somewhat dangerous one, encouraging the notion that you have to be somehow “special” to be a physicist. The truth is that the vast majority of physicists are no different to, and no more or less diverse than, the rest of us, for better and worse. They have a particular interest that is no different in kind from having an interest in film, law, medicine, car mechanics, or anything else.

You have written widely on the conjunction of art and science. In what ways can physics be understood as an art as well as a science?

What makes the best physicists, and indeed scientists in general, stand out from the others is very often their creativity and imagination. Whether it is the same kind of creativity and imagination as that exhibited by artists is an interesting question to which I’m not sure anyone really knows the answer. But it has in common the fact that it requires one to take risks, to go beyond accepted norms, and indeed to reach beyond where reason alone can take you. Of course, in science you then have to be able to follow through and show that your ideas are correct. But I have been told by several physicists that their insights come before the details of a proof or experimental confirmation. They have a sense of being right before reason, logic, or empiricism confirms it. Of course, sometimes they will discover that their intuition wasn’t right (and sometimes they’ll be mistaken in thinking they have proved it). But without that leap of faith, science would advance much more slowly and timidly.

But I think there is something analogous to that need for a rigorous “proof” in the arts, too. You have to be able to put your idea into practice, to make it work, and it won’t always work, in which case you need to know when to abandon it. So I think the pattern of intuitive leap followed by hard graft is shared in the arts and sciences.

Some aspects of quantum theory, especially the Many-Worlds Interpretation, sound close to science fiction. Is it useful to devote time to pondering time travel and speculative futures?

It may or may not be useful, but I think it is a part of what makes us human. Being prepared to speculate, to entertain what seem like preposterous ideas, and to risk the seemingly absurd, is essential to science, as it is to any other human creative endeavor. I happen to be deeply skeptical about the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, but I still believe it is a valuable idea. It asks “well, what if things were in fact not like this but like this?”—and explores the consequences of that idea. Even if ideas in science prove to be wrong, it can be very useful to know why. There is a good reason to wonder if the Many-Worlds Interpretation might be true; the “meaning” of quantum mechanics is very hard to fathom, and we need to entertain many options. Besides, even if the Many Worlds is not true, it has already been productive. It was because of his belief in this view that David Deutsch, one of the most passionate and committed advocates of the Many-Worlds Interpretation, was inspired to develop some seminal ideas in quantum computing, which are likely to prove extremely useful in the relatively near future.

It isn’t easy to see how we might be able to travel in time in the way that is normally meant—to journey back and forth in time to whatever degree we like, say. But if that is truly impossible, it would be good to know why—because it is not obviously impossible.

Beyond Weird poses a lot of questions (some rhetorical), and another of your recent books is on the subject of curiosity. How can asking questions and cultivating our curiosity drive scientific discoveries?

The only way science advances at all is by asking questions: What if…? Why does…? In fact, I think it can be at least as important in science to be able to ask good questions as to be able to find answers. Sometimes a field of study makes a big leap purely because someone has found a good way of phrasing a question, or has found the right question. Of course, what makes science so powerful is that it has a set of methods—not “the scientific method,” which I don’t think really exists as a precisely codified thing, but a set of typical practices known to work—for finding reliable answers to questions.

Asking questions comes from curiosity. So scientists are rightly always singing the praises of curiosity: “Never lose a holy curiosity” is how Einstein put it. But actually, my book called Curiosity sought to slightly complicate that view. I argued there that curiosity was “liberated” around the seventeenth century, when it changed from being a trait regarded with some suspicion to being one seen—in some parts of European society, anyway—as a virtue. But I think that what is regarded as “curiosity” in science often has an agenda behind it. For Francis Bacon, it was state power. For Robert Boyle, curiosity was a Christian duty: we ought to know as much as we can about what God has wrought. Some companies sponsor curiosity-driven research because they know, quite rightly, that it can often lead to lucrative discoveries. Some scientists advocate curiosity-driven research because they (again, rightly!) don’t want the burden of expectation that too often now follows from demands that research be “useful.” I’m not saying that any of this is bad, but just that we should be as clear as we can about what is driving “curiosity.”

What are some of the big questions still out there for science to answer?

One occasionally sees suggestions that science is running out of big questions. I think that is deeply mistaken. The more we know, the more we are aware of our ignorance. We now know, as we did not several decades ago, that we are in utter ignorance about around 96 percent of what the universe is made of: these things called (just to give our ignorance a name) dark matter and dark energy. Among the other big questions we face are:

  • How did life begin on Earth?

  • Does life exist on other planets?

  • How did the universe start, and how (if at all) will it end?

  • How does the brain work?

  • What is consciousness?

  • How does our genome function in sustaining and propagating life?

  • What are the rules that govern “complex systems,” like cells, the brain, the climate system, societies, the economy, ecosystems?

  • How can we reconcile the theory of gravitation (general relativity) with quantum mechanics? Both seem to be “right,” but they are incompatible.

  • What is time?

  • What is space?

  • What is information?

And, of course,

  • What does quantum mechanics tell us about the physical world?!!

These are just some of the “abstract” questions. We can take our time over them, and we might find that science as we know it can’t actually get to the bottom of all of them. But we also face hugely important practical questions that science can address at least in part, some of them very urgent. For example:

  • How can we make energy without polluting the world and causing global warming?

  • How can we prevent the spread of infectious disease?

  • How can we cure widespread diseases such as cancer and heart disease?

  • How can we develop drugs or other preventative measures in an affordable way, even for diseases that we do largely understand, like malaria?

  • How can we combat the rise of antibiotic resistance in pathogens?

  • How can we give everyone adequate, safe drinking water?

  • How can we prevent the loss of biodiversity?

  • How can we mitigate the problems caused by climate change, and perhaps even prevent it from getting worse?

Some of these are, of course, not just or even primarily scientific questions—politics and societal change are central to them. But science and technology have key roles to play. My hope is that science can help to lead not just to better understanding of the world, but to a safer, kinder, more equal world.

Rebecca Foster

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