Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Oprah's take on quantum mechanics - and mine

I was checking my stats (read seriously procrastinating folding the laundry) and noticed that one of the search terms that was sending surfers my way was "Oprah's take on quantum mechanics". She has one?

I promptly popped it into Google to see what would come up. I had to know.

I found out. The Law of Attraction. Think and you can change what happens. Proven by quantum mechanics. The Quantum Cleanse. (Don't ask - you don't want to know.)

Somehow the word "quantum" manages to sound simultaneously mysterious and scientific, and so people attach it to things that they want to sound simultaneously mysterious and scientific. Like diets and the power of positive thinking, or even theology.

I named this blog "Quantum Theology" as a play on the two fields I'm trained in: quantum mechanics and theology. Recently a friend of almost forty years wondered just exactly what was quantum mechanics - just what do I do for a living. Repair broken quantums?

To a physicist or physical chemist, a quantum is a fixed portion of energy. (The word was coined by Max Planck in 1900.) Quantum mechanics considers the interaction of energy and matter on the atomic level. What happens when light hits an atom? Why is it that only certain amounts of energy can be absorbed? How is it that matter can behave as a particle, and as a wave?

When I say something is quantized, I don't mean it's mysterious, I mean that only certain values are allowed, and nothing in between. A good everyday example is your shoe size. You are a 5 or a 5 1/2, but never a 5 1/6. Off the rack shoes (are there any other kind these days?) are quantized.

Evidence that matter could behave like a wave suggested to Erwin Schrodinger that he could write an equation to find a mathematical description of this behavior. (There's a steamy Oprah show for you - about Schrodinger, his mistress, the twins he was tutoring in physics, the pearls he put in his ears - and the development of wave mechanics!)

So what is it I actually do? I use quantum mechanics — specifically solving Schrodinger's handy little equation — to predict the structures of molecules and their energy, then use that information to think about what molecules might exist, or how hard it would be for them to react and what products are likely to form. Right now I'm exploring molecules that are uncomfortably twisted - and topologically "interesting" (Moebius strip molecules).

Want a bit of quantum theology? One of my Jesuit friends asked me a few years ago how I could manage to reconcile the idea that an electron could behave like light and like matter. "The same way I can believe that Christ is both God and man." It's rare you can render a Jesuit speechless.


  1. "It's rare you can render a Jesuit speechless. " Ha!

  2. Anonymous9:45 PM

    I think you mean an electron can act as a wave or particle. Not light, as that would imply a construct of zero mass acting like a wave or particle traveling at the speed of light. And never is an electron (or any quantum mechanical construct) under any circumstances observed to be both particle and a wave at the same time as this would violate uncertainty. So either Christ was God or he was man at observation, never both at the same time under your equivalence relation ;]

  3. My Jesuit friend (who I was quoting, more or less) is a moral theologian and doesn't get the distinction...I do! :)