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Friday, 11 February 2011


"I think I can safely say," said Richard Feynman, who understood everything, "that nobody understands quantum mechanics."

Quantum mechanics just doesn't gel in the human mind.  We can use the mathematical language of quantum mechanics simply enough, but it doesn't paint a picture in our heads.  Language only has meaning, according to Wittgenstein, to the extent that it paints a picture.  He later revised this principle (the principle itself has obvious meaning, but paints no picture), but for many physical explanations that picture is still essential.

And almost the whole of our technology depends upon quantum mechanics, in the form of electronics.  Just think what more we could achieve if we all found quantum mechanics as intuitive as we find Newtonian mechanics.

My modest proposal, therefore, is to teach quantum mechanics at primary school to everyone, starting sometime around the age of five.  Of course, not every child will get it.  But then not every child gets music, or poetry.  That doesn't stop us teaching those subjects.

But for many children the principles and ideas of quantum mechanics will sink into their subconsciouses, which will work their usual magic, making the ideas instinctive when some of those children, as adults, encounter them again.

Then we will have a whole generation the physicists and engineers who will both understand the mathematics of quantum mechanics, and also find that it chimes with their subconscious idea painter.

1 comment:

4ndy said...

This is indeed an important challenge to overcome in the near future.
Alfred Korzybski wrote extensively about this problem in his great tome "Science and Sanity", a book that I would reccomend to anyone seeking to enter scientific pursuits, especially on the cutting edge of research, and to many teachers out there.
With the guy being long dead, it has the added bonus of being in the public domain.

Essentially what it boils down to is that the way we are teaching our kids to think in most schools today is still largely locked into centuries-old schools of thought, that do not easily lend themselves to the understanding of fields like quantum mechanics. In order to aid comprehension and to advance our species, we need to instill ourselves and our children with structures of thought that more closely resemble present-day science.

The old ways of thinking manifest themselves not only in slowing down the scientific explorations by our current youth, but also in human affairs at large. When stuck in 20th century twisted forms of aristotelian thought, people fall into all kinds of stupid semantic traps, such as believing in dichotomies where there are multi-dimensional continuums, and using reifications as if capitalism or communism are real things that they can point to any more so than unicorns, and assume that other people actually have the same thing in mind when they utter that particular noise.

If you can't see it happening once you're aware of it, you're probably not thinking straight. Wars have been started over lesser disagreements.

It's sad to see that this man's wisdom has been largely ignored for decades, to the extent that when I went through the sixth form at school they were still asking the question "are photons a particle or a wave, since they act like one or the other in different contexts?", when the real question should be "is the structure that we're forcing onto this natural system accurate or useful anymore, or do we need to reconsider our language?"

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