Sidney Perkowitz October 19 2017

Nobody Knows the Quantum


Quantum mechanics has been around for over a century and has shown beyond doubt that it works, but its enigmas still frustrate physicists. In 2011, the eminent Swiss quantum experimentalist Anton Zeilinger asked 33 quantum theory specialists a set of 16 questions about its fundamental interpretation. Not one of the multiple choice answers was chosen by all the participants and many questions elicited wildly varying opinions.

Despite the fact that even the professionals don’t agree on the meaning of quantum theory, or maybe because of it, the quantum has become embedded in general usage and popular culture. The word “quantum” shows up in places that have nothing to do with physics, like the Quantum Theatre in Pittsburgh, and Quantum fishing equipment. Quantum physics has been dubiously credited with superpowers such as improving health, underlying human consciousness, and giving the human mind the ability to alter reality – all feeding into a kind of New Age-like approach that makes a hard subject even harder to get straight.  

Still some Labocine filmmakers have bravely tackled the challenge of making quantum theory and the sub-microscopic world it describes more understandable or at least, less weird. If I were teaching a film-based quantum mechanics course, I’d start with abbau (Masahiro Ohsuka, 2013), a five minute-long tour de force. It takes us from the classical physics of Newton’s mechanics, optics and electromagnetic theory through nuclear fission and fusion, quantum theory and string theory in a fluid, rapid-fire sequence of words, equations, graphs, symbols, drawings, and animations driven by a propulsive soundtrack. It all happens too fast to get details, but you’re not supposed to. What you get instead is a breathtaking tour of the classical physics that quantum theory uprooted, and reminders of what is so puzzling about the theory.

abbau (Masahiro Ohsuka, 2013)

Filmmaker Markos Kay more directly presents the submicroscopic universe itself through animation. The Flow (2012) packs a lot of ambition into its one minute running time as it “looks at the supervening layers of reality…from quarks to nucleons to atoms and beyond. The deeper we go into the foundations of reality the more it loses its form, eventually becoming a pure mathematical conception.” Kay is right: what we know about the ultimate quantum scale is expressed mathematically. Kay supplements the math with a visual interpretation of the trajectory from quarks to protons and neutrons, atoms and finally molecules, all represented by sinuously moving rounded forms that resemble exotic sea creatures. But life began and operates at the molecular level, not the quark level. Even in creative imagination it feels wrong to represent the ascent from quarks to molecules with biological images.

The Flow (Markos Kay, 2012)

Quantum Fluctuations (Markos Kay, 2016)

Kay’s Quantum Fluctuations (2016) is more to the point. It is an interpretation of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the huge particle accelerator at CERN that smashes beams of high energy protons into each other. The film’s images, based on consultations with LHC scientists, have a fascinating, often beautiful complexity that could well arise from streams of protons  colliding and rebounding to create new kinds of particles. Nevertheless, I don’t think these two films will give anyone a clear image of quantum processes; but Kay provides a helpful bonus with an annotated “director’s cut” of The Flow and further discussion of Quantum Fluctuations that give deeper insight into the microworld he explores.

Quantum mechanics seems odd because it works at a level far below the human scale, so in a way it is fitting that no people actually appear onscreen in abbau, The Flow, and Quantum Fluctuations. But quantum theory is still a product of the human mind. Some filmmakers have explored the human approach to the quantum, as in Dave Fischer’s black-and-white film (a)symmetry (2015). Against a background of shimmering shapes of light, and music that also seems to shimmer, we hear a quiet voice talking about quantum mechanics and its strange features. One of them, non-locality, is perhaps the strangest: it is the phenomenon that two quantum particles like electrons or photons, placed very far apart and without any known connection, can still affect each other.

(a)symmetry (Dave Fischer, 2015)

Only near the end of the three minute film do we learn that the speaker is David Bohm, a theoretical physicist famous for his own quantum interpretation. The voice-over in the film is an excerpt from a long videotaped interview Bohm gave at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen in 1989, where you can see as well as hear him carefully and thoroughly describe his ideas. These differ from mainstream quantum views but are not necessarily wrong; in fact they offer new insights, illustrating again, like Zeilinger’s survey, that physicists are still a long way from understanding their own theory.

What can’t be understood can’t be explained, as is slyly and amusingly but tellingly shown in Bien Heureux (All is Well, 2016).  An intense young man with a beard and a hat I’ll call the Physicist works hard to explain quantum non-locality (here called quantum teleportation) to a friend at a party where a woman is singing, then on a Paris street as people walk by, then in a bar. The Physicist first tries the metaphor of Schrodinger’s Cat with a toy cat in a cardboard box, but the friend doesn’t get it. Then the Physicist uses two boxes with colored dots to represent two separated particles, but the friend remains clueless.

Bien Heureux (All is Well, Pierre-Arnaud Lime, 2016)

Finally, in his last attempt, the Physicist explains using a laser pointer and the interference of light. The people grouped around him in the bar all nod “yes, we understand” – that is, all but the friend. The Physicist recoils in disappointment, but the final scene shows the two sitting on the bank of the Seine, amiably trading snatches of poetic word imagery and then parting, still friends but with quantum teleportation still a mystery.

These five films show a variety of artistic approaches to presenting quantum physics. We should not expect an artwork to give the same results as a physics lecture, but films like these can give something different and valuable: a sense of how distant the quantum world is from ordinary experience, and also the reassurance that you, trying to grasp the theory, are not alone because nobody, truly nobody, knows the quantum.

About the Author

Sidney Perkowitz, Candler Professor Emeritus of Physics at Emory University, is the author or editor of Hollywood Science, Hollywood Chemistry and other writings about science in film and other popular science topics. His latest books, forthcoming in 2018, are Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon and Physics: A Very Short Introduction.