Quantum Mechanics in Science Fiction

March 6, 2013

Hard science fiction is supposed to tell stories that are basically consistent with the laws of physics (and chemistry, and biology) as we understand them. Sometimes this is done reasonably well, and sometimes it’s not. One area where science fiction authors (both hard and soft) seem to fail consistently is when they introduce quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics, as a description of how light, matter, elementary particles—whatever—behave, is a phenomenally successful theory. (The quantitative prediction of the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron is accurate to eight decimal places; this makes quantum electrodynamics the most precisely tested theory of pretty much anything.) Quantum phenomena explain everything around us: the solubility of ions in water, the composition of the solar wind, the color of copper wire, and the hardness of diamond. However, when quantum mechanics comes up in science fiction, it always seems to be in the context of “quantum uncertainty” or some such.

Uncertainty is a real phenomenon in quantum mechanics; Werner Heisenberg, who first developed quantum mechanics, is rightly famous for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. (I should perhaps interject here that quantum phenomena were first addressed in 1901, by Max Planck. Planck’s constant, the fundamental quantity that tells how important quantum effects are in a given situation, is named after him. However, while Planck and others were able to make semi-quantitative statements about how certain particular physical phenomena operated, it took until the mid-1920s for Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger to develop a truly consistent theory that could be applied to arbitrary physical systems. It is this fully developed theory that physicists refer to as “quantum mechanics.”) It’s true, in practice, that it is generally impossible to predict the outcome of every given experiment, no matter how precisely an apparatus is prepared. Many authors (and mystics) seem to take this as a license to believe all sorts of absurd things, and this really seems to bother me.

Some particularly absurd misunderstandings occur in Frederick Pohl‘s Heechee Saga (Albert Einstein flipping out about quantum mechanics) and Fred Saberhagen‘s Berserker Star (with orbits around a black hole that are somehow quantum-mechanically discrete, although it’s still possible to move continuously between them). The only description of quantum mechanics in fiction that I remember as being fairly accurate was from an early episode of Andromeda. (I find myself wondering why I watched the first half dozen or so episodes of this show, which was not typically very good. I guess I had just developed a fondness for Kevin Sorbo as Hercules.)

I’m not quite sure why misunderstandings and misuses of quantum mechanical ideas bother me more than, say, faster-than-light travel in fiction. The answer may be that understanding relativity theory (which limits the speed of particles to the speed of light) is not especially difficult, provided one makes the effort and learns the mathematics. There are numerous books aimed at teenaged readers that give essentially correct accounts of Einstein’s work on this topic. On the other hand, understanding the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics (which is the Many Worlds Interpretation, in the view of virtually all physicists who have grappled with these questions seriously; be warned, however, that there are some physicists who don’t like the standard description of Many Worlds, and prefer some other description of the same basic idea under another name—a distinction without a difference; moreover, there are plenty of physicists who don’t understand the interpretation of quantum mechanics at all) is something that took a lot of time for me. It didn’t come easily, and the effort I put into mastering the topic may make me unusually sensitive to inaccurate representations of the subject matter. It might be interesting to compare how I would respond to inaccurate statements about some other aspect of physics that I spent a lot of time and effort grappling with. Renormalized quantum field theory would be an example, but it doesn’t come up very often in science fiction; the only examples I can think of are The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov and Cloak of Aesir by John W. Campbell, and both of them do alright. (Cloak of Aesir actually introduces the idea of the apparent mathematical infinities found in renormalized quantum field theory leading to violations of expected conservation laws—long before my thesis advisor discovered that this actually occurs, although not in the way described in the story.)


6 Responses to “Quantum Mechanics in Science Fiction”

  1. Have you read The Quantum Thief? I would be interested to hear your take on that! I find the cryptography a bit too speculative, but the physics I know nothing about, really.

    • Buzz Says:

      I have not read it yet, but it’s on my (long) list of books that I’d like to read. I’ll probably report back on it here when I do get around to reading it.

      I have noticed a lot of silly ideas about cryptography in recent science fiction. However, it doesn’t tend to bother me too much, perhaps because the mental investment I’ve made in understanding cryptography has not been that extensive.

  2. This post was…most interesting. I’m too uneducated about higher hard sciences to get much of the intersection between modern science and science fiction, and, hell, I know a little more about quantum mechanics than I did before. So thanks.

    It’s maybe good that you’re aware that this is a hobby-horse of yours, though 🙂 (I obviously don’t know enough about all this to know whether your objections are scaled appropriately–but it is frustrating to have someone violate, in a fictional work, something you’ve studied hard and deeply)

    • Buzz Says:

      I wouldn’t call this a “hobby horse”; I do, after all, make my living working with quantum physics. On the other hand, I don’t spend that much time on matters that are related to the hairier questions of quantum uncertainty and the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Pohl’s big mistake about quantum mechanics was that he didn’t realize that you can use quantum mechanics to explain practically the whole of the universe (except for gravity) without ever coming across the weirdness associated with the measurement problem.

  3. Diapadion Says:

    I’ve been thinking off and on about “realistic” space science-fiction concepts for a number of years, and so far I feel like
    A Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series -esque approach is the best approach to take (most importantly the focus on our solar system and human affairs). One has to get over fudging a few details (like FTL transport, which I’m more critical of than you, quite possibly), but at present, my dilemma is how to handle space combat. After reading this article: http://forums.spacebattles.com/threads/essay-on-realistic-space-combat-i-wrote.131056/
    I don’t have a great idea of how to make a story interesting within these limitations.

    • Buzz Says:

      I rather doubt that interesting battles are even possible in hard science fiction. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a good example.

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