Quantum Physics Has a Language Problem

31jk3zyLsiL._UX250_I have become interested in theories of mind and all the new thinking at the intersection of physics and consciousness. So when I set out to read The Self-Aware Universe by Amit Goswami, I hoped to get a better sense of how quantum physics relates to mind.

Didn’t happen.

Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 1.00.25 AMI also didn’t get any major insights about “action at a distance“. And most of all, I did not get any deeper insights on the idea that the act of observation can change the physical world. I’ve known about quantum mechanics for a while – enough to have a casual conversation over beer – or more likely – over a joint. But I expected that Goswami would help me get to the next level of understanding. I read the words, I followed the logic…

…but nothing ever got much farther than a few centimeters into my brain. There was no gut feeling – no somatic resolution.

imagesNow, to be sure, I wasn’t expecting epiphanies to come tumbling out. After all, Richard Feynman famously said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

So, I was appropriately prepared for the difficulty of the subject matter.

What the Hell is a “Quantum Object” Anyway?

Sean Carroll says that physical theories:

“…aren’t supposed to have ambiguities … the very first thing we ask about them is that they be clearly defined. Quantum mechanics, despite all its undeniable successes, isn’t there yet.”

The main problem with explanations of quantum physics is the choice of words.

The terms “observation”, and “measurement” have particular meanings in the physicist’s lab, where a scientist might be trying to gather data on the behavior of a single photon.


Truly not something that most of us experience in daily life. Even the sight of a faint star in the night sky involves a hell of a lot of photons. And one second of this experience is actually a really long time.

But…a single photon?

I wonder if the scientist in the lab actually “experiences” a photon anyway. How does one “experience” a photon? And what does it mean to “measure” or “observe” something as fleeting and tiny as a subatomic particle?

Sean Carroll again:

“There is no consensus within the physics community about what really constitutes an observation (or “measurement”) in quantum mechanics, nor on what happens when an observation occurs.”

Another problematic term is “quantum object”. The word “object” is very familiar in classical physics. But it invites contradiction and cognitive dissonance when applied to phenomena on the quantum level.

niels-bohr-model-of-the-hydrogen-atomNiels Bohr said: “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.”

While reading explanations on quantum physics, I become optimistic: I feel as if I am about to get a picture of why certain puzzling phenomena are true. Authors use familiar narratives and metaphors that I have direct experience with, but what they are illustrating are observations in a physics lab where fleeting subatomic particles exhibit paradoxical behaviors. These carefully-orchestrated observations that only happen in expensive laboratories are hardly the stuff of everyday experience.

And then they start talking about cats in boxes – right after telling us that cats and boxes are VERY DIFFERENT than subatomic particles.


By the way…apparently, it IS possible to experience the effects of quantum physics in your own home:

Labeler Setup2

I just love the fact that styrofoam cups were used in this experiment.

Can Quantum Physics Ever Really Be “Explained?”

Because our sense organs and brains are optimized to deal with things on a human scale, it’s difficult for us to think about things as small as atoms (where quantum physics really matters) or as big as galaxies (where relativity really matters).

As I set out to write this article, I did some searching and noticed right away that a lot of people have pointed out that quantum physics has a language problem. And so here is where I bow out, and let the real experts speak…

Is there a Language Problem with Quantum Physics?

The Copenhagen Interpretation 

So, You’re Not a Physicist…

Quantum Physics and Human Language

What If There’s a Way to Explain Quantum Physics Without the Probabilistic Weirdness?

Quantum Mechanics Made Easy

Maybe classical clockwork can explain quantum weirdness

Intelligence is NOT One-Dimensional

Why do so many people, including science writers, talk about intelligence as if it could be measured on a one-dimensional yardstick?

In “How We Evolve” Benjamin Phelan discusses the work of Bruce Lahn, who did controversial research on genetic differences among human populations that are correlated with brain size and brain function. At one point, discussing natural selection in contemporary humans, Phelan states, “…if intelligence is still under selection, that could mean that some populations at this very moment are slightly smarter than others – that, perhaps, some ethnicities are slightly smarter than others.”

Phelan is wise to be cautious and skeptical in how he reports on this subject. Basically I think this is a great article. But, like so many other writers, he makes an error in his choice of words. The use of the term “smarter”, is misguided…it is moot. The very notion that any group of humans could be “smarter” than another group is unfounded.

I would bet that this kind of misguided language has caused further aggravation to an already controversial subject.


I made the image above to express my understanding of intelligence as having several components, or modalities, with interpersonal included at the left. This shows just three modes, plotted in a cube – but there are many others (see below). We could see certain disorders, such as autism, dyslexia, and Williams Syndrome as examples of extreme imbalances in the mix of intelligences. An autistic savant might be plotted at the lower right, while a Williams might be plotted at the far left. Most of us have relatively normal balances, with plenty of mild variation. And NOBODY has super-powers in all modalities, as indicated by the absence of people in the upper-right corner.

There’s Really No Such Thing as “Smarter”

The term “smarter” is even less applicable when used in relation to technology. In the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, Nicholas Carr quotes Larry Page in a speech, as saying:

“The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people – or smarter”. 

I applaud the goal of making better search engines. But software cannot and should not be measured against humans in terms of intelligence. I will repeat what I have said in other blog posts: intelligence (both human and artificial) is


Changing our language to reflect this fact would alleviate so many of the conflicted debates we are hearing about the “dangers of AI“.



Are we over-thinking the dangers of AI?

Artificial Intelligence comes in many forms – just as natural intelligence comes in many forms within the animal kingdom and among human populations. The diversity of intelligence in technology is what keeps us safe from a runaway AI monster.

Diversity is healthy.

Now, why am I making such a big deal about a little bit of language? I am making a big deal because this little bit of language is the tip of an ugly iceberg: it is the cause of discrimination in the tech industry; it is the cause of discrimination in general; it is the reason people still use the IQ test, which falsely reduces one’s intelligence to a single number, so that person A can be called “smarter” than person B. And person B can be called “smarter” than person C.

IQ is not just a flawed concept: it is counter-productive.

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The notion of IQ is MISLEADING.

Howard Gardner proposed several kinds of intelligences. Among the intelligence modalities associated with Gardner’s theories are:

Musical–rhythmic and harmonic

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 10.29.34 AMWe could easily add more, or combine some of these. We might also include “emotional”, “symbolic”, and “narrative“.

I would even add “dyslexic” (usually considered a disorder but increasingly recognized as associated with certain skills that are advantageous in many situations).

Maybe I’m just playing with semantics – maybe I’m just being a language wonk. But I don’t think so. I think the language we use to describe ourselves and others has a major effect on how we think and how we act. Changing the way we talk about intelligence could have a positive trickle-own effect on things as widespread as public policy, education, racism, scientific research, and…gosh, just about everything else.

We’re all SMART.

SMART is multidimensional.

………….. The Beauty of Gray Code …………..
















Gray Code is an alternative binary representation, cleverly devised so that, between any two adjacent numbers, only one bit changes at a time. If there is an error reading any bit that has changed then, at worse, the read value will never be out by more than one unit.

This has tremendous value in the real world. Computers might be digital, but we live in an analog world. Interfaces between these need to be carefully considered.