Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Pet Peeves - Misusing "Quantum"

One thing which annoys me is when people who don't know what they're talking about abuse scientific language. One of the most egregious examples of this is the word "Quantum". It sounds cool, I know, but it really doesn't mean what most people seem to think it means.

This is what "Quantum" means:

Quantum: the smallest possible non-zero amount of something

It was actually quite a revolutionary idea to start with. There is a smallest possible amount of water - you can't take a jug of water and keep pouring half of it away - eventually you will end up with the smallest possible amount of water, and you either pour it all away or keep it all. Or I guess you could try splitting it and if you did it really cleverly you might end up with two beryllium hydride radicals which aren't water at all. Quantum is weird because we're used to the real world, where there are normally so many lumps of stuff that it looks smooth to us.

The same is true of pretty much anything - there's a smallest possible amount of light (one photon), of electric charge, of electricity, whatever. Maybe even of space, which I find quite weird as an idea. This leads to a couple of other common phrases:

Quantum Mechanics: the study of how quantum stuff behaves.

Quantum Leap: a jump between two states with no intermediate stages - i.e. the smallest possible change in something.

Quantum leaps can be big (I guess), just usually they're really small. A legitimate example would be to say that moving from DVD to Blu-Ray is a quantum leap, because there are no intermediate stages. But the fact it's a quantum leap doesn't imply anything about the size or the significance, just that there's no intermediate step. "On the 100-question multiple choice physics exam, Tony went from 35% to 36%. That's a quantum leap.

Misusing the word "quantum" is like claiming that Shakespeare was a great novelist. It's a basic error which just makes people look stupid.

Examples

Quantum of the Seas is a boat. Its name means "smallest possible amount of the seas", and it claims to be the smallest possible step forwards from its predecessors. On that basis, I wouldn't bother.

Almost every single use of the word "quantum" in relation to the social sciences or arts subjects I've read has demonstrated major misunderstandings - even C.S. Lewis in Miracles. The big exceptions are when the author themselves has a masters or better in physics - e.g. John Polkinghorne.

Quantum of Solace is a film. I think they actually got the title about right - it's like a crumb of solace only much much smaller as Bond continues the transformation from hard man to killer to utterly ruthless and remorseless suave super-agent.

Quantum Leap can be forgiven just about anything.



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