Solace in Quantum

Cover of Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed

Sometimes it takes a long time for a piece of writing to get out there.

I don’t mean “long” in cosmological terms, like Douglas Adams, who likens a walk to the chemist’s as “peanuts” compared to space. But when you put your writing into someone else’s structures – their spaces, their publishing formats, their agenda – you have to wait. It’s not the case with a blog like this, of which I am in full control (and therefore have no one else to blame for how infrequently it gets updated, but I never promised you quantity here.)

But while you have to wait, and sometimes you have to adjust things to suit your editor, there are real benefits to publishing with other people. Like reach. An audience wider than the friends on Facebook who bother to click the link (Note: ‘liking’ is great, but I’d love for you to read the posts, too. And comment. And share them. Go ahead.) The relevance of that audience can be a factor, and so I’m pleased that after a long wait, a blog I wrote has finally found a public home.

It began as a little musing I was going to post here, several months ago. Last year, in fact, before Christmas and just after I’d finished my first term lecturing at university – a course on social theory, which is not incidental when you read the post.

screencap of drafts waiting on my WordPress dashboard

An actual screencap of the drafts corner of my dashboard on WordPress. You can publish a blog instantly, but finding the right home for maximal viewing can take more time.

I was just about to click the publish button when I stopped. I read it over again and thought. Y’know, this is pretty good. A little long, maybe, but I bet other people interested in higher ed and teaching might like to read this.

So I held off and started rooting around a bit. Found a journal with a call for submissions that was a perfect fit. Sadly, they needed their writers to be a) PhD students and b) in London. Two hours down the tracks from Paddington and five months after getting thwacked with John Knox’s trousers meant it was no good. Pitched it to a couple of higher ed news sites, but I didn’t get the green light.

Then I saw a call for blog posts framed around “academic diaries”, to coincide with the publication of the mighty Les Back‘s Academic Diary book. It, in itself, started as a personal blog but graduated into a bricks-and-mortar version which I must order. I’m already a fan of Back’s writing and research, and I think after a year as lecturer and researcher, a lot of this book is going to speak to me. The Sociological Review wanted related submissions, and I took another flutter. Pitch Four, if you’re asking, which is not really so bad as far as writers’ hit-to-miss ratio goes. Though it is just a crummy free-for-all blog post. But a crummy free-for-all blog post in the right home, on a page read by scholars who may be enriched by the writing. Here’s a snippet:

Reading Al-Khalili’s book exactly one lifetime later, I found that the confidence with which the natural sciences are so frequently articulated masks something much shakier. There are fuzzy edges to quantum mechanics, both in the properties of these particles (waves; waveforms – get it straight) and in their behaviour in controlled experiments. Even Albert Einstein was unsatisfied with the explanations of “why,” or, more to the point, the lack of explanations. And this is the man whose ideas about gravitational waves took a hundred years to verify, so his scepticism gives me some solace.

Al-Khalili does physics a service by including this part of the quantum story. As he puts it, no interpretation of what happens in quantum mechanics is “better” than another: none of them is inherently right to the point of delivering a knock-out blow to the others. “Worse still,” he says, “many believe that there is no true interpretation and that they are all equally valid ways of thinking about what is going on.”.

For an interpretive sociology guy like me, that sounds about right. But for the natural sciences, it’s all wrong.

You can read more of it here. And don’t forget to comment. And share.

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