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Why is Quantum Physics So Hard to Understand?

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Schrödinger's Cat

Schrödinger's Cat


Why it's Hard to Understand Quantum Physics

The reason why quantum physics is so hard to understand is that the whimsical names of discovered particles during the sixties simply adds to the confusion.

Humans think though development of a picture of the minds eye. So even though spin, particle are just names that have nothing to what the math equations are talking about. By simply naming - gives people the idea that these 'things' that the math equations are referring to actually do have spin, and mass - which they don't.

The term ‘particle’ survives in modern physics, but very little of its classical meaning remains. A particle can now best be defined as the conceptual carrier of a set of variates. . . It is also conceived as the occupant of a state defined by the same state of variates. . .It might seem desirable to distinguish the 'mathematical fictions' from 'actual particles'; but it is difficult to find any logical basis for such a distinction. 'Discovering' a particle mean observing certain effects which are accepted as proof of its existence.” - British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, Fundamental Theory, (Cambridge University Press., Cambridge, 1942)pp. 30-31

That's why the names mislead the ordinary person on the street with misconceptions. The odd names just made matters worse. Quarks are known as flavors: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom. Doesn't help to understand it - does it? That because we are animals that instinctively used familiar ideas to graft unknown and new idea upon them, inherently distorting with our brain's lenses.

If you listen to just the first 5 minutes of the Leonard Susskind's video lecture 1, he will explain why as humans, quantum theory is so hard to understand is because it is outside our everyday experience.

The rest of the hour and a half of lecture 1 is about vectors and matrices. Lecture 2 start with an overview of imaginary numbers.

Leonard Susskind's video lecture 1

Why call it a particle?

Even the word quantum itself has been bastardized in popular parlance. Quantum means an infinity small jump. In every day language a quantum leap is understood to be a huge jump in time travel. Time travel paradoxes are thought experiments that lead to imaginative movies but further takes most people away from the original math equations.

Why? Because time is an illusion caused by the passage of history and history is an illusion caused by the passage of time. So to call it a particle and saying it is at two places at the same time is what is so confusing. No wonder it takes years to understand a single photon is at two places at the same time.

Math is the most precises language there is in describing the universe. It wasn't invented, it was discovered.

There are no discrete particles, only forces, but in the math equation, when someone says what does that number mean, it's thought as a separate entity - a particle. The reducing of a thing into separate parts is what lies in the problem of understanding quantum mechanics. Spooky action at a distance is easier thought of as a force and not as a particle. Looking for a graviton or the God particle just makes understanding that so much difficult. If listen to the first five minutes of Leonard Susskind's lecture part 3 then this will explain why everything is described as a 'particle' and not a force field.

The word particle is used in everyday language rather than tensor because then would have to explain what is a tensor.

Faster Than Light Travel

From the BBC Will We Ever? "One of the earliest proposed possibilities for FTL travel involved a hypothetical particle called a tachyon, capable of tunnelling past the speed of light barrier. This turned out to be more of a mathematical artifact rather than an actual physical particle."

Leonard Susskind's lecture part 3


No Math! Just Tell it in a Story!

We have all experienced spooky action at a distance. Remember your first magnets as a kid? Einstein was fascinated with magnetism as a child.

Why is it easy to believe that fervent prayer will help heal a sick child but not that quantum entanglement or that the future affects the past? That's because most people don't believe that is a 'prayer particle' that travels to God. There isn't an ESP particle that give you that gut feeling that cannot be vocalized into vertical thinking. The force alluded to in 'Star Wars' is a culmination of all other forces that can be separated by Fourier Analysis..

It's called Quantum Entanglement and trying to understand with math is too hard. That's why I recommended only watching the first five minutes of Leonard Susskind's videos. To understand in human terms then it's best to tell it in a story, as a thought experiment. The first book that I read on dimensional reality is called Flatland, written by E. A. Abbott in 1884. It's a very small and skinny book that can be read in one sitting. Instead of trying to picture in your mind's eye the fourth dimension, it is much easier to imagine a world of only two dimensions.

I would suggest to anybody about questions such as these to read - or better yet listen to the audio book :

The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn by Louisa Gilder
It is a book about conversations throughout the decades and how the big brains struggled with the craziness of Quantum Physics. It also cleared up a bunch of weirdness as to the word 'entanglement' that Schrödinger used in English but in German is more of a 'cross-linked'

It even hurt Einstein's brain to think about it!

Visualizations on physics with theoretical explanations

Space-Time Foam

Project Rainbow

Science Physics Quantum Mechanics Interpretations Thought Experiments Philosophy Reality Locality Seeds Escapes by ptosis theseus

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muhammad abdullah javed on September 26, 2014:

Hi ptosis, thanks for sharing very important stuff about an imp stream of Physics, i think the heavy relience of quantaum mechanics over information theory need to be simplified.

James from Maine, USA on August 12, 2013:

The basis for all things that exist are "quanta", hence why it is called quantum mechanics. Understanding what a quanta really is leads to understanding the fundamental building blocks of everything. Quantum mechanics goes hand-in-hand with information theory, and in fact, I do believe it is impossible to have one without the other.

For all intents and purposes, quanta are one-dimensional objects. They exist as a single piece of information, much like a bit in a computer; the state of the quanta (object) is either "on" or "off". This just means it's either there and exists, or, it isn't there and does not exist. It is why computers which only use 1's and 0's are capable of working.

Basically, quanta is information. Everything you see around you is representative of information. The molecules that are arranged in a certain order, like letters and symbols in this sentence, convey to an observer what the object is. It is why the arrangement of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom equals "water", or one sodium atom and one chlorine atom equals "salt".

Have you ever watched the movie "The Matrix"? The entire movie is based off of this combination of quantum mechanics and information theory. It makes literally anything possible.

Dani Alicia from Myrtle Beach, SC on April 21, 2013:

This article was hard to read because of all the grammatical errors....with that being said, I don't think that quantum physics is hard to understand because of the names....I think it's hard for SOME people to understand because they haven't tried hard enough. I'm a physics students, only working on my Bachelor's at the moment, but I can't wait to learn about quantum physics. I have no doubt that I'll have some type of understanding, and I may possibly be the person to help figure out the madness...

Dustin Staples from California on July 31, 2012:

god damned particle indeed, what really blows my mind on the whole "I think i'm made from matter" thing is quantum entanglement; I didn't watch the video's just now, but i've seen a few of them before, and they touched on it?

I'de love to know what you think of the quantum mechanics sections I wrote, I don't have any friends more read than me, to insight me on it.

ptosis (author) from Arizona on July 14, 2012:

Like the quest for the Higgs boson that is called the "God particle" when in fact the guy who wrote the book wanted to call it the 'god damned particle'.

Maybe if drop all the crazy names, and just use x,y & z names then humans would quit trying to anthropomorphizing these force tensors.

Pachomius on July 13, 2012:

Math equations of quantum mechanics are things of the concept realm which are in the mind of man and manipulated by man in his mind.

Now, I like to ask the physics and math savants here to tell me what are the things existing in the actual objective reality outside man's mind that correspond to those concepts represented in equations in the mind of man?

Next, the socalled weird things in quantum mechanics are weird in the concept realm in the mind of man.

Again, they are weird in the mind of people who are savants in physics and in mathematics, well and good, but keep attentive to the fact that all these weirdness is in the mind of these savants.

I ask them, do you know of any events at all in the actual objective reality of existing things like the nose in our face and the stones in the river bed and the moon in the night sky and the sun in the day sky that are weird as described by the savants in regard to their mind thoughts about the yes weirdness of quantum mechanics?

Furthermore, the laser printer is often mentioned as an application of quantum mechanics, forgive me for my ignorance, but there is an engineering technology involved in the invention and operation of the laser printer: tell me what kind of weirdness in the minds of the savants of quantum mechanics is availed of by the engineers-inventors of the laser printer, or these engineers-inventors do not employ the weirdness of quantum mechanics but just the down to earth particle physics familiar already to us ordinary folks like electrons that are supposed to flow in a current of electricity, or is it more correct to say a negative charge is travelling from one negatively charged electrode along a conductor to a positively charged electrode?

Finally, all these talks about weirdness is due to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, so it is all just agreement of the savants who agree to the Copenhagen Interpretation, which agreement is all in the minds of these folks: but in the actual objective reality of existing things, they cannot just agree to give each other a nice dead cat and assure each other that it is a live cat if they just what, keep it out of sight in a box and just peep in at intervals and make those intervals quick quick ones.

Yes, I am open to the savants here pointing out to me that I don't get quantum mechanics and its queerness correctly, I welcome your goodness to point out to me all my wrong understanding -- but remember what someone also a very savant physicist and math expert also an important discoverer of quantum mechanics saying that anyone claiming to understand quantum mechanics does not really know what it is all about.


Insane Mundane from Earth on February 15, 2012:

This Hub is an absolute, animalistic joke!

dipless from Manchester on December 23, 2011:

Richard Feynman famously said, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics" To be honest he is right, working with it is one thing understanding it from a fundamental level is another, although it is a nicely written hub good job.

Abraham, Ph.D. student in Theoretical Nanoscience on September 22, 2011:

Ok, several things. First, your thesis is incorrect and you give no evidence for it in your article:

"The reason why Quantum Physics is so hard to understand is that the whimsical names of discovered particles during the sixties simply adds to the confusion."

The discovered particles are nuclear physics. What does their names have to do with the foundations of quantum mechanics? They are arbitrary! The important concepts are the complex nature of the wavefunction, the forbidden and allowed energy levels, the time evolution operator, the uncertainty principle, and the nature of particles being nothing more than clouds of "probablility" that only "decide" on their state the instant when we observe them. Quantum mechanics really has MUCH more to do with statistics and matrix algebra, and even music than particle names, really.

You have an error in the definition of the word "quantum". It is not "a infinity small jump" - that is meaningless; are you thinking of an infinitesimal change operator dx? A quanta is instead, "fundamental unit" and its definition is fuzzy at that. It could refer to an electron in an atomic orbital, or it could refer to a single magnetic vortex in a material that displays the quantum hall effect. It depends what you're talking about.

The fundamental reason why people give up trying to understand quantum mechanics is the same reason people give up trying to fix a car or learn a programming language or learn how to mend their own clothes- unless you are REALLY dedicated and/or it comes easy to you, you just won't bother because of all the extra effort you have to put into it and it doesn't come up often enough in daily life for that knowledge to make a difference.

Fortunately for us, that "fundamental reason" is flawed logic! Technology nowadays can really get a lot of foundational quantum concepts across by simulation applets and visualizations, and the ease of access is unprecedented. For example, here's a great one: - it's a particle in a one-dimensional box! Bizarrely different than a basketball in a suitcase, but palatable and epiphany-inducing if one spends the effort to learn about it.

One of my life goals is to improve quantum mechanics education. I think it can possibly be done with a junior-high-level education with gaming, visualizations, and . Kids are curious as heck and they WANT to learn about this stuff, but us dumb adults don't know where to point them because, as you said, we're confused by it and can't get past the buzzwords. I've got ideas but I'm p

And OP, I'm not trying to heckle you, I'm just trying to do my part to improve the state of education on this; I'm trying to answer your question with more questions of my own, to you: are you curious enough to do some (java applet) thought experiments? That IS how Einstein got into this whole business ;)

KenWu from Malaysia on May 04, 2011:

This is an awesome article about the science of quantum physics. It's a very confusing but yet very interesting subject.

ptosis (author) from Arizona on April 17, 2011:

Thanks Etarip for the big compliment!

Etarip from The United States of America on April 17, 2011:

This is all good general information, I do not know if everyone needs the capability to understand quantum mechanics as its just plain out all a theory. If at any time the quantum theories are proven true, I believe that it should be thought in the classroom and just in a medium that would be understand, like you have laid out here. Its humerus that you are such a big fan of Leonard Susskind, because he is kind of a third-party in the quantum mechanical research, he is really good at explaining in colloquial terms though. Wonderful resource for those wanting to start their knowledge base.

rafken from The worlds my oyster on October 10, 2010:

Interesting stuff. When some of this is proven, can you imagine the hell some kids will have in classrooms, learning this.

True Cures from Payette Idaho on September 04, 2010:

Quantum Physics is so hard to understand because it is believed we have not learned how to control it yet.

I suspect that has changed with True Cures. I believe I can demonstrate controlled quantum entanglement, I simply need to find a quantum physicist interested in taking the science and research to a new level.

Being able to control quantum entanglement will surely destroy a lot of popular quantum theories and as such most likely threatening to quantum physicist.

ptosis, do you know any open minded quantum physicist?

rockk on August 16, 2010:

watch nassim haramein s work (free on google vid), it shows why quantum physics, and even traditional physics are eroneous

ptosis (author) from Arizona on July 30, 2010:

Thanx dipless (does that mean you don't chew snuff anymore?)

dipless from Manchester on July 30, 2010:

Quantum physics is so hard to understand because it goes against our everyday sense of reality!

@ Ptosis I'd have to disagree "Nobody understands it. Unless it's in a math equation. But that not 'knowing'"

With quantum mechanics the only way to 'know' it is mathematically we can explain in images experiments and images but to actually make useful predictions and use of quantum processes one must undertand the math or more specifically the probabilities ;)

Nicely written hub though enjoyed it. :)

I do agree 100% that the names make it more dificult to understand however this is just physicists silly sense of not so funny humor ;)

ptosis (author) from Arizona on July 23, 2010:

Or the words themselves confuse - some of the words were thought up in the 60's , charm, up, down, strange - I think for job security sake!

equealla from Pretoria, South Africa on July 22, 2010:

Why is quantum physics so hard to understand, because the mind thinks in pictures, and the words used does not create pictures - complicated indeed!

Just Me on June 29, 2010:

Newton was wrong, click my name.

Uma07 on June 22, 2010:

Quantum physics isn't so hard after all.If you understand the basics it becomes easy :)

hello dave on June 19, 2010:

Interesting Hub, very informative.

Nell Rose from England on June 16, 2010:

Hi, this is the third hub that I have read tonight about quantum physics, and entanglement! lol it fascinates me, and I will be definetly back to read some more. I am all entangled out tonight! one of my atoms is upstairs and down at the same time, and it's pulling me towards my bed! ha ha thanks I will be back tomorrow, you have some good hubs here. thanks nell

John B Badd from Saint Louis, MO on June 15, 2010:

Great Hub. I love theory, I get lost at the math. I do not even trust math because you can make numbers do what you want them to. Ya, I know math works and there are all kinds of cool things because of it. I am thankful there are physics people who solve these problems so I do not have to. And I still do not trust it.

Keep up the good work.

ptosis (author) from Arizona on June 15, 2010:

Nobody understands it. Unless it's in a math equation. But that not 'knowing'. I love Flatland. The book is sexist and I'm sure the kiddie movie removed all that non-PC stuff.

There are a few books that help visualize with thought experiments such as what would it be like if Planck's # were closer to 1?

shazwellyn on June 15, 2010:

Umm... I understand it all now...errr.... ummmm...

Thanks for trying :)