Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Not magic

Can I beg scientists to please please puhleeeez stop giving names to scientific phenomena that induce the woo-woos to have multiple orgasms?

It's bad enough that the woo-woos already take perfectly reasonable terms like "frequency" and "vibration" and "resonance" and "quantum" and define them any damn way they want, and interpret the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as meaning "we're not certain about anything, therefore my noodling around is just as likely to be true as whatever Stephen Hawking came up with."  But some of the names the scientists themselves have come up with are just egging the woo-woos on, with the same result as my putting a pair of juicy pork chops on the floor in front of my dogs and turning my back.

Then acting all surprised when 3.8 milliseconds later, there's nothing but contented chewing noises.

This sort of thing happens way too often.  I suspect that a lot of it has to do with an honest desire to give laypeople some sort of simple, catchy phrase to hang onto.  After all, a lot of physics -- and the problem does seem to occur most often in physics -- is hard and math-y, so the real models themselves are often relatively inaccessible to people who haven't been trained in the field.  (And even some who have.  Despite my bachelor's degree in physics, 95% of academic papers in physics lose me after the first paragraph.  If I even get that far.)

But for fuck's sake, let's learn from our mistakes, okay?  Look at what happened when Murray Gell-Mann introduced a new quantum characteristic, and dubbed it "strangeness."  There's nothing especially strange about strangeness, or at least, it's no stranger than the rest of the quantum model.  Actually, it's a number, and describes the decay of certain particles in strong nuclear and electromagnetic interactions.  But the name stuck, and the "strange quark" has gotten the woo-woos going, lo unto this very day.

There's no better example, however, than the infamous "God Particle."  This moniker was given to the Higgs boson by physicist Leon Lederman because of its ability to interact with and influence any particle with mass, but Lederman himself quickly realized what a misstep this was.  He later said he regretted not calling it the "goddamn particle," but admitted this probably wouldn't have gotten past his editors.

The whole annoying subject comes up because of an article this week in about a new mathematical model that may account for the chaotic high energy and information loss that occurs near black holes.  The gravitational fields around a black hole's event horizon are so warped by the high mass that standard formulations tend to break down, and simulating them in a model has proven to be extremely complex.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Event Horizon Telescope, Black hole - Messier 87 crop max res, CC BY 4.0]

So Kanato Goto, Tomoki Nosaka, and Masahiro Nozaki, of RIKEN Interdisciplinary Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences, have come up with a new model to account for the complicated behavior at the boundary of a black hole.  It uses a mathematical measure of how difficult a quantum system is to simulate on a classical (non-quantum) computer.  Figuring it into their calculations, Goto et al. were able to show that near the boundary of a black hole, systems will evolve to maximize this measure -- i.e., to become maximally complex and chaotic.

So far, so good, right?  But I haven't told you what this mathematical measure is called.

It's called magic.

When I saw this, I said, and I quote, "Oh, fuck."

In fact, the article is titled, "Quantum 'Magic' Could Help Explain the Origin of Spacetime."  At least they had the good sense to put Magic in quotation marks.

Not that it'll help.  I predict that there will be articles on woo-woo websites popping up all over the place claiming that scientists are finally admitting that the whole universe is magical.  Citing the headline, probably without the relevant quotation marks, and conveniently ignoring the contents of the actual article.  "See?  We were right!  It is all magic!  So crystals and homeopathy and astrology and quantum vibrations of love and everything else we've been babbling about for decades!"

Confirmation Bias "R" Us, baby. 

Anyhow, I guess anything I say isn't going to offset this trend to give purely scientific stuff goofy and/or eye-catching names.  But as far as quantum magic -- without the quotation marks -- goes, let me end this rant with a quote from the inimitable Tim Minchin: "Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be... not magic."


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