Thursday, January 27, 2011

Decoherence: Destroyer of Weirdness

Last night I watched an episode of one of my favorite TV shows, PBS's Closer to Truth, which deals with scientific perspectives on questions of philosophy and theology. The episode was called “Why Is the Quantum So Weird?” From Scientific American magazine to popular pseudoscience books like The Secret, we are told that the world of the very small is extraordinarily strange, counterintuitive, unlike anything we can relate to in everyday life — where particles can seem to be in two places at once, go backward in time, “tunnel” through impermeable barriers, etc. We know that on very small scales, these quantum phenomena do occur, and in fact quantum mechanics establishes the theoretical basis behind everything from transistors to quantum computing. So, why is the quantum world so strange?

The episode provided an excellent run-down of quantum theory, but it didn’t provide a satisfying answer to the question. That’s because it’s not the right question. We should be asking, Why is the ordinary world not weird? Because this is a question we actually have an answer for.

Assigning a value-judgment word such as “weird” to quantum phenomena betrays how biased we humans can be. We expect things to behave the same on all scales, large and small, because that’s how a physically consistent universe should be. If a tennis ball can be in only one place at once, we assume that the same must be true of an electron. In fact, today many physicists agree that the world does behave the same on all scales; however, this behavior is most accurately described by the laws of quantum mechanics — even the behavior of the entire universe as a whole. (This is the scientific basis for the parallel universes of the famous “many worlds interpretation.”) In other words, the whole entire universe on all scales is “weird.” So why does it make sense to us? Why do we never see evidence of a tennis ball being in two places at once, or passing through a brick wall, as we do for subatomic particles?

The answer relates to something called quantum decoherence. Discovered in the late 1980s, decoherence refers to the loss of coherence, which is the property of a quantum system (such as an electron) that can give it an uncertain, blurry or smeared out physical description. An electron in a coherent state can be in superposition, meaning that its precise location, momentum, spin, etc., is undefined or blurred out: It appears to possess many values for these things at once. (Most people learn about this bit of quantum weirdness by way of the electron cloud that surrounds an atom's nucleus, but free electrons and other particles have this property as well.) However, if that electron encounters an electron detector, the system of the electron and the detector will undergo decoherence, and the electron will appear to suddenly “snap” into one definite state. You often hear this process described as the collapse of the wavefunction, although that phrase is becoming increasingly archaic among the physics crowd.

Decoherence causes ordinary macroscopic objects to behave differently than subatomic particles; unlike electrons or photons, they always exist in definite places and follow well-understood and predictable or classical laws of motion. To experimentally prove that decoherence is responsible, just take an object and put it into a coherent state of superposition, and keep it that way — prevent decoherence from happening. To achieve this feat, though, there’s one thing you need to do: The object must be completely removed, or decoupled, from interaction with its environment. For example, it needs to be kept incredibly cold, at a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. This is because the moment the object starts getting hit with photons of heat or light, those photons begin to “observe” the object. In doing so, they carry away enough information about the superposition that the object appears to collapse into one definite state, with astonishing speed. Decoherence ensures that anything that’s directly observed in any way at all cannot remain in a state of superposition. Even though everything in the universe obeys those “weird” laws of quantum behavior — all the time — whenever there’s any kind of observation going on, decoherence destroys that quantum weirdness. In the process, it creates a world that makes sense.

Actually, decoherence only destroys the weird aspect of nature; it doesn’t destroy the alternate states represented by a superposition, or change anything about the way quantum mechanics works. If a tennis ball in a quantum superposition undergoes decoherence, information describing those potential alternate states still technically exists in the world. It’s just that it has been irreversibly lost to the chaos of the environment, and like Humpty Dumpty, no amount of effort will be able to restore it. The “blurry” aspect of a tennis ball that that has undergone decoherence is a little like the kinetic energy of a car with the brakes applied: It isn’t destroyed altogether, but only gets dissipated into the environment. Once this happens, the probability of any alternate state reappearing — for the alternate positions or momenta of all of the ball’s particles to randomly reconstitute themselves, allowing us to see a second ball — becomes vanishingly tiny.

So the next time you’re playing tennis, and you hit one definite ball back to a definite spot on the court, you can thank quantum decoherence for making it possible.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"Susan G. Komen" Is A Cancer

I’m sure you’re familiar with “Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” the charity organization that puts pink ribbons on countless commercial products in the effort to raise awareness about breast cancer. I touched on “pink-ribbon saturation” in a previous post. Komen has attracted controversy in the past for giving grants to Planned Parenthood, and also for some of its dubious alliances with decidedly unhealthy products. Since then, Komen has come under additional fire for legally challenging charity groups that use “cure” in their names, including tiny operations such as “Cupcakes for a Cure” and “Surfing for a Cure.” Komen spends nearly one million dollars per year on its legal department, which defends some 200 trademarks, all in the effort to prevent what spokespersons call “confusion in the marketplace.” This is money that was donated in good faith specifically for the cure of cancer, and instead is siphoned off to fund the intimidation and legal strong-arming of much smaller charities devoted to curing cancer.

Are we angry yet? Komen’s partnership with KFC — which, incredibly, attempted to associate fried chicken with good health — resulted in $4.2 million, the largest corporate donation so far. And yet, in just over four years, every last penny will have evaporated in Komen’s legal department alone.

I e-mailed Komen (phone: 877-465-6636) to complain about this travesty. In their form-letter reply, they stated that 84 cents of every donated dollar goes directly toward “all of these programs,” which include “community outreach and advocacy.” It is unclear how many of those 84 cents go directly for the cure, such as funding experimental trials. And still, I have to ask, why only 84 cents? Why not 95 cents, or 98 cents? Hell, even Las Vegas slot machines pay back at a rate in the mid to upper 90s. When you donate a buck to Komen, what isn’t spent on marketing and promotion to grow the organization goes to lawyers, administrators, and others who will never cure cancer.

Komen admits that it occasionally “asks another charity ... to consider clarifying the name,” but that it spends “far below the $1 million mentioned in one news story” on legal challenges to protect its brand. Yes, we get that lawyers also do contract work. But hey, guess what: Whether $500,000, $50,000, or $1,000, any and all of it is too much. It’s all money donated — but not spentfor the cure.

Here’s the enormous irony of it all: Komen, an entity founded to help cure cancer, has become a cancer itself. In the human body, cancer begins when a few healthy, useful cells undergo a change that causes them to grow uncontrollably into a mass. This mass then continues to grow, gobbling up more and more resources in the process (to the detriment of the system as a whole), eventually getting so large that useful organs — I’m thinking of groups like “Cupcakes for a Cure” in this analogy — get crushed. That is how cancer kills an individual, and that is why overgrown, overstaffed groups like Komen unintentionally work to destroy the reputation of important causes. It’s as if the original Susan G. Komen’s cancer lives on, decades later, having long moved on from its host’s dead body to infect all of society, albeit in a subtler, but still insidious, manner.

Many of us have horror stories about working with or volunteering for a major charity. That’s because a successful nonprofit tends to gradually morph into a self-sustaining entity, whose primary function becomes to grow, the assumption being that a larger and more visible charity can do more good than a small, obscure one. However, the larger an organization becomes, the less appropriate the word “nonprofit” is: Anyone on the payroll is profiting very much from the business, and the group needs to meet a quota of donations to keep up. A board of directors and a legal team are assembled. Advertising, promotion, and publicity begins. The original motivation for the mission fades into the background; ideas such as market penetration, branding, and trademarks become important, commencing the legal challenges. Meanwhile, all of this growth is increasingly justified in the name of “awareness.” At this point, do we really need to be made more aware that breast cancer exists?

Don’t get me wrong; I am all for helping those in need. I’ve given four-figure donations to the American Red Cross in response to recent disasters. However, now I’m wondering if that was the best way to donate. From now on I will seek out smaller, more direct means of giving. You know, you can give directly to a children’s hospital; you can call up a local school and ask where you can send a check for classroom materials; you can give to the public library. I could start my own charity right now and do just that with 100% of the donations. An organization with an elite board of directors and hundreds or thousands of employees on the payroll cannot.

Giving to a major, highly visible charity, as epitomized by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is the laziest, most inefficient way to be generous. Don’t feed the cancer.