Quantum Mechanics and Star Trek

Written: 1999.08.14

Has anyone besides me noticed that the word "quantum" is one of the most common words in Star Trek dialogue? I would hope so- this word seems to be ubiquitous in Star Trek whenever I'm watching. Has anyone ever wondered why?

Apart from a popular distaste with the obvious "time filler" nature of treknobabble, most fans don't seem to have a problem with the heavy use of the word "quantum". In fact, a lot of Star Trek fans seem to feel that the overuse of the word "quantum" is one of the few good things about treknobabble, in that the connection to real-life quantum mechanics makes the treknobabble seem more realistic somehow.

Some fans go even further, claiming that quantum mechanics actually makes Star Trek technology feasible! And in the final crowning stupidity, some of these fans actually take the attitude that quantum mechanics is the only branch of science which is applicable to a science fiction discussion, by spouting nonsense like this:

"What business do you have talking about sci-fi tech? You don't work in the field of quantum mechanics, and your education didn't specialize in quantum mechanics."

Excuse me? Exactly when did every other branch of science and engineering become meaningless? I already discuss the myth of the absolute supremacy of quantum mechanics in my Myths pages- obviously, not everyone agrees with me. A common retort to my argument is as follows:

"Obviously, you've never read Stephen Hawking's books. He says that in quantum mechanics, quite literally anything goes. Particles can temporarily exceed the speed of light, wink in and out of existence, and generally do things that they're not supposed to. All you seem to know is old fashioned classical physics."

I have gotten this exact retort, or variations thereof, dozens of times. The problem is that I have read Stephen Hawking's books, and although it's quite true that he says classical physics doesn't apply to quantum mechanics, that did not come as a surprise. I hate to revisit a tired adage, but science is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary process. None of my preconceptions were changed by Hawking's book, although I did learn a few things I didn't already know. Even though my own education included only a cursory examination of quantum mechanics, I nevertheless already knew that tiny, subatomic objects can't be treated as if they are macroscopic objects. What these people do not understand is that macroscopic objects also can't be treated as if they are tiny, subatomic objects! Your car cannot sneak through an obstacle via barrier tunneling, or take several simultaneous paths from point A to point B!

Classical physics is the physics of large objects, and by "large", I mean objects larger than atoms. Quantum mechanics is the physics of small objects, and by "small", I mean subatomic particles. The two do not mix! Classical physics utterly fails to describe the behaviour of tiny subatomic particles. Quantum mechanics is useless for predicting the behaviour of large objects like bullets, cars, asteroids, starships, planets, etc. Any attempt to apply one to the other is a complete waste of time. Do you try to apply Newtonian physics to objects travelling at relativistic speeds, or do you expect relativistic time, length, and mass changes to affect objects travelling at sub-relativistic speeds? At quantum scales, Newtonian physics don't work. At macroscopic scales, quantum physics turns into classical physics.

This brings me back to my original question: why do the Star Trek writers love the word "quantum" so much? I hope it should be obvious that they like it not because quantum mechanics overrides every other branch of science (as some Star Trek fans have erroneously concluded), but rather, because it opens the door for virtually anything to happen, while still retaining plausibility to those who are willing to suspend disbelief, or who are ignorant enough to accept the deception as the truth.

In quantum mechanics, the position and velocity of a subatomic particle is a matter of probabilities rather than measurement, and because there are so many damned little subatomic particles out there, sooner or later, virtually anything will happen. If we assume that macroscopic objects can behave like subatomic particles (basically, by suggesting that the laws of probability will eventually permit it), we make anything and everything seem plausible. But this is obviously silly- you will never see the same improbable event occur simultaneously to all of the subatomic particles in a large object like a baseball, for the same reason that no one will ever roll snake-eyes 1E30 times in a row (for those who can't visualize large numbers, imagine every man, woman and child on Earth rolling dice once per second, every second for more than 6 trillion years, and all of them coming up with snake-eyes every single time).

If you were anal-retentive you might point out that such an event would be more correctly termed "implausible" or "unlikely" than "impossible," but regardless of how narrowly you choose to define the word "impossible", the plain and simple fact is that it simply won't happen. There are lots of ways in which quantum mechanics theories can be applied in technology, but never in such a manner that we assume a macroscopic object will act just like an individual subatomic particle! Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment, not a feasible apparatus.