Macroscopic quantum effects – religious implications?

Religion / Science

It’s been crazy busy here in Phoenix this week, and I’ve not been able to post as much as I wanted to here on the blog. But I’ve got a few minutes this morning, and I’ve been wanting to draw attention to a really important experiment that was just published.

Two researchers have constructed an apparatus that allows us to see a fundamental quantum mechanical effect with the naked eye. In other words, they’ve been able to “magnify” the physical realm that is governed by quantum mechanics as opposed to classical mechanics to the macroscopic scale.

“‘There is this question of where the dividing line is between the quantum world and the classical world we know,’ said Andrew Cleland of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

‘We know perfectly well that things are not in two places at the same time in our everyday experience, but this fundamental theory of physics says that they can be,’ he told BBC News.

Now, Professor Cleland and his team have moved that dividing line, using an object just big enough to be seen with the naked eye.”

Read the full BBC article here.

What they managed to do was the move the bar representing the rule of thumb that physicists used to decide when to focus more on quantum or classical effects in a physical system. The old rule used to be when systems got larger than about 60 atoms. This system, in the paper referenced above, is about a trillion atoms. Which is so large that frankly I’m astonished that the thermal perturbations, etc, weren’t able to smear the quantum states into a smooth distribution as we’ve heretofore imagined.

A fuller description of the experiment – which makes use of entanglement – can be found on the website:

The researchers demonstrated that, once cooled, the mechanical resonator followed the laws of quantum mechanics. They were able to create a single phonon, the quantum of mechanical vibration, which is the smallest unit of vibrational energy, and watch as this quantum of energy exchanged between the mechanical resonator and the qubit. While exchanging this energy, the qubit and resonator become “quantum entangled,” such that measuring the qubit forces the mechanical resonator to “choose” the vibrational state in which it should remain.

In a related experiment, they placed the mechanical resonator in a quantum superposition, a state in which it simultaneously had zero and one quantum of excitation. This is the energetic equivalent of an object being in two places at the same time. The researchers showed that the resonator again behaved as expected by quantum theory.

(There’s a link there to the original paper. I’m not a Nature subscriber right now so I’ve have had a chance to read it yet, but I’m looking forward to doing that once it comes out from behind the paywall.)

There’s some discussion of the experiment over on Slashdot if you’re interested in learning more.

This is so interesting because it move the bar of Quantum effects so much in one leap. As someone who has tried to think through how we appropriately use the experimentally verified Quantum theory (and its interpretations) in religion, the idea that the quantum regime is “human scale” seems to mean to me at first glance that we need to correspondingly increase the seriousness with which we approach its philosophical implications.

Quantum Physics, much more so than Relativity, says that there is no absolute.

Much of the conflict in religion today has to do with people who are called “Fundamentalists” and those who reject their ideas. But the people we call “Fundamentalists” really aren’t, at least not in the strict sense of the meaning of the word. By the traditional definition, many Episcopalians could qualify.

The real religious issue today is between the absolutists and the relativists. (Just listen the way the Roman Catholic hierarchy is blaming the ills of Western Society on the ideas of relativism and you’ll see how this is playing out.)

This experiment would strongly indicate (if it verifies) that we’re going to need to push back a bit harder on the absolutist claims. At least we are if we’re really interested in a faith that is truthful.

I want to play this out a bit more in the coming weeks here on the blog.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Judge not lest ye be judged has struck me as an a wave collapsing mechanism. It is the ongoing theme of Romans also providing a frame for the letter. Love the blog – keep it up.

  2. Modern physics has taught us that the ultimate nature of the physical world cannot be described in ordinary human language. Religious contemplatives have taught us that the ultimate nature of spiritual reality cannot be described in ordinary human language. It is fascinating to see how the mindset needed to think conceptually about the implications of quantum phenomena is very similar to the mindset needed to think conceptually about the implications of the contemplative experience. It brings to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s statement that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Sort of like a superposition of intellectual states? Lack of this ability is probably what leads to modern “Fundamentalism.”
    I am reading two books right now. In our centering prayer group we have been making our way bit-by-bit through Jesus the Teacher Within by Laurence Freeman, O.S.B., director of the World Community of Christian Meditation. I have recently also been reading The Quantum and the Lotus. This is a dialog between Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk residing at the Shechen monastery in Nepal, and Trinh Xuan Thuan, a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia (and no, I did not get those names mixed up–the Buddhist monk is French and the astrophysicist is Vietnamese). I have been finding that discussing Freeman’s book often brings to mind the concepts of quantum mechanics that are central to the dialog in The Quantum and the Lotus.
    One of the most important things that modern physics has taught us is that there is an interdependence among all things in the universe–an interdependence that can be demonstrated by observation and experiment, but that physics cannot yet completely explain.
    But perhaps the most important lesson is that even in the rigorous realm of science things are not always what they seem and things that are demonstrably true do not always make sense to our limited human reason.

  3. quantum physics is no through yet, beautiful things will be found..why does the absolute interest people so much. where do u need it.

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