Wednesday 19 January 2011

Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen!

One of the more depressing trends of recent years has been the collapse of TV comedy, a field in which the UK once lead the world (think Monty Python, Blackadder, The Fast Show, Green Wing). It's not lack of volume but of quality and tone: ever since Little Britain the mental age of the comics has been following a roughly parabolic downward trajectory*. However rescue is at hand, and from the a unlikely direction - Horizon.

The much hyped episode What Is Reality? (shown on January 17th 2011) showed us a bunch of bleeding-edge particle physicists musing about what the universe really consists of, all of them in thrall to the now-over-familiar paradoxes generated by the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. We saw an Austrian gentleman with a magnificent beard perform the two-slit experiment yet again, and go into a swoon of confusion over "where is the photon now" that would have done credit to a three-card trickster in Oxford Street. It all got weirder and weirder, but in the phony way of those old Outer Limits programs of the '60s. Perhaps our 3D reality is actually a hologram pasted on the fence that surrounds the universe (I can't remember whether that was the one with the ponytail or not...) What Horizon really demonstrated wasn't so much the relationship between quantum theory and metaphysics as the relationship between TV commissioning editors and brainy men with ponytails. A million students in a million halls of residence passed the bong and gasped in awe.

Of course the highlight was another run through of the faintly ludicrous Many Worlds Hypothesis, in which every act of observation splits the universe so that both possibilities happen. This is the perfect physical underpinning for the spectacular consumer society: if you stare at the shirts in Ermenegildo Zegna's window, the universe splits into several worlds in each of which you're wearing a different one of them! Wow! There's another world in which the Coalition didn't win the election and isn't about to dismantle the National Health Service! Phew! The only problem is that our pathetic consciousness appears to remain stuck in just one of these worlds, though pharmacology has the potential to fix that once they legalise lysergic acid derivatives and tweak those molecules a bit.

I used to wonder when the physics community would finally dump the Copenhagen Interpretation and re-examine those wave models favoured by Einstein and Schrodinger. I now realise that can never happen because it would cut off their easy entrĂ©e into show business. 

* Peep Show is the exception that highlights the rule.

1 comment:

  1. Can students today still afford weed? Times clearly aren't that hard then;-) So why don't we get them to pay more for dossing around? Oh hang on...


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In 2021 I began to write a sequel to Sampling Reality, my book that outlined a materialist theory of mind and perception, published in Kindl...