Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 5, 2011

With Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, Is Newtonian Mechanics Irrelevant?


Introduction

I listen to a lot of paranormal and anti-science material. I do it to keep up with what “the other side” thinks and does. And get blog ideas. One such is the radio show / podcast is entitled “Dreamland” which “takes you to the edge of reality.” Or just past it altogether.

The show is run by Whitley Streiber with occasional guest hosts Anne Streiber (his wife), Jim Marrs (a huge conspiracy nut perhaps best known for his “work” on the JFK assassination), Marla Frees, and sometimes others.

Enough background — this post is about a side comment made by the Mrs. Streiber on the just-out Dreamland episode, “The God Theory.” In actuality, I had little issue with the bulk of the episode, it’s really Mrs. Streiber’s remark early on that got me and is the subject of this post. It also delves a bit into the nature of science.

The Remark

This statement starts around 1 min 35 sec into the episode.

Mrs. Streiber: “I know a tiny bit about quantum physics. I have a layman’s understanding of it which we’re all going to have to have eventually because the type of science most of us were taught in school – Newtonian – is not relevant anymore, it’s not the way the world works.”

Epsilon

I heard a talk given by the “Bad Astronomer,” Phil Plait, a few months ago, entitled something along the lines of, “The Final Epsilon.” Epsilon, actually epsilon (lower-case), is the Greek letter that looks like ε. In physics and math, ε is used to mean “a very little bit.” For example, I wrote a recipe that calls for 1 part butter, 4+ε parts peanut butter, and 8-ε parts powdered sugar. In other words, it needs a little bit more than 4 parts peanut butter, and a little less than 8 parts powdered sugar.

Dr. Plait’s thesis was effectively, in skepticism, what is our “final ε?” In science, we can never prove anything 100%. We can never disprove something 100%. Similarly, in modern scientific skepticism, we can never disprove someone’s claim 100%. Despite every debunked alleged psychic, we can never prove 100% that psychic powers are not possible.

The discussion during Dr. Plait’s talk was, though, at what point do we say for all practical purposes we have disproved something? After debunking dozens upon dozens of astrologers and their claims and their methods, even though scientifically I can’t say astrology is 100% Taurus (see what I did there?), I could say it’s 99.9999% bull. And if I’m so close, just 0.0001% away from absolute Truth, am I willing – for all practical purposes – to say that that is my ε and I have effectively proven it to be false?

Tying These Two Together

Now you might be thinking, “Gee, that’s fascinating and I love me some good calculus, but what does this have to do with whether Newton is okay or if I have to learn QM?” I’m glad you asked.

Another point that Phil mentioned in his talk is that the concept of the “final ε” is just as applicable to how we view the world through physics. Newton’s Law of Gravity works in our every-day world. It very accurately describes what will happen if I drop a screaming baby who won’t stop screaming in the middle of the night in the apartment above me bowling ball off a tall building. It very accurately describes the motion of the moon around Earth and through our sky. We use Newton’s laws to figure these things out and how a rocket will fly.

But Newton’s Law of Gravity is wrong to some extent. Einstein’s Relativity corrects that very small error – an error that is only measurable with incredibly accurate instruments and/or when around very massive objects. But that is not our everyday world.

In gravity, Einstein was Newton’s ε. And likely, in the future, someone else will be Einstein’s ε. That’s the nature of science. It progresses as we learn more and more about the universe around us and of which we are a part.

That brings me back to Mrs. Streiber’s remark, which by now you have hopefully figured out why I took issue with it. Yes, Quantum Mechanics provides a more accurate model of the world. And if you wanted to and had supercomputers many orders of magnitude more powerful than today’s best, you could describe a common every-day object as an ensemble of wave equations (seeing as it takes weeks to figure out how to derive even helium – an atom with two protons – in QM class in college, this is not a trivial problem!).

But, if you do that, you will find that beyond all meaningful measurements, classical physics comes up with the same answer. Yes, quantum mechanics is necessary to describe some things in physics, such as the energy spectrum produced by stars, or the photoelectric effect. But it is not used to figure out how to drive a car from home to work, why a volcano erupts, or why a pen can lay ink down on paper.

Final Thoughts

No, Mrs. Streiber, Newtonian mechanics is still relevant and for most practical purposes it is the way the world works. The ε in Newtonian physics is not as large as you think.

2 Comments »

  1. “In gravity, Einstein was Newton’s ε.” That is clever.

    Comment by TheTempestSpark — August 5, 2011 @ 6:00 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, but I do have to give credit to Phil for that one.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — August 5, 2011 @ 6:00 pm | Reply


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