This is the WASTED BLOG. For my main author website, click this link.

Awards: WASTED won the Read it or Else category in the Coventry Award and was runner-up in the North East Book Award. It is longlisted for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Manchester, Grampian, Angus, and RED Awards.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010


The first thing you need to know is that I am no scientist. Utterly useless, I am. You think I’m exaggerating? Well, my last science report at school said, “Nicola has absolutely no aptitude for science subjects.” So, I gave up. Well, I was probably planning to give up anyway, but then I certainly did, much to the relief of all concerned.

So, it’s not very easy for me to try to explain anything sciencey to you, especially something so weird and extraordinary that it actually doesn't make sense, even to scientists: quantum physics. (There's a video coming at the end of this post which I think explains it really well, but bear with me while I try... Oh, and apologies if I seem to be speaking very simply: this is for my brain's benefit, not because I think you won't understand!)

Here are some things that I do understand about quantum physics:
  • It’s the science of VERY small things, smaller than atoms, smaller than I can imagine.
  • These particles are called quanta (the plural of quantum).
  • Even a quantum is not the smallest thing – each quantum is made of gluons, quarks, protons and electrons.
  • Quanta do not behave like other particles – they follow very different rules.
  • Scientists don’t fully know what those rules are.
  • But they have some theories.
One theory (which I believe they have proved - and the video you'll see later seems to show how) about quanta is that they change / move when they are observed – SO, we cannot predict where one will be at any time because the act of finding it will change where it is or how fast it moves.

That is "Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle": that you cannot simultaneously know the position and speed of a quantum particle, because it moves by being observed: in other words, the act of trying to measure its position changes it.

This theory was HUGELY important because before that we had assumed that every particle’s position was a) measurable and b) governed by physical laws and all we had to do was know the position and movement of every particle and then we could know what it would do. For example, if we knew everything that would affect the way a coin was spun, we could know which way it would land.

The Uncertainty Principle tells us that we cannot know, not even logically, not in theory or practice or even if we had infinite power. Because everything changes. And it's very important in Wasted, even though (thankfully) I never mention it.

The video below explains why scientists believe this and some of what it means.

One confusing and famous consequence of quantum theory is the Schrodinger's Cat paradox, but that will have to wait till Saturday because I'm now exhausted by all this science and need to go and lie down in a darkened room. On Saturday I will attempt to explain it, so please don't go and mess things up by telling me anything about it in your comments, otherwise I may have to do something nasty to the cat.

While I go and lie down, take a look at this video. I don’t know about you, but it really helps me a) understand b) see just how weird this all is c) see why scientists are fascinated by it.

Oh, and c) it makes me very glad I’m not a scientist. But then, after all, I have no aptitude for science.

Except that I did write two books about the brain! Hooray for teachers saying I am useless...


fairyhedgehog said...

I love the first part of that video, which I hadn't seen before.

I always get a bit irritated by the implication that matter "knows" it's being "watched". The experimental results may be difficult to understand but they don't mean that matter can think!

India Drummond said...

Wow, for someone non-sciency, that was a pretty sciency post! Hee... good stuff.

catdownunder said...

Nicola you promised me you would not do anything nasty to a cat, any cat and especially to Spike!!!
Cats are not scaredy cats...they are brave and bold and intelligent and highly intuitive and look after humans in ways the humans know nothing about. (It is why they need nine lives.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Fairyhedgehog - agreed. I get annoyed by anthropomorphic interpretations of the selfish gene theory, which is something I read a lot about (or did) - the idea that genes are trying to do anything at all, implying that they have will. Sometimes, in scientists' explanations, the simplification preys too much on our natural inclination towards finding pattern, sense and a human dimension. We're not very good at thinking outside the box that is our head, are we?

Nicola Morgan said...

India - phew!

Nicola Morgan said...

cat - don't worry, i won't! And, to reassure you and Spike, only humans are scaredy cats.

SueG said...

Oh, I do love this stuff - so much that I wrote my own novel, "Tangled Roots," all about it and the life of a physicist. But the research was incredibly hard. Every time I thought I understood something, I'd have to go back and relearn it minutes later. It led to my including a glossary in the back.

womagwriter said...

Oh I love quantum physics! Completely and deliciously mind-blowing.

Colette said...

Very cool video. So, are we to take from this that in Wasted something happens differently than expected because someone (or something) is observing? (just guessing as I still unable to get my hands on this surely wonderful book in the US).

jjdebenedictis said...

It annoys me scientists never explain what is meant by "observing" in this context; it's like they're trying to play up the ooky-spooky magical-seeming phenomenon of the quantum world.

At the quantum level, observing something means bouncing another particle off it. It's not a passive activity.

Of course bashing one object with another object will change the first object's behaviour. The path of the marbles would also change if you were "observing" them by smashing them with a hammer.

fairyhedgehog said...

Yay, go jj! That annoys me too. Is it the scientists who say this though, or the popularisers?

jjdebenedictis said...

FairyHedgehog: Probably the populizers, but it's been going on so long I really think (we) scientists should have squawked loudly to correct that perception by now.

Hence, I am a lone voice squawking in the wilderness.

Nik Perring said...

That video has left me both curious and confused!

Nicola Morgan said...

SueG - mmm, sounds interesting. Must investigate.

jj - many thanks for that - always annoying for the experts when people (incl me) take soundbites, and misunderstand them. But I wonder why scientists (and they do) DO use this expression every time. Isn't it also fair to say that "bashing one object with another object" paints a similarly simplistic and unhelpful (to lay people)description of the act of measuring a particle's position? Just wondering. We all do want to understand, really! So, I would really love you to squawk as loudly as you like as long as you can help me understand exactly what's happening that's so weird - because if it wasn't weird scientists wouldn't be so exercised by it (eg Einstein refusing to accept it). help!

Colette - who knows?! Re Wasted being available in the US: my UK publishers have US rights and will be trying to sell them in the US. Until then, we are tied. But you can (I think) get it from the Book Depository and I think postage is free anywhere in the world.

Womag - I agree! But i also hope jj can make it seem less mind-blowing.

Colette said...

Yeah, I think that worked! I believe my book has been dispatched.

womagwriter said...

Well I fell asleep last night thinking about probability waves. You can't observe a probability, you can only observe an event, therefore the particle HAS to resolve itself to be observed. I think.
: -/

Anonymous said...

As a physicist, I feel I must correct what is perhaps the most misleading error in your explanation, which was otherwise a reasonable one. There is no such particle named "quantum". The word quantum is used because there are many properties of elementary particles that are only "allowed" to have discrete values, according to the theory. It is the property values (such as energy or momentum) that are quantised.

I won't attempt to nit-pick any of the rest, nor the video.