Field of Science

Oversharing and zero point energy wands: pseudoscience in the NY Times

While poking around the other day for some general reading material on the zero point energy, I discovered zero point energy wands (which claim to access not my favorite flavor of zero point energy —molecular vibrational — but the zero point energy field of the universe).  A few hours later someone sent me a link to this piece in the NY Times about spiritual cleansing of living spaces (and quotes one of the practitioners on how quantum physics explains it all, see page 2).  I suspect it is time to add another section to my quantum mechanics course. No, no, not instruction on proper wanding can find that here....but perhaps a brief conversation about how to get a handle on unpacking pseudoscience that has been cloaked in quantum physics jargon and responding to it is in order.

I suspect that when confronted with examples of psuedoscience, most chemists are like me, we jump into lecture mode.  Partly because we think the way the world works is so fascinating, we can't wait to share.  Partly because we think that if we share what we know (and so much of science is about sharing everything from space to materials to results) then people will see the universe works the way we see it works.  Face it, we overshare.

So how to respond, and more to the point, how do I help my students respond?  I wrote a piece recently offering some practical advice on combatting chemophobia for chemists (Nature Chemistry 5439–440 (2013), $).  The short version is watch your language, this is not the moment to play the "I call salt sodium chloride" card (even if you do have a jar labeled NaCl(s) on your kitchen counter) and to listen, to try to suss out whether this is a conversation that at its root is about politics or parenting where the science is secondary, this may not be a teachable moment.

But what about language when the jargon is flying the other way?  The book on wanding (which despite enormous temptation, I did not download onto my iPad) throws around words like "scalar" and "phase-locked" and "zero point energy" with abandon, but the meanings have shifted.  Sometime subtly, sometimes they are utterly scrambled.  How can you have a conversation where the words are the same, but the languages incompatible?

Some thoughts from ChemBark about combatting chemophobia on a broad level.
Sciencegeist hosts a festival unpacking the mysteries of toxic (and not) chemicals
Science Online 2013 takes on chemophobia
And finally, an non-science article from the NY Times that gets the science right: the venerable Harold McGee on wine wands (no zero point energy invoked!)

Quantum quivering

One thing that still stuns me about quantum mechanics is the notion that all molecular motion does not cease at zero degrees Kelvin (despite what you might read in your intro chemistry book).  Quantum mechanics tells us that when molecules vibrate, they can only do so at certain frequencies -- or energies.  Fascinatingly, the ground state vibrational energies (the lowest vibrational energy state a molecule can be) are not zero.  The molecules continue to vibrate, not matter how cold you get the system, you can never freeze out that vibrational energy.  Nor is the so-called "zero-point energy" of a molecule negligible.  The zero point energy of water is about 7 times as large as the thermal (translational) energy at room temperature).   I imagine all these water molecules arrayed in the solid, gently breathing, no matter how much energy you suck out of the system, they keep on vibrating.

Fine, fine, atoms are quantum mechanical objects and I'm willing to believe that the rules are a bit different in this realm, but surely such things are not true of macroscopic object?  Physicists Amir Safavi-Naeini and Oskar Painter have shown that objects far larger than atoms exhibit this quantum effect.  Watch the video to see how they did it!

While looking for a basic reference on zero point energy to link to, I discovered zero point energy wands...but that's a tale for another day!