Getachew’s dream

This is a guest post by Tiago Gonçalves, a third year MSci Physics with Theoretical Physics student at the University of Nottingham and a member of the ENTHUSE project team.

While I was busy being born, Getachew was busy finishing his physics degree. Now, Getachew has a dream.

After graduating he became a teacher, but he is not content with the teaching of physics in his homeland – Ethiopia. He would like all children to have access to a good physics education: less textbooks, more hands-on.

He did not keep dreaming, but got cracking. Three years ago, he took part in a physics teachers’ training course (Bill (Poole) and Christine (Cleave) came here at the time). Now, he is himself an Ethiopian National Trainer, working for the Ministry of Education.  The National Trainers instruct Regional Trainers, handing on what they learnt from sessions like those we are delivering this week, in a “cascade” process. (This is interesting wording since we are here thanks to a Cascade Grant, part of the Impact Campaign and the University of Nottingham’s grants programme).

It’s not easy, though. There are many schools in the country, and it just can’t afford to import practical physics equipment for all of them. However, Getachew believes you don’t need to have expensive equipment – physics is all around and you can use locally available materials to build your own equipment. That’s exactly what he is hoping to develop together with the other national trainers and with our help.

A physics enthusiast, twenty years after his first degree Getachew is now specializing in nuclear physics and will be supporting the Ministry of Education for a further six years. He is aware that the cascade process has disadvantages as well as advantages, so he wants to improve the system to make sure all children will have a much better experience with physics.

And after the six years? He is not sure, “God knows”. Something is certain: he will keep striving to build, day by day, a better future for physics, for his country, for his children.

Siletewaweqin dess bilognal, Ethiopia

I’m writing this from a room in the Ras Amba hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia having arrived here on Friday morning for the ENTHUSE (ENhancing THe Understanding of PhySics in Ethiopia (ENTHUSE): Student-led Outreach) project. (Please excuse the rather tortured and tortuous route to a memorable acronym for the project title. I’ve clearly written too many European grant proposals…)

ENTHUSE is a project funded largely by the University of Nottingham’s Cascade campaign but involves close collaboration and support from the Institute of Physics. I’m also very grateful to the School of Physics and Astronomy for contributing not only financially but in many other more indirect, though no-less important, ways.  The key objectives and motivations for ENTHUSE are to connect with the physics teaching community in Ethiopia, to share ideas and experience about teaching experimental physics, and, if I can quote my Head of School, to broaden “the experience for the students, involving the development of new teaching materials and demonstrations, and the delivery of that content in a completely different environment, [providing] a truly life-changing opportunity“.

I’m here in Ethiopia for the next week as a member of a team of eight comprising three undergrads (Emma Woods, Jarrod Lewis, and Tiago Goncalves) and one postgrad (Jeremy Leaf) from Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham; Christine Cleave and Bill Poole who are representing the IOP and who have enthusiastically and tirelessly driven the IOP’s Physics in Ethiopia project for the past seven years; and Sean Riley, a film-maker who works closely with Brady Haran and is responsible for the very popular Computerphile series of videos.

My aim is to provide daily updates on our time in Ethiopia via this blog. (I’ll do my best. Promise.) I also hope to upload guest posts from the students involved with ENTHUSE over the coming week.

Unfortunately, our arrival into Addis Ababa Bole airport yesterday did not initially bode well for the week ahead — Sean’s main camera (and all of its associated multi-faceted widgets) was, in essence, impounded (despite us being weighed down with the appropriate documentation, lists, letters, and visas). Luckily, however, we had a second camera with us, which Sean has ingeniously mod-ed so that the filming can go ahead. (We’re also hoping that Sean’s main camera will be released early next week.)

Today was spent exploring Addis Ababa, before we travel south to Adama tomorrow to prepare for the training course for high school physics teachers we’re running there next week. Addis Ababa is fascinating. Founded less than 150 years ago (by the Emperor Menelik II) it now has an estimated population of nearly 3.5M (although there are claims that the figure is actually closer to 5M) which, according to the Wiki page, is made up of 80 or more different nationalities speaking 80 different languages. Addis, or at least the region of Ethiopia in which its based, can also lay a strong claim to being the “birthplace” of humanity;  the skeleton of Lucy is preserved here at the National Museum of Ethiopia.

Addis is a city of deep contrasts — I was struck by the extent to which areas of relative affluence (shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants) exist practically side-by-side with shanty towns. Walking through the poorer areas of the city put all of my First World problems and concerns right into perspective; it was a humbling and unsettling — and necessarily unsettling  — experience.

We visited Entoto, a village in the suburbs of Addis Ababa close to the summit of Mount Entoto, passing by countless heavily-laden donkeys on the way there. Ethiopia has one of the highest donkey populations in the world and they are used to carry a wide range of commodities.  As discussed by Gebreab and colleagues, in Ethiopia donkeys make a major contribution to transport, and thus are a key contributor to the local economy.

An information-packed guided tour around the Emperor Menelik and Empress Taitu Memorial Museum at Entoto was followed by a visit to the Maryam Church, an octagonal construction (to represent the seven archangels + their god).

We then returned to Addis and met up with a number of the teachers who will be involved with the training programme. I’ll not tell you too much about the training programme itself for the moment, as it’ll be the focus of not only future blog posts but also a Sixty Symbols video (or two).

At this point we were all keen for a coffee break. The coffee plant originates in Ethiopia and so coffee is very much part of the culture here.  As someone with a long-standing interest in all things caffeine-related (including the deep links between coffee and quantum physics), I was particularly keen to have a coffee in the birthplace of the drink. We stopped off at a traditional Ethiopian coffee shop and sampled the local ‘brew’. Let’s just say we were not disappointed…

The day finished off with a meal at the Yod Abysinnia restaurant. As a vegetarian I was a little concerned as to the variety of food that would be available — raw meat is very popular in Ethiopia — but I needn’t have been concerned. There were plenty of vegetarian options (as part of the fasting menu). Even better than the food, however, was the traditional Ethiopian music and dance; the performances were stunning. I’ll leave you with a short clip.

Another update tomorrow, internet connection willing, when we reach Adama.






We’re flattered, but enough of the physics envy. It’s embarrassing us all.

A couple of days ago in the Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash highlighted how economics has been dangerously led astray by the baseless assumption that it’s a “hard” science like physics: When economists ignore the human factor, we all pay the price. It’s a convincing and compelling argument, and Garton Ash’s admonition of economists aspiring to the “status, certainty and predictability of physics” should be on the required reading list for all those who study and teach the dismal science.

This misplaced aspiration to reduce exceptionally complex, human issues to simplistic mathematical models, and to adopt the methodology and mindset of the physicist when it’s far from appropriate, is, however, widespread. Physics envy extends well beyond the confines of economics: the green-eyed monster is hardly a stranger in other social sciences. I’m not about to revisit the science wars  — nor am I about to loftily suggest that physics (and, more generally, the physical sciences) is purer-than-pure when it comes to peer review or its ability to sniff out a hoax — but Garton Ash’s article appeared just as I had finished reading a very recent, highly lauded, and exceptionally frustrating example of the misapplication of physics concepts in social science. It seems that, twenty years on from Sokal’s hoax, the social sciences still too often remain in thrall to their physical counterparts.

I can’t quite remember where I first read about Alexander Wendt‘s book, “Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology” but I suspect it was via Twitter (before I retired my account). It’s published by Cambridge University Press (so it’s got their imprimatur of adademic quality), and the reviews at their website are glowing: “a book of speculative grand theorising that is sadly lacking in the social sciences today”; “For most social scientists, all that Wendt takes us through will be a revelation. Wendt’s discussion of this material is just fabulous,”; “The author takes a courageous stance on a number of deep and difficult issues in philosophy of mind.”

Despite the title, I tried to give Wendt’s book the benefit of the doubt. I really did. And, to be fair, at times he does a fairly good job of outlining the history, the underpinnings, and the philosophical ramifications of quantum physics, including such challenging aspects as Bell’s inequalities, the EPR paradox, and entanglement. But there’s this right at the start of the book (p.3):

In this book I explore the possibility that this foundational assumption of social science [that we live in a world of classical physics] is a mistake, by re-reading social science “through the quantum”. More specifically, I argue that human beings and therefore social life exhibit quantum coherence — in effect that we are walking wave functions. I intend the argument not as as an analogy of metaphor, but as a realist claim about what people really are“. (Emphasis mine).


Just no.

This, the central theme of Wendt’s book (which runs to 293 pages excluding references), is demonstrably incorrect. We are not phase-coherent wavefunctions. Phase coherent interference of quantum mechanical pathways is the bedrock of quantum physics. As Feynman put it in the context of the double slit experiment: “We choose to examine a phenomenon which is impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality, it contains the only mystery.

If we were indeed walking wavefunctions then all of those quantum mechanical effects that we see at the single particle level would apply to our macroscopic world. And they clearly don’t. One of the very first concepts that physics undergrads (or, indeed, physics A-level students) encounter in their study of quantum mechanics is the de Broglie wavelength. There’s an exceptionally  simple relationship between the quantum mechanical wavelength of a particle/object (λ) and its momentum (p) which goes like this:

λ = h/p

where is Planck’s constant. (Apologies to the physicists who may be reading. You might want to skip forward a bit. There’s a ranty bit towards the end). For a typical human at typical walking speeds, that wavelength is not just negligibly small, it’s utterly beyond negligibly small. I’ll leave you to do the sums. (I’ll note in passing that “de Broglie wavelength” is not an entry in the index of Wendt’s book).

If we were walking wavefunctions of the type Wendt proposes then we would see the same type of interference effects in our everyday life that happen at the single particle level. We would diffract when we walk through doorways. We would be able to tunnel through walls without expending any energy. That blasted cat would indeed be simultaneously dead and alive.

(Edit 07/02/16:: I should clarify that even if humans were phase-coherent wavefunctions, and all other physics remained the same, the probability for tunnelling through a wall would still be unimaginably tiny. However, it’s clear from Wendt’s arguments that all other physics wouldn’t remain the same…)

But we don’t, and it isn’t. And the reason we don’t is exceptionally simple: we live in a world of classical physics. Wendt disputes this: “It has long been assumed that quantum effects wash out statistically, leaving the decohered world described by classical physics as an adequate approximation of macroscopic reality“.  But it’s not an assumption — it’s demonstrably the case that quantum effects “wash out statistically” as the system size/degrees of freedom/temperature increase. A vast amount of experimental data (coupled with an extremely well-developed mathematical framework) clearly shows this. No assumption necessary — there’s oodles of exceptionally strong evidence that demonstrates that human beings do not behave like quantum particles.

Moreover, we spend a great deal of time in undergraduate lectures teaching students to take the appropriate limit so that a quantum problem reduces to the classical situation (or a relativistic problem reduces to a classical scenario). One illuminating example is the case of Planck’s formula for the average energy per mode of blackbody radiation (to which Wendt refers on p.44 of his book) — this reduces to the classical formula (which is simply kT) in the appropriate limit(s). It is beyond misleading to suggest that it is only an “assumption” that quantum effects are washed out in the macroscopic world. There’s enough quantum woo out there from the likes of Deepak Chopra without accomplished academics such as Wendt (and prestigious academic publishers such as Cambridge University Press) adding to it.

Social science is important – it provides key insights into human behaviour and addresses questions that are beyond the scope of the physical sciences. I enjoy interacting and collaborating with my colleagues in social science both at Nottingham and elsewhere and gain a great deal from our discussions. But I’ll be brutally honest. I know for a fact that there are many in the “hard” sciences (and elsewhere) who would argue that the funding of social science is a waste of money and that it could be much better spent elsewhere. Misappropriating ideas from quantum mechanics in an attempt to ride on the coat-tails of the (highly successful) intellectual framework underpinning physics does social science no favours at all.

We physicists still don’t understand what the vast majority of the universe is made up of. So don’t envy us — pity us. And try to follow xkcd’s advice the next time you see “quantum” used outside a physics context…

Science proves nothing

If you’re not a regular viewer of the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live — perhaps, like me, you’ve facepalmed your way through an episode before and sworn off it for life — you may have missed the following astounding revelation on this week’s programme:

I found out about this from Kash Farooq, of Nottingham Skeptics, in the middle of an e-mail exchange about the next Skeptics In The Pub event, at which Kash has very kindly invited me to speak. I’ve titled my talk “The Wow! and Woo of Quantum Physics” and I’m planning to spend a cathartic (for me, at least), and possibly somewhat vitriolic, forty minutes or so venting my spleen on the type of quantum quackpottery highlighted by the video above. (If you’d like to listen to the entire Sunday Morning Live discussion it’s available (for now) via the BBC iPlayer. It’s worth it for Steve Jones‘ contributions.).

In what could be an holistic, quantum-entangled correlation spanning universal spacetime — or just possibly a coincidence — I was also contacted very recently by the dynamic duo of Tim Brownson and Olivier Larvor to ask whether I could talk about quantum woo for their Raw Voices podcast. (They’d watched this Sixty Symbols video from a couple of years back,  yet, despite that very far from polished performance, still invited me on). That’s going to happen this Friday and after the podcast I’ll write a post dedicated to the utter lunacy that is quantum life coaching.

Yes, you read that right. Quantum. Life. Coaching. Here’s one example. And another. And this was especially irritating.

(For those of you who are familiar with So Long And Thanks For All The Fish and/or the Quandary Phase of H2G2, the fact that quantum life coaching is a thing could very well be my Wonko The Sane moment…)

For now, however, it’s the idea that science proves anything, let alone the existence of an afterlife, that I’d like to briefly address. The net is awash with assertions that science has proved (or disproved) just about everything from the (non-)existence of a god to the fact that exercise is poisonous [1]. Comments threads erupt into flame wars on the basis that “It’s been scientifically proven that…”. I’ve also had my fair share of scientific papers to review where the authors have claimed that their experimental results “definitively prove” that their theoretical model is correct.

But science proves nothing. All scientific results are provisional and tentative; science progresses via a succession of ever-better guesses/explanations. As we get more and more evidence for a particular explanation then our confidence in that model grows accordingly. Science, however, is not mathematics: there are no proofs. (And even in maths, there are different classes of proof…)

I discuss this distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning as part of the Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics module here at Nottingham [2] and refer the students to this important and provocative article by Carlo Rovelli: Science Is Not About Certainty. I’ll quote Rovelli at length because he really hammers home the key point.

The very expression “scientifically proven” is a contradiction in terms. There’s nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices.

…we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far. It’s the most credible we have found so far; it’s mostly correct.

Science is a continual challenging of common sense, and the core of science is not certainty, it’s continual uncertainty—I would even say, the joy of being aware that in everything we think, there are probably still an enormous amount of prejudices and mistakes, and trying to learn to look a little bit beyond, knowing that there’s always a larger point of view to be expected in the future.    

Edit 09:48, 19 August 2015 — This great article by Geraint Lewis, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sydney, on the same subject was brought to my attention via Twitter: Where’s the proof in science? There is none.

1. This, of course, needs no scientific study. It’s a self-evident truth.
2. I’m gearing up to update this for the upcoming academic year and am planning a series of blog posts and videos on the themes in the module.