“Nobody Understands Quantum Mechanics”

To start the new year with a smile I thought to follow up on my previous post about importing concepts from other languages/cultures with a short, light, story.

As an undergrad in Physics and Computer Science at the Hebrew University our TA gave us a short story when we learned about Quantum Physics. The humorous story, dealing with our trouble in truly grasping it, was written by a famous Israeli novelist named Etgar Keret based on a quote from Feynman. While the pains with Quantum Physics are famously universal Keret’s humor in that story is distinctly Israeli. A few years ago I decided to make a free translation of the story, aiming to maintain the spirit/humor for non Israeli readers. Not sure how well it turned out, but since I really like the story I thought I’ll post it here for posterity…

“I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” ~Richard Feynman
(A free translation of a short story by Etgar Keret)

“It’s your family name”, the psychiatric told Quantum. “You know, `Mechanics`, everybody sort of expects something simple that they can relate to, like a ball falling off a high building or a canon ball shooting through the sky”.

– “I can’t do much about that”, said Quantum.
– “Well then”, said the psychiatrist, “Maybe try to communicate yourself better?”

What a great advice that was. Quantum started by trying to make amends with his old friend from grad school, Albert. “Perfect timing” he thought as he walked over to Albert’s house, “Yom Kippur* is coming up”.

– “I’m not home,” shouted Einstein from behind a closed door, “go play with your dice”.
– “But it is Yom Kippur” tried Quantum.
– “Not where I’m at” came the answer, and Quantum knew better than to argue with Albert about relative points of view. Then, on the way back home, people kept stepping over him on the subway. That’s what you get for being so small.

But forget the size – no matter what he says it seems people just don’t get him. He can go unnoticed on everyday life but then say something innocent like “wow, did you see that cat?” and right away there are news breaks that he’s making provocations again and reporters rush to interview Schrodinger about it. The media has been awful in portraying him. It started when he was once interviewed in Science and said that the observer affects the observed event. All the journalists immediately thought he was talking politics, trying to avoid an objective discussion about the Middle East, the economy, or what not.

Probably the worst is most people think Quantum is heartless, that he has no feelings, but that’s just not true. On Friday, after a documentary on Hiroshima, he was on the expert panel. And he couldn’t even speak. Just sat in front of the open mic and cried, and all of the viewers at home, that don’t really know Quantum, couldn’t see that Quantum was crying. They just thought he was avoiding the question. And the sad thing about it all is that even if Quantum writes dozens of letters to the editors of all the scientific journals in the world and proves beyond any doubt that for the atomic bomb thing he was just being used and he never thought it would end this way, it wouldn’t help him. Because nobody really understands Quantum Mechanics. Least of all the physicists. Ask Feynman.

*Yom Kippur: the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people.


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