Shut up and Calculate

This is the advice that many physicists give to students when they ask unanswerable questions about quantum mechanics. As atheist physicist Sean Carroll points out, the mysteries of quantum theory do not need to be understood in order to use the reality of the science to make things like cell phones and computers, to see how plants can achieve such impossibly high efficiency levels in the conversion of sunlight to useful energy, and to understand that our world is complex beyond the limits of ordinary reason. The math works, meaning that using it to calculate how electrons and photons move and behave gives us the results we need, even if quantum superposition, the uncertainty principle, and the observer effect simply make no sense. What Carroll and other physicists are saying is that some mysteries just need to be left alone and accepted.

In my senior year in college, I took physical chemistry (I was a chemistry major), one of the toughest courses I ever had. For the final exam we were told to solve the Schrödinger equation for the hydrogen atom. By a stroke of good luck (or God’s favor, which I didn’t believe in then), I had memorized the equation and learned what the terms meant. I made a stab at it. My final product was far from perfect, but it earned me a grade on the exam of 40%, which was the highest in the class. I got an A in the course, the best I ever did in chemistry (I was a mediocre student at best).

At the time I had not the faintest idea that there was anything remotely mysterious, let alone mystical, about the Schrödinger equation, or about any other part of quantum mechanics. I knew that molecular orbital energies were not continuous but came in discreet packets, but I never considered the implications of that experimental finding, and didn’t think about the enormous significance of Planck’s constant back then.

Several decades later, when I was learning about Christianity from a priest, I asked him how the Trinity could make sense. He told me, “There are many answers to this question, but I think the ultimate answer is that it’s a mystery.” I found that answer very satisfying since it reminded me of the mysteries of QM. Perhaps one way of putting it could be: Shut up and pray.

Of course, there is a big difference between the two. In physics and all of science, mystery is not something to be taken lightly. Since the dawn of the age of reason, the prevalent idea was always that there are no actual mysteries; that all will eventually be revealed sometime in the future by further scientific research. As Christians, we know that a complete revelation will happen. It will happen when the New Kingdom of God comes to us; when we, like Jesus, are resurrected in body and soul—as the song goes, “when the new world is revealed.”

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9 Responses to Shut up and Calculate

  1. Organic chemistry caused the big re-think in my Pre Med. Much easier working with a single atom. Better yet, with no electrons clouding up things.

    I never liked Copenhagen, though I have no problem questioning “realism”. Max Planck concluded his assessment of modern physics with the statement that it,“…impresses us particularly with the truth of the old doctrine which teaches that there are realities existing apart from our sense perceptions…”
    As with “many worlds”, however, appealing to Copenhagen leaves us with no hope of developing any confidence in our assessments as signifying anything more than some local bubble of coherent experience. And dispensing with those, QM always seems to leave us with two, ironically opposing possibilities:
    A) Free will bends an entire, non-local universe to its power.
    B) The universe is superdeterministic.

    I don’t argue against prayer, or even that it may be answered. I was able to talk to my father in dreams for years after he died, during a time when I really needed him to be there. I don’t question my experiences. It’s simply that an interpretation of the source of those experiences always leads to two, diametrically opposing possibilities. Choosing one, either in my case, is Kierkegaard’s challenge, as how does faith precede the leap in a rational mind?

  2. dgilmanjm says:

    I also studies Physical Chemistry and still find it fascinating. I didn’t get “Schrödinger equation for the hydrogen atom”, but the uncertainty involved with the quantum theory still gives me problems. In fact, I even had to re-design a radio I built because electrons kept appearing where they were not expected. I couldn’t really totally eliminate the problem; I had to use a circuit that reduced the probability to almost zero.

    Regarding the Trinity Doctrine, I had rejected it from I was a child of 8 years old. It was not because it is a mystery, but because it is illogical. Jesus worshipped God, so they cannot both be God. Other reasons came to me as I became a teenager and then an adult. Jesus did not know the time of the end, but God knew (Matt 24:36); John chapter 5 is mostly Jesus explaining and proving that God is the one who taught him and gave him instructions that he obeys; he never acts on his own initiative.

  3. Sverre Holm says:

    It’s fascinating with the imaginary unit, i, in the Schrödinger equation. Until now it has been believed that it was just a convention for making the calculations simpler like it is in other equations. But if a recent finding will stand scrutiny, it seems to be fundamental for describing nature. This makes quantum mechanics even more mysterious: it even requires “i” – an imaginary numbers. See

  4. chrisfalter says:

    Prayer is a mystery as deep as quantum superposition, but every bit as attractive.

  5. 0xblowfish says:

    Hello Dr. Garte,
    I also find QM very fascinating. Interestingly enough when you look at heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (Whom you quote in your book as he was a Christian) you could argue that the uncertainty would make sense in a world with a maximally great being. Since humans have a limited knowledge being able to understand God completely is impossible. This might be a terrible argument but it’s something I thought of! Hope all is well. God bless. 🙂

  6. Paul says:

    I am so glad, that I discovered your YouTube video. This is because I have many questions. I believe in the Bible, but there are questions about some of the “stories” in the Bible. (I put the word “stories” in quotes, not knowing a better word). What amazes me about the Bible, is how much of it is in fact coherent with science as we know science today. So the question is, could prophets ln the era of Moses have on their own, have so much insight to write these “stories”? Example: the “story” of the creation: could a person at that time have so much insight, to get the sequence of events so scientific and perfectly correct? As it is written, on day one light is created. Light is energy and the famous formula comes to mind e = m * c * c. This is followed on day four, by the planets in our solar system. Therefore energy is transformed into matter. Could a person in the time of Moses, or the Hebrew priests get this order scientifically correct, WITHOUT Devine inspiration? As a believer, I say no. So the “story” of the creation is in fact coherent with the Big Bang theory? This says a lot about the Bible. It says that the Bible is a book that could be understood by people of ALL intellectual abilities. The retarded could understand it as a “story” and the highly learned scientist could say: “That is a poetic version of the Big Bang theory”. It requires special abilities to write something like the Bible.

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