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Write Now with Scrivener, Episode no. 30: Sean Carroll, Quantum Physicist

Sean Carroll is a quantum physicist who has written several books explaining the complexity of his topic to general readers. His latest book, The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Vol. 1: Space, Time, and Motion, explores the field of classical mechanics, including Einstein's theory of relativity.

Show notes:

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Quantum physics is, to most of us, an arcane subject. One interesting thing about quantum physics is that some experts say that no one really understands it. Sean Carroll says, "it's not that no one person understands it, but that no one person thinks that anyone else understands it. We don't understand quantum mechanics at a deep level yet. I don't want to give the wrong impression: we can use quantum mechanics extremely well, we can make predictions, we can verify them. We just don't agree on what's going on."

I pointed out that my cat Titus was irked by the many quantum physicists who like to put cats in boxes and either kill them or not kill them. (Referring to the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment.) Sean said, "my friend, Jim Hartle, who is a famous quantum physicist, had dinner with one of Erwin Schrodinger's daughters. His daughter said, 'I think my father just didn't like cats.' When I present the thought experiment, I change it to one where the cat is in a superposition of being awake and being asleep. The physics setup is exactly the same, but you don't have to kill the cat, even if it's just a thought experiment cat."

In Sean's book, Something Deeply Hidden, he says that "The enigma at the heart of quantum reality can be summed up in a simple motto: what we see when we look at the world seems to be fundamentally different from what actually is." I suggested that this suggests that quantum mechanics is also a form of philosophy.

"Philosophy is certainly very helpful in trying to understand it," Sean said. "I think that there's always a role for philosophy in certain kinds of scientific experiments or certain kinds of scientific inquiry. When we think about deep questions: how did the universe begin? What are space and time? Why is there a difference between the past and the future? What is quantum mechanics really telling us about reality? These are questions that are 100% scientific, but they're also 100% philosophical. So I think that the smart attitude here is to take the best of both approaches and see if we can make progress."

Sean's latest book is - The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Vol. 1: Space, Time, and Motion. One of the selling points for this book is that it contains equations in opposition to Stephen Hawking's famous book, A Brief History of Time, which was advertised "contains no equations, easy to read."

Sean said, "The goal is to show you the real equations that physicists actually use and talk you through them, explain what all the symbols mean, explain what concepts they refer to, so that you can really understand at a literal level, not just a metaphorical level, what's going on with these ideas."

Sean has been using Scrivener for a long time. "I wrote my first ever popular book, From Eternity to Here, without Scrivener. And it was just a nightmare. Then I discovered Scrivener and my life has been completely changed. There's two things that I love. One is that I have one document with all my different files in it, all my different chapters, all my different notes. It's so easy - because I do this - to move around a chapter, to realize that chapter ten really should be chapter eight. A book, when you're writing it, is too large to fit in your brain all at once. There's just too much stuff. So you need that ability to switch things around. And the other thing, of course, is that my books involve research. So there's papers, there's figures, and I can store them there in the same Scrivener document, look at them without searching. When you write my kinds of books that are big and complicated and involve a lot of moving parts, Scrivener is absolutely a godsend."

I asked Sean what he thinks of science fiction movies, especially those involving time travel, if the science is wrong. "I don't mind people bending the laws of physics, I do mind them bending the laws of logic. I think that you should tell a good story. That's what I think is the primary goal of making a movie or writing a novel. And I also think that the best stories make sense."

But he said that he's ever thought of writing a novel. "I would love to do it someday. I do have daydreams about it. I also have various nonfiction books I've got to get out of the way first."

Sean Carroll is Homewood Professor of Natural Philosophy at Johns Hopkins, and Fractal Faculty at the Santa Fe Institute.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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