TCS Daily

The Quantum Bleep

By Kenneth Silber - September 17, 2004 12:00 AM

Quantum mechanics, the physics of the extremely small, is notoriously hard to visualize, but it could provide the material for a great film. Such a film would sketch out the counterintuitive phenomena and philosophical implications of the subatomic realm. It would draw on a range of expert opinion, use modern graphics to aid the audience's imagination, and give a sense of what quantum physics tells us about our world.

Unfortunately, a film that held promise of the above turns out to be a crashing disappointment. Titled What the Bleep Do We Know?, the movie segues from a misleading presentation of quantum mechanics into a sweeping and dubious argument for New Age philosophy. Although I have seen more than my share of bad movies lately, this film, the title of which is also spelled as What the #$*! Do We Know!?, is particularly worthy of cursed objections.

What the Bleep intertwines documentary, fiction and weird imagery. In its documentary mode, scientists and other seeming experts discuss various matters of science and philosophy. (These commentators are identified only at the end of the film, and they include J.Z. Knight, who claims to "channel" an ancient spirit named Ramtha.) The fictional mode traces a couple of days in the life of Amanda, a photographer living in Oregon. The weird imagery includes scenes reminiscent of Jodie Foster's trip through a space-time wormhole in the film Contact.

The movie opens with interviewees questioning the reality of the physical universe. We are conditioned to believe, says one talking head, that the external world is more real than the internal world of thoughts and perceptions -- but science shows the opposite to be true. What's being introduced here might be called the "consciousness interpretation" of quantum mechanics. A staple of popular books on the quantum, this view holds that physical objects exist in a superposition of multiple states -- indeed, that a cat might be neither dead nor alive but both -- until a conscious observer fixes her gaze on that object.

But few physicists believe in the consciousness interpretation. Mainstream physics holds that superposition is normally limited to subatomic particles, not macroscopic objects such as cats. Nor is consciousness required to bring the fuzzy quantum world into well-defined reality. Rather, according to many physicists, the interaction of particles with other particles in their environment knocks them out of the delicate state of superposition. That mainstream view gets an oblique mention from one interviewee in What the Bleep, but this is quickly lost amid suggestions that via quantum physics we "create" the world.

Soon we are thrust into the story of Amanda. She is unhappy, ominously reaching for prescription pills. She also happens to be deaf (and is played by deaf actress Marlee Matlin). Amanda's marriage was a disaster; her husband Bob flirted brazenly with other women during the wedding ceremony and was soon caught cheating. Not surprisingly, Amanda hates assignments to photograph weddings. She also recoils from a friendly hug from her roommate Jennifer.

Amanda dreams of a shaman, and we are informed -- dubiously -- that the Caribbean natives visited by Columbus at first could not see his ships because they did not believe such ships were possible (until this shaman inferred their existence from patterns in the water). Amanda's day grows weirder. As she walks to work, a cheerful kid with a basketball insists that she shoot some hoops, and soon we see the basketball as a superposition of multiple balls. The kid pulls out a comic book titled "Dr. Quantum" and smilingly asks her "How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?"

Pretty far, it turns out. Before long, we are informed that thoughts can change the molecular structure of water, and that group meditation brought a vast drop in Washington D.C.'s crime rate. Moreover, traditional religion, as well as scientific materialism, is wrong, the talking heads inform us. God is not an entity that judges people; rather, we are all God, and good and evil do not exist. We see a priest and altar, for Amanda is now photographing a wedding. At this increasingly hallucinatory event, she sees animated figures of brain cells and chemicals. The old Robert Palmer song "Addicted to Love" is suddenly being played by musician-shaped blobs of protoplasm.

What all this has to do with quantum mechanics is anybody's guess. But somehow it leads to a newly happy Amanda, who paints pictures of hearts and flowers all over her body after taking a bath. At a theater, she sees copies of herself, one of which has a new boyfriend, and the different Amandas gaze meaningfully at each other. She soon sees herself wearing a sandwich board that advertises burgers on the front but on the back says "Make known the unknown." That, unfortunately, is a goal this movie does not fulfill.


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