Quantum physics defies our physical intuition about how the world is supposed to work. In the quantum world, objects resist such classical banalities as “position” and “speed,” particles are waves and waves are particles, and the act of observing seems to change the system being observed
But what if we could develop a “quantum intuition” that would make this all seem as natural as an apple falling from a tree?
Physical intuition starts developing early, long before we ever encounter Newton’s laws on a blackboard. “Babies have a few skeletal principles that are built in to the brain and help them reason about and predict how objects should act and interact in the world,” says Kristy vanMarle, an infant cognition researcher at the University of Missouri.
They understand, for instance, that objects can’t pass through each other, a notion that’s at odds with a quantum effect called tunneling, which allows objects to slip through barriers that, in the classic world, would be impenetrable.
Presented with demonstrations in which objects appear to materialize inside closed boxes and pass through solid walls, babies consistently stare longer at these “magic” shows than they do at demos in which boxes act like boxes. Psychologists Susan Hespos (now at Northwestern University) and Renee Baillargeon (University of Illinois) found that this physical intuition kicks in as early as two and a half months, and vanMarle and her colleagues think that it is probably present from birth.
Babies also intuitively grasp that objects exist even when you’re not looking at them, a concept called “object permanence” that goes against the classic Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which an object can’t be said to have any definite properties until the moment at which it is observed.
Since Jean Piaget first pegged object permanence as a milestone in infant development, psychology researchers have found evidence that ever-younger babies have some sense of it; affirming object permanence seems to be the main theme of peek-a-boo. (To someone who has truly taken quantum physics to heart, perhaps peek-a-boo never gets old.)
These innate notions, plus “elaborations” born from watching and interacting with the world, add up to a sort of “naïve physics” that we all grasp without any formal physics training, says vanMarle.
But what about building quantum intuition after that early mental groundwork has already been laid? Most students don’t begin studying quantum physics until college, when they already have both an intuitive and a formal, or mathematical, toolkit for classical physics.
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