Over at Not Even Wrong, Peter Woit pans “Down the Rabbit Hole,” a movie about quantum mechanics, paranormal phenomena, and the deep imaginary connection between the two that’s setting the pseudoscience world on fire. (Don’t worry — the fire is harmless to those who have balanced their chakras.)
“Rabbit Hole” is a rehash of the 2004 film “What the Bleep Do We Know!?”; apparently the new version is longer and includes more crackpots, but the basic howlers are the same. (Woit’s summary: “entanglement=we are all connected, superposition=anything you want to be true is true.”)
I suppose I’ll eventually have to don a fake mustache, clothespin my nose, and go endure this movie, since people often bring it up when I tell them what I do for a living:
ME: …so, at least in the black-box model that we can analyze, my result implies that the quantum speedup for breaking cryptographic hash functions is only a polynomial one, as opposed to the exponential speedup of Shor’s factoring algorithm.
PERSON AT COCKTAIL PARTY: How interesting! It’s just like they were saying in the movie: reality is merely a construct of our minds.
But if I do jump down the Rabbit Hole, my worry is that I won’t make it through:
“Sir, if you don’t stop causing a disturbance, we’ll have to escort you out of the movie theater…”
“BUT YOU CAN’T USE QUANTUM MECHANICS TO CHANNEL DEAD PEOPLE! IT’S A LINEAR THEORY! POSTSELECTION’S NOT ALLOWED!”
“Alright, come with us, sir.”
“LINEAR, I TELL YOU! AND THE MEASUREMENTS OBEY THE |Ψ|2 RULE! WHAT THE %*#()$*$ DO THESE IDIOTS KNOW!? I’M BEGGING YOU, STOP THE PROJECTOR!”
Since this hasn’t yet happened, what inspired the present post was not the movie itself, but its title graphic:
Staring at this image, I came up with something that I call the Cringeometer: a quick way for anyone, scientist or not, to predict whether a given popular depiction of science will cause scientists to cringe. To use the Cringeometer, you don’t have to make any decisions about technical accuracy. All you have to do is look for mathematical symbols such as Σ, ε, and π, and then ask yourself two questions:
- Are the symbols used to create an aura of profundity and unintelligibility, without regard for their meaning — more or less like Christmas tree ornaments?
- If so, is the effect humorous?
The results should be self-explanatory — but just in case they aren’t, I’ll end with three sample applications of the Cringeometer.
- “What the Bleep?” explodes the Cringeometer even before the movie has started.
- NUMB3RS also sets the Cringeometer off, even though it probably does more good than harm for public math appreciation. This illustrates that the Cringeometer can’t predict scientists’ detailed opinions — only the involuntary, physical reaction of cringing.
- “The Far Side” cartoons never set the Cringeometer off.