Towards a quantum Theory of Everything (including dirty dishes)

Perhaps few words in contemporary science have been abused as much as “quantum”. Simply put, a quantum is the minimum amount of an entity that can actually do anything. One example is a photon, which is the minimum amount of light that can be involved in an electromagnetic interaction. The study of such tiny particles, which exist at a truly infinitesimal level of minuteness, has become known as quantum physics, and is regarded by physicists as having the potential to underpin a so-called Theory of Everything — one that fully explains all known physical phenomena and predicts the outcome of all possible experiments. While we are not quite that far just yet, quantum physics does have significant practical applicability in industrial contexts, with estimates suggesting that up to 30% of the gross national product of the US is accounted for by inventions made possible by quantum mechanics. Therefore, while remaining committed to the long-term holy grail of explaining the universe, perhaps for now we should be happy just to settle for consolation prizes like, erm, quantum dishwasher powder.

Or more specifically: “FINISH® QUANTUM®“, part of the FINISH® “multi-benefit dishwashing tablets and pacs” range produced in the UK by Reckitt Benckiser plc. Interestingly, actual physicists don’t typically seek to protect their jargon by registering scientific descriptors as legal trademarks. But surprise surprise, actual quantum physics has little or nothing to do with this product.

So what might be “quantum” about FINISH® QUANTUM® dishwasher powder? Well, here’s what is says on the product’s own website:

FINISH® QUANTUM® utilizes a breakthrough multi-chamber technology that releases each agent when needed during the cycle. 

Powerful scrubbing micro-beads soften burnt-on food like lasagna. 

Powermax Bleach granules attack tough stains like tea and coffee. 

Rinse Agent gel delivers an amazing shine!

And that’s it. Other than in the product’s name, the term “quantum” is not used anywhere else on the manufacturer’s website. So, basically, while this may well be the most effective dishwasher powder ever invented (and it stands as the #1 recommended brand among dishwasher manufacturers), there is nothing really “quantum” about FINISH® QUANTUM®. In this context, the term “quantum” has no meaning and is used entirely for decorative purposes.

So, if the term is meaningless, why do the manufacturers choose to use it (and even to protect it as a registered trademark)? Why not employ a different term that authentically captures the chemical properties that make this powder so great? Well, as often emerges in advertising, the emphasis here is less on meaning and more on implication. In marketing terms, a label like “quantum” presents the correct values statement — its actual meaning hardly matters.

The word “quantum” has many esoteric connotations, many of which are only loosely related to the ideas examined in quantum physics. In general, the word connotes complexity and strangeness, but in a way that is combined with scientific credibility. This is because quantum concepts exist at such a mind-bogglingly reduced level of detail, humans can hardly even visualise the events that are being studied. In fact, events at the quantum level are so unfamiliar, that even highly trained scientists find the area difficult to understand (the physicist Richard Feynman famously stated “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”). As such, the term is wide open for abuse by anyone who wishes to convey to public audiences an impression of being at the cutting edge of breathtaking technological advancement. Accordingly, we see dubious therapies passed off as examples of “quantum healing”, clairvoyants and psychics promoted as proponents of quantum communication, and the heretofore debunked biochemistry of homeopathy defended in terms of being a quantum phenomenon that mainstream science is incapable of comprehending.

Two reasonably well known findings from quantum physics have been especially popular with the scientific fringe. The first is the phenomenon of “action at a distance”. This occurs when one entity has an effect on another when there is no known mediating link between them. Quantum physicists have long noticed that subatomic particles often appear to exert such effects, and the idea has latterly been used as a licence to attach the “quantum” label to claims about any situation where one entity exerts a remote influence on another. For example, in parapsychology, quantum ideas of action-at-a-distance are sometimes used to explain how psychics or clairvoyants can “see” distant events without the burden of having to use ordinary human senses (see this book, or even better, my published review of said book). Similarly, New Age periodicals frequently claim that, because of the quantum nature of reality, all human minds are interconnected with one another by virtue of being intrinsically imbued within the universe itself; a notion referred to as “quantum consciousness” or “quantum mysticism”.

However, it is very arbitrary to choose the term “quantum” when alluding to action at a distance, as other areas of physics also offer examples. Perhaps the best is the theory of gravity: bodies exert gravitational force on each other without any known mediating link between them. So why don’t we have “gravitational” dishwasher powder then? Simply, because it doesn’t sound nearly as good as “quantum” powder. No other reason.

The second quantum concept beloved of pseudoscientists is the “uncertainty principle”, originally formulated by Werner Heisenberg. Some enthusiasts believe that the uncertainty principle: (a) has rendered all mainstream science “uncertain”; and (b) has made obsolete all the methods that mainstream science has employed to date. It is typical for them to say that mainstream science “is no longer based on classical physics”. Of course, this allows them to go on to make any claim they wish, because they can reject all scientific criticisms on the basis that quantum physics prevents certainty. However, such depictions are erroneous. The uncertainty principle simply refers to the impossibility of obtaining precise and simultaneous measurements of both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle: the more accurately you measure its position, the less accurate becomes your measure of its momentum (and vice versa).

It has been argued that the esoteric giddiness surrounding the uncertainly principle stems from a superficial aspect of Heisenberg’s original writings. In describing the principle, he referred to the act of “observing” the electron, thus implying a role for human perceptions. From this phraseology has emerged a plethora of New Age claims (and claims within subversive subfields of disciplines such as psychology) along the lines that “the act of observation changes the phenomena being observed” (e.g., see this article, or even better, my published response to said article). Such claims have been used to cast false aspersions on empirical science ever since.

In summary, quantum physics relates only to events involving subatomic particles, and not to people’s minds, their bodies, or their kitchen appliances. It does not corroborate claims about action at a distance; nor does it imply a crisis of scientific uncertainty. In plain English, the term “quantum” refers literally to size or, by association, to the use of quantum physics itself. It is not an accurate synonym for “cutting edge” or “effective”. Its use as such in advertising – whether of alternative medicine, psychic mediums, or chemical detergents – represents scientific vacuity, and a probable indicator of attempts to mislead through jargon.

In the case of FINISH® QUANTUM®, the term “quantum” is used very simplistically. For example, the manufacturers make no attempt to promote any pseudoscientific quantum theory as to why their dishwasher powder is so effective. However, given that most audiences will be unaware of what quantum physics really involves, this hardly matters. Simply mentioning the term “quantum” implies to consumers that there is some basis to believe that the science underlying this particular dishwasher powder is different — and superior — to all the others.

Quantum physics may ultimately endow our species with the capacity to develop an understanding of our universe that represents the best available within the cognitive limits of our biologically finite brains. However — apart from being used as an aesthetic leitmotif, designed to extract greater amounts of cash from scientifically-uninformed consumers — it is unlikely to have much effect on how we wash our dishes.

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  1. Pingback: Web Picks Sceptique for April 29, 2011 « The Call of Troythulu – Musings of a Skeptophrenic

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