Tonight we learned that Leonard’s mother, Beverly Hofstadter (played by Christine Baranski), and Sheldon have been collaborating on Quantum Brain Dynamics theory. This theory attempts to explain the origin of consciousness. If Quantum Brain Dynamics theory is correct, our brains are not mere calculating machines, just complex enough to hear, see, taste and feel. Rather they would rely on the non-deterministic nature of quantum mechanics to generate human consciousness. If this is truly required for our brains to be conscious, the theory goes, then no conventional computer would ever emulate our human insights and experience.
Such a theory of the brain can be attractive for a couple of reasons. First, suppose we think of our brains as just a fancy computer with a slightly better operating system than Windows. (In my case, Windows-67, which fortunately still works better than Vista.) It begs a disturbing question. Will our laptops soon become sophisticated enough to become conscious? And if so, will our own human consciousness start rolling off assembly lines?
Second, in the standard textbook treatment of quantum mechanics, observers play a special role. Schrodinger’s cat may be simultaneously alive and dead until a observer takes a look and “collapses” the cat’s status into either 100% alive or 100% dead. In quantum mechanics, the probabilities to find the cat alive or dead are precisely calculable, but on a case-by-case basis which you kind of cat you will find is impossible to predict. But what is an observation? If an atom bumps into another particle, it does not seem to make sense to say the atom “observes” the particle; it makes more sense to just say the atom and particle just are parts of a now larger system. But when do interactions become complex enough to cause the “collapse” into a definite condition: dead or alive. The Quantum Brain Dynamicists claim that the consciousness of the observer plays the key role in measurement and that consciousness itself is a quantum mechanical process.
So Quantum Brain Dynamicists have gone forward to even propose a few quantum mechanical processes might be occurring in a live human’s brain. In modern laboratories, if extreme care is taken and samples are placed at very low temperatures you may be able to see quantum effects. Careful laboratory techniques can coax atoms into a new state of matter called a “Bose Einstein condensate”, where many atoms lie in exactly the same quantum state and exhibit quantum behavior on a large scale. It took 70 years between the time such a state was predicted and when it was finally produced in a laboratory. It took the researchers’ ability to produce temperatures less than one-millionth of a degree above absolute zero to accomplish. Many tried and failed. Finally the eventual success was recognized by the Nobel Committee as such a great feat that the few who accomplished it were awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics. Quantum Brain Dynamicists entertain the idea that the same kind of condensate might exist in a living human brain, at normal body temperature.
Does that sound pretty unlikely? It did to me. So I poked around a bit. The amount of published material in refereed scientific journals turns out to be small. Most of what I found about it was published on webpages and small publishers which is a red flag. But not so fast. Roger Penrose, a highly respected mathematical physicist, the inventor of quasi-crystals and other important ideas, is an advocate of the theory. Penrose suggested in his book The Emperor’s New Mind that the “collapse” due to observations is not based on any algorithm and therefore distinct from what any mechanical computer could ever perform. Because no step-by-step method describes the “collapse” fundamental mathematical difficulties conveniently disappear. There are a few papers on these ideas published by Springer, a serious publisher of scientific work. Usually ideas about how the world works separate nicely into mainstream (even if speculative) versus crackpot. Here we find the distinction is not so clear.
The writers had put Quantum Brain Dynamics into the script, which made me nervous. Would millions of viewers balk? Would they send millions of emails complaining that the show had confused pseudoscience with science? Would they boycott the sponsors? But as we’ve seen, the idea, while extreme, could not be fairly rejected out of hand. The writers figured a way out. Listen carefully to tonight’s dialogue. The show’s writers don’t have Sheldon and Beverly merely working together on Quantum Brain Dynamics theory, but disproving Quantum Brain Dynamics theory. Problem solved.
I don’t watch first-hand the writers at work, but they sometimes talk to me during their process. One of the things I’ve learned is that a good part of comedy writing appears to be problem solving. For example, how do you get two people who are fighting the last time they saw each other to be talking again so you can finish the story? Likewise, physicists too are often led through their work by a big idea, inevitably finding obstacles to telling a consistent story. Finding clever solutions seems to be a common part of the work of theoreticians and comedy writers alike. In an example from physics, one of the biggest problems in theoretical particle physics today is that many models predict that protons decay in less than a second—thereby the Sun, Earth and Human Beings would never exist. Something had to be done. The particle theorists finally solved the problem by inventing (i.e., “making up”) something called “R-parity” that could not change, in order to put the brakes on proton decay. The quantity now appears in many, if not most, theoretical models in particle physics. And much like the solutions of comedy writers, “R-parity” may well turn out to be a joke.