Preamble: I wrote this essay in the Fall of 1999 for my Quantum Mechanics class. At the time, they introduced a mandatory writing component to some of our physics classes (if memory serves, worth as much as a quarter of our final mark). The theory was that scientists were lousy writers and communicators, so UofT was going to do something about it. The sentiment wasn’t too bad — a lot of scientific writing is very difficult to read, especially for the lay person. However, the implementation was just dumb. For starters, we already had to take a humanities and social science credit before we could graduate, and on top of that there were a number of extra-curricular writing workshops available. Next, saying we had difficulty writing and then basing a substantial part of the mark of one of our core physics courses on writing essays was just plain mean. Especially since our half-credit quantum class wasn’t about to get an extra two days a week to properly train us to write — the time was stolen from the tutorial sessions. And finally, it was an insult to those of us who could write, partly because of how dreary the assignments were, and partly because the TAs were typical physics TAs: they were hardly in a position to be marking essays with an eye to language, style, and structure.
Anyhow, this essay was for an assignment where we were to take any description of quantum mechanics intended for the general public and critique it for how well it explained the concepts and how accurate it was. I decided to give them exactly what they wanted… an English Major’s approach:
1. pick some source material and badly misinterpret it.
2. try to combine two subjects you have no knowledge of and pretend you’re an expert in both
One Nation Under a Groove: A Quantum Mechanical Analysis
Quantum mechanics has been moving away from the threshold of theoretical physics and further into popular culture ever since its formative days in the early part of this century. Quantum mechanics, however, has not become any easier for the average person to comprehend without devoting years of their lives to studying physics. Funkadelic decided in 1978 to prepare a primer for the average person in the form of their hit song One Nation Under A Groove. One Nation is a reasonably competent summary of quantum mechanics, however, since Funkadelic never bothered to mention that One Nation was actually about quantum mechanics, people seldom benefited from the experience.
One Nation begins with a description of a bound state. Funkadelic’s description of something “So wide, can’t get around it…so high you can’t get over it…” is perhaps the clearest, most concise definition of an infinite potential well ever expressed. It is a description that uses everyday English and no potentially intimidating math. However, they did not explicitly say that they were referring to either an infinite potential well or any other sort of bound state, so when the time comes, people may not be able to apply this knowledge to quantum mechanics.
While it may not be the second topic in a physics class, One Nation describes tunnelling after potential wells. When a particle is doing it’s “quantum dance” around a finite barrier, or constriction, there is a very real possibility that the particle will appear on the other side of the barrier – even if classically the particle did not have enough energy to go over the barrier. This is called “tunnelling.” Funkadelic drives this concept home throughout One Nation. The line “This is a chance, this is a chance…” immediately reminds listeners that probabilities are involved, as is generally the case in quantum mechanics. “Dance your way out of your constrictions… gonna be freakin’!” is a common chant of graduate students in quantum mechanics cheering on a particle they want to tunnel. Since physicists can’t really say when a particle will tunnel, students may spend a good deal of time simply waiting for data to come in. The latter part of the graduate student cheer refers to the fact that tunnelling is strictly a quantum phenomenon – in classical mechanics, such behaviour is regarded as “freaky,” so a tunnelling particle is said to be “freakin’” [sic].
Potential wells and tunnelling phenomena are certainly things that everyday people may hear about outside of a physics class, but they are not quite as fundamental as the concept of a ground state. Funkadelic refers to the ground state as “the groove” in One Nation, which may help some people to visualise it better, but may also cause some people to miss out when the real name is used by a physicist. “With the groove our only guide; we shall all be moved.” Clearly, Funkadelic explains one reason why quantum particles can never come to a complete standstill. Since the ground state — the lowest allowed energy state — for a potential never has zero energy, the lowest energy particles will always be moving a little. Of course, any particle with higher energy will also be moving, so just from the definition of the ground state as the lowest allowed energy level, a person listening to One Nation knows that in quantum mechanics, any particle will always be moving at least a little bit.
Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove provides a very competent primer to some of the important concepts of quantum mechanics for the average listener. Their major short-falling, however, is that they universally avoid the already established quantum vocabulary. This is an unfortunate theme for Funkadelic, but one that could be remedied with a new explanatory CD insert.
G. Clinton, G. Shider, W. Morrison (1978). “One Nation Under A Groove” from the album of the same name. © Priority Records Inc.
Lyrics courtesy the Motherpage