Sunday, January 30, 2011

Quantum Physics and...the Iraq War?

The other day I was listening to the radio and heard a surprising story about the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad. This event was one of the most memorable of the Iraq War and was replayed ad nauseam by the media (Fox replayed it every 4 minutes or so for almost an entire day). The story has an interesting parallel to one interpretation of quantum physics: that observers have a direct effect on the events they are witnessing.

Erwin Schrodinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, was aware of how absurd some descriptions of the world at the quantum level were. At the quantum level, reality stops making sense. Electrons, for example, the little bits of mass that “orbit” around the nuclei of atoms, seem to be able to do something that most of us are incapable of: be in more than one place at once doing more than one thing at once. Physicists call this being in a superposition of states; the electron has multiple speeds, directions, and spins at the same time. If that’s not strange enough, it turns out that when a human observer is present the electron “collapses” into a more normal state of only being in one place and doing one thing at a time. In order to illustrate this paradox, Schrodinger came up with his famous thought experiment that has become known as Schrodinger’s cat.

My version goes something like this: a cat has been placed in a high-tech box. Inside this box is a laser gun pointed at the cat’s head. A fancy contraption that monitors an electron’s spin controls the trigger on the laser gun. Electrons can either spin “up” or “down,” and the contraption will cause the gun to shoot if the electron is spinning up but will not shoot if it is spinning down. According to quantum theory, the electron is spinning up and down at the same time, so the gun is both shooting and not shooting, and the cat is both alive and dead. That is, until someone opens the box and looks inside.

The presence of an observer changes the reality. A similar thing seems to have happened in Firdos Square in Iraq in 2003. We all saw the footage where crowds of Iraqis toppled the statue of Saddam, a symbol of liberation and victory for the people there. Unfortunately, the real story is somewhat different. Rather than an area full of jubilant Iraqis knocking over a symbol of oppression, it was actually a mostly empty area with a large number of reporters, some Iraqis near the statue, and some American soldiers around the perimeter.

A handful of Iraqis decided that they wanted to topple the statue, but were unable to do so. An American commander noticed what they were trying to do and, seeing the crowds of reporters in the square, thought about how it would look if TV stations showed footage of Iraqis trying in vain to knock over the statue of Saddam. He ordered some soldiers to help them out and, voila, reporters zoomed in on the event and broadcast it around the world. An iconic moment in the war, seen as a symbol of victory by many, was actually more or less manufactured because of the presence of reporters. A full view of the area would have shown that the reporters outnumbered the active participants. This would have lessened the drama, to say the least. Some have speculated that the way the media portrayed this event, as well as the number of times it was replayed, led to a false sense of victory and ultimately disappointment as it became clear that there was a long road ahead for both Americans and Iraqis.

While maybe not as complicated or surprising as quantum physics, it is interesting to think about how the presence of observers changed what happened, how it was reported, and ultimately ended up influencing how many of us saw the war in Iraq.

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