Fiction Science Club

Get a reality check on supersized quantum mania

Ant-Man may be getting small in Marvel’s latest superhero movie — but in the real world, quantum is getting big.

Quantum information science is one of the top tech priorities for the White House, right up there with artificial intelligence. Microsoft, Google, Amazon, IBM and other tech heavyweights are closing in on the development of honest-to-goodness quantum processors. A company called IonQ has a billion-dollar plan to build quantum computers in the Pacific Northwest. The market for quantum computing is projected to hit $125 billion by 2030.

So you might think “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” will be going all-out to feature real-life advances in quantum physics.

If that’s what you’re expecting from the movie, think again. “There’s no connection to real physics, or our understanding of reality,” says Chris Ferrie, a quantum physicist at the University of Technology Sydney and the UTS Center for Quantum Software and Information.

Ferrie should know, and not just because he has a Ph.D.: His latest book, titled “Quantum Bullsh*t,” colorfully catalogs all the ways in which popular depictions of quantum physics go wrong. In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, Ferrie explains why those depictions tend to focus on the B.S. rather than the theory’s brilliance.

“The reality .. that quantum physics is a tool for engineers to make predictions about their experiments … is really boring,” he says.

That’s one area where Hollywood has the edge. “Quantumania” is anything but boring. Ant-Man and his family all get small and fight off bad guys in a shrunken dimension known as the Quantum Realm. The use of the Q-word gives a 21st-century scientific aura to a size-reducing plot concept that has had earlier incarnations in “Fantastic Voyage” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

Ella Meyer, who tries to demystify quantum computing for students as an outreach coordinator at the University of British Columbia, says “Quantumania” is making her job more challenging.

“I don’t know if anyone’s seen trailers for ‘Ant-Man’ recently, but it’s undoing years of my work by using ‘quantum’ incorrectly,” she said last month at the Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit in Seattle. “And so it’s harder than ever to get people to properly engage with this word.”

The concept behind Marvel’s Quantum Realm came from a quantum physicist, Caltech’s Spiros Michalakis, who was a science consultant for the original Ant-Man movie in 2015. (Marvel’s previously used name for that realm, the Microverse, had to be nixed due to legal issues.)

Michalakis described the Quantum Realm as “a place of infinite possibility, an alternative universe where the laws of physics and the forces of nature as we know them haven’t crystallized.”

Ferrie, who knows Michalakis, points out that there’s actually no such thing as a separate quantum realm. “There’s just one reality. … So I would say there are different windows on this one reality,” he says.

Chris Ferrie portrait
Chris Ferrie (Photo via

Classical physics offers a panoramic window that tends to look at the universe as a giant machine. “If you keep it well-oiled, everything will work out as expected,” Ferrie says.

In contrast, quantum physics is “more like a stained-glass kaleidoscope,” he says. “It depicts the world with lots of symmetries, but it’s also very complex, and things are not deterministic. There’s randomness and uncertainty.”

On the scale of everyday things like motorcycles, using the classical-physics window makes more sense. But on the scale of subatomic particles like muons, the quantum-physics window works a lot better. That’s where it’s possible to think of the properties of particles as being entangled, potentially over long distances. Or think of a quantum bit of information as representing multiple states at the same time, rather than, say, exclusively “up” or “down.”

In the podcast, Ferrie explains how physicists look at the real world in the context of the uncertainty principle, quantum entanglement, quantum teleportation and other Q-word concepts. It’s a world that’s completely different from Ant-Man’s Quantum Realm.

“We can’t really experience that world,” Ferrie says. “So we’re projecting our own way of looking at the world and communicating about the world into a fictitious sort of scenario.”

He’s not upset about that: “I don’t think there’s people going to sci-fi movies that involve, like, superheroes and people flying and traveling at faster than light speed, and coming away from it thinking they understand something about physics,” he says with a laugh.

He’s more upset about folks who claim that quantum healing crystals or quantum biofeedback devices will cure what ails you for a low, low price. In “Quantum Bullsh*t,” Ferrie drops truth bombs (and occasionally, F-bombs) on the B.S. — and looks somewhat askance at two far-out concepts that capitalize on quantum connections:

Quantum consciousness: Some scientists, including Nobel-winning mathematician Roger Penrose, have speculated that quantum processes may give rise to consciousness and our perceptions of external phenomena. “They’re looking at microscopic biological processes and asking the question, ‘Do I need quantum physics to accurately make predictions and understand those phenomena?’ And for the most part, in all biological processes, the answer is no,” Ferrie says.

Quantum multiverses: The many-worlds hypothesis proposes that reality branches off into multiple versions of the universe — and in sci-fi stories ranging from “Back to the Future” to “The Peripheral,”  those branches get tangled up. The multiverse got title billing in an earlier Marvel movie, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” and it plays a role in “Quantumania” as well. “This is not something that exists in the rules of quantum physics, right? It’s an interpretation that you add on top of it that’s not verifiable,” Ferrie says.

There is, however, one set of quantum connections that Ferrie says could eventually pay off big time: Those connections have to do with quantum computers and sensors. Such devices actually do make use of quantum effects. For example, quantum bits (a.k.a. qubits) can represent multiple states of information during processing, and not just the “one or zero” states represented by the bits in classical computers.

"Quantum Bullsh*t" book cover
“Quantum Bullsh*t: How to Ruin Your Life With Advice From Quantum Physics” by Chris Ferrie. (Cover design by Pete Garceau for Sourcebooks)

“There are things you can do with two correlated qubits that you can’t do with two correlated [classical] bits,” Ferrie says. “But if you had more bits, you could do it. So it’s more about the amount of resources that would be required to solve a task.”

Some tasks — such as optimizing networks, or designing molecules, or cracking secret codes — would be more amenable to quantum processing. But after decades of gestation, quantum computing is still in its infancy. And even when it’s mature, Ferrie is betting that most of us won’t even notice.

“Let me put it this way: When we have a quantum computer, you will interface with it exactly the same way as you do [with] a digital computer,” he says. “Why? Because if you needed to know quantum physics to use it, then nobody would buy it.”

The way Ferrie sees it, the real-life quantum realm is something that’s best left to physicists and engineers rather than superheroes.

“It takes a few years of university and you can understand all of the equations and solve them for every situation that you might encounter in the lab,” he says. “Quantum physics is easy. It’s this world that’s weird and surprising — the emergent world that we observe.”

Check out Chris Ferrie’s website for links to more information about quantum physics and quantum B.S. For super-simple explanations of quantum physics, check out the books that Ferrie has written for the younger set, ranging from “Quantum Physics for Babies” to “Do You Know Quantum Physics?” for readers aged 4 to 6. Ferrie also touches on quantum mysteries for grown-ups, in a book titled “Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions.”

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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