Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Abstractions Really *Are* Leaky

I was just reading an interesting article over at the Scientific American website about complexity and quantum mechanics, and an analogy hit me between the eyes so hard I had to laugh.

Anyway, I'm not much of a physicist, but here's what I understood: superconductivity is an example of a quantum mechanical effect that exists on a macro scale. This is odd, because quantum effects generally only exist at a very small scale - by the time you get to bigger objects, quantum weirdness goes away. My (admittedly weak) understanding is that this is because the interactions between the tiny pieces sort of “average out” the quantum “smearing”. So, for example, you don't have to worry that I might teleport across the room while you're talking to me, the way you might if we were both electrons.

On to the analogy. When I read that superconductivity was a macro-scale quantum effect, the thought that spang immediately to mind was “Wow, talk about a leaky abstraction!” In other words, here's yet another example of the fact that you can never hide all the details of what's going on. You always have to be able to strip back the model to get to a lower in blissful ignorance is only a part-time luxury.

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