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For physicists, quantum mechanics provides a beautiful set of tools for understanding the fundamental workings of the universe. For nonphysicists, quantum theory seems to promise so much more: miracle cures, a basis for describing consciousness, even an understanding of God. In a recently published xkcd comic (right), Randall Munroe brilliantly captures why the combination of wild philosophical implications and absurdly complex mathematics leads so many people to think quantum mechanics contains the answers to life’s strangest mysteries.

The tendency for nonexperts to bestow magical powers upon quantum mechanics isn’t new. I found an amusing example after I searched, just out of curiosity, for “Physics Today” in an online database of CIA documents.

The second search result was an April 1973 memo written by an unnamed US intelligence officer with some encouraging news about the military’s secret attempts to harness the power of parapsychology. As part of what would come to be called Project Star Gate, intelligence agencies were working with the Stanford Research Institute to determine whether some people could acquire information about obscured objects solely with their minds. Government-recruited researchers had tested a man named Ingo Swann for his ability to “determine the colors of a light switch[ed] on in a remote room,” and they planned to do the same with Uri Geller.

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Category: Science