Does "the most beautiful equation" in physics really describe love?

Quantum physicists aren’t crazy in love with Dirac meme

AAP FactCheck December 22, 2020

The Statement

A meme that links “the most beautiful equation in physics”, the Dirac equation, with quantum entanglement and human love, has resurfaced on Facebook.

A revised version of the meme, the precursor of dates back at least five years, has been posted by a New Zealand Facebook user. At the time of the publication it had been shared more than 580 times and attracted more than 3.4 million views.

The latest version of the meme includes a photo of a tattoo representing the Dirac equation, which is a equation discovered by British physicist Paul Dirac and published in 1928.

The photo is accompanied by a section of prose: “She asked him, ‘Tell me something nice!’ He answered her, ‘(∂ + m) ps = 0’ This is the equation of Dirac, the most beautiful equation in physics. It describes the phenomenon of quantum connection, which alleges that if two separate systems interact with each other over a certain period of time and then separate, we can describe them as two different systems, but they will already exist as one unique system. What happens to one will continue to affect the other, regardless of the distance between them. It’s called quantum intertwining or quantum connection. Two particles that were at some point connected remain connected forever, even if they are light-years apart. This is what happens to two people when they are connected by what we humans call Love.”

The words are attributed to “Unknown”.

A Facebook post
 A social media meme links the Dirac equation with quantum entanglement and human love. 

The Analysis

In a journal article published in the May 1963 issue of Scientific American, physicist Paul Dirac wrote that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment”.

The Dirac equation is regarded as “the most beautiful equation in physics”, but this doesn’t mean his famous equation can be used to describe or understand human love, despite claims that there are parallels between the two.

Examples of Dirac’s published work can be found in Scientific American while his contribution to physics is explained in this video and also in an interview with Dirac himself.

The post makes two main claims: that the Dirac equation describes the phenomenon of quantum connection; and that quantum connection, or entanglement (described as the continuing impact of one system on another even after separation) is what happens between people in love.

Dirac describes the development of general physical theory as a process of evolution, in which his major contribution was to expand on advancements made by physicists Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrodinger. Even so, he described his own work as “a stepping stone toward the better stages we shall have in the future”.

Dr Maarten Hoogerland, a senior lecturer in physics at the University of Auckland and an expert in the quantum world, told AAP FactCheck the Dirac equation “essentially folds relativity into quantum physics”.

The Dirac equation enabled physicists to better understand the nature and activity of very small objects (quantum physics), by applying the knowledge gained by Einstein’s theory of relativity, which before the Dirac equation had not been possible.

As BBC Earth explains it, the Dirac equation “brought together two of the most important ideas in science: quantum mechanics, which describes the behaviour of tiny objects; and Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which describes the behaviour of fast-moving objects. As a result, Dirac’s equation describes how particles like electrons behave when they travel close to the speed of light”.

“You need (the equation) to describe the way atoms, the building blocks of everything, are put together,” Dr Hoogerland told AAP FactCheck.

“Inside an atom, electrons move fairly fast and you do need a relativistic correction to be part of that.”

Thomas Pashby, an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, whose research concerns the interpretation of quantum mechanics, told AAP FactCheck the Dirac equation described a single electron: “It is notable for providing an elementary description of the electron in a hydrogen atom which gets the energy levels almost exactly right (apart from some small corrections from quantum field theory).”

Asst Prof Pashby confirmed the photo of the tattoo in the post was the Dirac equation, but that the equation was incorrectly written in the post itself ((∂ + m) ps = 0), since it was missing the “Feynman slash notation”.

He said the interpretative part of the text was “essentially nonsense” and entanglement was not a phenomenon the Dirac equation describes “since it applies to a single electron”.

Dr Hoogerland said the post’s attempt to transpose quantum entanglement onto human love was “fairly ridiculous”.

“I have no doubt that this love business is real forces but it’s not physics,” he told AAP FactCheck.

Dr Hoogerland also said the Dirac equation did not describe quantum entanglement, and was “fairly unrelated” to it.

“Entanglement is essentially completely something different because it doesn’t need relativity,” he said. “At least not in this way. What can happen if you carefully prepare two particles in what we call an entangled state, where one always ends up affecting what happens to the other no matter how far apart they are, this is actually true but it is very hard to observe in real life.

“We need to be very, very careful in our entangling something in a controllable manner and so in real life it’s very hard to say this would ever be of any influence.”

Dr Hoogerland did agree that the Dirac equation was beautiful.

“It is a beautiful equation in its relative simplicity. As physicists we are always really attracted to something that looks simple. However, to actually calculate something with it is not trivial. But it is a part of what physics research is doing all the time.”

The Verdict

The post provides a confused use of the Dirac equation. According to experts in quantum physics, the equation does not describe quantum entanglement as claimed, nor is quantum entanglement what occurs in a love relationship between people. Those experts told AAP FactCheck the central claims of the post were “essentially nonsense”.

False – The primary claims of the post are not based in fact.

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