Review Essay: Karen Barad, quantum mechanics, and the paradox of mutual exclusivity

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  • Studies of Science online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1177/0306312711400657 2011 41: 431 originally published online 11 April 2011Social Studies of Science

    Trevor Pinchexclusivity

    Review Essay: Karen Barad, quantum mechanics, and the paradox of mutual

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  • Review Essay

    Corresponding author:Trevor Pinch, Department of Science & Technology Studies, Cornell University, 306 Rockefeller Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA. Email:

    Karen Barad, quantum mechanics, and the paradox of mutual exclusivity

    Trevor PinchDepartment of Science & Technology Studies, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA

    Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 544 pp. 18.99/22.46/$27.95. ISBN 978-0-8223-3917-5 (pbk). 75.00/80.32/$99.95. ISBN 978-0-8223-3901-4 (hbk).

    I recently had the pleasure of sharing a lecturing platform with Karen Barad. As can only happen in our wonderfully diverse field of science studies, I discussed electronic music and she talked about quantum mechanics. It turned out we both shared a lot in common. I am not only a historian of the Moog synthesizer, but also a builder of such instruments and a performer. She is not only a philosopher of physics, feminist, and science studies practitioner, but also a practicing physicist. I was once an undergraduate physicist and cut my teeth in science studies on the topic of quantum mechanics.

    What could and should the relationship be to our subject matter in science studies especially when we increasingly work on the same sorts of topic as the people we study? I use this examination of Karen Barads work to offer some critical comments on her project and also to try and reflect a little on this wider issue.

    Quantum entanglementsMost of Barads talk was a fun and lucid account of some recent experiments in quantum physics that purported to show quantum entanglement a somewhat mysterious instan-taneous correlation between quantum systems separated by vast distances. She elegantly described the relevant experiments and their outcomes, but rather then deconstructing or contextualizing such experiments, she used the results to support her own position in science studies an approach she calls agential realism. Surprised by this turn of

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    The Author(s) 2011Reprints and permission: sagepub. 10.1177/0306312711400657

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    events, I asked her whether she thought it not more than a little odd that a metaphysical position in science studies should depend upon the outcome of experiments in physics. Supposing the experiments had come out differently? Would we then have to kiss goodbye agential realism? Her answer was even more surprising. She told me that she was happy for her work in science studies to stand or fall alongside the best work in physics. Ouch!

    The entanglement experiments are at the core of a subject that used to be called the foundations of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is a peculiar theory because it is used routinely by physicists, is the basis for much technology, and the consensus is that its predictions have, up until now, always been verified on all accounts it is a vastly successful theory. Yet what the theory means, its foundations, are notoriously obscure. What we might call the big issues of quantum mechanics its completeness and cor-respondence with reality, the nature of the fundamental entities it describes and what they mean for our conceptions of space, time, and matter, and the relationship between measuring instruments and system being measured used to be much discussed by lead-ing physicists when the theory was first formulated in the 1930s. The famous debate between Einstein and Bohr and Einsteins dislike of the theory for its statistical basis are the stuff of legend. The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, in hom-age to Bohrs influence, became the accepted wisdom and physicists were happy to stay in their labs and increasingly not worry about foundational issues after all they could still calculate, make predictions, make technologies (including atomic bombs), and get funding for their work. Increasingly, worrying about foundational issues passed to the terrain of philosophy. Philosophy, as all physicists know, is good for you in small doses but ultimately can be dispensed with.

    One of the fascinating things about the history of the area is how it has switched from physics to philosophy and then back again to physics. And these days it is more than just physics. As Barad points out in her dense and important book, quantum computers, quantum cryptography, and even the science fiction field of quantum teleportation, owe their existence to these entanglement experiments. The historical shifts in the field are not, however, examined Barad seems uninterested in history. She also does not reference the one science studies article on these experiments written by an Edinburgh science studies unit graduate student (Harvey, 1981). Harvey interviewed many of the experimenters working in the late 1970s and showed in his article how the very possibil-ity of turning philosophy into real experiments made the area much more plausible (that is, fundable). He also shows that the social and material practices of these physicists in obtaining their results and the credibility of the results was far more complicated than suggested in Barads rather bare-bones account.

    The idea that led to the entanglement experiments was first proposed by Einstein and his colleagues Podoloksky and Rosen as a thought experiment in a famous 1935 paper, now widely known as EPR. The experiments in their modern form involve searching for a correlation between two remote particles that once interacted. A quantum mechani-cal property known as spin is measured by each experimenter in different directions. The remotely separated experimenters (referred to as Alice and Bob) work as follows. Once the particles have separated from their source Alice randomly sets her detector to measure the spin of one particle in one direction and Bob randomly sets his detector to

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    do likewise for the other particle. Despite Alice and Bob having complete freedom to choose any direction in which to measure the spin, and Alice and Bob in principle being billions of miles apart, the spin of the particles at both locations is found to be instantaneously correlated to the degree predicted by a theorem known as Bells theorem.

    Barads account of the entanglement experiments and the earlier debate between Bohr and Einstein is extremely lucid. There is little doubt that she is a formidable expos-itor of difficult and tricky matters in physics, and understands what is at issue in the foundations of quantum mechanics, particularly in the famous debate between Einstein and Bohr. She is also a bold thinker, something to be welcomed in an increasingly pedestrian era of science studies. She advocates nothing less than a new metaphysics for the field. Unfortunately (for this reviewer anyway), when outlining her agential realism approach her writing changes from the crystal clarity of dealing with the physics to a series of very dense assertions about such matters as agency, intra-actions, becoming, phenomena, causality, dynamics, materiality, and the role of the post-human. It would be unfair to quote sentences out of context, but let me simply say that sections of this book contains some of the densest prose I have recently read in the field. Her book also suffers somewhat from repetition and has been sloppily edited with passages in different chapters sometimes repeating earlier passages and going over the same ground. Also her engagement with other relevant approaches in science studies such as the work of Andy Pickering, John Law, Annemarie Mol, and Lucy Suchman tends to be in the footnotes, and this is a loss (her main theoretical arguments in the text concern Foucault, Butler, and Haraway). More on this below.

    Even when dealing with the physics Barad takes no prisoners and rightfully exposes the limitations of popular accounts of quantum mechanics, such as in the well-known play, Copenhagen, which uses the metaphor of Heisenbergs uncertainty principle with-out understanding the physics behind it. Her target is a common misconception whereby the relationship between a measuring instrument and the system under measurement is misconstrued as being a matter of disturbance as in the disturbance to the actual pressure of the air in a car tire when we make a pressure measurement, which inevitably lets a small amount of air escape in the course of the measurement. She argues that Bohr in particular goes much deeper in thinking about measurement. At stake is not some sort of disturbance between measuring instrument and system being measured, but the very way that the relationship between the two should be conceived.

    Contextualizing quantum mechanicsWhen reading Barads book, I was struck by something in the substance and tone of her account of the entanglement experiments and the earlier debate between Einstein and Bohr. She writes these sections mainly in the way physicists write. As Kuhn famously noted, we need to rescue the history of physics from physicists who write history for a very different purpose. One of the strangest absences in her book is Kuhns work, given not only his important research on the history of quantum mechanics but also his pio-neering contributions to science studies per se. Her account of the quantum experiments is not so much a view from nowhere as a rather Whiggish account. The experiments all

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    lead up to what we know today: namely, the truth about quantum entanglements. She chides her fellow physicists for misconstruing and ignoring Bohrs contribution and her overall goal is to revive Bohrs approach and add to it. She describes the experiments conceptually (and clearly) in great technical detail, as though in a review article with none of the messy history, the lacunae, or the grasping and stumbling in the dark, and absent most of the social and historical context. In the standard way of physicists, the quantum elite such as Einstein and Bohr are revered for their brilliant insights, and one often gets the impression that Bohr isnt just a bloke from Copenhagen but someone who was closer to being a God. Elsewhere in her book she sides with Donna Haraway on the need to situate knowledge. Her own failure to situate these experiments is one of the paradoxes of the book.

    Now of course Barad could always reply that she is showing the conceptual basis of the experiments and offering something more akin to a philosophical take than an in-depth contextualized reading. But history and sociology do really matter here. They matter because if we include them we start to see the experiments as she argues in other parts of her book: she wants to see science in general as something that emerged from contingent human interests, from messy materiality and practice, and from a wider con-stellation of cultural, technological, and military interests. Seeing the experiments that way makes us also a little less likely to take them (as Barad seems to want to do) as the obvious grounding for a new ontology in science studies.

    Of relevance are the cauldron of the World War II and the physicists greatest triumph and source of guilt, the atomic bomb; the later Cold WarMcCarthy era, where confor-mity became the order of the day and provided the material infrastructure and appara-tuses that only a colossally wealthy postwar physics community allied to a military industrial context could produce and sustain; the counter-culture and the 1960s political protests in which Berkeley physics played a key role; and the subsequent austerity years, when the expansion ended and PhD physicists could no longer automatically find jobs and often sought alternative sources of funding. Quantum mechanics did not by accident become the hugely popular source for the culture industry that Barad berates; quantum physics aligned with the counter-culture took imaginative hold and brought the obscure quantum world of things such as Schrodingers cat into the full glare of pop culture.

    I cannot offer an account of the history, as it has still largely to be written, but the works of historians and sociologists of modern physics who work in the borderlands between history of physics and science studies would have helped her frame and contextualize the culture of physics that she describes in an overly reverent way.1 It is true that to be bold one has at some point to take a pass on the literature, but when the scholarly literature helps you establish the very points you want to make, you neglect it at your peril. Also of great historical relevance is the small number of physicists who explicitly rejected the Copenhagen consensus and who thought that the business of interpreting the quantum theory was too important to be left to philosophers. David Bohm was one such physicist.

    Bohm as an example of dissent from Copenhagen An alleged communist fellow traveler who refused to testify in the McCarthy era, David Bohm, one of the most gifted physicists of his generation, was forced out of his post at

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    Princeton University in 1951 and left the USA for good. Bohm found allegiance with physicists in the Soviet Union who also had the temerity to question quantum mechanics at the time. The story of these physicists and their struggles has never fully been told (but see Cross, 1991; Forstner, 2008; Pinch, 1976, 1977). When I interviewed Bohm in 1975 he told me that he had written his 1951 textbook regarded by many physicists at the time as the best account available in order to try understand the theory, a...


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