Timberwolves 101, Nuggets 97: A Brief Lesson in Quantum Mechanics

Steve McPherson —  January 4, 2013 — 4 Comments

heisenberg_breaking_bad_618

I am sick. It’s a head cold, I think, but I can sum up its effects on me thusly: The night before last, I slept twelve hours; yesterday my greatest accomplishment was taking two naps; and last night I went to bed at 8:30 pm and slept for eleven hours. And this morning, when I woke up feeling better than when I went to sleep but not at all confident that that feeling would maintain if I moved too much, the first thing I did was roll over, unplug my phone, and check to see how the Timberwolves had fared against the Nuggets.

They won. 101-97.

The CliffsNotes™ version of this game would seem to be: Love sprained a finger on his right hand in the third and couldn’t return to the game, while J.J. Barea’s Super Mario Bros. Starman power-up didn’t lead the team off a cliff and instead ignited them to the win in the fourth, where he scored 12 of his 17 points. Oh and they managed to shoot 37.5% from three thanks to Zach’s regular audit of sorrrow. By all means, I’m sure we can now draw some hyperbolic conclusions about who’s the real leader on this team and how we should trade Love right now, but I want to discuss something entirely more reasonable: the very real possibility that I made this win happen by not watching the game.

Hear me out: this idea (call it superstition if you must) is based on a very real thing called the observer effect or paradox, which can be seen in everything from quantum mechanics to sociological studies (where it’s called the Hawthorne effect) to photography. Basically, it says that it’s impossible to observe a thing without affecting that thing, and it’s at the root of why scientists have to jump through all kinds of hoops with double blinds in studies in order to try and remove subjective contamination. In your own life, consider the difference when someone takes a candid picture of you and when they pose you and ask you to smile.

Those examples have to do with consciousness of being observed, but if you go down to the quantum level, it gets even thornier. Consider trying to observe the path of an electron. In order to see the electron, it must be illuminated, which means it must be struck by a photon. But being struck by a photon changes the path of the electron. And that’s only the most straightforward example of how this effect works at the quantum level; there are whole other ramifications for quantum states that would decay if not for constant observation, which is called the quantum Zeno effect.

(Note: Please don’t confuse any of this with the uncertainty or Heisenberg principle, which states that certain kinds of measurement are dynamically linked such that greater accuracy in one results in diminished accuracy in another. But don’t feel bad: even Heisenberg himself kind of got these two things jumbled, apparently. Oh, and of course that’s where Walter White gets his alter ego’s name in Breaking Bad, which is why his picture is up at the top of this post.)

So what all does this have to do with watching basketball? I suspect you already know if you’ve invested a team, basketball or otherwise, with your heart for any amount of time. I’m sure some of you are rational enough—or rather, so dead inside—that you’ve never worn the same hat or shirt to consecutive games during a win streak, or sat in the same seat at the bar where you regularly watch your team, or refused to beat the rush out of the stadium with the outcome already decided because you don’t want to jinx it, man. But for the rest of you, for those of you who have done these things, I’m here to say: science kinda backs you up.

Not to get all political on you, but anyone who says that science strips the mystery and wonder from the universe hasn’t spent very much time looking into quantum mechanics. I’ve always felt that the goal of science isn’t to put an end to all the questions but rather to get us to the very limits of everything we know, where stuff gets real bananas.

I also feel basketball is kind of a microcosm of this. When it comes down to it, we have stats to cover and measure maybe 90% of what happens, if you figure they can effectively show you maybe 95% of what happens on offense and 85% of what happens on defense. But that 10% that remains beyond our quantifiable grasp: that’s the part we keep chasing down. That 10% is the green light, the final em-dash in The Great Gatsby’s penultimate line:

“It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —”

I’ve come a long way since I wore the same Timberwolves hat to every home game I went to, since I sat on the same stool in the Groveland Tap during their playoff run in 2004. As a member of the media, I’m expected to dress nice, sit passively, and stroke my chin (OK, the chin-stroking is optional, but I do it anyways). And I’m not going to stop watching the Wolves because they won one against the Nuggets when I didn’t. But still: for the brief, quantum moment that it existed in my admittedly sleep- and illness-addled brain this morning, the idea that somehow my not watching had something to do with the win was a warm reminder of the things that remain tantalizingly beyond our reach.

Steve McPherson

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4 responses to Timberwolves 101, Nuggets 97: A Brief Lesson in Quantum Mechanics

  1. Nice Groveland Tap reference. Their fries have gone downhill though.

  2. I can’t tell you how happy I am to read a basketball blog that can differentiate between the quantum Zeno effect and the uncertainty principle.

  3. I miss the old “King and I.” A fun post…. accessible science. Pretty darn good for a guy with a cold, Steve.

  4. Just a quick discussion on the game, we really won that game on our abnormally hot shooting ridnour had 2 or 3 3′s in the 4th but we were able to exploit the switches the nuggets kept using on high ball screens, barea would spend the first 10 seconds of the possession calling high ball screens until he either got faried or mcgee on a mismatch and just got to the ring on a mismatch. Good work by barea but also loved the work williams was doing in that game. He seems a lot less lost in the past month.

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