We Asked the ‘Ant-Man’ Physicist Who Named the Quantum Realm to Explain What It Is

Caltech mathematical physicist Spyridon “Spiros” Michalakis named the Quantum Realm for Marvel. He wrote this to help us understand it

Last Updated: July 7, 2018 @ 12:34 PM

There is real magic in this world.

Growing up in Spata, a small town outside of Athens, Greece, I never imagined Marvel would one day give me the opportunity to introduce them to an even stranger, more mind-bending version of the alternate dimension where Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) finds herself trapped for 30 years — and from which her daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) fights bravely to bring her home.

Still, I wish the characters in “Ant-Man and the Wasp” were a bit more curious about the mysteries of the Quantum Realm. Wouldn’t you want to know if there was a Starbucks down there? Anything quantum is transcendent, a spiritual awakening of the mind, one that not even Nespresso can provide. So let me tell you about the Quantum Realm. I named it, after all.

As a quantum physicist at Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (I know it has a sexy name, but it has brains too), I am often asked, “So, what is quantum physics?” by people I have just met. I mean, they don’t even want to know what my majestic-sounding name, Spyridon, means (it means nothing, but still). Yet they ask probing, personal questions like “What IS quantum physics?”

Well, quantum physics is a theory of physics, nay, a theory of knowledge-transcending physics, which unlocks the power of the human race to question reality in ways that go beyond the emergent, semi-classical basis of observation resulting from quantum decoherence of the true, pluripotent nature of the Quantum Realm.

Okay, I didn’t mean to dumb it down.

Maybe a more technical explanation using linear algebra and differential calculus is appropriate here. Alas, I was told there is a word limit for these kinds of guest columns, so I won’t go into the details. Sorry. Instead, how about I tell you what I told Paul Rudd, Peyton Reed, Erik Sommers and Chris McKenna about the Quantum Realm? For such a tiny place, my Spidey-sense tells me that it will play a big role in the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There is real magic in this world. It all started nowhere, at a time when no time existed. The Big Bang, the cradle of spacetime, didn’t happen at a particular point in space or time. Space and Time emerged from a place where neither concept existed. A place where the laws of physics, even those of Quantum Physics, had not yet crystallized into the reliable rules we use to predict the orbits of planets around stars, or the likelihood of two particles colliding in an explosive kind-of affair to give birth to new physics. It all started at a place beyond physics. For those super-nerds among you, the place I am referring to is not even an abstract mathematical universe. It goes deeper than that. It is a place where every choice is possible and has consequences for what comes to be. And what comes to be is what we call reality.

But what is reality? Have you ever heard someone define the word? I mean, really define it, like in a way that you could apply it to everyday life? Einstein tried and failed miserably. So let’s try it too. It’s okay. The worst thing that can happen is we’ll be as dumb as Einstein.

Let’s define reality as a dynamic set of events that can be reliably observed by an individual, on demand. You, flying through space while dreaming, are not part of reality, according to this definition. You, dreaming about flying through space, are part of reality. Why? Because, in the second case, you could record yourself sleeping, and record your brainwaves while dreaming, the latter of which could be interpreted using a machine-learning algorithm feeding on data of previous brainwave recordings matched to an account of your own dreams. The key difference between you flying in the dream, and you dreaming of “you” flying, is that the individuals you need to convince (that could be just you, let alone your mom and dad, or your therapist) of your flying powers are not found in your “dream” world: They are found in this world, the “real” world.

And, yes, if you lost yourself in the “dream” world, never to wake up again in this world, dreams would become your reality, allowing you to experience “miracles” that are somehow not part of this, our shared reality.

It gets even crazier. I mentioned that the events should be reliably observed. Who decides what is a reliable observation? I mean… some events seem easy enough to classify as real. The sun rising every morning, your car not moving through traffic, a single electron going through two distant slits at the same time… Yeah, that last one snuck in there somehow. Being at two places at the same time is a quantum thing. But you think quantum physics is weird? Consider going back to the 1850s, a few years before Scottish physicist (and all-around bad boy) James Clerk Maxwell developed the theory of electromagnetic waves. Now, there you are, wearing your rose-gold Apple watch, telling people you can talk to others around the world and hear them through the air. What we take for granted now is what we called magic in the past. And those who decide what defines the ever-changing boundary between reality and magical thinking are scientists.

We, scientists, just loooove judging everyone, and everything, as harshly as possible. And among us, the Simon Cowells of science, are experimental quantum physicists. If biologists claim a new discovery, they need to provide evidence that their confidence in their experiment is higher than 95 percent. In other words, their discovery may be false due to experimental error, but the probability of that happening is less than 5 percent (one in twenty). To you, that may sound impressive, but to an experimental quantum physicist, that sounds positively quaint. For a discovery in physics, such as the recent Nobel-prize winning discovery of gravitational waves (go Caltech!), or the discovery of the Higgs boson (don’t call it the God particle; trust me on this one), you need to be pretty darn confident in your experimental evidence. That is, 99.99994 percent certain, to be exact. We call it “five-sigma” confidence (sigma stands for standard deviation). Biology relies on “two-sigma” confidence. The Quantum Realm is closer to one billion sigma (plus or minus).

And here it is: Reality is a dynamic bubble containing events that can be observed on demand, with a confidence surpassing five-sigma. Dynamic means that the boundary of the bubble changes with time, as new events pass the five-sigma test and we welcome them into the realm of the real. The most important aspect of all this is that five is less than six, which is less than one billion. In other words, reality has stringent requirements for membership, but not impossible. Yet, some events, such as “walking through a wall,” are so unlikely that we don’t think they will EVER be part of reality. Like, flipping a fair coin a million times and getting a million heads in a row (don’t even try).

So, we make a deal with the devil. We call events outside of our reality impossible, not just highly unlikely from our particular point of view. Then, we proceed to push these impossible events to the realm of the imagination. Time travel, teleportation, Spider-Man dying. When they happen, we all lose our collective shit.

This is getting a bit too long, so let me wrap up. The Quantum Realm is a place where almost everything is possible. If you know how to navigate it by mastering quantum entanglement (don’t ask, unless you are willing to take me out to a fancy dinner), you can engineer reality to manifest itself to your liking, just like a computer programmer can write code that allows you to experience being a soldier in virtual reality, fighting unicorns with lasers during the First World War. Space and Time are dimensions that emerge from a soup of pure possibilities, the Quantum Realm. The laws of physics themselves are merely suggestions within the Quantum Realm, only taking a more definite form as we “zoom out” from that place of infinite possibilities, to find ourselves in the macroscopic world we call home.

So, how do people maintain their sanity (and their form) within the Quantum Realm? Love.

Just kidding. It takes decades of studying math and physics, with a bit of philosophical and lots of magical thinking. Or you can just be a badass like Michelle Pfeifer. She could probably even beat Chun Li.