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Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Missing Quantum

When I was a kid, my cousin gave me a copy of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes for Christmas. I read most of it by the end of Christmas vacation. I was fascinated by the deductive method. “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever’s left, however improbable, must be the truth”.

I ready more and more detective stories. Some were part of the Western canon, others were comic books. It didn’t matter to me. It’s been a while since I read a good detective story, but I’m still libel to turn on an episode of Law and Order every so often to get my fix. 

Modern detectives don’t work the same way Sherlock Holmes did. In the post War era, a private dick would basically bumble around asking questions until someone slips up. Later films turned to share the point of view of the criminals. Modern sleuths use science to such an exaggerated extent that lawyers bemoan the CSI Effect. 

Recently, Sherlock himself has come back in a big way. I’ve been watching the BBC adaptation, and I love the way the writers attempt to stay true to the deductive style of original stories, even as they obnoxiously modernize the aesthetic (I get it. It’s the 21st Century. Can we stop with all the lens flare and talk about blogs?). 

But something seems sort of, well, antiquated about the way he solves crimes, and I think I’ve put my finger on it. It’s Quantum Physics. 

 The fact of the matter is that the character was invented in an era before quantum physics. Before we understood uncertainty. Before the pervasiveness of chance in the world around us was part of our conversation. 

Consider a case Sherlock Holmes solves in the finale of Series 1 (each BBC “Series” consists of 3 hour-and-a-half long mini-movies). Sherlock interviews someone loosely connected to a murder victim, and judging by a tan line, an itch, and some Columbian currency that the whole thing was a set up. The idea is that for every effect, you can follow a single chain of causality back to an elegant solution.

However, we broke that chain decades ago. Most people today don’t understand quantum physics. It’s not taught as part of a standard curriculum. It’s not discussed in mainstream media in great detail. There’s a reason for that. It’s really, really complicated and unintuitive. But I think that the ideas generated by the last century of study has permitted the public consciousness. We have a sense that not everything is as it seems. Actions and consequences aren’t as tightly linked as we suspect. The world is random sometimes crazy shit just happens. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t get that. 

Luckily, the writers of the BBC series get it. They poke a bit of fun at the character’s over confidence. But it still makes our hero seem a bit of a relic. Detective work today is mostly luck, mixed with a bit of science and psychology. There’s a reason why most of the great literary sleuths 1 come from the early 20th Century or so. That’s the last time we could be certain about anything. 

  1. FOOTNOTE

Of course, Columbo could be considered an exception, but his whole schtick was that he seemed like an anachronism.

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