Could Mātauranga Māori advance quantum physics?

July 24, 2023 • 9:30 am

I suspect the answer to the title question is “No way!”, but the incursion of Mātauranga Māori (“MM”, or Māori “ways of knowing”) into New Zealand’s science is reaching ludicrous depths. Even in the U.S.A. we don’t see headlines like the one below. (Note that “complement” is misspelled as “compliment”.)

Why am I so sure this endeavor won’t work? Simply because there is nothing about quantum physics in MM, and I can’t envision any MM-derived insights into the discipline that could advance it beyond what modern physicists are doing already.  Of course Māori physicists, like the one below, could well make contributions to quantum mechanics, but it’s hard to see that those insights would come from MM, a mixture of trial-and-error knowledge gained from living (gathering plants and fish), theology, superstition, tradition, and ethics.

Nevertheless, the termites have dined so well that we see things like this, coming from Waatea News, Auckland’s Māori t.v. and radio station.

Read and weep; I’ve reproduced the whole article (indented), including its errors in English.

The first Māori quantum physicist says he hopes more Māori join the field to incorporate mātaraunga Māori into quantum physics.

Dr Jacob Ngaha, completed his PhD in Quantum Physics at Waipapa Taumata Rau, the University of Auckland, becoming the first Māori quantum physicist.

He says quantum physics explains how this work [sic] on an atomic level, and mātauranga Māori is based on lived experiences and observations which could compliment [sic] western scientific discipline.

“There’s always more than one way to do things. If you’re doing an experiment, depending on what you want out of an experiment there are different methods you take, different tools you use and I think science is overruled and no different. Mātauranga Māori is definitely better at looking at certain things, especially from a Māori lens. I think also, depending on what you’re looking at and what area you’re in there’s a stronger foundation of mātauranga Māori. I think those were the sort of things our tūpuna [ancestors] were doing, you know we’re talking about biology, genetics and environmental science. Those are very lived experiences.”

Jacob Ngaha says in the western space, mātauranga Māori is very new and with more Māori in quantum physics, mātauranga can be expanded more with quantum physics and vice versa.

And. . . . ? What’s missing, of course, are specific examples of how MM can help quantum mechanics.  On his Auckland Uni page Ngaha explains his thesis:

“I’m in the field of theoretical quantum optics – more specifically cavity quantum electrodynamics. I study the interactions between light and matter using quantum mechanical principles.

For my thesis topic, I’m currently studying signal processing in a quantum optics setting. Essentially I’m developing a computational model that will allow us and others to better filter frequency signals in quantum optics simulations. Experimentally this can be done quite easily but we would like a theoretical tool that can, in principle, do even better.

Although Radio New Zealand touts Ngaha as a rising star, and he may well be, their article gives us no more insight into how quantum mechanics can progress faster through the infusion of Māori-derived knowledge.

Meanwhile three critics of the educational system in NZ wrote the following article in  Click to read:

One excerpt, some of which you’ve probably seen in other places:

In 2000, New Zealand was one of the top performers in the world. Our results were above the average of the world’s most developed countries and we placed third in mathematics and fourth for reading in a group of 41 countries. When the latest PISA results were published in 2018, the decline had progressed so much that in science and reading New Zealand was only marginally above the OECD average. In mathematics we are now below average. Of the larger group of 78 participating countries, New Zealand ranked low, at 27th (Hartwich, 2022).

Reading is similarly in trouble. For example, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) shows that the reading skills of New Zealand students continue to decline. In 2021, New Zealand recorded its lowest score since the inception of PIRLS in 2001 (e.g. Scoop, 2023).

. . . . The decline has now been exacerbated by moves to centre the school curriculum on the Treaty of Waitangi, and universities declaring themselves Te Tiriti-led and prioritising the inclusion of matauranga Māori in degree courses.  Left-wing ideologies, combined with post-modern ideas and a dangerous mix of Critical Social Justice theory and Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) policies, now appear to be more important to decision-makers than teaching basic skills and knowledge (P. Raine,2023), and will exacerbate the observed steady deterioration. A more holistic approach in teaching and research is now favoured or even mandated, and merit-based assessment used internationally for many decades has been called into question on the basis that it inherently disadvantages minorities and indigenous people (Abbot et al., 2023).

When you see “holism” praised and “merit” denigrated in the same sentence, run for the hills!

And I’ll add a few examples of what’s happening in N.Z. science education. I can vouch for all these assertions save the last anecdote.

The many anti-science statements coming from the post-modern corner are best illustrated by a few examples:

–       Māori May Have Reached Antarctica 1,000 Years Before Europeans (Wehi et al, 2022). This statement made it into the headlines, such as the New Zealand Herald, the Guardian and even the New York Times. It was debunked shortly after (Anderson et al. 2022).

–       From the beginning of creation, to the children of Ranginui and Papatūānuku, and descending to our ancestors, all aspects of creation have whakapapa  [genealogical lineages]…  This allows us to consider whakapapa for each of the elements on the periodic table (NZASE resource). While this is nice storytelling that favours creationism, it does not belong in a science class. The abundance of the elements in our universe and on our planet Earth is well understood from basic nuclear physics.

–       Mauri is an energy which binds and animates all things in the physical world. Without mauri, mana cannot flow into a person or object (Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand). This leads to the claim that Everything has a Mauri. A life force. When we are ill, our life force has been compromised (Māori Healers) and The Mauri is the power that allows these living things to exist within their domain. It is also known as a spark of life, the active component that gives life.  A critical discussion on the Mauri concept proposed by the government’s NCEA panel for chemistry teaching in our schools has been provided recently by Professor Paul Kilmartin of The University of Auckland (Kilmartin, 2021). Among other issues, Professor Kilmartin has objected to the inclusion of Mauri (a life force) in our Chemistry curriculum, because it conflicts directly with science.

–       A recent article in the Guardian (Graham-McLay, 2023) on celebrating Matiriki, stated that Māori books only survived because old people hid them from the colonists, who it is implied wished to suppress or destroy them. No evidence for this claim was given and, in any case, like all other Polynesian languages (except for the Easter Island), Māori had no written form or books until the introduction of writing by missionaries (Harlow, 2007).

–       And – at a very basic level, in March 2023 a New Zealand child came home from school and told their parents that they had learned two important facts in science that day, namely that water has a spirit and memory – another introduction of animist confusion into what should have been a science lesson

And there we have it brothers and sisters, comrades and friends: the upcoming infusion of teleology into all the sciences (note “mauri” above).

36 thoughts on “Could Mātauranga Māori advance quantum physics?

  1. Maybe if it’s Queer Mātauranga Māori – QM for short. Empiricism should get a good Queering, just to make sure.

    1. Haldane did say that the universe – which includes the quantum world – is not only queerer than we suppose but queerer than we can suppose.

  2. “Complement” in this context strikes me as a weasel word. It doesn’t mean that MM has information which would inform or advance quantum physics. It’s merely saying that it’s not incompatible, in the sense that MM doesn’t conflict with quantum physics. It’s like saying color theory could inform evolution, because it explains something else that isn’t related or in conflict. For this to be true about MM, you would first have to show that MM has useful knowledge or techniques for evaluating truth. The fact that this is linked to quantum physics is just fadism. Might as well say it could complement ChatGPT.

    1. Comic writer Dave Barry once ridiculed a sugary snack food being marketed as “part of a complete breakfast” while accompanied by an attractive photo displaying it on a table with juice, eggs, etc. Sure it’s part of a Complete Breakfast. It’s on the table with the breakfast. You could say the same thing if it were a dead bat.

    2. Multimodal

      These words have substantial background in scientific and mathematical research. I do not think it is a mistake that post-modernist literature makes use of them for its own purposes. Advertisers / Steve Jobs made figurative use of “DNA”, and now its common to read/hear where literal DNA is irrelevant.

      However, not all words are as malleable – “wavefunction”, for instance. But give it time, I guess.

  3. I’m surprised that our host’s old friend Chopra hasn’t yet inserted himself into this movement. It sounds like an excellent opportunity for some gnomic and highly lucrative Deepities…

  4. Quantum physics has always attracted spiritual woo, since some of its counterintuitive discoveries can look like they’re confirming a role for Consciousness , Vitalism, or something else that places humans in a significant spot. The late Victor Stenger wrote a book called Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness. It ruthlessly analyzes and debunks popular theories linking physics to spirituality. I read it, way back when I kept encountering Quantum Woo. Very good.

    In addition to misunderstanding the content of QM, the fact that physicists still don’t understand everything about it means the spiritual often feel comfortable appropriating the framework to “solve” the “mysteries.” I suspect that’s a likely motivation here.

    1. In a recent “Open Source” podcast, Christopher Lydon interviewed (and seemingly became a convert to the world view of) historian/academic Jackson Lears, an advocate of and enthusiast for Vitalism (re: “elan vital”). Lears made a point of mentioning “Darwinian hegemony.” I reasonably take that to mean that anything opposing his world view is “hegemony.”

    2. Back in the day, books like “The Tao of Physics” (Frijtof Capra) and “The Dancing Wu-Li Masters” found links between Buddhism and quantum phenomena. And other examinations of various cultures (such as the Hopi with their unusual understanding of time) were mined for establishing their understanding of deeper truths than Western Civilization can fathom.

      Been there, done that.

  5. Recently profiled by Radio New Zealand as part of their Rising Stars of Matariki series, Doctor Jacob Ngaha is using his mahi to inspire and encourage rangatahi across the motu (country) to consider careers in science, including his own field of quantum physics.

    I could see the point of having whole passages printed in both languages, but dropping random Māori words into English sentences makes (literally!) no sense to me.

    1. News media have got loans, courtesy of taxpayers, which are non-repayable (I believe) provided they promote Māori language and also promote the highly contentious interpretation held by this Government of one of NZ’s founding documents, the Treaty of Waitangi. Since 95% plus of the population doesn’t speak Māori, the language policy is also quite contentious.

      Out of idle curiosity I used Google’s translator to translate ‘quantum physics’ into Māori and got ‘ Ahupūngao Quantum’. ‘Quantum mechanics’ becomes ‘Ngā mechanics Quantum’.

  6. Of course Mātauranga Māori could “compliment” quantum mechanics! It could say “great job, QM, you’re on to something! Keep doing what you’re doing, I’ll stay out of your way.”
    But that’s probably not what they meant.

  7. Looking forward to seeing the term in the Schrodinger equation to represent the mātauranga Māor addition to the Hamiltonian.

  8. I look forward to further revelations even more delightful than these. Soon we can expect to hear that the mysterious Maori books were never found because te iwi hid them in Antarctica. The whakapapa of the elements will surely be identified with quarks, or hadrons, or perhaps with the nuclear strong force. As for “Mauri is an energy which binds and animates all things in the physical world”— this notion clearly anticipates the modern discovery of The Force announced in the Star Wars movies.

    On another level, we may expect education in the US, starting with California, to follow the same trajectory it has in New Zealand. As Schwerdtfeger, Raine, and Lillis point out, this happens when “Critical Social Justice theory and Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) policies… appear to be more important to decision-makers than teaching basic skills and knowledge”.

  9. In Carroll’s The Big Picture one of the things he stressed is that there is really no wiggle room in the Core Theory as it stands today, describing the known universe from quantum field theory, to Einstein’s relativity, to Newtonian mechanics to our everyday reality. Sorry, nothing “outside:” no gods, no spirits, no supernatural, and certainly no MM.

  10. I’m not as down on Dr Ngaha as some people seem to be. He seems to be some one who is doing serious work in quantum optics, and wants to give back to his community by trying to encourage more Maori into science. As I read it, the crazies at e-tangata have seized on this, and in trying to draw a bogus link between MM & quantum theory have put him on the spot for quotes, and he felt he had to say something conciliatory, and they printed garbled quotes. In “there are different methods you take, different tools you use and I think science is overruled and no different.”, “science is overruled” makes no sense, and I’m sure is not what he said, but the idea that there are different methods in science would meet with approval by a condensed matter physicist or theoretical chemist being lectured by a cosmologist. And he only mentions specifically “biology, genetics and environmental science” as areas where Maori knowledge might contribute something to science. If the guy is just trying to encourage more Maori kids into proper science, you can see why he’d want to be conciliatory.

    1. No, you are giving credit where no credit is warranted. He is not “just trying to encourage more Maori kids into proper science”. He is trying to brush science to one side and supplant it with some romance of how he thinks some people thought in the stone age. See…

    2. Well, the only way to discern what Dr Ngaha actually means, away from the cracked spotlight of the etangata loons, is to entice him onto this blog and get him to explain himself.

      I went to Nolan’s Oppenheimer film last night. As someone who read Robert Jungk’s ‘Brighter than a 1000 Suns’ at high school, I was thrilled to see scores of physicists represented in this film, down to piquant details like Feynman playing the bongos to celebrate the Alamogordo first nuke. Nolan’s script mentioned some Oppenheimer paper ‘on molecules’ that made his early reputation. I have no idea what this refers to, though in Chapter 1 of Weinberg’s ‘Quantum Theory of Fields’, the Oppenheimer quantisation of the Dirac Field is cited as of historical importance.

      The striking part of the Oppenheimer film is how highly Ashkenazim Jewish was the cohort of physicists. ( I can only think of Raman for non westerners who made some major early contribution to QM/Q chemistry, and he isn’t in the film.) It’s only from the 1950s does one get a slew of East Asian names contributing to QED and particle physics. But with each succeeding decade, science at the highest level has become more multi-ethnic.

      The point here is how regressive the e-tangata ideologues sound, and/or Ngaha, to make an outrageous claim of ‘Western’ contemporary science, for the ideological reason that they want to create a fictitious binary of ‘Timeless Unquantised Wisdom of the Maori’ versus ‘Reductive Western Science’. Such bollocks. Yet no evidence of Jews, East Asians, South Asians etc being inspired to become scientists by spouting drivel about the timeless wisdom of the Talmud/Matauranga Dao/Matauranga Buddha/Matauranga Mahabharata.

      1. Ramesh, I haven’t seen the Oppenheimer film, and won’t be rushing to do so. The total absence of John von Neumann, from what I gather, makes me doubt whether Nolan was in any way interested in the science. But maybe the paper “on molecules” is a reference to his early work with Max Born on the Born-Oppenheimer approximation? I vaguely recall he was best known pre Los Alamos for his work on neutron stars.

        Re Dr Ngaha, one trys to think the best, but the fact that he wants to work with Rangi Matamua gives me pause. But his thesis should be available online, so I’ll take a look to see exactly what he did. That’s an interesting exercise in the case of Tara Macallister.

  11. No, you are giving credit where no credit is warranted. He wasn’t particularly misreported, and his position is not at all “just trying to encourage more Maori kids into proper science”. His position goes literally interstellar far beyond proper science. See…

  12. In the west we call the belief that ‘water has a memory’ naturopathy. PZ Myers will call anyone who says naturopathy is science a Nazi, and PZ will also claim that anyone who denies the Maori claim that water has a memory is also a Nazi. Because PZ is completely not an idiot.

  13. We should compliment Dr Jacob Ngaha on his successful Ph.D and we wish him every success in his career. Let’s hope that many more Maori follow in his steps.

    I want to go on record with my view that the traditional knowledge of many indigenous or minority communities has positive things even for the world of today – values, ethics morals etc, as well as knowledge here and there that is founded in trial and error and systematic observation etc.

    But – traditional knowledge is not science.

    I retain my old Quantum Physics texts, such as Quantum Physics, by Stephen Gasiorowicz – all 499 pages of it – but no traditional knowledge to be found anywhere.

    I also have my copy of Solid State Physics, by Ashcroft and Mermin. Only 850 pages. Same conclusion.

    Treasure all traditional knowledge, for all of it was critical to the survival of humanity in the past and some of it is important to communities of today. Teach elements of it to our kids, but do so sparingly and recognizing that even in a small country such as New Zealand, many forms of traditional knowledge are to be found.

    Well done, Dr. Ngaha, on your successful Ph.D.
    David Lillis

    1. “Old Quantum Physics texts”, Mr Lillis? The Gasiorowicz book was trendy when I was at Cambridge in the late 1970s, but I still prefer my copy of Dicke and Wittke.

      Ashcroft and Mermin? Pah! I’m a Kittel man myself.

      I have no coherent view on this, any more than did Paul Feyerabend. But, agreed,

      Well done, Dr. Ngaha, on your successful Ph.D.

  14. And, David Lillis, if you’ve read Ashcroft and Mermin, do you understand the concept of the reciprocal lattice and Brillouin zones? Me, I find Phil Anderson’s “More is Different” thought provoking.

  15. Hi Andrew. I think that I got Brillouin Zones etc.
    Solid and Liquid State Physics was a central course in the physics honors degree at Victoria University, along with Quantum Mechanics etc. Nuclear Physics was provided too but, without the massively expensive equipment necessary there, it was less strongly emphasized than solid state. When I was around, there was a big effort in low-temperature physics, and I did a bit of it myself – cooling Platinum (doped with different concentrations of Nickel) conductors (wires about 4 cm in length) to barely above absolute zero and examining the electronic conduction of those wires.

    The conductors are cooled to extremely low temperatures (say, 0.5K or even less), but a heater warms one end by about 0.01K. The electrons at the “warmer” end vibrate faster than those at the “colder” end and there is a slight drift towards the “colder” end, thereby setting up a potential difference. We measured the thermopower from about 0.1K to perhaps 40K. See:

    Did you know that Neil Ashcroft is a New Zealander? Actually, from close to where I live these days. He attended Hutt Valley high School, where I wanted to send my son (instead, my son attended Wellington College).

    I met Professor Ashcroft once in 2007 when he visited New Zealand, and was annoyed that I could not find my copy of his book in time for him to provide his signature.

    1. David, I didn’t know that Neil Ashcroft was a New Zealander, although Wikipedia, which is never wrong, tells me he was born in London, so we Poms can claim him as one of our own. My wife went to HVHS, and for a few years we lived down the road from you at 325 Muritai Rd. I do like some of the stuff Ashcroft’s co-author David Mermin has written – Feynman wrote him a fan letter once about his paper on Bell’s inequality – although I persist in believing that he is wrong about the correct pronunciation of “quark”. Cheers for what you continue to do in attempting to provide a public voice of sanity here.

  16. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. We’ll fall far lower before we rise again. Sadly, I think we must fail for some time.

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