The Quantum Mechanics of The Return: Copenhagen Interpretation

Co-authored by Eileen G. Mykkels and Lindsay Stamhuis

Authors’ Note: Increasingly these days, there is a certain amount of controversy about the application of concrete scientific theories to works of fiction. It’s a curious development. We don’t claim to be scientists and we aren’t saying that anyone associated with the creative development of The Return sought to literally explain the events of the series in the light of strict quantum mechanics. But we also don’t see any reason why mixing soft and hard sciences should be seen as a negative thing. If you walk away from this article disagreeing with us, we will still be happy that you stopped by, and if you learned something new, about the show or quantum physics, we’ll be thrilled! But in the end, this is intended as a fun exercise in exploring Lynch’s well-documented interest in modern physics, maybe shedding some theoretical light on the mysteries of Twin Peaks in the process.

Almost all my life I have been interested in Quantum Physics. My mother was a big fan of Quantum Leap, I was heavily invested in many Science Fiction novels, films, television series, so on and so forth. I love space, time travel, and comics. And, I have a deep abiding love for science. If I didn’t have severe dyscalculia, I might actually have gone into a science field. Alas, as I’m relatively unable to do the math on a reliable basis, I turn to the realm where science gets its edge: theory and literature. It’s long been left to the fictionalists to lead us into the future. Lasers, space travel, even basic flight all have their origin in novels, as far back as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series.

That being said, I also know that, in fiction, the science doesn’t always “hold up”. With quantum mechanics, almost anything is possible. I am not a scientist, merely an avid absorber of both fiction and non-fiction materials that discuss, among other things, science and proto-science. Much of what I know about physics is basic theoretics from high school, and the mass consumable theories for those invested enough as presented by PBS, either on Nova or Space Time.

For the past couple of days Lindsay and I have had our heads together trying to figure out exactly what, if anything, this world of Twin Peaks has to do with quantum physics. It feels like The Return, in keeping with the late-stage works of David Lynch especially, borrows from some of the ideas that populate modern physics. And with The Final Dossier confirming that something timey-wimey has in fact occurred—that Cooper has changed time or created a new timeline or something else equally strange-sounding—it made sense to try and approach this story from that angle.

So where do we start? For us, it seemed logical to go back to the earliest days of quantum physics. The first prominent theory to gain a foothold back in the 1920s is most famously associated with Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. We’re calling this a Copenhagen Interpretation of Twin Peaks: The Return.

The Double Slit Experiment and Wave-Particle Duality

First, a primer: the Copenhagen Interpretation, on a very basic level, posits that quantum particles exist in all states at once, but that measurement or observation of such a particle affects the particle and “forces” it to choose which state it is going to exist in going forward; this is what is then measured. These are the two things we are going to focus on here: “quantum superposition” (which is, very very basically, the existence of a quantum particle in all states at once) and “wave function collapse” (which is when the particle’s potential state is finally determined through the act of observation.)

Let’s go one step further by examining the double slit experiment. In this experiment, photons (or light particles) are fired at a screen with two slits in it. A photo-sensitive collection device positioned behind the double slit screen records the position where the photons hit. This always produces what is called an interference pattern, which is evidence that the photons go through the slits as a wave which interferes with itself before hitting the screen. The wave pattern represents the photon hitting the screen in the most probabilistically high locations and not in the areas where it would be statistically less likely to hit, and that pattern is exactly what you would see if the photon were acting as a wave. Since we don’t know which slit the photon travels to, it must be travelling through both and interfering with itself before hitting the collection plate! Neat! So light particles are waves!

But…placing an observation device before the slits in order to determine exactly which slit the photon goes through—also known as the “which path” information—causes the photons to clump into two columns opposite the slits, which indicates that the photon went through one slit or the other as a particle and not a wave.


Hold up a minute. The act of observing the photon to determine the “which path” information changes the way the particle behaves; it is almost as if it knows it is being watched, and changes its behaviour accordingly!

(These are all difficult concepts to explain, but this video on the double slit experiment is a great way of showing how all of this works. Take a minute to check it out before we continue if you want a bit more information, and to make sure that all of this makes sense.)


So, you might be wondering what all of this has to do with David Lynch. Quantum superposition in Lynch films has been documented before, most notably by Martha Nochimson in David Lynch Swerves and elsewhere. An example of Lynchian superposition can be observed in Lost Highway, where Renee is both alive and dead, and Fred has both killed and not killed her. All states and outcomes in between seem to be occurring at once. It also could be seen in The Return at the end of Part 7 in the now infamous diner scene: there are potentially up to four different scenes (from four different timelines?) overlapping in this one scene, and we see them all happening depending on which camera angle and cut we are watching. It’s like the characters are in a state of superposition relative to the diner.

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The same could also be said for the scene in Part 14 when Deputy Bobby Briggs leads Sheriff Truman and Deputies Hawk and Brennan to Jack Rabbit’s Palace.1 The superposition of their several states is visible for a few seconds before Andy returns to the tree carrying Naido, at which point they all coalesce and become one. This would seem to be an example of the wave function collapse, as well. The various states of being — their superpositions — are exemplified by the multiple semi-transparent characters walking into the clearing; it’s only when Andy arrives with Naido that they “collapse” into one, solid form, and continue on their way on this one, solid path. At the time it aired, many people suggested that this was evidence for multiple timelines converging into one as fates were being determined. The Copenhagen Interpretation, while rejecting any notion of determinism in the world, might call this a collapse of probabilities (in this case, every possible path for Bobby, Frank, and Hawk to take as they arrive at the tree) into one defined outcome, which is measured/measurable only when Andy appears carrying Naido.

If we understand that the various superpositions of the key players in this scene are collapsing along with the probabilistic wave function, then this supposes that their actions are being observed and measured. It follows that, since Andy and Naido are always fully solid in this particular scene, one of them (or both of them) are the observers. Their actions are what enables the line of causality to solidify around one particular set of events, and we as viewers see this solidification happen and carry on with our heroes as they exit the clearing. Are Andy and/or Naido the dreamers then? Are we? (Or is that even a question that truly matters?)

Spooky Action At a Distance

It’s interesting that Sheriff Truman and Deputy Hawk do not seem to understand exactly how they got there or what happened. It suggests that something temporal has shifted and the chain of events or causality has been disrupted. They may not have access to what came before (during the states of superposition, before the collapse) or something else may have happened to cause this confusion. But in either case this seems to line up nicely with what Tammy experiences in the final chapters of The Final Dossier.

In Tammy’s case, unlike Truman and Hawk’s, we learn that she does remember what led up to the day on which she is compiling the dossier (September 6, 2017). The problem is that what she remembers is not what the evidence in front of her lays out; her memories are either wrong — which means that so are Gordon’s and Albert’s and anyone else’s who remembers the so-called “unofficial version”, which itself suggests that there is an “official version”, which is more evidence toward a collapse from various possibilities into one definite timeline that is more real than the others — or, as the world changed around her due to Agent Cooper’s actions in the past, she was somehow and for some reason spared from the change herself. Her memories in this case would be real, but they would be from a totally different, divergent path that no longer exists.

Let’s return to that double slit experiment from above. Physicists have tried to “trick” photons into revealing their position and state ever since they knew about the particle-wave duality of photons. The delayed choice quantum eraser experiment shows one method of achieving this. This experiment, first performed in 1999, was intended to determine if quantum entangled photons could retroactively change their state from wave to particle and vice versa, or if they could be tricked into revealing both states at different times. Entangled particles, another thing that comes up in Lynch films (think about Fred Madison and Pete Dayton, who are as entangled as entangled can be in Lost Highway, or Naido and Diane in Twin Peaks), are just that: entangled. Even across far distances, what happens to one particle happens to the other.  Therefore, theoretically, entangled photons should behave exactly the same because they are, by their nature, entangled.

In the delayed choice quantum eraser experiment, photons are fired through the double slit just as before, but after they pass through they encounter a prism that splits each photon into an entangled pair. One of the entangled pair is sent along a path and collected at a collection device while the second of the entangled pair is sent (and split, and reflected) along another path. Depending on which collection plate the entangled photons register, we can sometimes determine the “which path” information and sometimes not. So, without knowing which path a photon took, it should produce an interference pattern on the collection plate, and by knowing which path the second photon took, it should produce a clumping particle pattern. Seems simple enough.

The experiment also ensures that entangled photons landing on one specific plate (D0 in the diagram below) reaches there a fraction of a second before its entangled pair could hit its collection plate (D1 D2 D3 or D4). This is important, because if one entangled photon is collected and we know which path it took to get there, but its entangled pair is collected and we don’t know which path it took, in theory we should have one entangled photo producing a wave pattern and one producing a clumping pattern. Furthermore, it shouldn’t matter if one of the took slightly longer to reach the collection plate; something that has already happened cannot (according to classical physics anyway) be altered by something that is going to happen.



Of course that’s not what happens at all. Checking the plates containing “which path” information — information collected nanoseconds after the information on the other plates had even been registered on its collection plate — changed the result on the first collection plate retroactively. It changed something that had already been recorded in the past.

It changed the past.

Return to Twin Peaks

When Tammy goes through her investigation believing she is following one set of events stemming from one chain of causality, only to get to the end and realize that what she believed happened in the past has been changed, it’s as though she is one half of an entangled pair in the delayed choice quantum eraser experiment. The choices made to do the research bring into reality the fact that Laura is not dead but merely a missing person; her choices in that moment solidify a past that is different than the one she expected. She chooses to observe and in the act of observing collapses her own wave function of probabilities corresponding to other potential chains of causality, one of which contains the fact that Laura died.

Copenhagen says that the act of observation takes the particles from their quantum superposed states and causes the collapse of their wave function into one defined outcome. The moment of observation negates every probability except one. So while there may have been, at any given moment, an infinite number of probable outcomes and potential paths for a chain of causality, at the moment of observation all but one path ceases to exist. From many to one.

Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?

This all fits with the gut reaction that many people had to the idea when it was put forth, that there was no such thing as a multiple universe or reality in Twin Peaks, just a infinite series of collapsing probabilities as we track one path, one chain of causality, through this world. But there are other interpretations, and we’ll be examining one of them—the Many World’s Interpretation—this weekend.

1Interestingly, the other half of David Lynch’s seeming inspiration for his creative endeavours—the Holy Vedas and the words of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—contains references to the Palace as a limitless space beyond the Marketplace of everyday interaction. The Vedic texts and their influence on David Lynch can be explored further in Nochimson’s David Lynch Swerves.

We highly encourage you to check out the links included, especially for the videos of the more difficult to explain experiments, for more detailed explanations of the concepts discussed here today. 


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