"One of the most mysterious things about light, is that when you really get down to it -- and this is not just true of light, this is actually true of almost anything once you get on to a small enough, quantum mechanical level -- that light behaves as both a wave and a particle."
Entries in physics (14)
Analogies prove nothing, but they can make one feel more at home.
~ Sigmund Freud, from Introduction to Psychoanalysis
Once theory pushes forward to a possible understanding of the big bang and the remaining universe, the temptation to explain the emergence of the universe itself becomes overwhelming. Interpretations of theories and their mathematical solutions concerning entire worldviews indeed offer a high degree of fascination. But in too direct and supposedly generally valid an interpretation there lies, especially in this case, a great danger—not least because theories relevant for such questions will for all foreseeable time remain in their infancy. Physics is, after all, even if we disregard its big sister philosophy, not alone in this business. And yet a comparison of different worldviews offers a certain charm, and certainly some knowledge, too.
One should not underestimate myths and what they can teach us about ourselves and the progress we have made. Take the Summer Palace in modern Beijing, a beautiful sprawling park built as the summer retreat of Empress Dowager Cixi. On a small island in a man-made lake, facing the Tower of Buddhist Incense and the Sea of Wisdom Temple on the slope of Longevity Hill which rises from the shore, stand the Hall of Embracing the Universe. It is a small, humble building in the style of its time, the fringes of its roof rising optimistically upward to aim at the sky. The Hall of Embracing the Universe tells us everything there is to know about humanity and the world: It was initially called the Hall of Watching the Moon Toad to honor its role in observing the moonrise; nowadays, the Hall of Embracing the Universe is a souvenir shop.
Surprisingly often, one can find parallels between ideas stemming from the most diverse traditions, an observation probably not hinting at an ember of truth but rather traceable back to the fact that the range of human imagination is despite its excesses, actually quite small.
Part of a discussion between Michael Barrier, author of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, and Radiolab producer Pat Walters from “The Universe Knows My Name,” from Radiolab, Jan. 11, 2011:
Michael Barrier: [Wile E. Coyote] is an extraordinarily human animal.
Pat Walters: And not just like in the facial expressions that he made and ways that he’d look at the camera a lot, but actually, it kind of was about the predicaments he found himself in. Take for example this one really famous cartoon (at 4:20 in the clip below). Like always, Coyote has got a plan. He has made a painting of the road. He’s put this painting right at the edge of the cliff.
MB: The idea being that the Road Runner would run through the painting, gravity would take hold of him, and he would plunge into the chasm…Instead, the Road Runner runs into the painting as if the road were actually continuing. But when the coyote tries to follow the Road Runner into the painting, he runs through the painting and falls…Gravity isn’t this uniformly indifferent force. It’s a malignant force that comes in and out of play according to how inconvenient it can be for the coyote…He’s chasing the Road Runner, but the universe is his opponent.
PW: And that’s kind of what makes the coyote seems so human. He’s in that situation that all of us feel like we’re in sometimes. Like the very laws of physics are against us.
MB: It’s almost a primitive way of thinking, but I think all of us lapse into this, you know, How can this happen? You can’t be human and not feel that way.
* * * * *
Children under, say, ten, shouldn't know
that the universe is ever-expanding,
inexorably pushing into the vacuum, galaxies
swallowed by galaxies, whole
solar systems collapsing, all of it
acted out in silence. At ten we are still learning
the rules of cartoon animation,
that if a man draws a door on a rock
only he can pass through it.
Anyone else who tries
will crash into the rock. Ten-year-olds
should stick with burning houses, car wrecks,
ships going down -- earthbound, tangible
where they can be heroes. You can run
back into a burning house, sinking ships
have lifeboats, the trucks will come
with their ladders, if you jump
you will be saved. A child
places her hand on the roof of a schoolbus,
& drives across a city of sand. She knows
the exact spot it will skid, at which point
the bridge will give, who will swim to safety
& who will be pulled under by sharks. She will learn
that if a man runs off the edge of a cliff
he will not fall
until he notices his mistake.
We’re burdened by a curious conditioning that blinds us to one of the greatest — perhaps the greatest — of art forms. We live for poetry; we live in terror of equations.
We see a poem, and we try it on for size: we read a line or two; we roll it around in our mind; we see how it fits and tastes and sounds. We may not like it, and let it drop, but we enjoy the encounter and look forward to the next. We see an equation, and it is as if we’d glimpsed a tarantula in the baby’s crib. We panic.
An equation can be a thing of such beauty and subtlety that only a poem can equal it. As an evocation of reality — as the shortest of descriptions, but describing worlds — it is hard to beat the most artful of poems and, equally, of equations. They are the best our species can do.
Equations are the poetry that we use to describe the behavior of electrons and atoms, just as we use poems to describe ourselves. Equations may be all we have: sometimes word fail, since words best describe what we have experienced, and behaviors at the smallest scale are forever beyond our direct experience.
Consider Margaret Atwood:
You fit into me
Like a hook in an eye
A fish hook
An open eye
Consider Louis de Broglie (a twentieth-century physicist, and an architect of quantum mechanics):
λ = h/mv
Read the equation as if it were poetry — a condensed description of a reality we can only see from the corner of our eye. The “equals” sign is the equivalent of “is,” and makes the equation a sentence: “A moving object is a wave.” Huh? What did you just say? How can that be?
It’s an idea worth trying on for size. Poetry describes humanity with a human voice; equations describe a reality beyond the reach of words. Playing a fugue, and tasting fresh summer tomatoes, and writing poetry, and falling in love all ultimately devolve into molecules and electrons, but we cannot yet (and perhaps, ever) trace that path from one end (from molecules) to other (us). Not with poetry, nor with equations. But each guides us part way.
Of course, not all equations are things of beauty: some are porcupines, some are plumber’s helpers, and some are tarantulas.
* * * *
I’m a chemist. My universe is nuclei and electrons, and the almost endless ways they can assemble. Atoms are just at the border between ordinary, macroscopic matter and matter dominated by the Alice-in-Wonderland rules of quantum mechanics. Electrons, in particular, have the unnerving property of having mass and charge but no extent — no size. There’s no tiny BB down in their core, as there is a nucleus sitting at the center of an atom. “Ah,” you say, “that’s strange. If there’s nothing there, what is it that has a mass? And what’s charged?” Good question…
…As a chemist, I’ve come to uneasy terms with the weirdness of electrons and photons, and with their ability to meld into the ordinariness of macroscopic things. But sometimes, lying awake in a strange hotel room at 4 a.m., considering what I might say that I really understand about anything, I fret that the answer is: almost nothing.
Excerpt from “Holding Life Consciously,” a Speaking of Faith conversation with Arthur Zajonc, Director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and Professor of Physics, Amherst College (June 24, 2010):
So the contemplative becomes an avenue not only into a kind of interiority for ourselves, you know, our own moral and, say, lives of purpose and meaning and so forth that we may brood over, which is something different than meditating. But also there's an objective character to the contemplative inquiry, the kind that [Rudolph] Steiner is interested in where one is oriented towards the other, towards the world around us, towards nature.
And one comes to know the interior of the exterior. One comes to know the inside of every outside. It's not only human beings that have an interior or an inside, but that the world around us as well can be known inwardly. Strike a bell and you can listen to the sound, but you can also move towards the qualities that are more aesthetic and even moral in nature that deal with the sounding bell or the particular color or that painting that's there or the music that you're hearing.
So life is dense with those levels of experience, but we need to calm ourselves, get clear, get quiet, direct attention, sustain the attention, open up to what is normally invisible, and certain things begin to show themselves. Maybe gently to begin with, but nonetheless it deepens and enriches our lives. If we are committed to knowledge, then we ought to be committed also to exploring the world with these lenses, with this method in mind and heart.
You know, otherwise we're kind of doing it halfway. And then when we go to solve the problems of our world, whether they're educational or environmental, we're bringing only half of our intelligence to bear; we've left the other half idle or relegated it to religious philosophers. But if we're going to be integral ourselves, you know, have a perspective which is whole, then we need to bring all of our capacities to the issues that we confront, spiritual capacities as well as more conventional sensory-based intellects and the like.