I am a linguist who loves literature and who is fascinated by science. I quantify randomness. I paint. I travel in a power wheelchair, hoping to capture the ordinary.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Setting our own conditions

Humans like categories. Structuralist thought, in which the world is divided into clear rules and sections, is to many a comforting idea. Newtonian physics, with its clear rules for the nature of physical reality, is equally appealing.

But what happens when Einstein comes along, and tells us that we can never see reality (which is out there) because it depends on our perspective? What happens when Proust shows us that time bends and stretches memory such that a taste of a madeleine opens up an entire lifetime, or when Monet shows us that our eyes take in the available light and make something fantastical?

What's more, what happens when Bohr and Schrödinger then come along and say that no such reality exists, that all is in flux, that the world is not just unknown but unknowable? The quantum world, our best understanding of "reality," is an open door. It is probabilistic, stochastic, our very own to perceive. We must make a choice, we must measure our world through our own experiences of it.

In Quirks of the Quantum, Coale describes the nature of the quantum realm and its implications for "reality":
"The quantum realm shivers and quivers in a state one might call an indeterminate pulsating flux or, as Amir D. Aczel describes it, 'the quantum fuzz' (251). For Brian Greene it's a 'fuzzy, amorphous, probabilistic mixture of all possibilities' (112). Within that realm, anything can happen, and we cannot predict how, when, why, and where things will occur. Particles/waves/fields/forces, all of which are essentially descriptions of the same quantum phenomena, since all modern elementary particle theories are relativistic quantum field theories, appear and disappear, each with its own description, each susceptible to imminent dissolution and transformation, created within what John Gribbin calls the 'holistic electromagnetic web' (Schrödinger's Kittens 226), in Kenneth Ford's continuous 'creation-annihilation dance' of 'perpetual motion' (242, 222) [...].
"In trying to describe this process, we come up against both the unknowable 'essence' of the quantum realm in all its quivering and erupting randomness as well as the metaphorical nature of language itself. When we choose to describe something as a particle, a wave, a field, a force, or a web, we necessarily exclude other possibilities and images. Similar to Bohr's notion of complementarity, if we describe something as a particle, we have chosen not to describe it as a wave. In language and logic, these appear to be mutually exclusive. In quantum theory, each is valid, depending on the nature of how we measure these glimpses and snapshots. Contradiction appears to be a product of choice and grammar, rather than of the actual quantum event, since in the quantum realm the images of particle and wave 'apply to mutually exclusive conditions; hence there is no contradiction between them' (Malin 161)."
It sounds like we can choose or own story, providing--at least to some extent--our own conditions. Atheism or faith, it seems to be argued in The Life of Pi, is a simple matter of making such a choice.

In another tale of learning how to set one's own conditions for survival while being tossed by the wind, Katherine Paterson writes in The Same Stuff As Stars:
"What is man—and of course the writer means all of us puny little insignificant creatures—what is a mere human being that God who made the immense universe should ever notice?' She chuckled. 'The sky does take you down to size.'
     'Not even big as bugs. Not even a speck of dust to the nearest star,' Angel agreed.
     'But the psalmist answers his own question. "Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor..."'
     'What?' Angel asked, not sure she had heard right.
     'A little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor.'
     'The real angels? Do you believe that?'
     'Yes, Angel, I do. When people look down on me, and these days'—she laughed shortly—'these days everyone over the age of five does. When people look down on me, I remember that God looks at this pitiful, twisted old thing that I have become and crowns me with glory.'"
The sky both takes us down to size, if you will, and pulls us together. Who would know this better than the astronauts? This video shows how seeing the earth for the first time changed several astronauts' view of our nature.

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

If we are free enough to see how small we are and how grand, why choose to forget this? Every day, I hope we can remember to find the right conditions, so that our measurement of our lives will leave us content, and thirsty for more.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


“When a man in a forest thinks he is going forward in a straight line, in reality he is going in a circle, I did my best to go in a circle, hoping to go in a straight line.”
                                                                                         - Samuel Beckett, Molloy
Vasilis Avramidis, "Caretakers," 2012
140x100cm, oil on canvas
When you were a kid, did you ever dream of running away to live in the forest? To get lost? To go wild? To grow up? Would you be one of the beasts, bold and ferocious? Or another kind of creature, small and nestled spindly-legged in a bed of petals and thorns? Would you nest among hidden branches, migratory and ready to fly, collecting treasures only to leave them behind? Or would you plant yourself firmly in the dead leaves, sprout roots, nurture fungi in your shadows, and drink from what was hidden, always going deeper?

According to J. Crews in "Forest and tree symbolism in folklore," many cultures believe that trees function as "receptacles for spirits or souls." No wonder the forest can bring such company, offering fodder for so many childhood imaginings.

Yet the nature of the forest--and of the tree--is double-edged. The forest can be blinding, dense and frightening, endless and beguiling. The tree, though rooted, stands alone, often condemned to never touch another of its kind. Do we really wish to grow these kinds of roots? How do we know exactly where to cast our lot? At what point does the magic engulf us?

A lovely and painful song about what it means to decide to grow (roots) through love is "Tanglewood tree," by Dave Carter.

Tanglewood tree


Love is a tanglewood tree in a bower of green
In a forest at dawn
Fair while the mockingbird sings, but she soon lifts her wings
And the music is gone
Young lovers in the tall grass with their hearts open wide
When the red summer poppies bloom
But love is a trackless domain and the rumor of rain
In the late afternoon

Love is an old root that creeps through the meadows of sleep
When the long shadows cast
Thin as a vagrant young vine, it encircles and twines
And it holds the heart fast
Catches dreamers in the wildwood with the stars in their eyes
And the moon in their tousled hair
But love is a light in the sky, and an unspoken lie
And a half-whispered prayer

I'm walkin' down a bone-dry river but the cool mirage runs true
I'm bankin' on the fables of the far, far better things we do
I'm livin' for the day of reck'nin countin' down the hours
I yearn away, I burn away, I turn away the fairest flower of love, 'cause darlin'

Love is a garden of thorns
   Love's garden of thorns, how it grows
And a crow in the corn
   Black crow in the corn hummin' low
And the brake growing wild
   Brake nettle so pretty and wild
   And thistles surround the edge of the
Cold when the summer is spent
   Dim dark hour as the sun moves away
In the jade heart's lament
   Lamenting a lost summer day
For the faith of a child
   Who nurtures the faith of a child
   When nothing remains to cover her eyes?
My body has a number and my face has a name
   My body has a number, maybe my face has a name
And each day looks the same to me
   Each hour like each hour before
But love is a voice on the wind
   This longing is a voice on the wind
And the wages of sin
   She cultivates the wages of sin
And a tanglewood tree
   In a tanglewood tree

Yet the tree is not only of this earth. It is also of the sky: "The medieval Cabbalists represented creation as a tree with its roots in the reality of spirit (the sky) and its branches upon the earth (material reality)" (Crews, 43). So we are not condemned to suffocation. There must be other ways to grow.

Blue Christmas tree
The twisting of roots is only one kind of entanglement. Perhaps as humans, we must follow not the roots under the earth, but the entanglement of all that surrounds us, the entanglement of the stars:

"Quantum entanglement is one of the central principles of quantum physics, though it is also highly misunderstood. In short, quantum entanglement means that multiple particles are linked together in a way such that the measurement of one particle's quantum state determines the possible quantum states of the other particles" (read more here).

Apparently, this works across time as well as space. We are deeply entwined, yet this is not an overgrowth, or a distortion of something that was once comforting and beautiful. It is our very nature, and it is how we survive.

So if we look skyward instead, and grow our roots toward the heavens, will we find ourselves less tangled? Will the space that is not nothingness, because it is different from black holes, fill us with the room to breathe? Will the divinity of the stars anchor us as we stretch to understand how we connect? I cannot imagine we would be so different from the rest of the universe that we could not trust this. Whether we call it faith, spirituality, love, or just following our nature, it is in this expansive tangle that we root in each other, the earth, and the stars, all enmeshed in that which we cannot see.

"For there is hope for a tree,
if it be cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease." 

- Job 14:7, ESV