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.

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