Saturday, December 28, 2013


2012’s NYI also brought with it the uncertain experience of finding myself in a relationship.  Quantum physics remained on my mind and they mixed into what follows.  (For some more background, see this post: The Quantum Moment).
The course also examined Michael Frayn’s play, Copenhagen.  It describes a meeting between the two atomic physicists, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, during World War II.  Bohr, a Jew in occupied Denmark; Heisenberg, working with the Germans.  Former colleagues, now separated by The War.

The meeting went badly, and its purpose was never understood.  Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen?  To advance the German nuclear program?  To warn the Allies of it?  To try to sideline the development of atomic weapons by both sides?  The play explores this question, Bohr and Heisenberg going through “several drafts of the paper”, so to speak.
One theme of the play, is that decisions—like the particles—can perhaps not be understood until after the fact.  That the act of analyzing and observing them can change them (see the work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus).
We read the play, and watched the PBS movie version. I find it rather melancholy.  The score behind it is one of those beautiful sorrows that adds to the mood (based, incidentally on Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B Flat Major, D. 960 2nd movement, which Heisenberg briefly plays in the film).  The final dialogue is no less hollowing than Macbeth’s “tomorrow” soliloquy.

We've all felt it, right? The gnawing uneasy excitement, spinning around in our head, our stomach, our chest. You like someone. Do they like you back? Mathematicians might call it a "Nash Equilibrium" (dimming the likelihood of a "yes" answer for them): no one is willing to say anything, because neither is sure of what the other is thinking. Each person thinks they are making the right choice by staying silent. But together, it's the wrong one.
What if the answer is yes? But no one could break the silence?
Then again, what if the answer is no?
Either way, the relationship is going to change forever if you go for it. Do you?
Schrodinger's cat: locked in a box with a radioactive isotope and a cylinder of poison gas. If the isotope decays, it triggers a device that releases the poison gas and kills the cat. It's impossible to know whether the decay occurs: it's impossible to know if the cat is dead or alive without opening the box. Until you do, it's simultaneously dead and alive.
Until you open the box, the cat isn't dead. Until you make a move, the relationship isn't ruled out. It exists and doesn't. Until you try, you haven't failed.
But you haven't succeeded either. And if you wait long enough, the cat will die. It can't live forever in a box anyway.
And even so, if the answer is no, then perhaps you can take comfort in the idea that perhaps in some parallel universe, the probabilities meshed differently and things worked out.
So why is it so hard to open the box? So what if the answer is no? As Heisenberg says in Copenhagen:
Margrethe The faster you ski the sooner you're across the cracks and crevasses.
Heisenberg The faster you ski the better you think.
Bohr Not to disagree, but that is most . . . most interesting.
Heisenberg By which you mean it's nonsense. But it's not nonsense. Decisions make themselves when you're coming downhill at seventy kilometres an hour. Suddenly there's the edge of nothingness in front of you. Swerve left? Swerve right? Or think about it and die? In your head you swerve both ways. . .
Margrethe Like that particle.
The particle. Going through both slits. Maybe you're both uncertain. And so, you try and observe, to put up detectors, to ascertain that the particle is going through the slit you think before you take the chance. But by so doing, you're apt to send the particle through the other slit. Perhaps most of the time, the electron is in both states; the cat is both alive and dead, and it's up to you to act according to the outcome you want it to be. So be bold, and make the leap. Make the quantum leap. Shut up and kiss her!
So maybe it will work out. Or maybe it seems to be working out, but you aren't sure. Superposition—uncertainty—rears its ugly head again. You feel it, and you don't feel it. By trying to observe and figure out your feelings, you shift them from under you.
Or maybe it works out, but ends, all the same. Even Schrodinger's cat isn't immortal.
Heisenberg All we possess is the present, and the present endlessly dissolves into the past.
Even if it ends: even if it no longer is, it still was. Don't forget that the cat was alive. Warm, breathing there, with you. Those moments, those experiences are still there, right where you left them. Every moment that was, still is. You're simply separated from it—not by distance, but by time. But it's the same thing. The future may have diverged into a parallel world, but the past remains.  (Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians knew this).
But the memories, the memories are particles too. If you try too hard to understand, to observe, the haze of disrupted particles may blur the scene, that the cat was alive.
Heisenberg But in the meanwhile—in this most precious meanwhile—there it is.
The feelings may still linger, in a state of quantum superposition themselves. Sometimes the particles go through one slit, and you're over it. Sometimes the other, and you cry. Sometimes through both at the same time. You want to be alone—a solitary particle—and at the same time you want interaction—to be a wave.
Most damning of all: perhaps it doesn't matter.
Bohr: Before we can lay our hands on anything, our life's over.
Heisenberg: Before we can glimpse who or what we are, we're gone and laid to dust.
Bohr: Settled among all the dust we raised.
Margrethe: And sooner or later there will come a time when our children are laid to dust. And all our children's children.
Bohr: When no more decisions great or small are ever made again. When there's no more uncertainty, because there's no more knowledge.
Margrethe: And when all our eyes are closed, and even the ghosts have gone. What will be left of our beloved world? Our ruined, and dishonored, and beloved world?
Heisenberg: But in the meanwhile—in this most precious meanwhile—there it is.
At the end of the day, it's still worth it to try. As in Copenhagen, some decisions can only be understood after they've been made and observed, and even still they may remain enigmatic. Who knows what chain reaction may be set off by that particle you launch off? It may never be clear. And each time you turn it over in your mind and try to figure it out, you introduce some new uncertainty.
Moreover, uncertainty is where the true pain lies. The cat is simultaneously alive, but it's simultaneously dead, all the while, and in that prolonged death is pain, paralysis. But if you open the box, and the cat is dead, the pain of that death is fleeting, and it quickly gives way to peace. And if the cat is alive, how much more wonderful is it still!
Heisenberg But in the meanwhile—in this most precious meanwhile—there it is.

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