Monday, March 30, 2015

Playing Dice

I was raised by a man, whose love translated into elaborate soliloquies on physics and the wonders of the material world. As kids, we were initiated into Newtonian mechanics, the idea of multiple dimensions beyond our conception and the Einsteinian insistence that God “does not play dice”.

Strict causality was my father’s life philosophy. He imparted it to us via physics and through his deep suspicion of ‘randomness’. A+B must always lead to C. It couldn’t, for example, result in ‘oooo what a pretty flower’. His world was – and is – ordered into neat little compartments, each one precisely labelled according to content and function.

Growing up in this ethos, I too acquired a Newtonian outlook on life. And like this brand of physics, the rules seemed to work in my context, keeping my surroundings functional. There was great comfort in knowing that things follow from what came before, that every action had a specific consequence and that one could predict outcomes rather confidently. But I never learnt about the realm where these rules fall apart.

My father never taught me about quantum theory. I would see the Feynman Lectures on his bedside table but was never initiated into what it was all about. I learnt about Bohr and Heisenberg in school but never had a sense of what their theories implied in a larger sense. The grounding I had in classical, deterministic science was never shaken by the new consciousness of an unpredictable universe. Nor did it occur to me to wonder why my father left out such an essential chapter in the history of physics.

It is only now as I sit in my own home, separate from my father’s that I conjecture why that is. I wake up every morning in a panic, with every muscle in my body wound up tight, for reasons I don’t understand. I lie in bed in the pre-dawn hours, trying to dissect this anxiety and shortness of breath. I’m not afraid of ghosts or monsters. I’m not afraid of being single, female and living alone. I’m not afraid of what the world will think of me. I am afraid of something entirely different.

My father and mother were the essential cogs in the wheel of causality that kept my day-to-day existence functional. They were the A+B that allowed my life C to operate with precision and structured consequence. I have enjoyed the freedom that comes from having systems in place, with rules to follow. But at some point I began craving something more.

Now I am in my own home with no one else to set the rules. I have no pre-determined formula, no A+B=C. I can predict nothing beyond what I know of my self and my nature. The world I live in now is fraught with randomness and for the first time I begin to guess why my father never taught me quantum theory.

It was perhaps about fear and the unknown realm of worst-case scenarios. The terror of knowing you are at the vortex of all things uncertain. That bad things happen to good people and things go wrong in spite of best intentions.
Because, chance.

I try to breathe through the panic but it doesn’t always work. So last night, I turned to physics again and found this buried in the biography of Albert Einstein – a nugget explaining the shattering idea of uncertainty in the quantum world:

It is impossible to know, Heisenberg declared, the precise position of a particle, such as a moving electron, and its precise momentum (its velocity times its mass) at the same instant. The more precisely the position of the particle is measured, the less precisely it is possible to measure its momentum…
…The very act of observing something... affects the observation. But Heisenberg’s theory went beyond that. An electron does not have a definite position or path until we observe it. This is a feature of our universe, he said, not merely some defect in our observing or measuring abilities.
The uncertainty principle, so simple and yet so startling, was a stake in the heart of classical physics. It asserts that there is no objective reality – not even an objective position of a particle – outside of our observations.”

I allow this theory into me, not how a physicist might approve, but as the daughter of my father. I allow Heisenberg’s theory to show me a path out of panic to a place where chance is not necessarily a bad word.

In this world that I build, observation, or the way we are compelled to look at things around us, determines their nature. Just by our seeing, they acquire shape and form. Perhaps there is an objective reality somewhere out there – but I can’t reach it today. Neither could my father.
Perhaps we never needed to. Because what we missed was more relevant: the factor of our influence and the awareness that our personal power can impart to an idea, its reality.

The next time I meet my father I might ask him why he never told me the full version of the anecdote. Did he know it at all? Did he choose not to tell me? Or was it something he simply could not comprehend?
When Einstein said that God did not play dice, why did my father not tell me of Niels Bohr’s reply?
“Einstein, don't tell God what to do.”