by Graham B.
Thoughts on the mysteries of the universe, the human soul, and cats
Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment proposed by Austrian-Irish physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to explore the uncertainty of the state of everyday objects when subject to the laws of quantum mechanics. In this problem, Schrödinger proposes that when a cat is placed in a box with a radioactive isotope and a vial of poison that will break when exposed to radioactive decay, the uncertainty inherent in predicting the state of a subatomic particle such as that emitted in radioactive decay will cause the cat to exist in the quantum state of being both alive and dead. This uncertain state will persist until someone looks into the box, collapses the quantum wave function holding the cat in both of these states, and sees the result. |
Sometimes I feel like the guy holding the box with the cat in it, afraid to look in the box, and in constant trepidation over what my investigation will uncover. Other times I feel like the cat, trapped between uncertain possible futures. This blog is an attempt to explore the constant mysteries of life where ever they may come from and try to put a friendly human face on a cold, uncaring, and chaotic universe.
What would you do? Would you open the box to uncover the mystery and risk your curiosity killing the cat? Or would you let the mystery endure and build a story upon it, secure in the knowledge that whatever we learn, life goes on, in one state or another?
|October is upon us, and with it the annual tradition of Halloween, All Saints’ Eve, Dia de los Muertos, or whatever the regional tradition is. It takes place on the halfway point between the solstice and the equinox, by rough ancient reckoning (which is often pretty accurate). This day is called Samhain in Gaelic and was celebrated as harvest day by the Celts before Christianity co-opted this tradition for its own purposes.
Another name for this day is the lesser-known (at least in North America) Nos Calan Gaeaf in Welsh, denoting the last day of the harvest which included the culling of herds and distribution of meat to the population. In fact “Nos Calan Gaeaf” literally translates as “Winter’s Eve” and marks the beginning of the “darker half” of the year, when temperatures drop, food becomes scarce, and the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the spirits weakens. To me, this source hews the closest to the aesthetic of Halloween as practiced in North America, with people donning strange and often macabre costumes and heading out into the night to “trick” the neighbors.
The Welsh believed that a terrifying spirit walked the earth during this time called Hwch Ddu Gwta (do NOT ask me how to pronounce this), which took the form of a tail-less black sow with a headless woman. In some sources, the people in a village would gather around a bonfire to celebrate Nos Calan Gaeaf, and when the fire burned down they would flee to their homes, lest Hwch Ddu Gwta catch the last one and devour their soul. In other sources, a man would dress up as the tail-less sow and come out at night to chase the children home, instilling in them the fear of staying out too late.
There are variations in the Autumnal traditions throughout western history, but this particular holiday fascinates me on different levels. In countries like Japan, India, or in Native American pre-Columbian traditions, the concepts of humanity’s links to the spiritual world are recognized and celebrated throughout the year. But spiritual links often manifested through the celebration of events like the solstice, equinox, and other reliable, unshakeable events that marked different parts of the year. I think these celebrations were early humanity’s attempts to feel closer to the inscrutable world they lived upon. You can see this yearning in the ancient pre-Christian folklore throughout Europe as well. What the spirits did was often as mysterious as whatever was powering the forces of nature. The spirits had their own agenda, and humans would do what they could to coexist with them. Then, along came Christianity, and with it the attempt to explain everything in terms of a single spirit which put humanity at the pinnacle of all creation. In this context, whatever the spiritual world had to offer became irrelevant except for how it related to humans. This new religion drove the ancient spirits into the shadows, where they gained an often undeserved reputation as evil or monstrous. Undoubtedly this was due to their strange nature, and people’s innate fear of the unknown. In the West, the celebration of the spirits was similarly driven into a single day of the year and its meaning watered down and all but forgotten.
However, the spirits live on, if only in the aesthetic of an annual candy hunt. But hints of this mysterious pagan spiritualism peek through. In the East, cultures such as that of Japan still honor the spirits, or kami, with offerings made throughout the year to millenia-old shrines that still dot the modern cities that have grown up around them. Japanese animism even inspired the hugely-popular Pokemon franchise, with kami being represented by cute and colorful animal-like spirits. While the Japanese do celebrate Halloween (in fact it's a huge event there) I think that they still maintain their connection to their animistic past. I have seen the schoolchildren stop by the shrines on their way home to tie ribbons to the statues of kami they are honoring.
With a preference for the fantasy genre I have an affinity for these mysteries, not necessarily in solving them, but in watching them weave the tapestries of culture around themselves. The most intriguing thing about them is the mystery of these beings. Many of the things that the spirits do make no sense to us. But not all mysteries need to be solved, and not every mystical element in the story needs to be explained. Doing so can backfire (hello, midichlorians!) and rob a fantasy world of some of its beauty. Reading about these ancient stories in pagan folklore, eastern folklore, or even the Brothers Grimm reveals entities with motivations beyond human understanding, and that is okay! I’m perfectly content to let the spirits exist as the bridge between nature and our own imaginations.
|Recently the Australian National University School of Physics published a paper on the prevalence of an isotope of iron known as 60Fe, or Iron-60. More specifically, they found an increased concentration of it imbued in sediment that dates from about 33,000 years ago to the present. According to the paper, this suggests that Earth’s solar system is travelling through the remnants of a supernova that exploded millions of years ago and left its ashes to drift down upon our home.
Supernovae are fascinating phenomenon. A supernova is what happens when a star, reaching the end of its life, decides to go out with a bang. Some of the heavier elements, such as iron, copper, and phosphorus are made in these cataclysmic explosions, eventually collecting into planets such as ours. Countless supernovae from eons past have seeded our planet with the essential building blocks of life. As Carl Sagan said, we are star stuff.
California is a blazing inferno at the moment. Perhaps having the gasoline of climate change poured on it hasn’t helped matters, but fires are nothing new here. They happen every year, and when they are done, the following spring new growth pokes it head through the ashes and turns the charred countryside green again.
I haven’t really been thinking about death lately (despite being of morbid temperament) but the supernova story got me thinking about the cycle of life. Death is a common event in literature, an extreme event from which can be extracted the most drama and emotional response. Rebirth is also a common theme, usually to complement death. The promise of rebirth is the driving hope beneath many religions.
I think of writing as the single coin on which death and rebirth are two different sides. When an author puts words to paper, the words are frozen on the page, unchanging in a sort of temporal death. When someone reads it, the author’s thoughts are reborn and take on a new life. Even centuries after the author has died, their work lives on, and it can change based upon the perspective of whoever is reading. Think of the many ways that Shakespeare has been reimagined, or Homer, or the poetry of Beowulf. Think of the stories they further inspired throughout the ages, new stories rising from the ashes of the old. In a way these great authors are the supernovae of their time, and we still see their echoes today. I guess it’s as close to immortality as we will ever get.
Why do you write? Personally I wouldn’t want actual immortality even if it were possible. Can you imagine the boredom after an eon or two? But while I don’t write for this reason, I wouldn’t turn down the chance to go supernova – assuming I actually had that sort of talent. What do you think? Would you go supernova if you could, seeding the literary stars so as to inspire for centuries? Or are you more of Earth-friendly spectral class-G star, warm and reliable, but never standing out in a galaxy of billions?
|Today, an icon of jurisprudence lies in State as she is honored by those we elected to lead us. Among many things Ruth Bader Ginsburg was known for, justice is listed as most prominent: justice for the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged. Many have applauded her for her compassion. Others have cursed her for her activism. But one thing all will agree on is that an important mind from the U.S. Supreme Court has passed away.
To say that RBG represented justice seems obvious. I mean, she was a judge, right? But what exactly does the term "justice" mean? It should surprise no one that many brilliant minds throughout the ages could not answer this question definitively. Even Socrates struggled with this question in his dialectics. The Oxford English Dictionary defines justice as:
1. just conduct
3. exercise of authority in the maintenance of right
Not very helpful, is it? The dictionary goes on to define "just" as "morally right or fair." As usually we can count on the dictionary to be reductive and useless. So, for my purposes, I'm going to define justice as "getting what one deserves."
What do we deserve? A firefighter who pulls someone out of a burning building might deserve recognitions and awards for their heroism. A thief might deserve a jail sentence for their crime. A business owner might deserve profit for their hard work starting up their business. The list could go on ad infinitum. But when discussing justice at the level the Justice Ginsberg presided at, the picture becomes more complicated. For the Supreme Court deals with justice at a far vaster scale. They deal with systemic justice, or what whole groups of people deserve. This is a gordian knot that great thinkers have been trying to unravel for centuries, with no end in sight.
The concept of systemic justice makes me think of the protests that are happening around the country, the world even, regarding the conduct of police toward certain groups of people. Those who protest and those who support the protests clearly believe that justice is not being served, that people are not getting what they deserve, that the law is net serving everyone equally.
On the flip side of this issue, I hear people complaining about the damage happening as a result of the riots and lootings that are occurring sporadically at the fringes of these protests. These comments reflect people's concerns over security.
Turning back to the so-reliable dictionary, we find the definition of "secure" to be:
1. untroubled by danger or fear
3. reliable; certain not to fail
I saw a news article a while ago which included a photograph of a married couple standing outside their home brandishing guns as protestors walked by. Clearly this couple had concerns about their immediate security. But what about the big picture? Debate rages about how to guarantee security without impacting civil rights, how to employ the police against criminal elements without harming justice. How to create a safe world that is also worth living in.
But here is where the paradox lies, the one that I think security proponents don't see: these protests started because justice wasn't being served. Does that mean that without justice, there can be no security?
Whatever the answer, I think that the record shows that Justice Ginsburg stood for justice, not just in the legal sense, but in the moral sense. Perhaps she understood the security paradox, or perhaps she simply wanted to do right by all. I hope whoever replaces her can bring the same level of compassion and humanity to the judiciary as Ginsburg did, for we are going to need it.
|“Life can be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.”
With the plague raging around us I find that I don’t have much in the way of personal activity to write about with everything being more or less in stasis. That said, I recently went to see “Tenet” in a more or less empty theater and tried not to cough. To say that Christopher Nolan’s latest offering was mind-bending would be an understatement of the highest order. I suspect that I will have to watch it again to understand it completely, a goal which still might not be achievable.
This movie played with the concept of time travel in a unique way, in which people and objects could be put through a machine that would cause them to start moving backward through time. I won’t leave any spoilers here in case anyone reading this plans to see it, but suffice to say that some very strange scenes were shot and I will definitely be buying the blue-ray just to see the behind-the-scenes material that will no doubt be included. This is not the first Christopher Nolan movie that used non-linear storytelling, but it is the first to actually have scenes running backwards.
But I was also fascinated by the existential question posed by the plot. What if you could see your own life running backwards and relive every moment, every decision you made in reverse-real time? Your own perspective will always be running forward in time, but of the rest of the world? It might be possible for us to remember things out of sequence or to attribute the wrong cause to a particular event, or to even get cause and effect out of sequence. Imagine actually being able to watch previous events happen.
The movie also touches on free will, implying the question as to whether we can choose to do something differently if we have knowledge of the future. While he doesn’t explore this in depth, Nolan seems to suggest that there is no free will, as the characters end up doing the exact things that they saw themselves doing in reverse. Paradoxically, this seems to conflict with another concept the movie addresses: the idea of faith.
The word “tenet” itself refers to a core value of any faith. The protagonist is Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith,” freed of worldly constraints by, oddly enough, technology. He is free in a moral sense to act in furtherance of his mission, secure in the knowledge that the moral scales are in his favor. In this case, he is already aware of victory. But he is not free in the metaphysical sense, because he has already seen the future and still can’t deviate from it. The outcome of the events cannot be changed because his inevitable actions cannot be changed. It is a weird pairing of concepts.
I don’t know if Nolan had Kierkegaard in mind when he wrote Tenet, but I’m certain that he will have many armchair philosophers (aren’t they all armchair philosophers?) tumbling down rabbit holes to pick apart the story.
I know that this is all rather heady stuff and will probably bore a lot of people, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it and thought I would share those thoughts here. Congratulations if you made it this far, and if you find this subject matter to be a snoozer, know that Tenet is also an adrenaline-fueled action fest worthy of Christopher Nolan’s best efforts and will entertain, with or without any deep dives into the movie’s … er … tenets.
|Disclaimer: I am not a physicist, quantum or otherwise. I’m just an ordinary person with a modestly-endowed brain and an interest in scientific topics – the stranger the better.
This is my first entry into my blog, Saving Schrödinger’s Cat! I can’t imagine who, if anyone, would be interested in reading these thoughts, and I wait with bated breath to find out. In any case, if you are reading this, I invite you to respond with thoughts and perspectives of your own.
I came upon the idea for the title when I was musing over how to express the general theme for this blog in a concrete way. The theme, of course, is the weirdness and unpredictability of life and all that it throws at us mud-bound creatures who against all odds, reach for the stars, both figuratively and literally. I have always been fascinated by quantum mechanics, due to its own weirdness and unintuitive way of working. However, this is not a scientific blog. While considering a title, I thought, what better metaphor for the human condition than the most quirky and esoteric scientific subject there is!
And so, Saving Schrödinger’s Cat was born. My goal is to add to the richness and diversity of perspectives of this site with my own humble thoughts and hopefully receive some feedback. At worst, I make a fool of myself in front of ones or tens of WDC members who will read this. But I’m hoping for fascinating conversations with the weird and twisted minds that I know lurk beneath the surface of this site.
So please, let me have it with both barrels! I look forward to it.