September 8th, 2002

Reposted from The Yellow Times.


Physics 101: The American dream and Quantum

John Brand, D.Min., J.D.

In 1934, my family spent our summer vacation in the picture-postcard Tyrolean village of Alpbach. While today it is a favorite ski resort, over sixty years ago it was just a small village at the end of an Alpine valley. However, water as well as electricity were piped and wired into every single house. Having water and electricity in every home in that sleepy village in 1934 was living on the edge of modernity.

The village woodcarver held a singular fascination for me. He could take a block of pine and transform it into the most beautiful figures, masks, and animals. At age 11, I most admired a mask of the devil. It was remarkably ugly. Vulgar lips framed grotesque teeth. Red horns stuck out from a face painted a dirty yellow. I begged my father to buy it for me. He, however, had higher artistic aspirations for his son. Finally, my mother persuaded Dad to give me the money to acquire this rare treasure.

That very evening I went for a walk, beloved mask in hand. The village streets were deserted. The men had come home from the fields and the women were busy fixing supper. Quite unexpectedly, an old peasant woman turned the corner. For reasons unknown to me, I raised the mask to my face. The woman stopped dead in her tracks. She began to make the sign of the cross and I saw her lips moving. I have no idea what she mumbled, but I doubt it was the Laws of Thermodynamics. We stood there for a few moments, I holding up my mask, she crossing herself and mumbling. Then turning her back to the wall she slowly started to pass me, continuously making the sign of the cross

That woman lived with the most modern technology. She had running water and electricity in her home. Her physical creature comforts were embedded in the new century. However, her psyche embraced values dating back millenniums. She sought to ward off perceived evil with prayers, incantations, and superstitious signs and symbols. She was a contradiction. One part of her was as up-to-date as tomorrow’s newspaper headlines. The other was anchored in hoary beliefs of an ancient past.

That Tyrolean woman might very well be an icon of the present American schizoid psyche. Our president and most cabinet members represent this dilemma most dramatically. On one hand, they seek to develop the most sophisticated weaponry that postmodern technology can deliver. On the other hand, their values are grounded in a flat earth mentality. It is a belief system originating in a nomadic people about 3,000 years ago. Their beliefs about the nature of the universe were not connected to the laws governing life. Misunderstanding the order of the world, their ignorance translated itself in hostilities, warfare, economic injustice, and social inequity. It was a macabre performance. It is a dance repeated by our species throughout history. The grisly scene is our everyday.

The postmodern era that drove technology to unexpected heights also gave us a new way of understanding our world. Most Americans, including our president, do not have much insight into the dynamics constituting post-modernity. This column in simple language seeks to point out the differences between the worldview based on Newtonian classical physics and the changes brought about by quantum mechanics. To understand a major cause of the conflicts, the tensions, the stresses of our society, we must comprehend the difference between the old and the new scientific laws.

Be assured that this column is not a lesson in mathematics or physics. I shall simply highlight those factors that I deem significant to better understand the laws governing the world. This insight tends to bridge the gulf between our accepted technology and the concepts supporting our belief systems.

Sir Isaac Newton, without a doubt, was one of the most brilliant men who ever lived. Sir Isaac was also a deeply religious person. He endeavored to make his scientific insights agree with his beliefs. Regretfully, in doing so, like all dogmatists, he did a great disservice to our species. In his “Principia,” Newton states that time, space, and motion are absolute “states” in the universe. Each one exists independently of anything else. Neither time, nor space, nor motion have any relation to anything else. If something is absolute it cannot, by definition, have to depend on anything else. Interdependence signifies the absence of absolutism.

Furthermore, anything absolute cannot change. As soon as it changes it cannot be said to be absolute. By implication, if it cannot be changed it has achieved perfection. So Newton presented us with an understanding of the universe that fitted very neatly into his religious belief system. God was thought to be perfect, eternal, and unchanging. According to Newton, the laws of the world reflected that absolute, unchanging, eternal nature of God himself. Newton admitted that there were some discrepancies between his observations and his conclusions about the absolute perfect state of Nature. He dismissed these contradictions by claiming that either the observer had made a mistake or that our statistical methods were not precise enough. And that seemed to satisfy most folks.

That is until a strange discovery was made. Newtonian laws work well enough in our every-day world. However, some scientists believed that there was more to the quest in understanding the laws of the universe than Newton had discovered. Of particular interest was the inherent manner in which light is transmitted. Does light move in a wave or is it emitted in intermittent particles? I am the first person to concede that you can live your entire life and not worry about this question. That is if you have no particular concern about the nature of Nature, economics, politics, religion, and other such matters. But as soon as you have an opinion about politics or economics or what is the nature of God/religion, you had better know something about the nature of light. Why? Even ancient folks lacking our understanding of science realized that light is the essential building block of the universe. I am sure the ancient worthies did not know that visible light is but one manifestation of electromagnetic waves and photons – light particles – are the constituent element of the universe. Yet, they knew that light was the essence of life.

If we want to draw any conclusions about our place in the general order of things, we need to understand some basic facts about light. The lack of light results in death, chaos, and nothingness. Light brings life, order, and meaning. Newton believed that light absolutely, unqualifiedly, perfectly radiates only in particles. He totally rejected the idea that waves are inherent in light. With Newton it was an “either/or” state.

But in the early decades of the last century, it was discovered that light possesses the characteristics of both waves and particles. The dual nature of light defied all common sense, all knowledge, and all logic. But experiment after experiment proved the truth of that discovery. The unthinkable, the irrational, had happened: the essential stuff of the universe is a “both/and” reality. It is not, contrary to Sir Isaac’s assumption, an “either/or” matter. I do not believe there is a single recognized scientist who disagrees with this discovery! It is the touchstone of all modern physics.

My concern, of course, lies not so much in the purely scientific discussion of the nature of light. I am asking the question, “If the essential stuff of the universe is a ‘both/and’ matter, what implication does this have for us?” My basic assumption is rather simple. If we are creatures of light – electro-magnetic waves – had we not better order our lives around those laws and principles governing that reality? Of course, my answer is a resounding “YES!” Maybe the sordid account of human history, the unsettled condition of our nation at this very moment, are, at least, partly due to our failure to understand and to live by the laws governing the universe? Light is life and a starless night is death. All life, including humans, results from light. It governs our existence. Should not the qualities, the essence, of light be the guidelines for our own behavior?

The basic stuff of the cosmos is a “both/and” reality. But for 6,000 years of recorded history, life has always been an “either/or” matter. There is nothing new in John Wayne or Rambo movies. It’s always been the guys in the white hats against the guys in the black hats; a thousand different scenarios just keep repeating the old chant over and over again. And blood flows! To those who still base their belief systems on ancient totally inadequate assumptions, post-modernity says, “Get over this ‘either/or’ mentality. That’s one basic reason for your problems. This universe encompasses seemingly totally contradictory forces. It may not make any sense. But get over your ‘common sense’ view of reality and join the new age.”

The call is to embrace and not to reject. It is to include and not to exclude. It is to hold and not to push away.

What in the world would happen if we decided to bring water to the Sahara and turn that desert into a new Eden? What is so tough about that? Any civilization marshalling its resources to fly to the moon surely ought to have the culture to bring water to a dry land and feed the world. What would happen if we gave up our stupid oil and gas mantra and converted the energy surrounding us to bring electricity to the whole world? Can’t be done? That is an inane statement. Any civilization sending probes into outer space ought to have the culture to bring power into the darkest corners of the world. We do not even think about doing it because our mind-set is mumbling ancient phrases of exclusion and separation. We are steeped in the error to “them versus us.” We mouth a religion of inclusiveness but in our actions we reflect the ancient errors.

Quantum is challenging us to think differently. It is asking us to think in accordance with the fundamental laws of the universe. Quantum is asking us to live by the laws governing the cosmos. The willingness to give up our absolutism of polar values also brings other fundamentals into play.

Quantum helps us to understand that the observer influences the results of his experiments. Let me explain. When laboratory equipment is set up to prove that light is emitted in particles, it will behave in accordance with that protocol. If the apparatus is designed to demonstrate the wave function of light, it will confirm that assumption. How the experiment is designed influences the outcome. When we apply that lesson to our behavior, we come up with the startling conclusion that none of us can escape our own subjectivity. Remember that Sir Isaac said that absolute states could not be influenced by anything. But his assumption that the state of light presents a polar absolute has been proven erroneous by quantum mechanics.

No matter how much we may believe that our opinions, our conclusions, our affirmations result from a purely objective point of view, the reality is that everything we say, do, and believe centers in our subjectivity. It makes little difference how many “authorities” anyone may quote. The bottom line is that we are limited by our own essence. After all, the supposed authorities were also limited by their own subjectivity. Rationally dealing with this aspect of post-modernity, we must shed the parochial absolutism that creates enemies causing hostilities and warfare. Once we affirm our subjectivity maybe we can begin to be amused by the paradox of our existence. The deeper we think about it, the louder our laughter becomes. And in the midst of our laughter maybe we can begin to learn to love.

The third implication of quantum centers in Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty. That conclusion is based on the fact that it is impossible to state with absolute certainty the speed as well as the direction of a subatomic particle, i.e. a photon. In classical physics it is essential that both dimensions be stated with certainty. Heisenberg proved that that requirement could not be met. The larger implication of that observation lies in the fact that uncertainty is built into the universe. “Stuff” will happen. Things that frustrate us and hurt us are not the result of sin, some moral shortcomings, or God flinging darts at us! It’s the nature of the universe that the unexpected does and will happen. When bad stuff hits the fan, don’t blame yourselves or others. Take a deep breath, learn from it, and get on with your life.

The final conclusion of quantum impacting on our way of seeing the world lies in the fact that the entire cosmos – from the largest galaxy to the smallest single-cell organism is an undivided whole of an implicate order. We are all intertwined and interdependent. John Steinbeck, in “Log from the Sea of Cortez” describes this reality most vividly.

And it is a strange thing that most of the feelings we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but a profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one things is all things – a plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe all bound together by the elastic string of time.

If our President were to accept the invitation to come into the 21st Century, we would not be thinking about invading Iraq. There is a better way! If Kenny Boy had accepted the challenge to attune his psyche to post-modernity, millions would not have been robbed of their life’s investments. If John Ashcroft would enter this wonderful, amazing new world, he would not waste his time to locate internment centers for potential enemies of the “Fourth Reich.”

Quantum gives us the rationale upon which to build a new world. But we have to quit acting and believing like the old Alpbach peasant woman.


John Brand is a Purple Heart, Combat Infantry veteran of World War II. He received his Juris Doctor degree at Northwestern University and a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry at Southern Methodist University. He served as a Methodist minister for 19 years, was Vice President, Birkman & Associates, Industrial Psychologists, and concluded his career as Director, Organizational and Human Resources, Warren-King Enterprises, an independent oil and gas company. He is the author of “Shaking the Foundations.”

John Brand encourages your comments: jbrand@YellowTimes.org

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