The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty
by Robert P. Crease & Alfred Scharff Goldhaber
352 pages / Amazon
William Blake’s motto was that “Art is the Tree of Life; Science is the Tree of Death.” And yet, as Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber explore in The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty, it is precisely the “new physics,” quantum physics, which—in trying to plug up the gaps of the old physics—not only dismantles Isaac Newton’s rigid, clockwork universe, but also provides a rich language with which to express the uncertainty at the root of human experience. As such, it is precisely the science of the early 20th century which invigorates the creative imagination, becoming a vehicle for breathing life back into the universe. Moreover, the new physics teaches us that we are not so separate from the world we observe, that we play a part in it and change it with our observations, and therefore are intricately entangled in the ongoing act that is the universe.
Crease and Goldhaber begin with a clear view of just how mechanistic and predictable our world looked to be in the 17th century, and into the early 20th century, when Newton published his Principia Mathematica (1687), the pièce de résistance of Aristotle’s push and pull universe. That is to say that Newton seemingly cemented a cause and effect approach to understanding our surroundings. Given enough time, technology, and understanding, empirical science could apprehend and predict absolutely everything.
Science’s undaunted road to universal comprehension seemed limitless into the early 20th century. Although early work from Einstein on special relativity, and later general relativity, seemed to carve out space for the notion that our positions in spacetime affect how we observe the world around us, this era largely preserved a deterministic view of the cosmos—that everything could be reduced to cause and effect relations. Into the 1920s, logical positivists like Rudolph Carnap claimed that “Everything is accessible to man; and man is the measure of all things.” Science was writing its final chapters.
And then a wrench was thrown into the gears of the machine. Although, as Crease and Goldhaber carefully sketch, the first revolution in quantum theory occurred from 1900-1925, which presented clear challenges to Newton’s framework, it was the second revolution from 1925-1927 which truly broke the clock, scattering central parts and warping spacetime. This was the germ of uncertainty. In 1927, Heisenberg introduced his (in)famous “Uncertainty Principle,” which stated that the more precisely you attempt to measure a particle’s momentum, the less precise your measurement of its position will be, and vice versa. While only applying to certain pairs of particles, the Uncertainty Principle quickly came to express “implications beyond science.” In 1930 a New York Times article, “Science Needs a Poet,” read, “Matter is a mere wraith. The cosmos is no longer a machine which moves in a predictable way.” Now it seemed that the world was “full of new possibilities for artists, poets, and philosophers [to] interpret the mystery and beauty that lie in and beyond the electron and space, curved and infinite.”
Accompanied by other developments quantum theory with equally spooky dimensions of uncertainty, randomness, and entanglement, the world looked suddenly erratic and spontaneous at root. At a macro level the machine still worked, and clocks ticked away, but something quite strange and disturbing lurked underneath the guise of determinacy. And it is precisely this strangeness which struck the poets, artists, and philosophers of the mid-20th century, and gave birth to a renaissance of creative thinking.
Despite the fact, as Crease and Goldhaber describe, that many of the creative applications of quantum theory were not technically correct, they became useful, metaphorical ways of honing in on the human condition, and on the unpredictable, fragmented, and erratic experience of modernity. Many writers and artists became fascinated with what seemed to be a “mad mathematical violence at the heart of matter,” as John Updike writes. In this way, technical science became a “meaningful part of poetic discourse in art and literature.”
A voice for the productive relation between physics and poetry, D.H. Lawrence writes in a poem fragment, “I like relativity and quantum theories / Because I don’t understand them.” Indeed, as Crease and Goldhaber review, artists and poets interpreted quantum physics as having restored mystery and uncertainty in an otherwise enumerated universe. “And they make me feel as if space shifted about like a swan,” Lawrence continues, “that can’t settle, / Refusing to sit still and be measured; / And as if the atom were an impulsive thing / Always changing its mind.” There was a sense in such poets that the quantum made space again for the feelings that Newtonian mechanics squashed with its dazzling apparatuses and precision tools.
Yet the quantum moment’s effects span genres, disciplines, and generations. Artist Anthony Gormley, for instance, erected a “Quantum Cloud” in London in the year 2000, a large sculpture made from steel rods which, though at first portraying a 95 foot cloud of steel, betrays a human form in the center as you move closer. This sculpture, in addition to Valerie Laws’ “Quantum Sheep” experiment in the year 2002—where she spray-painted words onto the fleeces of sheep and made poems from how the sheep’s words fell together—exemplify the artistic uptake of how great beauty and form can emerge from chaos and randomness.
It is this human space, filled with randomness and chaos, that quantum physics reopens, kindling an artistic and poetic fire for physics. With reality looking more like “a kettle of boiling water” than a “smooth geometry,” even later philosophers long past the quantum revolutions like Slavoj Žižek now utilize quantum theories to make sense of reality. Uncertainty, Žižek writes, seems to be “inscribed into the thing itself,” a kind of “ontological cheating” which makes it difficult to define exactly what nature’s smallest units are—leaving room for wonder, for chaos, for change.
What is wonderful in Crease and Goldhaber’s work is how they manage to convey and review interpretations of quantum physics while, at the same time, showing the impact of such work on the humanities. More nobly, they demonstrate that there is a two-way street to be traced. While much of their book fleshes out the influence of science on art, literature, and poetry, it also illuminates the opposite road. Jean Metzinger’s cubist paintings, for instance, inspired Niels Bohr’s notion of “complementarity,” which attempted to explain how quantum phenomena could be two contradictory things at once—a particle and a wave. In the way that cubist paintings appeared different under various angles, so quantum phenomena are impacted by how they are observed and measured.
The result, as Crease and Goldhaber convincingly conclude through Updike, is a search for “a new humanism,” one which better attends to the “gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles” of the physical and experiential world. What we need, as the 1930 Times article read, “is a Lucretius who will imbibe at the spring of Einstein, Planck, Schroedinger and Heisenberg.” In that spirit, Crease and Goldhaber productively light a path toward “a new framework for the humanities of the twenty-first century.”
Ryan David Leack teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California, and received his Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Riverside, where he studied the productive intersections between rhetoric, quantum mechanics, philosophy, composition, and poetry. In particular, Ryan studies the coalescing historical and conceptual developments between rhetoric and physics, as well as the implications for the teaching of writing and rhetoric. Ryan’s creative work has appeared in Pif, Westwind, RipRap, Contemporary World Literature, Strong Verse, and Pomona Valley Review, where he served as Editor-in-Chief for seven years. He leads a quiet life in Los Angeles seeking Thoreauvian tranquility and harmony with words.