When I say that studying physics has amazed me with smallness, I don’t mean us, relative to the size of the universe. I mean the cells made from atoms made from protons and electrons and quarks that—guess what—are also waves. Then, as if all this talk about particles acting like the ripples in a pond wasn’t weird enough, Werner Heisenberg comes along. He postulated that our attempts to understand the position and momenta of small objects completely prevent us from the possibility of reaching an accurate conclusion. Though he was talking about waves and particles, his applications extend to human beings.
His uncertainty principle is based on the seemingly simple idea of looking at an electron. Note that we are not poking the electron, or shooting the electron, or putting the electron in a little tiny box. We are just observing it. But to observe anything, our pitiful human eyes (and our pathetic machines) need light to reflect off of the thing and back to us. Recall that light isn’t just a wave, but also a particle. And even when we shine the dimmest, tiniest light at an electron—even if only one photon from a low intensity gamma ray hits it—the light bounces off and the electron also bounces, like the most fragile collision between a ping pong ball and a beach ball that we can even imagine. That electron might have been in a specific place moving in a specific direction before the light shone on it, but the act of measuring skews the measurement.
So what’s the point here? Our perception has introduced uncertainty, according to most physics textbooks. But if we hadn’t tried to measure the position of the electron by looking at it, we would still be uncertain about where it was and what it was doing. We have not introduced uncertainty but noticed it.
Writers will understand this frustration. How many memoirs have come to stalemate because the authors cannot accurately portray their mothers? How many novelists have wracked their brains for a more realistic character, meanwhile surrounded by over seven billion characters so real that they could reach out and touch one?
We could try a different approach. We could ask the electron where it is, in the middle of a cloudy night where no light will bully it out of its way. But then, even our whispers introduce currents of air and waves of sound that would bludgeon the path of the electron even worse than the light. We could send it a telegram, or write our question on a wall, or get it drunk and hope it slips us its secrets. Then we would come to the conclusion that you may have already guessed: we cannot possibly communicate with this electron about its position in the world. A telegram would arrive as a sound or light wave collision. A question left for it to answer would force it to go out of its way to respond. The intoxicated electron is certainly not itself today. It can lie to us or give an honest try, but the only way we could possibly know its position or momentum is to be the electron. We cannot ask the question without changing the answer.
In light of the assertion that seeking skews, the only thing that we can say we’ve really learned in all the history of science is that there is no end to information. Every time something new is discovered, every step of progress only increases the area to be explored. To the planet hurtling, uninhabited, through a vacuum, there is no world outside of its craters and ice sheets and maybe a moon or two. But the travelling vacuum salesperson knows that there are too many houses to ever knock on every door, and that one can sell a hell of a lot of vacuums but never them all.
This begs the question: Why try? Why do we need to know the exact location and velocity of an electron at any given moment? Why would anyone ever want to sell every vacuum on earth, when the manufacturer is making more by the minute? Money is a good motivator. The more vacuums you sell, the closer you get to locating the electron, and there is more cash in your wallet and experience under your belt. There’s something more, though.
Humans are like that electron. You and I can never know each other, because I am not you and you are not me. The very act of writing this down has skewed your perception of me, and the act of reading this has changed you from what you were before into a different beast—sure, maybe only on the order of 10-34 or so, but we are changed nonetheless.
One wonders whether the individual can ever know herself. Like an infinite set of nesting dolls, the more time devoted to pulling one out of the other, the more hopeless the task seems. Though we’re getting closer to the electrons position, narrowing the uncertainty, there’s no way to say whether the impossible task yields any fruit.
Kaitlyn Shirey is studying physics and creative writing in Pittsburgh. Upon graduation, she hopes to work on environmental issues, specifically implementing green lifestyles and clean energy systems. She currently works as a tutor and a bike mechanic, and her interests also include feminism, playing the mandolin and ukulele, and studying the social politics of hair.