Sunday, October 21, 2012

Doing Things with Science: the Uncertainty of Being

"In opening the black box of scientific facts, we knew we would be opening Pandora's box. There is no way to avoid it. It was tightly sealed as long as it remained a two culture no-man's-land, buried among the cabbages and the turnips, blissfully ignored by the humanists. Now that it has been opened....there is only one thing left to do and that is to go even deeper, all the way into the almost-empty box in order to retrieve... hope"

'Do you Believe in Reality? News from the Trenches of the Science Wars" 
Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope


Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: 

\sigma_x \sigma_p \ge \frac{\hbar}{2}

"The more precisely the position (momentum) of a particle is given, the less precisely can one say what its momentum (position) is"
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy



I am on the block where I live, around the corner at the comic book shop. Having spent many hours on different days walking the stacks, sitting, and reading, I decided that I should finally buy something there. While I poke my nose into the Astonishing X-Men, the Dark Knight, and issues of Spider-Man with a half-African, half Hispanic, all-American web-slinger, I listen to the ArchAndroid by Janelle Monae: "Sow in the seeds of education/ They run from us, are we that dangerous?/ There's a war in all the streets and yes the freaks must dance or die!"

Then I turn a corner and come to the new comics section, and what do I find? Dr: Manhattan: Before Watchmen, issue 1. I open the comic book in my hands (hadn't Whitman warned me against the dangers of such a thing!), and find myself in the midst of meditation on boxes, science and being:

"Quantum physics says that as long as the box is closed, it could contain anything in any state of existence... the observer affects the observed, at each step creating new universes, new possibilities."

Fifteen minutes later, in this universe, I walk out with Dr. Manhattan and a replacement copy of Neil Gaiman's Sandman #6. In another universe, what comic did I open? What did I find inside? Where do those possibilities go when one of them becomes actual? Where might this uncertainty bring us?



"That sounds like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle" says my colleague, Patrick Henry, a modernist (forgive him!). "You have particles flying around in a box. You can measure their force or their trajectory, but not both. Measuring them temporarily takes them out of their system."

I am eating my Thai Curry while he is speaking. I had been thinking about Being and Becoming. Must we consider them incompatible? We experience things intermeshed and transforming, but to consider any part other the whole (which we must), we know it as distinct. We must separate, to love our parasite as our self.

"Yes. You cannot measure both: networks or things; beings or becomings; potentials and actualities. You know I was just reading a comic book about that."



"Hello, is Jason available?" "Hello, is Emily available?" "Okay, thanks, I'll call back" "Hello, is Ida there?" A dissonant rhythm plays in the back-room at Obama for America headquarters, Silver Spring. Screens flash with the names, addresses, and age of Virginian's that are still undecided in the upcoming election. Volunteers staff the predictive dialer which connect 35+ human-computer teams together to systematically message disparate areas of our neighboring state.

I sit off by myself, reading Michel Serres's Five Senses, listening for something different than the usual din. It's my job to keep the network running when it breaks down; when human or laptop rebel. Take out a piece, replace it. The individual matters, so does their interchangeability.

"The hubbub spreads across the nested levels of integration that form a black box full of black boxes - molecules, cells, organs, systems - and gradually, over boundaries and through twists and turns, resolves into information"

"M!" I look up. A waving limb in the forest of seated bodies. I walk over. "I've been waiting for a while and haven't connected with anyone." How true. That is why I have been called. I consider her for a moment. I consider the computer. A quick test, a minor alteration. Reconnected. The network resumes. I walk back to my seat. The limb is gone. It's all forest again. All noise. Back to my book.



"Just one more drink," says another colleague. "I know I said that before, but I might actually mean it this time." We are at a bar, pausing our conversation to catch the attention of the attractive waitress that has been providing us with drinks and nachos --- many paradigm shifting books have been produced by such fair.

"What I am saying," I propose, "is that a God need not be omnipotent or omniscient to bring all things into being. It could be the Being primarily sets the stage for becoming to actualize potentials into temporary and mutable beings."

"Sound's like Deism to me"

"Kind of, except you have that Being nested in each thing in creation. It's called process theology. Creation is simultaneously a noun and a verb. Each thing becomes the potential being out of which becoming will transform into another actualized being. That is why agency become important: it requires work." 

Images of Henri Bergson's exploding shells comes to mind, where each one bursts into thousand of potential shells, some of which will be actualized within this reality; but which one remains uncertain. Until the box/shell is opened we will never know. Often enough, we open one to find another directly after, and suspect it is shells all the way down; but just as we get comfortable things change.

The attractive waitress returns, the conversation pauses as we drink in alcohol and pheromones. The topic suddenly turns; the interruption from outside has done its work. Had I time and material to remember it, I might have invoked something I had underlined in my copy of the Democracy of Objects by Levi R Bryant:

"Between the possible oak tree and the actual oak tree there is absolutely no difference beyond the brute fact of existence. If, then, we conflate the potentiality of the acorn with the possibilities of the oak-tree, we are making the claim that the acorn already contains the oak-tree, but in a potential state....

In contrast to... a movement from the possible to the real, the process of actualization is a creative process within substances that requires work. Moreover, the local manifestations produced in the process of actualization is something new and shares no resemblance to the singularities which it actualizes."

As it is, potential drinks multiply into actual, each time diverting the conversation, which twist and turn in its line-of-flight, its accretion on one topic is shaken and another thing comes-to-be from it. It was a lesson in Mixology: mixing requires different things, a lot of force and action, followed by the creation of new things. Imbibe and the process repeats itself.



I am at NASA Headquarters down in Florida, spending a week of 5th grade at Space Camp; when and where I am driven out at night, alongside launch-pads and the most advanced computers of the 1990's and looking up at the stars, being touched and marked by their diminished emanations of light with the thought that buries deep in my memory: I could spend my life looking at those stars.

Simultaneously, elsewhere in time and place, I am sitting at my laptop, down in my apartment buildings lobby, where I get free wifi. This simultaneity is a move that the Humanities does a lot more comfortably. In medieval terms, one shines in my ghostly eye, the other in my outer eye; I see them together in parallax. I am at once moving across the launchpad and at rest in front of a computer, tied together in one of Elizabeth Freeman's "time-knots"

Perhaps this entry was bound to be a knotted winding, eclectic journey, as the only book I posses which has "Heisenberg" in the appendix with a satisfactory number of entries is Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, a book on Ecology, Social Justice & Liberation Theology by a former central American priest Leonardo Boff (former, having sufficiently ticked off the Vatican -- an admirable goal for any Catholic). There we find Heisenberg's contributions to Quantum Physics nestled right between "Stephan Hawking" and "the Heart of Matter" above it and "Holism" and "the Holographic Principle" directly below. A cursory examination finds Heisenberg invoked most in the section entitled "Co-creators of the Universe."

Having gone through my library, flitting through appendixes and tables-of-contents for key words like "quantum physics" and "uncertainty" or "potential being," and turned up so few that examine the topic in depth, the likelihood of me ordering some more physics books from the library or Amazon is one potential that is looking more and more like an actuality. My library, like my education, will continue to become a queer accretion of medieval, literary, medical, historical, theological, philosophical, political, and scientific expertise.

"When the Sciences and Humanities hold a meeting, one must be willing to admit some strange company," I think as I add my Watchmen comic to my bookshelf.

Call it "synergy" or "interdisciplinary" or "Science studies" for sake of grants or university approval, I call it the chance to follow my feelings and questions where they lead me; harboring the chance to revel alongside Medievals and Medievalists about the transforming skies that perpetually crash into our every day; talking with those that are willing to share in the work and play of wondering about existence and the uncertainty of being; all the while, like at Babel's 2nd Biennial Meeting in Boston this past September where Scientists were invited to share the stage each night with academics from the humanities, working together to create more potentials for us all to be Doing Things with Science.

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