Thursday, February 2, 2012

Reflections on Reading The Quark and the Jaguar

The Quark and the Jaguar is a science book and, therefore, not the kind of thing I typically read, although I do venture into books other than poetry because I’m interested in nearly everything. A friend who is an engineer recommended the book and I’m happy I took the plunge. It is a great book, especially for the first 275 pages and then again for the last 45 pages—more about that later.

I could never connect the field of quantum mechanics and classical physics. In my mind, they were two irreconcilable worlds. Now I can say I understand how they relate to each other because of this book. If that were all I took away from it, I would be satisfied. But I have taken away so much more.

The title comes from a poem by poet Arthur Sze. So, this choice already has my sympathy. But more than this, that line poses a significant connection between a fundamental particle and an individual expression of the universe. This is an early question in the book: what is the relationship between the fundamental rules of the universe and individuality? It is an amazing question and one I have always been particularly interested in; questions of individuality and identity have been themes I return to since first reading Alan Watts when I was a teenager. But how do the fundamental particles that make up the universe and which are all the same (that is all electrons are identical and lack all individuality), finally result in something unique like a jaguar and even more, the particular jaguar you saw at the zoo with the funny way of walking? The connection the book makes between these two seemingly unrelated things is through probability and other elements of quantum mechanics such as frozen accidents, course-grained histories, etc. Of course, that doesn’t tell you anything about the relationship without reading the book and I’m not sure I could give a summary of such complex material even if I were a scientist.

One thing that makes that summary difficult is that the book is about a lot of different things, i.e. it is a summary of a lot of specialized fields. This is intentional since part of Gell-Mann's point is that there is a need for a more generalized view of our world that connects the many specialized fields. This is something general systems theorists like Fritjof Capra have been saying for decades. Gell-Mann is here making his own effort toward such a cohesive view. This means that, in some ways there is less detail than sometimes would be needed to fully understand a particular thing. But in the end and in spite of this flaw, the book does suggest the connection. Without explaining the science that the book explains, what becomes clear is a large scale view of how the universe evolved, how it could have been very different from what it is today, but by following certain paths among probable paths, in our corner of that universe, the path it took, along with chance events, lead to something specific, something unique like a jaguar . . . or even you. This is how Gell-Mann in the last pages finally comes to argue in favor of preservation and sustainability. He tries to root his argument for these important issues in science and in showing the fragility and uniqueness of what we know as our world.

However, there is another flaw in the book. The transition from the dispassionate and incredibly interesting explanations of quantum mechanics, quantum chromodynamics, complex adaptive systems, and super string theory to the arguments for preservation and sustainability is essentially a tirade against myths or what he calls maladaptive schemata. The ideological stance and the distaste he expresses is out of place tonally with the rest of the book and even somewhat belied by his later defense of cultural diversity. He also tries to argue that there must be a way to have the benefits of a religion without actually believing, by reducing the power of all religions to mere comforts of ritual. I have many issues with this which I will put aside and simply say, I felt he could have made a better, more amiable transition between the two sections. When he finally gets to arguing in favor of preservation and sustainability, his ideas are engaging and eloquent again, although no longer dispassionate. For here we are dealing with sustaining the importance of our fragile individuality that could have been otherwise and could be otherwise in the future.

Books like this always set off fireworks in my head as it might relate to ideas of poetry or social and political issues. For instance, as I contemplated the idea of branching histories in quantum mechanics, I wondered how this might apply to an individual life within a culture since I’ve always imagined a human life as a trajectory through time and culture. Is it possible that an individual life is also following a path that is at various stages made up of choices between mutually exclusive probabilities and as those paths are chosen, certain probabilities in the future are no longer available? Is an individual life also subject to entropy so that as a life goes along within a specific cultural timeframe, disorder increases? It seems to me that many Existentialist books are about just that fact. And it feels that way when I reflect on how full of potential life seemed in my teens and twenties and how responsibilities that have come with my choices along the way have limited the possible paths I could take in the present.

Gell-Mann gives an example of entropy with an image of a room divided by a partition. On one side is cold air and on the other is hot air. When you remove the partition, the perfect order of that situation breaks down as the two portions of air mix. This is so because, as he points out, there are more ways for the cold and hot air to mix than there are for it to stay separate. That tendency to get mixed together rather than stay neatly separated and in order is entropy and it seems true for an individual life. When young, you are just entering the world, the cultural timeframe of your life and as you mix with it, make decisions and choices, your life mixes with that cultural timeframe like the hot and cold air after the removal of the partition. The ways to organize that life then become more difficult as time goes on, as it gets more mixed up in the cultural timeframe and the consequences of choices made. That’s entropy. What dawned on me as I considered this was, if a government is going to have any real impact on something like alleviating the poverty of its citizens, it cannot treat all poor people as equal. A poor 20-year old is not the same as a poor 45-year old. In terms of quantum mechanics, the probability paths for them are different. They must be treated differently if they are to be truly helped out of their poverty.

Another thing that occurred to me had to do with what are called fitness landscapes. These fitness landscapes have to do with biological evolution but Gell-Mann also relates them to creative thinking. A fitness landscape is like a terrain of various pits with various depths. The pits represent different degrees of fitness. The deeper the pit, the more likely it—the biological creature or the idea—is to survive. An important feature of not getting stuck in shallow pits is “noise.” This is a kind of jiggling around along a path over the fitness landscape. The jiggling, if at the right level, will prevent being stuck in a shallow pit, or a place of low fitness. It occurred to me that this noise related to the playfulness involved in creating a poem and reminded me of something William Stafford said,

“If you let your thought play, turn things this way and that, be ready for liveliness, alternatives, new views, the possibility of another world—you are in the area of poetry.”

That playfulness, that possibility of another world, that is the noise that keeps you from being stuck in the place of low fitness, the place where you are not likely to survive . . . intellectually, of course. Here I feel that what quantum mechanics calls “probability” Stafford is calling “possibility.” That “possibility of another world” is, in Gell-Mann’s book what he explains as the possible alternative histories of the universe. In poetry, in a very real way, you realize those alternatives, not as science fiction, but as actual emotional realities that affect our lives each day. Because the potential of what could be influences our days as much as the consequences of what has been. And Gell-Mann would understand this. As he says toward the end of the book, “As we try to envision a sustainable future, we must also ask what kinds of surprises, technological or psychological or social, could make that fairly distant future totally different from what we might anticipate today. A special team of imaginative challengers is required to keep posing that question.” Finding those unusual connections that are “hidden in plain sight” is what poetry and all art is about, the metaphors that even Gell-Mann admits “science might ignore” and yet which “often leads the viewer to new ways of seeing.”

As our great poet Richard Wilbur put it, “What would we be without/The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,//These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?” That is a poetic statement of the need for sustainability. Nature is the language for our inner reality. That is a poetic and even spiritual reason for trying to take action to protect our environment, to protect nature and to find ways to live in it and not just off it.

I may have strayed from direct considerations of the book, but I strayed into things the book prompted me to consider deeply. In the end, a book that provokes deep thought is a successful book and one I would recommend. The Quark and the Jaguar is a great read, a source of inspiration and contemplation. It is challenging for the non-scientist but in the best way: it challenges you to think about difficult realities and to consider deeply the importance of caring for our world and our future before it’s too late.

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